Classic Being a Better Writer: Breathing Life into Characters

Welcome back to another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Really quickly, a quick update for Patreon Supporters: Still playing catch up for last month, but look for something (hopefully) this weekend. That’s all.

So, Classic BaBW post? That’s right. If you’re new here, Classic posts dig into a four-year archive of weekly BaBW articles to dig up a couple that are relevant to one another, delivering a triple or sometimes quadruple whammy of writing advice! Great for those who haven’t yet had a chance to archive binge or that are looking for help on a particular topic!

Today’s selection? A series of posts on ways to help our characters become more alive for the reader and feel more tangible. So sit back, grab a snack, and hit up those links!


Showing Character Through Dialogue—
Now let’s put this in a scene. We have a grizzled FBI man, undercover on a train, sitting in his seat and pretending to be a newspaper. His passenger, a woman who has no idea who he is, turns towards him and asks “Would you like some gum?”

Now, let’s look at his response. The grammatically correct response is “No, thanks.” However, what differences does this imply about his character over “No thanks,” without any pause? One is timely, implies a pause and perhaps some thought. The other is brusque, pre-determined, almost dismissive, and can be more so based on what action he couples with his statement.

Whoa. Did we really just read all that out based on whether or not a single comma was present in the dialogue?


Body Language—
How important are these social cues? Incredibly important. We can build entire opinions of individuals before they even open their mouths to speak, based simply on things like stance, hand and arm position, and facial cues. Much of our interaction with those around us is as much physical as it is spoken, based off of these cues. To give you an idea of how much, look at animated features—especially modern, CG animations over the last ten years. I recently came across a group of animators and dedicated animation fans discussing the movie Zootopia‘s use of facial animation compared to prior CG films, and they were talking about the close attention to detail the film provided. It was all little things, small stuff like character’s noses or ears twitching (these are anthropomorphic animal characters, after all) or tiny, subtle movements of their eyes or lips. But the point of this comparing to earlier films by even the same studio (Disney) and pointing out how these very small social cues made for a much better experience: Despite being anthropomorphic animal characters, the cast from Zootopia felt more human than ever … in part because of the ability to animate all these small social cues that we’ve come to expect in the real world. It made the characters feel more human.

And yet … despite how important these cues are, despite how valuable body language is to many of us on an hourly basis … many young writers miss it entirely. They fall into the trap of simple presentation, of telling a reader rather than showing them.


Giving Characters a Leitmotif—
Well, perhaps I should start out explaining what a leitmotif is, for those of you who don’t know, just so that we’re all on the same page. A leitmotif is, essentially, a recurring musical theme in a piece of music that is associated with an idea, emotion, or—more often—a character or a situation. Which to some of you probably sounds like nonsense unless I point out some of the more well-known leitmotifs out there: Those in film. Specifically, leitmotifs found in films like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings. Sit back for a moment, if you will, and picture one of those films. Now picture a character or a scene from them and see if your mind calls a bit of fanfare forward.

Which is pretty cool, to be honest. But it probably doesn’t answer the question most of you have on your minds now that we’ve discussed all this; likely some form of “What does this have to do with writing?” Again, as I already said, we don’t havemusical cues in literature. At least, not yet. Outside of a few experimental online pieces, music does not feature prominently (or really, at all) inside fiction. So, what am I talking about?

Actually, I’m talking about cues that make your character recognizable.


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Classic Being a Better Writer: Plot Problems

Hey hey! I’m almost back to full health, and it’s been far too long since a Classic Being a Better Writer post went up on the site!

New? Unsure what those words meant? Let me clarify! Being a Better Writer is a writing feature that’s been running for almost four years now, posting every Monday. These posts cover a wide, vast assortment of topics, from subplots to mystery to dialogue, all with the goal of helping writers young and old improve their craft.

Of course, with almost four years of weekly posts collected here, the simple act of an archive binge suddenly becomes quite daunting … hence the Classic posts. Classic posts collect a few older posts on a related topic and offer a brief look at them as well as a link to each for nice, easily accessibly bingeing.

This week? We’re looking at plot problems with larger narratives, and how you can catch them early or fix them! So dive in! Click those links! And if you like what you’re reading, don’t neglect that Patreon button on the side!


