Minor Characters

Recently, in the circles that I’m in, more and more people are asking what to do about minor characters. They want to flush them out, give them their own backstory, their own story, understand their background, and everything that makes them tick, but should they do that? How much attention should we give our minor characters? To address this, let’s look at real life.

There are people you encounter every day that you know nothing about. You go to the gas station, fuel up, go inside to get a snack, and the only words exchanged between you and the cashier are:

“Hello, how are you today?”

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Your total will be $5.98.” A pause as the cashier accepts the cash from you, and then she smiles at you and hands you your purchased item. “Thank you, and have a great day.”

“Thanks. You too.” And you leave.

Now, you know nothing about that girl. You don’t know how old she is, if she’s in high school or college, if she’s married or single or has any kids. You don’t know what her talents are, her skills are, or her dreams. You know absolutely nothing, but you’re okay with that. Why? Because you have someplace to be, and getting stuck in a conversation may distract you from what you have to do.

So having characters you know nothing about is fine in a story. Now, another instance of minor characters would be those people you run into on occasion. You’ve seen them enough times you might know their names and greet them. For instance, my mother and I used to go to the park and walk every morning, and at the same time there was this older couple also walking the trail. Their names were Vic and Sid. We knew nothing more of each other except for our names, and we’d greet each other warmly each time we saw one another:

“Hey! How are you? Been a while since we’ve seen you.”

“Yeah, been busy—family stuff, but it’s nice to be back.”

“It’s great to see you again.”

“You too.” And we’d just keep walking, minding our own business.

Another way we may encounter minor characters in real life may be those people we see on a regular basis and may or may not recall the person’s name, but we have a fair idea of what their personality is like and maybe even their dreams. However, they like to talk with you at the most inopportune times, and you never really want to get too drawn into a conversation. An example of this is a cashier at Wal-Mart who has checked out your items on a regular basis. You can’t recall her name, so you have to keep looking at her tag, which reads ‘Jenny’. She remembers you though even if she doesn’t recall your name. You’re the person who’s published a book. In her eyes, you’re famous, and she likes talking with you in a loud voice. She tries to be nonchalant about your accomplishments, and every time she sees you, she tells you about her plans of making a movie. You encourage her, but really, standing in line at the cashier in Wal-Mart is not the best place for this conversation since there are other people in line waiting for their items to be checked through. However, you never see her outside of Wal-Mart, and every time you talk with her, she keeps saying the same thing, and it’s like she never takes any steps toward fulfilling her dreams. You don’t really have time to invest in this person, but you try to be nice.

Now all these are minor characters you may meet in real life. In stories, your characters will encounter similar characters, and you don’t have to flush them out thoroughly. Giving them a personality is always good, and sometimes minor characters will surprise you by actually contributing majorly to the story in ways you never expected, and that’s all right.

The main thing to keep in mind is, “Is this minor character important to the story? Does this character contribute to the story? Do they contribute in a small way or in a big way?” If it’s a small way, you don’t have to develop them too much. Yes, you as the author might know their entire life story and all their hopes and dreams, but that might not be important to the story you’re writing. It’d be very confusing if you have a story about someone who’s on the run from the law, and he checks into this motel where there’s this guy behind the counter who’s dream is to become a cowboy, and suddenly the story shifts to trying to let him accomplish his dream. Sure, there are ways of making the work, but what about the guy who’s on the run?

You’re not obligated it give every character major screen time. In someone else’s life, you are a minor character, someone who they merely passed by on the sidewalk. Yes, you have a lot of depth, huge dreams, and your own bag of troubles, but to that individual whose life you don’t impact, you’re just another face, and that’s okay.

So, when you’re writing a story, if you don’t know how much you should develop a minor character, look at the story, ask how important the character is to the story and how much they contribute to it. Go ahead and give them some personality or quirk to make them memorable to the reader, but then move on. You could have a memorable minor character, and this could be someone that you decide to come back to later and write his own story, but for the time being, don’t overwhelm your book with too many characters.

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The Essentials of a Chapter

A lot of writers ask, “Should I keep this chapter or not?” and “How long should chapters be?” However, before I address those questions, let’s identify what exactly chapters are, and this will help us answer those questions.

Before we get started, you should know the difference between a ‘scene’ and a ‘chapter’:

Scene: is contained within a chapter. You cannot have multiple chapters in a single scene.

Chapter: may contain one or more scenes

Scene: separated by white spaces or paragraph breaks

Chapter: separated by titles such as ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter One’, etc.

These differences may not seem like much, but I don’t want you to be confused by the terminology. Scenes aren’t usually an issue, but they are part of a chapter, so I mentioned them. Our primary focus is on chapters, so let’s discuss some questions that accompany that.

How long should a chapter be? This is a common question, but, as it always is with writing, there is no written rule for the length of chapters. It is recommended for chapters to be more than a few paragraphs long—at the very least a page long or 1,000 words long. As for now long it should be, chapters can sometimes go up to 6,000-8,000 words long. However, the longer you make the chapter, the more you run the risk of losing your readers.

How do you know when you should end the chapter? This is when knowing the point of the chapter is important. Each chapter moves the story along. If you could remove the chapter (or even the scene) from the story, and this does not affect the story at all, that chapter is unnecessary. If the chapter has already accomplished its purpose yet you keep writing more and more and more, you may want to consider looking for a natural breaking point in order to end the chapter and begin a new one. Otherwise it can be longwinded and a huge distraction from the rest of the story. So, as you’re writing a chapter and if you see it’s becoming lengthy, ask yourself what is the purpose of the chapter, and have you already accomplished it? If the chapter hasn’t done what you intended for it to do, step back and determine what’s getting in the way (it could be that the story wants to go a direction different than you planned). If you find a lot of meaningless though fun conversation between characters, consider cutting back on that and getting to the point. Or it could simply be that’s how the chapter is supposed to play out.

