Tag Archives: characters

The Most Magical Hero of All

We here at The Spectacle, like all writers, strive to create characters who will be loved and remembered for a lifetime—maybe even for generations. That can happen in any genre (think of Shakespeare’s famous heroes and villains), but perhaps speculative fiction writers have an advantage because we are creating characters who are more—or less—than human. This helps them stand out against the thousands of characters who have to depend solely on their own human skills and personalities to be memorable. (Creating a great speculative character has its own challenges and risks, but that’s not the direction I’m going with this post.)

So who is the greatest speculative character of all time? Dracula? Frankenstein’s monster? Spiderman? Harry Potter?

I’ll cast my vote for Santa. You could call him a lot of things. A historical character who has changed over the years. A metaphor for love and generosity. A commercialized distraction to the real meaning of Christmas. A bribe/threat to get kids to behave. Regardless of your sociopolitical opinion, one thing is for sure, this jolly old soul has cemented his place in the hearts and minds of children and adults around the world.

A quick web search will find dozens of books on Santa. They range from historical to sweet to comedic, with art styles from realistic to cartoony. Most if not all are targeted at younger readers, 0-8, those who still Believe. Hmm, does this indicate an opportunity for middle grade/YA writers to create the next big speculative hero, to fill the gap after all the vampires, werewolves, fairies, zombies and mermaids?

Or maybe we should just leave Santa alone, in the happy world of childhood dreams.

Chris Eboch with the Haunted series

Chris Eboch with the Haunted series

 

 

 

 

Ho ho ho. Pass the eggnog!

 

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Revision Week: Greg’s Q&A

These are some of the answers I came up with for my friend Kate Messner, who is writing a book on revision for students, using input and examples from different authors with different methods of work. I’d been thinking a lot about revision anyway, because the first book of the Galaxy Games series has been through many revision cycles over the past year, and will be revised at least once more before being put in its final form. I’m looking forward to Kate’s book and I will be posting my whole set of revision Q&A on my website.

Are there times during the revision process when you need to step back and do more brainstorming?

There are lots of times when additional brainstorming is necessary in the revision process. For me, this might start with asking a “what if” question. “What if a character did this instead of that?” or “How can this other character come back into the book later on?” or “Wouldn’t this chapter be better if I added some clowns?”

A seemingly small change might ripple through the entire book so you really need to think about all the consequences before you commit to doing it!

How do you brainstorm titles?

Brainstorming titles is especially challenging for me. I use working titles to avoid committing myself until the last possible moment. Sometimes the working title becomes the final title, but sometimes not.

For the brainstorming part, I think about what the book is about and make a list of words that might fit into a title. For a book about playing sports, my list might start with game, team, goal, field, champion, pitcher’s mound, and so on. If my book is a giant mutant squid, the list might be squid, tentacle, calamari, mollusk, etc. So if a story is about playing sports against a team of giant mutant squid, I might end up with a title like Squid Games, The Tentacle Team, or Mollusk on the Mound. Easy!

What kinds of outlines and organizers do you use? Do you ever use maps, timelines, calendars, or other specialized planning strategies that you can describe?

I rely heavily on chapter maps and timelines but every book has its own challenges.

The Penguins of Doom was written in the form of letters with lots of themes and plotlines going on all at once. I ended up making index cards for each of letter and juggling them around until they made sense. I included plot and theme on each card as well as the word counts, to make sure I put enough short letters between the longer ones. And since I was writing the letters out of order, I color-coded them: green for ones that were complete, yellow for ones that were in progress, and red for ones I hadn’t started yet.

In the first book of the Galaxy Games series, I cut between events happening in the United States, in Japan, and in outer space. It was important to keep track of the passage of time, since it might be the middle of the night for one set of characters while others were awake and eating lunch. I picked one event that had to happen at a certain time on a certain day, and set every other scene as became “X hours before” or “X days after.”

How do you deal with the theme or central issue of your book during the revision process?

Part of the revision process is identifying the theme and making sure it’s presented in a balanced and natural way that doesn’t come off as preachy. The best is when an issue can be presented from multiple viewpoints, with nobody being entirely right or entirely wrong. I want readers to explore the topic and make up their own minds. The characters might also change their minds or struggle to find the best among a bunch of imperfect solutions, which is a good model for how a reader might consider that theme as well.