Playing Out Your Puzzle Pieces—
As a new writer, nothing is more daunting than looking at someone else’s book with all it’s intersecting plot threads and carefully doled out clues and thinking “How on earth do I do that?” To a new writer, it seems like an almost insurmountable task: There are all these different parts of the story, and all of it seems to be fitting together just so the guide to reader to figure things out or move along with the story at the same pace as the characters … And once you stand back and look at it, that’s quite a bit of work!

And, to be fair, the average English class that many are going to have gone through in their high-school years has very low odds of touching on this, which only compounds the problem. For new writers, it just seems like something that writers do, but no one is explaining how. Again, this is why I encourage taking creative writing classes if they’re available to you—they’ll teach this kind of stuff and more.


Character Versus Plot—
Effectively—and understand that I am for the purposes of today’s concept, grossly simplifying—every story out there, written, told, or seen, rides a sliding scale into one of two categories: They’re either a character-driven piece or a plot-driven piece. That’s it. These are your options, and understanding which your story is going to be, as well as more importantly, how to achieve this, will play a part in determining the success of your work.


Avoiding a Sagging Middle—
Well, let’s take a look at an old principle of storytelling, one that most, if not all of you, should be familiar with: The concept of rising action. We’ve spoken about this before, actually, when discussing pacing (twice, actually). But the core idea is that you want to give your readers and ebb and flow to the tension of the story. As time goes on, the tension rises, the reader gets sucked in, we have a climactic moment of some kind, and then the story eases off for a bit and lets the reader relax.


The Meandering Story—
All right, before we go any further, we need to clear something up by determining exactly what a meandering story is. It’s not a story that stars a lot of twist and turns, no. Rather, a meandering story is one that loses sight of its end goal.

Now, when I say this, I don’t mean that the characters lose sight of the end goal (or maybe don’t know what that goal is). No, that’s fine. Characters can lose sight of things all you want. That’s just part of the story.

Instead, what I’m talking about is a story where the plot has lost sight of the end of the story. It’s forgotten where it’s going, or is confused about its ultimate objective, but rather than stop and try and figure things out, it just keeps going, like an energizer bunny, despite the fact that it has no idea where it’s headed. It wanders from plot point to plot point, searching for some vague sense of purpose to drive itself forward. Or maybe it has an idea of where it wants to go (like “X needs to defeat Y”) but has no idea how to get to that point, and so bounces across every possible solution, one after another, until it finally clicks.

 

 

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Some of the Small Things

It’s time for another Classic Being a Better Writer post! Rejoice, newcomers and old fans alike, and get ready to travel back in time to an older day, a day wherein writing topics were discussed!

Which really doesn’t make this post that different from what currently goes up the site, except that the BaBW posts you’re about to see here are old rather than new. Because Classic posts are all about returning to some of the posts of old in order to introduce newer readers to the admittedly bogglingly-large archive of BaBW posts. At four years with a new post almost every week … it is a bit of an archive dump.

This week? We take an in-depth look at some small but surprisingly vital elements of character design and writing in your works,  things that may seem unimportant, but can really provide that extra polish to make your story shine. In other words, some of the small things.


Underpowered and Overpowered Characters—
The real question that they want to ask, I feel, is this: how do I create a character with enough skills and talent to overcome what I place in his path without giving them too many skills and talents?

Because you see, that’s the real challenge that these writers are worried about. They want to create characters that can survive everything that the plot is going to throw at them, but they don’t want their character to just magically have the skills to survive everything. And of course, they don’t want a character who survives off of dumb-luck either. Both of these approaches will—while they work at first—gradually eat away at the reader’s enjoyment of the story. They may not ruin it (after all, there are plenty of other moving parts to enjoy), but they certainly will lower the expectations.


Showing Character Through Dialogue—
So, to start off this week’s writing guide, I have a question for all of you. What’s the difference between these two sentences?

“No thanks,” he said.

and

“No, thanks,” he said.

At first glance, any editor can tell you what the problem is. The first sentence is grammatically incorrect, while the second is grammatically correct.

Except therein lies our problem. Because while the second is grammatically correct, contextually, it’s incorrect.