One last thing I will say on the topic of chapters is this: if the main purpose of the chapter is character development, this is a weak purpose. I once attended a workshop taught by a screenwriting agent, and he said if a scene in a script was only about character development, they would cut that scene altogether. This applies to stories as well. Characters are developed through conflict and whatever it is they encounter. Merely introducing two characters and having them sit down and chat for the sake of backstory isn’t the reason for a chapter. Yes, that backstory may be important, but you can hold off on revealing vital information until it is absolutely necessary.

One way to do this is to get your characters into a situation where they naturally ask the questions the readers are asking. For instance, let’s say you have a character, Eleanor, who’s adopted, and she suspects it’s her adopted brother who’s behind the recent attacks in town although she has no way to prove this yet, and she knows she can’t say anything because people in the town are very loyal to him. If she’s right, and if he gets winds of it, she might be his next target. So you, as the writer, knows this, but the readers don’t know this yet, and neither do the other characters. But you introduce a new character, Hector, a detective who’s investigating the attacks. Eleanor has been tagging along with his investigations, claiming to be a reporter (maybe she actually is), and she ends up being helpful, so Hector ignores her but lets her in on the case. Then one evening, they’re sitting at a bar, sharing drinks. Not much is happening, so they’re just talking. Someone who wants mere character development as the plot for the chapter might have Hector ask Eleanor about her background and her family, and Eleanor would just spill all the info. However, Hector doesn’t know that he should be curious about her family. He doesn’t know that’s where he should dig. He’d likely just ask what her job is, might ask about her family, but Eleanor would likely skirt the issue. This makes things intriguing. If the readers know about Eleanor’s suspicion of her adoptive brother, they would be yelling at Hector to ask about her brother, and they’d get frustrated when he moves on with the conversation to another topic, but you have to understand, he doesn’t know. You have to keep the conversation natural for him. If the readers don’t know about her suspicions, they’d likely suspect something as well but wouldn’t know where to dig either, so they’d go along with it.

As you can see, this conversation cannot be the main point of the chapter. Yes, it’s good information, but it can be very shallow. There needs to be something that happens that pushes the story forward. It could be that in that moment Eleanor’s adoptive brother, Ryan, walks into the bar, and the entire atmosphere changes. He could approach them, tease her like brothers do, but then he could say something that’s a veiled threat. Eleanor would get the message immediately, but Hector wouldn’t completely understand though he’s wary of something. As soon as Ryan leaves, Eleanor could make an excuse saying she forgot she had to be somewhere, and before Hector can stop her, she’s out the door. A moment later Hector just can’t shake a bad feeling, so he follows after her, and who knows what happens after that?

You see how that one moment pushed the story forward because without Ryan stepping in and prompting that response from her, the story wouldn’t have moved forward. This is what I mean when I say that you need to make sure each of your chapters have a purpose to them.

Co-Writing

Co-writing—there are numerous of ways to co-write a story. Some people co-write by swapping chapters while others take turns of one person writing one page and the other person writes the next page, or maybe both writers have a their own main characters and write from their POV’s. I cannot list all the different ways you can co-write because I simply don’t know all of them. However, in this post, I’m going to focus on the co-writing style I have found works best for me and is extremely easy for anyone to do, and this style is Roleplaying Co-Writing.

With Roleplaying Co-Writing, each author gets a set of characters—usually one main character for each writer, and then choose the supporting characters. While it is possible to share a character, it’s simply easier and less stressful if one writer to have possession of the character rather than being concerned with the other writer writing the character wrong.

Once the characters have been spread out evenly between the two writers, you then put the characters in a scenario, and each writer writes the dialogue and action of their own character. This is where the fun begins. Although you know what must happen in the scene, you don’t know how it happens, but you let the characters be themselves while you slowly steer them in the direction of the purpose of the scene. What exactly is exchanged and occurs in these scenes are completely unpredictable, and sometimes it can change the entire course of the story, but that is where the fun lies. Here’s an example I co-wrote with Nan Sampson Bach. She wrote Juan’s character while I wrote Julianne. The bold are hers. The italics are mine (Note: this is the actual raw version of this scene prior to smoothing out the two styles of writing with any editing):

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When he stood, he leaned heavily on her, but Julianne didn’t mind. She just looked up at him concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Estoy bien. Sólo necesito un poco de agua.” He shook his head, tried again. Was he slurring his words or was the spinning room now affecting his ears? “I meant to say, I am fine. I just need a little water, that is all.” He tried to push away from her but stumbled and went down on his knees. “Maldición!” God help him, it had never been this bad before. He needed his Gate. He needed to tap into the energy there. He sensed Julianne next to him, trying to help him up and his face burned with shame. He pushed at her feebly, but he had no strength left. “Leave me, Dona. Por favor. You do not need to see this.”

But Julianne insisted. “What is wrong? What do you need? Tell me!” Her heart raced with sudden fear because she sensed this wasn’t simply exhaustion.

His vision was graying. “I need the Gate. I need to make a sacrifice to the Gate. For the energy.” He tried to focus on her face, tried to smile. “I have used it too much, spent too much. It is like a drug, Dona Julianne. It takes its toll.” He shook his head. “You should go. Fetch your Mage Prince. He must know what I know of The First. If I am unable to do this thing, then he must.”

Sasha’s words spun round in his head as he collapsed onto the floor. “The more you use it, the more you need it, Juan-Carlos. And the more you need it, the more it sucks the life out of you.” And then the crafty Macedonian laughed.

Julianne realized he needed power. She had forgotten the magic of the Gate had sustained him, and she sat back briefly before thinning her lips and coming to a decision. “You need power. Does it have to be from the Gate?”

She was speaking, but he was having trouble understanding the words. If only she would speak in Spanish. Damn the English – how had they managed to take over the world?

Julianne decided not to wait for an answer. She was the creator of this realm, and in that way, she was the most powerful person present. Taking a deep breath, Julianne turned him over, so he was lying on his back. She hesitated but then bent over and kissed him.