When you’re revising and you come to a part of the book that seems to need richer details and more description, how do you approach that? What strategies do you use to make sure you have specific details to make your writing real? And where do you draw the line? How much detail is too much?

Sometimes I read books that include a page or two of description for every room the characters walk into. I always used to skip over those parts and imagine the story taking in some place that had meaning to me, like my grandparents’ house. Lots of old time mysteries and ghost stories seemed to take place in my grandparents’ house.

That experience taught me to be minimalist about description and include only things that matter to the story. I tend to add more details in the revision process wherever I find ways to use description for a specific purpose, like showing a character’s interests by describing what’s hanging on his or her bedroom walls.

I also try to include sensory details other than sight. What does the inside of an alien spaceship smell like? What is the texture of the floors? What do the food dispensers sound like? These are questions I ask during the revision process because the first draft is more about what happens than exactly how it happens.

How do you make sure your characters feel real and well-rounded when you’re revising? What do you do with people who feel flat? How do you choose names for characters and give them specific characteristics? Do you have any special character-building strategies you’d like to share?

Character names are tricky. Sometimes I’ll go by the meaning, like with Septina and her siblings in The Penguins of Doom, whose names have Latin roots that correlate to their birth order. Or I’ll make some connection to history or popular culture, as with Septina’s family name, Nash, which is a tribute to a notable mathematician named John Nash.

Sometimes I’ll pick a random name as a place-holder in the first draft and use search-and-replace to rename the character during the revision process. If you do this, make sure the original name is spelled the same each time and confirm every change to make sure you’re only changing character names like Nash and leaving alone words like “gnash” or places like Nashville.

My characters tend to evolve personalities as I write and many times they will surprise me. As a result, I might have to return to an earlier scene because I’ve come to realize that the character would think, speak, or act differently than I’d originally thought.

Sometimes I write outtake scenes that don’t go into the book, but allow me to explore how a character would act in a different situation. If I cut a scene from the book, I keep it in a separate file instead of getting rid of it entirely, because it just might provide some insight that I’ll need later.

Do you ever try writing in different points of view? And are there specific things you need to watch out for when writing in first person vs. third or vice versa?

For point of view, I like to imagine I’m filming a movie and need to decide where to put the camera. I might need multiple angles to take in all the action, or it might work best to have the camera hover over a single character’s head and follow them around for the entire book. Sometimes the best way to tell the story is to cut open the main character’s skull and surgically implant a camera in their cerebral cortex, and that becomes a first person story. You need to figure out the point of view early in the drafting process because it’s very difficult to change in revision.

When you’re writing in first person, how do you make sure you’re channeling the character’s voice?

The most important thing about writing in first person is realizing that your character’s mind is the landscape you’re exploring and that nothing can ever happen outside of that. You can’t describe a thing the character didn’t personally experience without some reasonable explanation that they read about it, had it described to them, or otherwise learned about it afterward. The same thing applies in a third person narrative that’s tightly focused on a single character.

One more thing I learned while writing The Penguins of Doom is the importance of a viewpoint character having a purpose and a perceived audience. Septina’s voice came out differently when she was writing letters to her parents than when she was writing to a friend. She sounded different when she was apologizing for something, explaining something, or asking for something. It made me realize that we all talk differently in different situations and adjusting for that can help a writer identify the parts of a character’s voice that stay consistent over time and audience.

Of course, all of these answers are subject to future revision. :D

—Greg, who has his revision pencil ready for another go!

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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Mice in Literature

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were startled by a mouse running through our kitchen as we made Saturday brunch. Now, I think mice are cute. I enjoy seeing rodents in a cage, or in the wild. I even had a pet rat as a teenager. But wild mice running free in the house are Not Acceptable.

More recently, my husband saw a kangaroo rat in the carport, dragging the copper wool we had used to plug a possible mouse hole (yeah, that worked). Could this be the little critter that chewed through two sets of my sparkplug cables, costing us $100?

These wildlife encounters got me thinking—why on earth are mice so popular as characters in books and movies, when they can be such pests in real life?

Mice as main characters have a few things going for them. They are familiar, even to young children. They are relatable, because they are mammals and have hand-like paws. These paws allow them to behave more like humans than our other favorite relatable mammals, cats and dogs.

