Being a Better Writer: What Makes a Protagonist?

All right. So, yesterday’s incarnation of this post, to what is now great irony, started with a worried critique of WordPress’ freshly rolled out posting interface. To be specific, it critiqued the poor interface design, but also noted with a faint hint of worry that something so new was bound to have some surprises of a possibly unpleasant variety.

Oh, did it ever. The posting interface glitched out completely at the conclusion of my article, not only refusing to allow it to be posted, but also not letting me copy-paste it to save it. Worse, the manual “save draft” button had been removed altogether for the standard autosave. It used to have both, but I guess they thought having a manual draft save was too confusing. Either way, the autosave feature had also bugged out after I’d hit return on the first paragraph.

The end result was, well, the loss of the entire post. A post that had worried at the start about such an eventuality possibly happening. What can I say? WordPress has changed several times now, and each time I’ve been less than impressed.

Thankfully, today’s post should not have any problems (crosses fingers). After contacting WordPress via Twitter, one of the cofounders drew my attention to a “Admin” button that allows one to access the old, default posting suite. Which I think I’ll be using from now on, as it’s the more functional of the  two current options. I’d like to use the middle one, as that had some nice Twitter-tie-in functionality, but I’ll take losing that but being able to post over the inverse.

So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business on this now twice-delayed topic, eh?

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Being a Better Writer: Digging Deeper With Characters

Yes! Being a Better Writer has returned to Monday!

Honestly, I think I just got lucky this week in not being called into work today, but even so, it feels good to be working on BaBW on a Monday again! This is the day when it’s supposed to go down … Well, up, technically.

Today is also the first day we’ll be going off of Topic List IX! That’s right, new list, new topics!

Which brings us to today’s topic of choice: digging deeper with characters!

This is a topic I actually only added to the list recently, in light of some of my own reading experiences. You see, about a week ago I stumbled across a short story and blitzed through it, only to end up thoroughly nonplussed.

I’ll be frank. It wasn’t a very well written story. The dialogue was poor, the grammar even less impressive, the pacing nonexistent, tell instead of show everywhere, etc, etc. It was clearly someone’s first or second work … more likely the former. So lots of issues, both little and large. That’s just how a first work goes, though.

Anyway, the issue that stood out most to me, however, was the one around which the “crux” of the story itself resolved. The story was centered around two characters, one trying to get to know some secrets about the other in order to be less “alone” (essentially). But … it completely fell flat. And since this was the purpose of the story (these two characters interacting), everything else that was wrong with the work sort of fell by the wayside in the path of this largest omission. Sure, there were pacing problems, grammar issues, etc, but the core that the story wanted to deliver, nay, promised to deliver, that of a character-driven piece, was completely whiffed.

Why? Simple: It didn’t give its characters any narrative depth or weight. They were simply … pieces, for lack of a better word. Static markers being moved along a timeline. They reacted and they moved, but only in the same way that a game piece moves and reacts. They may have taken a position or “moved” from place to place, but they were still essentially markers for “Character A” and “Character B,” with little nuance or action outside of that.

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Being a Better Writer: Gradual Character Development

Hello readers! I’m back!

I know it was only a week, but honestly, it felt much longer. Funny how time works like that. It feels like forever since I’ve worked on a Being a Better Writer post, but at the same time, it feels like just yesterday I finished editing Colony

Time does weird things. And moves in odd ways. Speaking of which, that’s probably a good topic for another BaBW post: Time. That one’s on the list now.

Anyway, let’s dive right into today’s topic: Gradual Character Development.

Character development is usually one of those tricky things for a new writer to nail. Usually. Some get it right off of the bat, others take a bit of time to get it right. But it’s something that any story needs.

Yes, I’m going to call a hard specific on this and say that character development is a need, not an optional bit of window dressing. Why?

Because stories are about a progression, a moving from Point A to Point B. Any story—any good one, mind—is made up of moving parts, each grinding, ticking, or in some cases waiting to snap, forward. And, just as a watch would look odd if all of the gears but one were moving, each part of the story should be moving in its own little way. In what direction the reader may not know, but everything should be part of the cohesive whole.

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Being a Better Writer: Balancing a Returning Character

Whoa! Late post today! Don’t worry, it wasn’t because I was slacking off. The opposite, actually. See, during that month-long burn to get Colony published and into eager reader’s hands (many of whom are now enjoying it immensely, going by the high-quality reviews that have already rolled in), I skipped a lot of sleep. Quite a lot. We’re talking 10-12 hours spent a day working on Colony regularly, plus everything else my life had. So I was, for almost a month, getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night.

Now I’m catching up. Fighting off a cold, letting the web-eyed feeling go away. The like. So today I slept pretty late. I’m not going to apologize for it; I needed it.

But since I’ve touched on the topic, here’s my shameless plug reminder to go buy a copy of Colony! It’s currently collecting a nice set of 5-star ratings and reviews across Amazon and Goodreads! Not only does it help support yours truly, but you’ll be getting an awesome Sci-Fi read to enjoy!