However, it wasn’t a simple kiss. As soon as their lips touched, Julianne reached onto his mind and the close connection they had, and she poured as much power into him as she could. She sensed his strength returning.

After a moment, she finally pulled back and winced, bringing a hand to her head. “Ow—why didn’t anyone ever say those fairytale kisses leave people with headaches?”

It took him a moment to process what had happened. “What… what did you do?” He assessed himself, found his energy had returned, almost at full force. It was not the same sort of juiced up buzz he used to get from a sacrifice to the Gate, but he felt refreshed and the weakness and exhaustion that had plagued him for months was gone.

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As you can see, this style is almost as if co-writing paragraph-by-paragraph, but it’s not quite. Sometimes one writer will write multiple paragraphs to show different thoughts and actions of their characters.

What did we use to write back and forth? Some people use Google Docs, but my preferred means are Facebook Messenger or email, and then I copy and paste what we’ve written into a document. It’s simple, consistent, and readily available.

So this is the basic idea of Roleplaying Co-Writing, but there is a lot of work that must be put into it in order for it to work. You can’t just randomly start co-writing with someone and expect a full-fledged story to emerge…okay, so you can actually do that, and a story will begin to form, but there comes a time where you need to pause and communicate with each other where the story should go. Here are a few things you need to know prior to actually co-writing with someone:

  1. Do you two have similar writing styles?
  2. What are the areas where you are weak but they are strong and vica versa? (are they better at writing fight scenes than you? Are you better at describing a medieval setting than them? Etc.)
  3. Are you both confident in your writing abilities and willing to improvise at a moment’s notice? (if one person is unwilling to allow their character to make a mistake or get hurt, it will be difficult to co-write with such a person.)
  4. Can you communicate well with your co-writer?
  5. Can you be completely honest with them? (if the two main characters are supposed to fall in love, but you feel your co-writer’s MMC is too wooden, your FMC won’t fall for him. So either change the story or delve into the wooden character to uncover unspeakable depths. The two co-writers must be completely honest and willing to work with each other, untangle any complications for the success of the story.)
  6. Determine and agree on goals for the story (Are you writing just for fun or to explore a different genre of writing? Are you hoping to publish the story one day?)

Now, before you begin writing, it is highly recommended the two of you outline the story. It could be a rough outline or a very detailed outline—whatever you want, but the point of this is agreeing on the events and direction of the story. If you can’t agree on that, you will spend a lot of time arguing and not writing. One of you may be more prone to outlining, so let that person pull together the actual outline, but brainstorm it together!

Remember, the outline is only a guide. If you follow it perfectly, fantastic, but rarely does writing ever go exactly how we planned, so you need to improvise and work with what is handed to you. ALWAYS COMMUNICATE. If a story is moving off track from the outline, communicate with the co-writer, bring it to their attention, discuss if you should stay on the outline or not, and if you opt not to stay on the outline, explore the possibilities of the future of this new direction. Once you’ve written an outline, this does not mean you’re locked into it. Stories have minds of their own and will unfold exactly how they want to or else they will give you Writer’s Block.

Now, one thing you should know prior to committing to co-writing using this style is that it is very addictive. You can literally write all day—and still get other stuff done although you might get irritated when there’s an interruption in your life that prevents you from reading what your co-writer sent to you. I co-write a lot on my phone. I go about my day, doing my usual work, then play fetch with my dog, wash the dishes, cook a meal or bake cookies, and converse with people, but then my phone chimes with a reply, and I look at the message, type a reply, and send it, and then I resume whatever work I was doing. It is incredibly fun—too much fun sometimes that it can actually become stressful because all you want to do is write! A solution? Set aside a time of day (an hour or two) when your co-writer and you will write. That way writing won’t get in the way of your real life, and your real life won’t get in the way of your writing.

Does this mean you can’t work on the story throughout the day until that set time? No. If there is a scene approaching where the only characters involved are characters you write, that is called a solo scene, and you may write it whenever you want. It’s good to write it ahead of time, so when the story finally gets to that point, your co-writer isn’t waiting around for you to write that scene. Rather, you can just send it to them once you’ve reached that point, and the two of you can progress to the next scene which you must write together.

So, this is merely one way co-writing. It is incredibly fun. To quote Nan Sampson Bach, whom I’ve been co-writing with recently: Co-writing is an absolute blast. You get a terrific feedback loop, that keeps the energy and interest high, and the level of spontaneity makes the writing feel real. It’s highly addictive.” So if you’re interesting in co-writing and just aren’t sure how to approach it, I highly recommend the Roleplaying Co-Writing style. Once you get a hang of it, you’ll have a blast. Hope you the best!

Grace Snoke’s Character Interview Review

This week I am currently running a survey based on readers’ preferences regarding which form of author/character interview they preferred–traditional or my more interactive style. Next week I plan to publish the results of that survey here, but in the meanwhile, one of my interviewees, Grace Snoke, blogged about her experience with the Character Interview, and she gave me permission to share it here. Be sure to read about her experience with the Author Interview.

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(Originally published on Grace Snoke’s blog here: Character Interview with Kelly Blanchard)

A two part interview process, last week I reviewed the author interview Kelly had with me two weeks ago. This week I follow that up with a review of my character interview with her.

Much like the first interview, it’s much like writing a story together, except instead of her setting the scene for it, I set the scene of it, taking on the role of my previously un-named pseudo-antagonist. He’s sort of an antagonist but as the story goes, we’ll quickly learn he’s not the real antagonist – that wasn’t revealed to me until I did the interview with Kelly.

The character, named Marcus Diehl, is an entertainment lawyer who is also a werewolf. Marcus has been a thorn in my side for a while, not really telling me much about himself and I used this interview to help figure out the details by, literally, taking him on as a role and answering the questions she had as him.

In doing this, the character opened up and let me – and her – know a lot more about him than I had previously known.