And finally, mice are small, so they work well as underdogs. From The Rescuers to The Tale of Despereaux, they have to struggle against great odds to succeed. They may especially appeal to children because, well, children are small and often feel like helpless underdogs themselves.

Mice in literature—we love them. In our homes, not so much.

What’s your favorite type of animal hero? Why?

Chris Eboch with Haunted books

Chris Eboch with her Haunted books

Chris Eboch always preferred the Disney movies with animal characters, such as The Aristocats and (the original) 101 Dalmatians.

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Is Ender too Perfect?

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it. I adore Orson Scott Card’s books. Pretty much everything I’ve read of his, I love. From SEVENTH SON to MAGIC STREET to THE WORTHING SAGA to EMPIRE to ENDER. The guy is gifted. And the good (best) thing about the ENDER books is they just keep going. Seriously. Now how many series can you really say that about (where it’s a good thing)?

So I’m just about done listening on audiobook to ENDER IN EXILE, the latest in the Ender Files, and here is my question for the day:

IS ENDER TOO PERFECT?

Does he ever make mistakes? I think in ENDER’S GAME he does. And granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the rest of the books, but in ENDER IN EXILE, to date, everything Ender has done has been correct. And calculated. And perfect. And I’m just about done with the book.

Even all this said, if it is, in fact, true that Ender Wiggin is perfect, it still works for me. Is this because I care about Ender that much at this point? Or am I so skewed that I don’t see his flaws?

Let’s have it, Ender fans. Give me your thoughts.

pjhoover_casual1 PJ Hoover thinks Battle School would have been way cool.

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Creating characters for a series – tips

Here are a few tips to follow when creating characters for a series. (Don’t miss yesterday’s post, which provides the foundation for this one.)

1. Keep an organized list of background information.

2. Create flaws and strengths of character that enhance the plot. (For instance: In my DEAD GIRL DANCING, Eli & Amber both like math, and in the climax math reveals a solution).

3. Add interesting details to your characters to make them more real. (Amber likes self-help books and refers to titles as she meets challenges).

4. Keep up with technology. Texting, iPhones, gaming, etc. are part of teen life.

5. Pay attention to teens and read many YA novels to study characters.

6. Listen to your characters as they evolve; be true to who they are, not who you want them to be.

7. Don’t kill pets (unless they’re already dead, like Amber’s dog). Many authors may disagree and that’s okay. This is my personal “pet” peeve (pun intended). Pets are characters, too, and readers love them. I avoid reading books if I know a pet is killed. That sort of death lingers with readers and will often be the main thing they’ll remember about your book—not my goal.

8. Humor is a wonderful trait! Use it well and have fun.

9. Avoid clichés – the perky cheerleader, mean rich girl, etc. I won’t deny that I’ve used these clichés but I go deeper now to show what makes all characters unique. Sometimes, though, for a very minor character, using a quick cliché gives a mental image without distracting from the plot. Still it’s a good idea to twist the cliché; make the cheerleader have bad teeth or the bully a science whiz.

10. Study real teens, but don’t write like they talk. Um’s and yeah’s get boring. For dialogue examples, read current YA books that librarians and teens like.

This is a huge topic and I’m writing an article, not a book, so I’ll bring this to a close. If you have questions, just reply here.

— Linda Joy Singleton, who wrote on a writing school application at age 14 that she wanted to write her own series someday. And it happened.

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Creating characters for a series

When creating characters for a series rather than a standalone book, major and minor characters can evolve in surprising ways. A minor character who only shows up briefly in Book #1 could be a star of Book #4. Or a major character from Book #2 could die a horrible death in Book #3. Series characters, like people in real life, take on paths and personalities of their own.

I’ve published six YA/MG series. Most were sold on detailed proposals, which included sample chapters, mini plot outlines, an overall series view of the events and character growth, brief character descriptions, and a detailed synopsis for the first book. At this early stage, I only know basic facts about my characters. One of the first things I do is figure out my main character’s inner and outer motivation; motivation and conflict are the keys in my process of character development.

The easiest way for me explain is to give examples of my character process that created my supernatural YA series, DEAD GIRL (Flux), where my teen heroine, Amber, has such a bad sense of direction that after a near-death experience she makes a wrong turn into another girl’s body.