Right, enough plugs, as I’m sure you’re all off to buy Colony now. Once you’ve done that, you can come back and read today’s Being a Better Writer post. Which starts in the next paragraph (but first, as a quick aside, if you’re a long-time reader of BaBW but not of my books, consider being one who reads both. After all, if I can write this much good advice on writing, wouldn’t it be worth your time to see if I’ve delivered on that?).

So, balancing a returning character. Many of you are probably wondering what exactly I’m referring to when I say that. It could be taken a couple of ways, I’ll admit. So let me explain in a bit more detail. Today’s topic comes as a response to a reader question from long ago, one given in response to a post on dealing with overpowered and underpowered characters. This reader had a curious thought with regards to both that subject and the idea of continual, advancing character development: Considering that characters do (or at least should) continue to advance, develop, and grow, how does a writer keep them from becoming overpowered if they use them in a sequel work? Or, as they phrased it, how do you keep legacy characters (or characters from earlier in a series) from becoming too much for the story to take and overwhelming it?

Okay, some of you are nodding, but for those of you who are nodding but only halfway certain of what I just said, let me explain in a bit more depth through use of an example. Say you write a book. You’ve got a cool protagonist that starts out fairly inexperienced against whatever foe you’ve got, but by the end of the story they’ve “leveled up” and gained enough skills and talents to be able to defeat the antagonist.

Cool. Edit it, print it, sell it.

Then you decide you want to work on a sequel. Except … you can’t write the same book twice. Why? Because if you throw that character into the same scenario as the last one, or even a similar one … guess what, you’ll have a pretty short book. Because they’ve already overcome those trials and struggles. They know how to succeed.

So, now the obvious answer is to escalate the threat/antagonist the same way you’ve escalated the protagonist, right? Well … maybe. You can only do this for so long before the story starts to hit DragonBall Z-levels of ridiculously competent/overpowered characters. Endless escalation makes for … Well, it makes things start to become ridiculous fairly quickly.

And that’s the query that was proposed by the reader. They wanted to know how they could use these “Legacy Characters” without breaking the flow of their sequel. How they could keep things tough and difficult for their protagonists while still using the same protagonists in some manner (even having them as a side character can still enable them to solve a lot of problems).

So today, that’s our topic. How to bring back a character in a later work with all their skills and talents … but not have them break our story.

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Being a Better Writer: Characters with Weaknesses

Welcome back! And welcome newcomers! I’ve been getting a lot of hits from Reddit’s r/writing, so those of you that are new, welcome to Unusual Things!

Now, first things first. Counting today, we are only four days colony-finalfrom the release of Colony! I’m keeping track of the numbers, and it has already seen more preorders than Unusual Events. Plus they keep rolling in! Still, that leaves four days for that record to have a nice, high bar by the time of release, so if you haven’t pre-ordered your copy of Colony yet, now’s the time! Hit the link and go! Or if you’ve already ordered it but know someone else who will enjoy it, fire them the link! Or share it on Facebook or your social media site of choice! The more eyes get a look, the better!

Right, enough plugging. It’s time to talk about writing!

So this week we have a request topic from a reader, but it’s one of the ones that is far more into the nuts and bolts end of things. More specifically, it’s right into the nitty-gritty of characters, which is something I can really dig into (and deliver on, if my reviews are any indication).

Anyway, this reader wanted to know how to go about writing characters with weaknesses. Specifically, they were curious about how they could go about writing a character with physical disabilities, such as one that was wheelchair bound or missing a limb.

This is an excellent question, because similar to writing about gender, there’s definitely a right way to go about it … and a wrong way.

But I’m not going to launch right into it. We’re going to do a bit of a lead-in first. And to do that, I want to talk a little bit about a subject that I’ve covered before: overpowered and underpowered characters.

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Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

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Being a Better Writer: Connecting With Characters

I went out with my buddies to see a movie late last night.

I won’t tell you the title, as it isn’t important for our purposes right now, but I will tell you that it wasn’t that fantastic a film. It was … I suppose “adequate” is the best word I could use to describe it. But nothing more. The film wasn’t exactly grand. It was simply … a film. A sequence of events, with some action, some attempt at drama, etc.

So, of course, me being me, I immediately started asking myself why I felt that way as I watched the movie. And there were a lot of obvious answers. There were clear pacing problems, plot problems, character development issues … I mean, this wasn’t a gold star flick.

But the one issue that stood out to me more than any other was that I simply didn’t connect with any of the characters. None of them appealed to me strongly or even at all (and the one that could have come closest ended up being sidelined incredibly effectively, so that put that character out of the running).

Had there been that connection, I think the movie would have been a lot more tolerable. But without it, the movie was just  … there. I could nod as the special effects danced across the screen, or chuckle at the odd line of dialogue here. But without any connection to the characters, everything else was, by comparison, hollow. Had I been watching the movie on Netflix, I doubt I would have lasted long. At the very least I would have started doing something else at the same time, since the movie wasn’t enough to hold my full interest that often.

Right, so enough about the movie. What I wanted to talk about was that problem that I found with it, where I didn’t connect with the characters. Because this isn’t a possible problem that is limited to movies. Not at all. It’s something that can plague writing as well.

So let’s talk about it.

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