Outside of the first chapter and preview of my book and me letting her know that he was the antagonist (sorta-antagonist), she knew relatively nothing about the character and this allowed her to ask questions that made me think and figure out the answers about him (or made him reveal them to me).  I’m often of the opinion that my characters write themselves – they often do – just sometimes they need outside help to make it happen.

I have to say I was very pleased with the interview and it has helped me move forward and add chapters into my book now that I know what is going on a bit better.

For examples of other character interviews, check these out:

My interview won’t be available until sometime in January.

Kelly is offering character interviews outside of these that she’s currently doing for $25 an hour of $50 for two hours. If you have a character that just isn’t talking to you, I suggest looking into her offer. It will be money well spent.

Writing Physical Action

Writing physical action in stories—how do we do this? When you’re writing, you write multiple kinds of sentences—narrative, dialogue, description (when it comes to the setting and the environment), but also physical action. How much of this action should you include? When and how often should you include it? Why should you even include it?

Let’s address the ‘why’ first. Our characters are physical beings—they may not be human, and sometimes they may be supernatural, but they still possess the ability to move and interact with their environment and others around them. This interaction then moves the story onward, but it also reveals something about each character. Their mere action can add immediate depth to their personality.

When should this action be insert into a story? Well, my question to you would be: when does the character move? I’m not saying you need to record every little physical movement they make, but there are subtle ones which speak volumes of an individual in any situation. For instance, let’s say you have a character who reluctantly committed a crime, and the police as questioning him—not quite realizing he is the criminal—and they ask a specific question that makes him uncomfortable, so he reaching up and rubs the back of his neck as he shrugs and offers an answer. That mere movement says tells us he’s uncomfortable—that there’s something more beneath the surface. Any eagle-eyed detective would zero in on this and try to slowly corner the man into revealing what makes him so uneasy. Further body language such as nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing indicate to anger while increased blinking hints at something they’re trying to keep hidden. Shifting eyes are uneasiness with the situation while sudden stillness in their bodies and eyes deliberately locking with the detectives and calmly answering each question could be an indication of lying. All of these little physical actions build character. You need to determine who your character is and what he’s feeling at that moment. Is he frightened? Angry? Upset? Nonchalant? All of these will have different body language, and when you use these actions in a scene, the reader will pick up on it, probably not completely understand the exact meaning behind the movement, but they know something is up and can come to conclusions.

So, one good place to put these small physical movements is during a conversation. As an experiment, remove the dialogue tag (said, answered, asked, replied, etc) and insert body language because dialogue tags are redundant as I explained in a previous posts (here and here), but the body language captures the personality of the character, and this is vital for a story.

Now just how much of these physical movements should you include? As much as is important to the story. There is a delicate balance—much like any description in a story. I can’t tell you exactly how much or how little to use because you will have to determine that for yourself. There is no magic formula. However, a few things to keep in mind when trying to determine what physical movements you should include:

  1. the main character: their personality, their mood in that moment of the story, their connection to others in the current scene, and anything they may not want revealed.
  2. the other characters in the scene and their connection to one another
  3. the environment (physical setting)
  4. the atmosphere (mood of the setting/characters)

If you think too hard about this, it will seem daunting. Rather, try to imagine it like a scene in a movie. You can visualize it clearly in your head. Everyone moves at all times even if it’s simply narrowing eyes or taking a deep breath or clenching the jaw. Does this mean you should show every movement of all the characters? No. The ‘camera’ (the character through whom we’re viewing the scene) doesn’t focus on all the characters at once. Whomever we’re looking at is whose body language and physical action you should be concerned with. Now, say you’re focusing on one character but there’s another character behind the one you’re focusing on, so you can see both, but you’re not really focusing on the second character. However, that character in the background could wave his arms or silently start mocking behind the back of the first character. This would draw your attention, and you can show it, but it’s up to you whether or not you let the first character become aware of what’s happening behind his back. If you don’t let him know, that’s all right. It’s just a funny instance that reveals to your reader what that other character really thinks of that first character.

Basic things to think of when trying to determine what physical action to use:

  1. Does it reveal something about the character’s personality? (do they experience a flash of anger when they should be unaffected?)
  2. Do the actions arrange the characters in the room in a manner important for the following actions and scenes? (a character may enter a room and begin a conversation with the other character in the room but walk around to the window to look out. Several things could happen. a) the character at the window could be shot by a sniper, b) someone comes dashing into the room announcing there’s an emergency, so both character race out of the room, but the one furtherest from the door is a little further behind. An ambush could befall them, but because that one character a further behind than expected, he might be able to turn the situation on its head…or maybe he’s the one behind the ambush).
  3. Do the actions add and show necessary tension? (two characters agree to meet for a talk, but they don’t trust each other. They enter the room but then walk around each other—orbiting one another. Sometimes this may be obvious, but other times it may be more subtle as in one character going to the bookshelf in the middle of the conversation and pretend to skim over the book titles while engaging in conversation. The other character goes to the bar on the other side of the room and pours himself a drink. The character at the bookshelf then goes to the window, so the character at the bar moves toward the door.)
  4. Does the action add to the flow of the story or slow it down? (adding every single TINY detail will bog down the story whereas adding only the details important to show what the character is feeling in that moment leading up to the next big action pushing it forward.)

Of course there are many other things to keep in mind when writing this, but I can’t think of everything. However, throughout all this, one important fact to remember: this take practice to master. Don’t think about it too much. Don’t over-worry about it. Be aware of it and try to apply what I’ve said. The more you do it, the easier it’ll become for you, so be patient and don’t stress out. You will do well.

Writing in Chronological Order

The question has come up, “Is it best to write in chronological order or out of sequence?” To be honest, there is no absolute answer to this. For some people, it is best suited to write things in whichever order they want and skip around to different scenes as they see fit. It works for them, and that’s fine. Then there are others who literally go from beginning to end without skipping ahead. I am part of the latter sect, so I can’t vouch for the former. However, I have observed skipping ahead works for certain individuals, so I won’t disregard it completely. I simply can’t go into detail of how it works.