Worldbuilding Colloquialisms—
See, the thing is, colloquialisms and slang are one of those things that we don’t often think about unless it’s pointed out to us, because by definition a colloquialism is not something formally recognized (except in title) nor literately correct. A colloquialism is just a quirk of day-to-day dialogue, an odd phrase or word that has taken on a new—and often temporary—meaning. They’re rooted in culture. Deeply rooted in it, in fact. So deeply rooted that most of the time, we don’t even think of them. We just use them, lose them, and pick up new ones.


 

 

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Foes

It’s time for another Classic Being a Better Writer post!

New? Just arrived here from Google? Or maybe Bing? Nervously moving your cursor toward the back button and wondering whether or not you found the right place? Well, if you’re looking for good books to read or—in this posts’ case—advice on how to write them, you’re in the right place. You can relax your mouse finger.

So, explanations. Being a Better Writer is a weekly feature here on Unusual Things all about the writing process. Each week, a new question is tackled, everything from “Show VS Tell” to “Pacing.”

Of course, when you’ve been doing this for four years, you end up with just a little bit of a an archive. Hundreds of articles worth. Which can make things intimidating for the newly arrived. And though everything is tagged and compatible with the search box on the right, Classic posts are a good way to introduce new readers to excellent posts from yesteryear. As well as deliver a refresher to long-time readers.

This week? Villains and their minions, one of the more popular topics of all time!


I, Villain—
The first question you need to ask yourself with your story is do I need a villain? Not every story does. There are plenty of stories out there where the main character is their own antagonist, or where the character faces a rival rather than a true villain, a rival who might not be on the same side of the hero, but isn’t explicitly against them either. Don’t feel the need to shoehorn a villain into a story that doesn’t need one. Take a step back, look at your basic plot (because a villain is something you’ll be deciding on quite early) and ask yourself what adding a villain could add to your story, but also take away. Is there a theme in mind that would be weakened by a villain’s actions? Would the story be weaker if the spotlight were splitting its time between your main character and your villain? Stronger? Is your heroes’ portrayal going to be strengthened by their interaction with the villain, or dilluted?


Developing Villains—
We can admit it. In a way, we like villains. Villains are a flavor, a spice, to our worlds and universes, an intricate part of our plotting and scheming for the story at large. And … we know this. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed villains on this blog. Nor will it be the last. A villain isn’t a needed requirement of any story, but in the event that the story requires one, having a good villain is a key factor, and so understanding how to write a good villain is going to be integral to making sure that whatever you write is as good as you can make it.


Crafting an Army of Foes—
Mook is a slang term for the common enemy soldiers/followers/evil redshirts that the antagonist of your story is going to chew their way through over the course of the story (see a more in-depth write-up here). Basically, if your characters are facing off against a group of any size of mostly-faceless (character-wise) foes, than those foes are mooks. They might be tougher than average and pose a real challenge … or they may go down as readily as Starfleet cadets against an alien with a Nerf gun, but if they comprise the faceless horde or hordes of one faction or another that get in the way of the primary character’s objective, then you can legitimately call them mooks.


 

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Pacing

Welcome back to another classic Being a Better Writer post!

Confused? New around here? Don’t be! Being a Better Writer is a weekly writing guide posted to this site every Monday designed to help writers of all experience hone their craft. Beginning or experienced and in need of a refresher, BaBW has been a staple of Unusual Things since actually before the site existed. You could say it’s one reason my site exists.

Anyway, although each post is carefully tagged and organized, as well as searchable via the site search function, there’s still a lot of material to go through after the years. Classic posts are a way to bridge the gap and make it easier for some to find the topics that they’re interested in.

This week? Pacing! An oft overlooked by quite vital aspect of any story.

Pacing—
Have you ever seen a film or a read a book where things started out with a bang and just kept exploding? Or a tense film that just stayed tense and never gave you a moment to relax? And by about halfway through, you’re actually bored with both of them? That’s because the pacing was poor. You can only keep an audience in a constant state of tension/suspense/action before the audience is tired of it. They need a moment to relax, to digest. To think about what’s happened. They need a slower moment where they can catch their breath, and if they don’t get it, they’re going to stop enjoying whatever it is they were watching.