When I sent in my first proposal to my Flux editor, he disliked Amber. He said she was too negative and insecure, and he didn’t like her self-deprecating comments. He added that he liked her career aspiration and thought someone who wanted to be an entertainment agent should be more outgoing.

Did this editorial letter upset me? Not even! It fired me up to rewrite. I realized that my attempt to start off with an insecure heroine (so she can gain confidence through the course of the book) didn’t work. All I’d created was an unlikable heroine. So I focused on Amber’s career aspirations and gave her ambition, determination, and an earnest desire to help others. When my editor read the revised version, he wrote back that he liked this much improved Amber. And within a week I had a 3-book contract for the DEAD GIRL series.

Now on to other characters; main and minor….

Teens love romance in their books, so I always include at least one love interest. In a series, though, I like to have two very different guys for my heroine to choose from, and then I wait to hear back from readers which direction to go. This is another advantage to having a series; characters can explore many different relationships.

Usually I contrast my hero and heroine on a surface level then go deeper for traits they share. For Amber the guy was Eli—the brother of the boyfriend of the girl whose body Amber swaps into in #2, DEAD GIRL DANCING (yes, it does get confusing!). I contrasted Amber and Eli: Amber is ambitious and her family struggles to pay bills; wealthy Eli is shy and wants respect, not fame. Then I gave them reasons to fall in love: they both love math, chocolate, and music. I complicate their relationship by letting them fall a little in love before the body switch. Things get even more complicated when in #2, DEAD GIRL DANCING, Amber swaps into the body of Eli’s older sister.

Inner and outer character conflict increases tension and pushes the plot forward.

For other characters, I included a dead grandmother with a lot of attitude, a best friend who seems the opposite of Amber, and a guy friend who is comic relief and her tech guy when problems arise. The best friend, Alyce, has a very small role in #1, DEAD GIRL WALKING. But I established a close friendship and hinted at problems because I planned a much bigger role for Alyce in #3, DEAD GIRL IN LOVE.  So when it came time to write the third book, I was ready with ideas and a foundation of facts in the previous books.

Of course, the down side of creating a series is that whatever happens in the first books becomes fact. And keeping those facts straight can get confusing. That’s why publishers who create very long series like Nancy Drew keep a “Bible” of series events, characters, and all background information to give to their authors.  I’ve learned from experiences like this and tried using a binder to keep books and details straight. It’s easy to mess up and give a blue-eyed character black eyes or forget that a character’s mother is dead and then have her walk into a room

Tomorrow, I’ll give some basic tips for creating series characters. In the meantime, if you have questions, just reply here.

— Linda Joy, who wrote on a writing school application at age 14 that she wanted to write her own series someday. And it happened.

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Creating Believable Characters

So, we’re talking now about creating believable characters because, let’s be honest, most stories nowadays are character-driven. What this means is that the main character will determine the actions and ultimate outcome of the story based on who he or she is.

I fall back on a familiar example of Harry Potter. At the very end of the first book, Harry obtains the philosopher’s stone, and Voldemort tries to take it from him.
If Harry had been an evil child, he could have handed the stone over to Voldemort and made a bargain to be his buddy. If Harry had been a coward who cared more about his own life than protecting his loved ones, he would have done the same thing.
BUT because of who he is, because of his character (which is revealed to us/develops throughout the novel), the outcome is that Harry won’t hand it over, even if death is on the line.

And we believe it.
Because we know that’s who Harry is.