Now, going from beginning to end is simple because it reflects how life is lived. We can’t skip to our favorite parts in life. It is in those little moments, those moments when you don’t even think has any action or any thrill of any kind, that can actually be the most profound and developmental for us in life. Likewise in stories.

You may have a boring part, and then a fun part, and then three boring sections in a row before hitting an awesome section, and you may really, really, really rather not want to write those boring parts. After all, you’ve had a rough day. You want to write something thrilling and exciting just to release all the stress and tension of the day. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you write all the exciting and fun scenes first, what will you be left with in the end? Boring scenes—absolutely nothing thrilling to look forward to, but you know you need to write those scenes because they’re important. In that case, you have to knuckle down and write boring scene after boring scene after boring scene without much light at the end of the tunnel except for the relief that soon you’ll be done with the book.

That doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? Now, of course, those people who do skip around when writing have different methods and ways to do it that they may be able to combat this, but when people come to me and say they’re bored with their story, and then I discover they’ve skipped around, it’s very obvious that the reason why they’re bored is because they wrote all the fun scenes first.

So, how do you combat getting bored when writing boring scenes? How do you fight the temptation to skip ahead to the fun scenes? View each scene or chapter as a row of rocks and cookies. You may have a rock first and then a cookie after that and then two rock and after that three cookies, and so on and so forth. The rocks are the boring scenes that you just really want to throw because they can be so frustrating while the cookies are the deliciously fun scenes. So you come to a rock, and you have to work hard to cut that rock to reveal the diamond beneath. When you get done, you’ve accomplished something great and now have a gem where once that rock was, and then you look at the next scene and see it’s a cookie, so you gabble it up easily, and it’s sweeter now than it would have been if you didn’t work on that rock. If you eat all the cookies at once, you’re going to get sick, and you won’t feel like getting up and doing any work. To you then, the rocks will only be rocks in your eyes rather than you seeing the gems beneath the surface.

In other words, treat each fun scene as your personal reward for pressing through that difficult scene. It’ll fuel you enough to get through the next hard scene, but you know beyond that scene you have another reward awaiting you.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who must go back and edit what you just wrote and do this repeatedly, it may be hard for you to progress forward. See, when you write something and then immediately edit it, what you’re doing is one step forward and five mini-steps back, and then one step forward, and again five mini-steps back. You will be progressing albeit slowly, so the temptation to skip ahead to something more enjoyable will be great, so this is something to keep in mind. Also, remember, when you’re writing the first draft, it is a first draft—doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be completed. You can always (and you will) go back to revise and edit once you’re finished.

So, should you write in chronological order or out of sequence? It’s totally up to you. If you write out of sequence but find you have a hard time completing a story, then try being patient and writing it in chronological order. Does that mean you have to outline the story? No—not necessarily. You may if you wish, but you don’t have to. You may have an idea of future scenes but you’re not quite sure how they’re connected, and that’s okay. Finish writing a scene, pause as though you’re a top of a hill and look out. You can see the future scene out there somewhere, but look down at your feet—what is the very next step you need to take? What is the next scene that is important that you need to write? Write that scene. Then write the next step, and then the next, and then you’ll see that awesome future scene finally drawing near, and you get excited because things are coming together! Then you finally get to write it, and it is epic! But then you find yourself atop another hill looking out again, trying to locate the next future scene you can see. Once you’ve located that, you then look at your feet to determine the very next step you need to take to get to that scene, and go from there.

Does this work all the time? In my personal experience, it has, but that doesn’t mean the story won’t change on me, and that’s part of the fun of writing. You just have to improvise. However, not everyone writes like this, but if you are struggling, this is a method you should consider. I hope it works for you.

Worldbuilding: Research, Common Sense, and Imagination

Worldbuilding. This is popular topic that I’ve been asked to write about, but to be honest, I’ve been wary of doing so. You see, I create whole worlds for fantasy stories or science fiction stories. I easily create entire means of transportation, technology, civilizations, and cultures, but I do not sit down and say, “Okay, so, if this planet is that far from the sun, the temperature of that planet will be this many degrees, and its days and nights will be this long while its seasons are that long.” Nor do I map out every single detail of everything in this new world. I’ve observed many such discussions in writing groups, and I’m always overwhelmed by all the detail (I totally applaud those of you who can go to such great depths of your story because I would get lost, but each person is different). There are a lot of great sites and blog posts that go more that direction. Here are a few examples:

Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions

Building Fantasy Worlds

Storywonk: Worldbuilding

Again, there are many more posts and sites dedicated to this subject. You’ll simply have to look them up.

Now, my own approach worldbuilding a little more simple. However, allow me to explain a few things. First of all, scientists in this world don’t know everything. Yes, they know a lot (more than me!), but they don’t know everything. There are minerals out there we’ve never encountered, occurrences on other planets or even moons we can’t explain. Yes, we do our best to apply what knowledge we have and make logical explanations, and this is good, but we will never really know unless samples are brought back to us for further studying or we go there to study. We don’t know what other worlds (even outside our solar system) are really like. We can do calculations, make careful observations, and explain things in a logical way, but we won’t know for certain if we’re absolutely right until we go there (I’m not really talking about Mars or the moon really but rather someplace further).

Now, having said all this, when creating worlds, I don’t stick to merely what I know. Yes, there are essential elements every planet should have like gravity, but I’m not going to go and determine just how big the planet it, how close it is to the sun in order to determine what the gravity is like on that planet. Why? Because it’s not important. Not to my stories at least. If my characters are traveling from planet to planet, they have a task to do and something to accomplish, and it’s not studying a new planet (unless that is their job). If gravity is important to the storyline (since it could have an affect on fight scenes or such if necessary), then yes, I’d do some brief calculations, bounce some ideas off more scientific-minded individuals, and figure out what I need to know about the planet’s gravity hold. However, if the character is going to that planet to meet with someone, get information, and then get off, there is no need to spend all that time developing a world where your character will only be for at least a day or so.