Pacing – Part II—
If I were to put it in my own words, pacing is the measure of timing that flows through your story. It is the rate at which things happen, the length and depth of scenes and sentences, and even the rhythm by which the events in the story flow …

… Because contrary to what a lot of young writers think, there’s more to writing than simply getting the right words down on the page. You can write a wonderful, otherwise well-written story full of heart, character, and adventure, and yet create something that fails to deliver to the reader at all because of improper pacing. There’s more to writing than simply getting all the right words out. You need to have the right length and timing to go with everything.

The Try/Fail Cycle and the Evolving Story—
Now, I’m going to preface things with a caveat here: We know that the hero is going to win. Usually. 95% of the time, it’s a safe bet that the hero will emerge victorious in some fashion or another. But on the journey there? A hero who simply crushes all in their path doesn’t really make for an entertaining read because the reader always knows what is going to happen. If your hero fights mook after mook, takes down trap after trap, and comes out on top every time, well, even if your action is written in an incredibly well-done manner, you’re still going to start running into readers who just start skipping over things. Why?

Because they’ve gotten bored.

 

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Romance and Gender

It. Is. Time …

For another Classic Being a Better Writer post! If you’re new to the site, or found this page through a search, well, here’s how it works, just to get you up to speed before you click away: Unusual Things is home to Being a Better Writer, a weekly article designed to help new, young, or even experienced writers with their craft. This has been ongoing now for … almost four years, actually. Which means that sands and storms there’s quite the backlog by now. Around 50 articles a year for four years is a pretty impressive pile of writing guides!

Now, each post is tagged, and there’s the archives and the search function to make do with, but sometimes it’s simply easier to give those seekers of knowledge an even easier collection to find. Hence, classic reposts!

Well, not reposts. Each of these posts links to the original articles. So, are you ready? Because today’s classic posts are three on writing Romance and Gender. from the archive of Unusual Things! Get cracking!

Starting Romance—
Romance—real romance—is a topic that humanity has written, studied, and explored for thousands of years, and yet many of us are still very much in the dark. I don’t think it hurts that it’s a little different for everyone, but the end result is that we’re probably still going to be writing about romance thousands of years from now. Or watching movies about it. Or whatever form of entertainment the future happens to hold (new rom-com collection—dozens of media memories from the greatest love stories in history beamed right into your brain!). Romance will always remain a topic that inspires and infuriates our species equally.

Romance—
If that sounds both hard and complicated, then you’re thinking along the right lines. Real romance is hard. Writing out a romantic relationship between two characters is a complicated, difficult dance of keeping track of both their lines of thought, emotions, reactions, and flaws. Mistakes are make. Apologies are given. Both parties learn. Where a “romance” book is more concerned about getting both characters in the same room (and then the same bed, in lurid detail), a romance is a story or subplot wherein two characters are discovering and building a love between them, one that’s far more than just a bedroom.

Writing the Opposite Gender—
Don’t go into it with the idea that men and women are two alien, almost irreconcilable creatures. Clear your mind of the pop-culture junk that’s infected television, facebook, and twitter, because 99% of what’s out there is, taken straight, junk. Take all that pile of “men do this, women do this, etc” and toss it out for the moment. Gone. Clear your head.

Then write a character. Someone fully 3D. Wants, desires, wishes, flaws.

You know why? I’ll give you the same answer I gave at LTUE: Because ordinary people don’t consciously flavor everything they do with their gender. Most men don’t wake up and think to themselves “Right, waking up … like a MAN! Using the bathroom … like a MAN! Eating breakfast … like a MAN!” Neither do women thing “Driving to work … like a WOMAN. Taking the elevator to my office … like a WOMAN! Saying ‘hi’ to my boss … like a WOMAN!”

 

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Getting Started

Welcome back to another Classic Being a Better Writer post! For those of you who are unfamiliar with these posts, they’re essentially recall posts that look back on old BaBW posts and link to them for those newcomers who may have never seen them when they originated. BaBW has a pretty big backlog of articles, and with me having a goal of adding 4000+ words daily to my current book project (Jungle at the moment), Classic throwback posts can be a good way to keep some content going on the site (thus reminding people it exists), while still keeping my daily goals moving.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at today’s Classic! The topic? Tips for the beginnings of books and getting started, from the archive of Unusual Things!

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