To be believable, your characters must have:
-Weaknesses
Nobody is perfect, and it’s our quirks that make us real and relatable. Weaknesses can be physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above. If your character is terrified of fire, we’re more likely to believe that he wouldn’t rescue a kitten from a burning building. OR if he rescues the kitten, we appreciate his selfless act even more because we know what he had to overcome to do it.
On top of this, sometimes a weakness makes us understand why a villain does what he does.
-Strengths
Everyone is good at something, and we often use this skill to define a particular character (example: My friend is excellent with numbers; we call her The Human Calculator). Be cautious of letting those strengths make your character a stereotype. If your character is good with numbers, don’t make her a lonely nerd with glasses. And of course, you mustn’t overlook strengths for your antagonists as well. We need a reason to root for a character or a reason to fear them.
-Opinions
Part of the reason we are drawn to (or repelled by) someone is their personality. We share their views on something or we despise them, and based on the strength of their opinion, we can again know why they would choose to react to a stimulant in a certain way. I’m also going to group likes/dislikes under this category.
-Goals/aspirations
While some people do wander aimlessly in real life, your characters shouldn’t because that makes for boring literature. BUT this doesn’t mean their goals or aspirations have to be lofty or high-powered or make them insanely rich. It can be something as simple as getting that White Castle burger (I know…movie reference).
We should know within the first two chapters what your main character’s goal will be for this book. Granted, that goal can change as the story develops, but as they’re facing their first crossroads, they need to have a plan of action.
-Sense of self
Even if your characters are evil, they must be cognizant of themselves and their actions. Nobody operates strictly on instruction of another without a single thought about it (exception: minions, who shouldn’t play a weighty role in your story to begin with). Your characters should be aware that they exist. They should know to be embarrassed when they get caught doing something stupid, they should be appalled when something happens that they don’t agree with. It’s difficult to explain but easy to see when you read a story.
-Change
Finally, your characters must change somehow through the course of the story. Nobody ends an adventure the same way they started out. If nothing else, your character swill be wiser about the obstacles they have had to overcome. And sadly, they won’t always change for the better. They may become bitter or disheartened…but that’s what makes for a great vengeance sequel!

Jo Whittemore

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How Parental Influence Defines the Main Characters of YA and MG Literature

We’ve talked before about parents and other adults being absent in YA and MG literature. But whether or not parents are present in a novel, they greatly affect the composition of  the main character. In fact, parents might just be the most important element in creating deep characters for YA and MG novels. Here are a couple of examples of how main characters are defined by their parents’ influence:

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

Why is Katniss a hardened huntress destined for success in the arena? Because her mother is practically cataonic with grief over her father’s death and her family’s suffering. It’s up to Katniss to find food for her family, a responsibility that both forces Katniss to find skill in hunting and leaves her emotionally hardened. Since her mother’s mental absence also leaves Katniss in charge of caring for a younger sister, it’s no surprise Katniss comes to serve as protector to a young girl (Rue) in the arena. So Katniss’s defining traits stem mostly from the role her mother has played (or failed to play) in her life.

Feed (M. T. Anderson)

We can easily understand why Titus, the main character of Feed, is a shallow, fun-seeking consumer so immature as to deem the entire planet of Jupiter “stupid” after he travels there on vacation: he is a mirror of his society. But the picture becomes even more clear every time Titus’s dad pops into the story because we see that his dad is just as shallow. He uses words like dude and girlf and says things like “Do you know how inefficient trees are, next to an air factory?”

Contrast him with Violet’s father. Violet is quite different from all the other teens in the book, mostly because she had her feed (an internet connection in the brain) installed relatively late in her childhood. She uses a larger vocabulary and tries to fight the constant barrage of materialism from her feed. Once we meet her father, a professor who has only a homemade feed and uses phrases like “observe the remarkable verdure,” Violet’s character becomes even more understandable. Her father tries to speak “only in irony” so his words can’t be simplfied–his way to preserve what he feels is a dying language; Violet tries to confuse her feed by creating complicated, unpredictable spending patterns. They are two of a kind.

Which characters in YA and MG literature do you see as being defined by their parents’ influence? Or have I overstated the importance of parental influence in creating deep characters?

Parker Peevyhouse

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Character Week: Motivation & Yet Another Why

As Joni Sensel mentioned, we’ll be talking about characters all week here at The Spectacle. She did such a fantastic job yesterday with her “why” post, it got me inspired to dig into those revisions (yet again).

Here are two questions I ask myself (normally during revisions – maybe at some point I’ll get on the ball enough to do this pre-first-draft) when I’m working on character development:

1) What is the character’s motivation before the story starts?

Sure, if we drop a zombie into the middle of a scene, the character’s motivation may become something like “get away from the zombie.” And for the short term, that may work. But when we’re looking at characters, we have to go beyond that. We need to know what drives this character way before the book even starts.