Basically, if it’s not important to the story, I won’t worry about it. I’m not going to spend pages and pages describing every detail of the planet. My characters are moving from point A to point B, and what they see along the way is what you get to see too. If a character happens to tell a story about the planet’s past, then the reader gets to hear that too. Otherwise, I keep moving.

What about civilizations and cultures? Well, what do you want your character to encounter? You can look around at the different civilizations of the day (both modern, extinct, and mythical) and come up with something unique. This would shape their buildings, social habits, and even politics. Let’s say you want your characters to run into some Viking-like society, so do some research to understand their habits. However, because these aren’t the Vikings, you have the liberty to use your imagination, get creative, and make up stuff. Mix and match cultures to come up with a wild blend of your own.

It all boils down to a single point: what do you want your character to encounter and how is it different from everything else in all other books out there?

Now, it may sound like I’m completely dismissing thorough research in worldbuilding, but I’m not. You can’t just slap together some details and hope your readers understand the world you’ve created. No, if you want to create a strong image for them, a world they will remember, you need to take a moment and imagine what the world looks like—imagine it clearly, so you can explain it clearly.

For instance, I have this one country in a world that has unusual meteorologic occurrences. It is a desert climate, but during the day there is a thick cloud cover of angry clouds. It always looks like it is going to rain and be a terrible storm. However, as the sun is setting, the clouds begin to pull back, and there is a break in the clouds where the sun can shine upon the land briefly before it sets. And then at night the skies are clear—the stars are bright. However, the next morning, the clouds are back. It is the only place in that world that this occurs. I cannot explain it scientifically, but this is what the story wants, and I do not argue with the story. If I do that, it will fight back by giving me Writer’s Block. I can see it clearly in my mind, and I write it.

One thing I’d recommend everyone to do a bit more research in is the structure of the government (any government in any age). See how the lower class is treated by the middle class and higher class. Observe who creates the laws, who enforces the laws and how, and who might be the exceptions to the law. Note punishments and how justice is served. Look at the educational system—see how the children are raised to think or not think. I say you should study these because these are fundamentals in how a culture is run. You may study multiple cultures and take a little here and something else from over there and create your own system, and that is fine. However, it is important to have a good handle on these elements because your characters will likely run into people involved in these branches (they may get in trouble with the law of that world), and instead of freaking out and then spending hours on Google before you finally toss the question to your writers group of how things should proceed, you will already know and can move on.

Use common sense (for instance, what goes up must come down—if you’re someplace with gravity), but also use your imagination. Don’t worry about all the logistics and if the critics or experts will say, “That’s not even possible!” Because you know what? They may be right. It might not be possible, but your story is fictional, and you can make it however you want it. Go ahead and create mushroom trees and purple skies, but remember, you don’t want to bog your readers down with description after description. It’s best to show the world as your character is passing through it. You can find all my different posts on description here: Cinemagraphic Writing: Description

Now, the only exception to this entire idea is if you have a character who is a scientist—someone who can scientifically explain just about anything. If you have her in your crew, you will probably want to know as much as you can about anything because she will talk, and you want her to sound intelligent and accurate.

If you’re the kind of writer who must have ever detail of the atmosphere of your world figured out, that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. I highly admire your determination to get all the facts absolutely right. However, if you’re the kind of writer who is overwhelmed by having to know ALL these facts, and you’re about to panic, take a deep breath. I’m giving you permission right now to not worry about all those details. Right now, focus on the immediate environment your characters are in (is it desert or mountain? Medieval or futuristic?), do your best to describe that, and move on with the story. Focus on the story. You can always go back and add more detail during the revision process.

Writing a Strong Antagonist

The antagonist, the villain, the bad guy of your story is the main person standing the way of your protagonist reaching his goal. Of course, your story may have the main conflict be the environment, natural disaster, or within the protagonist’s mind. However, if the chief conflict in your story is a person, it’s important to remember that that character is just like every other character. He has his ambitions, goals, dreams, fears, regrets, secrets, and beliefs, but most importantly, he thinks what he is doing is right—for himself, for his friends, for his family, for those around him. He views himself simply as the misunderstood hero of a story but won’t complain or voice his opposition. He does what he needs to do, and no one will stop him. He may take advantage of his reputation to do what he deems is right even if no one else sees it.

At least, that’s how antagonists should be considered. Too often they’re cast as a cardboard villain. The only reason for their existence is to hinder the hero from reaching his goal. Usually their motives are revenge or world domination.

This is shallow.

It usually happens this way because the writer is so focused on finding out everything there is to know of the hero that they never even think about learning all they can of the villain. However, each character should be created equal, and the author should set aside time to ask the antagonist, “Why are you doing this?” If you ask this of your villain, be completely non-judgmental, openminded, and sincere. Yes, you know they’re going to be wrong, but you need understand that they don’t think they are. They may surprise you.

Now, some writers won’t ask their villain this question because they don’t really want to know the answer. Why? Because they’re afraid the real motive behind all this might change the face of the story as they know it. They really want the hero to be the good guy, but what if the villain isn’t absolutely wrong? What if he has some really good points although his solution may be wrong? What if he makes the hero look weak, shallow, and selfish? Writers may shy away from this because they don’t want to accept the possibility their protagonist isn’t perfect, but what makes the hero a stronger character is a stronger and more concrete villain.

Now though, for a fun exercise that could confuse your villain and maybe even add immediate depth to him, don’t have your hero shout at the antagonist, “You’re wrong! You’re evil!” But rather, have your protagonist pause and look at the villain from another point of view and then say, “You know what? You are actually really intelligent. I can respect that. Doesn’t mean I agree with you, but I can respect where you’re coming from.” This would totally throw your villain for a loop because they may be trying so very hard to show everyone their mean self, and when that suddenly doesn’t work, they falter and stumble a bit. They’re caught off guard. It’s easy for them to live up to the expectations of being cruel or such. If someone says, “You’re so mean!” The villain will merely laugh, “Bwhahahaha! You think this is mean? I will show you MEAN!” and goes to an extreme. However, if the comment is, “You’re quite intelligent,” the villain will automatically want to say, “I will show you INTELLIGENT….” but then pause and realize that makes absolutely no sense. Or even, “I realize it now. You’re doing what you think is right. You’re just misunderstood,” and the villain, “I’ll show you MISUNDERSTOOD!!” As you can see, it simply doesn’t have the some effect, but it is fun to do. Never know what would come out of it.

Now though, it is true that in real life some really bad people do horrible things for absolutely no reason whatsoever. They may be mentally mad or something. You want your story to be real, and that is real, so why not write a villain who just simply doesn’t care? This is entirely up to you and whatever you deem best for your story. However, don’t use this as an excuse not to explore all angles of your antagonist because you may never know what you will discover when you start looking there.

If your antagonist has some really good points, it forces you to develop your protagonist’s view to counter him. So, when you take the time to develop the villain of your story, you are actually investing in your protagonist, and you learn much of both of them! This is better for your story.

A Unique Kind of Character Interview

Character interviews and character questionnaires—the point of these is for the author of the character to get to know him by asking him rounds of questions. If it’s a questionnaire, it will look something like this:

Name:

Age:

Height:

Hair color:

Eye color:

Parents:

Siblings:

Favorite food:

Favorite color:

And so forth. This is a way to find out a lot about your character…but most likely stuff you may never, ever use because it’s not important to the story. I’m not saying questionnaires are wrong and useless—quite the contrary. They can be very helpful and useful to some writers, but other writers may find them overwhelming.

Now though, there is such a thing as ‘character interviews’. In these, the author asks the character a question, and the character shows his or her personality through the answers. These work exceptionally well in order to get to know your character for yourself, but there’s only one problem. You interview your own character, and the character is in your head, and your own thoughts could influence the character’s response. This isn’t bad because this is just a fact of writing, but what if there’s a better way to interview characters? This is something I’ve explored with multiple authors.

This new format is very similar to the new kind of author interview I introduced a few weeks ago. A fictional scene is set, two of us meet, we write in third person, questions are asked, questions are answered, and you see the character in action rather than merely hearing their responses. For the Character Interviews, I allowed the authors to choose the setting—something from their story world—so their character would feel comfortable on their own turf.

I then came in, and I am not a character—this was difficult for both author and character to comprehend, and they kept trying to tie me to their reality, but I had to stay outside their reality because it allowed me to ask questions that would probably get another character of the story killed. How exactly did I remain outside their reality? I set one rule: no touching. Even if a character did try to touch me, he would pass through me as through I were a ghost. This was incredibly helpful when I came face-to-face to some savage, bloodthirsty villains because I was able to ask them pointed questions they hated to hear, and if they lashed out at me, they couldn’t harm me. This accomplished two things: 1) took control away from the villains, and they loathe that, so it shows a different shade of them, and 2) allowed me to stay focused on the interview and questions rather than getting caught up in an actual story scene. The point of these interviews is to ask questions—not become part of a story. That is why I set that rule in place.

Not all characters I interviewed were antagonists. Sometimes I interviewed the protagonist, and depending on the character’s personality, it was either a witty and charming interview or it was a cautious, carefully probing questioning. Some characters were forthright and confident, but others were withdrawn, distrusting, and insecure. To each of these, I had to adapt my approach to ask them questions.

What does this kind of character interview accomplish? In this type of interview, there is the element of the unknown. Neither you nor your character know what I will ask next. You are confident that you know your characters very well, and instead of trying to trip them up yourself with difficult questions, you’re completely backing up your character. Both your character and you are absolutely engaged in answering the question—rather than you trying to come up with questions which your character may or may not answer. Having someone from the outside come in and interview the character in a story form really gives the author and the readers a chance to learn who that character is. Being able to use body language allows for the character to show his true colors without having to say anything. I once interviewed a villain who I enraged so much that he had to go and get a drink, but he was still furious and squeezed the glass until it burst in his hand…and then he answered my question. If we were just showing the question and answer, we wouldn’t have been able to show his full rage.

Since an outside person is asking the question, this allows the author to learn so much about their character because they are forced to dig deep and find answers to questions they may never have thought of to ask. Sometimes the author realizes their character is completely cliché and shallow. In these cases, I’d pause the interview and inform the author of my observations. If they wanted to know how to make a stronger character, I’d make recommendations, and then we’d redo the interview after they’ve had a chance to recreate the character. It is amazing to observe the difference between the two interviews once the author has really delved deep into his character and forced him to take shape rather than letting him be ambiguous. But most characters I’ve interviewed have been well-developed. It’s just a matter of probing deep and uncovering the truth behind their motives and the depth of their beliefs.

Here’s what a few of the authors, whose characters I interviewed, said about the experience:

Nan Sampson Bach

This was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had! I knew my villain had a short temper, even though he prides himself on being so controlled. Kelly managed to enrage him so much he completely lost it. It was hilarious! The questions really made me think too (seriously, it was getting hard to tell who was doing the thinking, me or him), about his motivations, his underlying belief systems and a host of other things. I thought I had a handle on it, but this interview brought up some good stuff I can play with. So not only a FAB time, but useful for me the author and hence for my readers too! Thank you, Kelly!

Matthew Dale

So I have to be honest, this interview was a mulligan. The first time Kelly interviewed this character, he did not perform well. I don’t have a lot of experience writing villains and it showed. That being said, this interview was a huge learning experience! Kelly was awesome. She was patient and encouraging, but was very direct about what could be improved. That directness was tempered with kindness and an attitude of wanting to see a fellow writer improve their craft, which cushioned her critique. The “redo” interview was much better, and I really felt like I got to know my own character. She really made me dig into his motivations, and she didn’t hold back in asking him tough questions. It’s helpful to sit down and actually role play a character, which is something I hadn’t really done prior to this interview. This was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had as a writer. I would encourage other writers who want to do this interview to be willing to listen to the opinion of others, and at least be willing to consider that opinion. You may learn something new about your character you never considered before.