Yes, this is backstory, and No, it may not need to be in the actual book. But as the author, you need to know what this motivation is. It drives the character to do everything they do. It helps them make their choices. It defines the person they are. So when someone asks you what your character’s motivation is, dig deep and look into the past for the answer.

2) Why is this character the main character in this story?

What about this character makes him/her special such that only they can be the main character of the story. Let’s look at Harry Potter. The kid was doomed from the very start. He had the scar on his head. He was integrally imprisoned with Voldemort in the plot. Neville would not have done. Ron would not have done. Hermione would not have done. The main character had to be Harry.

I know this is a why question (like Joni’s), but I  wanted to state it anyway because I find it so useful and so important. Make your character special by giving them enough reason to be in the novel.

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So those are my two big character questions. What are some of yours? And thanks for reading!

pjhoover_casual1 Why is PJ Hoover the main character of her life? What makes her special? :)

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Character Week! Ask Why

The Spec’s going to try something new this week — a theme for the week’s posts. We’ve received suggestions from readers who would like to hear more about developing characters and making them believable, engaging, and memorable. PJ snuck in a post last week on humanoids in space, which I think qualifies as a character issue. But I’m going to tackle a non-species-specific question asked by a reader:

How do you add depth to characters in a plot-driven fantasy?

I’m sure there are various answers to this, but mine is the same as it would be for any kind of writing, whether plot-driven, fantasy, or otherwise. I don’t have much patience for things like the standard character checklists because the answers (and questions) seem random to me. (I’ve yet to work on a story where the character’s favorite color or song made a whit of difference to my story.) But  the thing that has worked best for me in developing characters is something stolen from my corporate life: “Ask why five times.” Or at least two or three.

Why do they want what they want?

It’s a basic tenet that your characters must have an objective, whether to win the girl, to get the magic amulet, or to survive the apocalypse. But why? “Because the author needs it for the plot” is not a good enough reason. Neither is riches. When the going gets tough, your character has to keep working toward the goal for deep emotional and psychological reasons. Money is never enough.

The answer to why a character wants any goal that’s less than life-or-death may be related to a lack in the character’s life or a previous incident that left a mark. Okay, why does she feel that way? What happened previously — and why? What in her actions or character caused the previous event that left the mark, or at least put her in the wrong place and time?

If your character wants the amulet because she’s greedy (why?), fine. That gives you a flaw to overcome. If it’s because nothing is more important to him than justice (why?), and the amulet will dispense that, then all his interactions with others should reflect that, and any hurdle in his path that requires him to do something unjust on the way to his goal will be a major plot point.

When a character is fighting for survival, the answer to “why?” may seem obvious, but even that “why?” shouldn’t be dismissed. Why do they want to stay alive? Who are they living for? What do they still want to do? Who do they need to kiss, apologize to, or get even with first? Why?

The answers influence actions

Every action, not just the overall goal, should have a series of why?s behind it. (Otherwise, actions and the whole plot can feel forced or contrived.) Answering the “why” questions leads to motivations, character traits, familial relationships, back story, and even the little contradictions that make characters realistic. The answers should also influence actions — how she stays alive, what she avoids in so doing, her mental state during, how she interacts with threats or other survivors. Don’t ignore villains; it’s even more important to know why they do what they do. Nobody does something just to be nasty. And even for sci-fi, which often explores ideas and principles, the strongest characters do things for very personal reasons underneath any commitment they may have to principles. (That is, Sam isn’t committed to justice because it sounds nice; he’s committed because he watched his best friend be unjustly hanged.)

I’m a character-based writer. I can’t imagine plotting a book without knowing who is in the story first, because for me, plot is a series of actions, and actions can only come from character (values, motivations, desires, fears). That said, I’m a pantser, so I usually discover my characters and their motivations as I go. But I never write an action without wondering why the character would do that, and I ask why even more during revision. Asking why should be even easier for plotters (who, in my experience, are more likely to write plot-driven books.) The answers should lead to realistic characters we can understand and relate to.

More to come

We’ll have more character posts all week. In the meantime, who are your favorite literary characters— and why? What about them resonates with you? Why? (Do you see your own traits in them, wish you were more like them, or find yourself fascinated by traits you wouldn’t want? [Why?])

And if there are other specific character-related questions you’d love to address here, let us know!

— Joni, who sometimes asks herself why she can’t write shorter posts

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