Kristen Moger

I found Kelly Blanchard’s character interviews a fascinating journey into my own character. It is an interesting experience to take a character out of my own head and make them come alive for another person. As a writer, it is a challenge I loved as it brought me a greater awareness as to my character’s motivation and potential. Thanks, Kelly, for the opportunity.

Clint Brill

Kelly approached me to do a character interview and, for some strange reason, I agreed. I’d never done a character interview before so I wasn’t sure how it would work out. I was worried about it and considered making an excuse to get out of it. Even at zero hour, as I was typing up the intro to get the interview started, part of me was still trying to think of how to get out of it. I couldn’t think of anything and I’m glad I didn’t. The interview was a lot of fun, and I was sad when our time was up. Kelly has a way of putting interviewees at ease and make the interview fun. Janus, the character I used for the interview, is very reticent when it comes to talking about himself, but Kelly got him to open up and reveal more than he has in any of the stories he’s appeared in. She even got him to reveal his plans for the future. Those plans were a surprise to me because I didn’t know anything about them. Because Kelly was able to make the interview fun and interesting, I enjoyed the process and learned something about my character that I didn’t know before. Kelly is a skilled and delightful interviewer. She can interview me or my characters any time she wants.

Lia Rees

In my second interview with Kelly, I was able to explore the personality of a supporting character who previously hadn’t seemed real to me. The style of interview was vital to this exploration. Kelly entered the world of my character, Myriam, with curiosity and openness. She easily grasped the unusual setting, psychological climate and areas of conflict. She asked probing questions, gently suggested potential pathways, and showed a general spirit of empathy. Immersing myself fully in my character’s reality, I was able to draw from intuitive methods as well as intellectual ones to understand her better than I had before.

Virginia Carraway Stark

This is what it is like:

You open those doors in your mind that release your characters to be free in their world. When you go to those familiar places, you notice something different…A new door where there was no door before.

That is what it is like to be interviewed as your character like my character, Sasha Wheaton, was interviewed last week by Kelly Blanchard. It’s the same as writing in many ways but with the added dimension of penetrating, rational thought being added to the process. By adding this we don’t just stay in our character’s comfort zone but penetrate deep into their hearts and minds. You’ll find more there than when you first opened that door. A vital tool for all writers seeking to hone their craft, and if you’re a writer, you always are a seeker.

<~>~<~>~<~>

These are just a few examples of what people have experienced with this form of character interviews. I am currently still in the process of finishing all 25 interviews, and that won’t wrap up until next week. I will begin posting the interviews regularly once I’m finished, and you can find the interviews on my other blog: Meeting With The Muse

Writers have discovered this to be a fun and unique way to get exposure for their work as well as introduce their characters, story, and writing style to readers, and I intend to continue offering this service to writers. If you are interested, you may join my group on Facebook: Author Kelly Blanchard, and watch for the announcement when I open the invitation for more people to be interviewed.

You never know what you’ll learn in these interviews, and this is a very unique way to introduce you and your work to potential readers.

Creating Distinct Characters

When you write, sometimes you worry about have your characters sounding too similar. Our characters are our babies. We want them to be perfect. We want them to be equally awesome, but if we make one character different, then that could cause an imbalance.

This is our subconsciousness speaking, and part of this is because we may have unknowingly based the characters off of us, and you can read about that in my blog discussing Author-Based Characters. However, right now, I want to how to make characters different from one another.

We need to let the characters become real. How do we do that? Well, you’re going to have to have a sit down chat with them to figure out most of this, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • A moral standard (or a complete lack of moral standards).
  • Give them something they’d disapprove of or absolutely won’t do. One character may be fine with killing, but another character may have a real conscience against this, and there they are unique.
  • Relationships/history with other characters
    • One character may be perfectly quiet all the time, but they come across this one specific character, and that quiet character suddenly explodes and becomes irrational and completely different than usual. All the other characters may be complete strangers to this new character except for that one, and that makes things different.
  • Is the character a loud person or quiet?
    • Loud and confident?
    • Quiet and confident?
    • Quiet and insecure?
  • Positive person or negative person?
  • Secrets? Regrets?

Of course, there are more things you can answer as to determine why they’ll act the way they do—full questionnaires based on this—but what you really want is their distinct voice in your head. You want to know how exactly they act.

Do they walk quietly into a room, observe everything and slip into the shadows? Or do they saunter in as if they’re in absolute control and love being the center of attention? When they’re angered, do they raise their voice and begin to shout, or do they become deadly silent? Are they sarcastic? Or do they take things literally?

Now, let’s say you have two characters you worry sound like each other. Here are a few things to consider: are they related? Are they best friends? Did they grow up together? If yes, then it’s okay for them to sound similar although they will encounter similar situations and respond completely different because they’re different people. At times they may say the exact same thing at the exact same time, and this will cause people to pause and look at them then shake their heads and carry on. Other times, one character may say something that sounds like another character, and whomever he’s talking to can point out the similarities, “And here I thought I left Nagging Martha behind!” “Well, I’m her sister, what did you expect?”

If you’re writing separate stories, but you’re worried your main characters are sounding familiar, try giving the new character unique qualities that the other one lacks. Or change gender from male to female. But if you really want to see the differences for yourself between those two characters, write out a random scene where those two characters meet. See how they interact with one another, what they think of each other. You may discover differences you hadn’t realized before.

However, if none of this is working for you, and you’re still struggling with making your characters distinct from each other, go to your favorite TV shows and favorite films. Watch your favorite characters from there. Don’t steal characters outright, but rather borrow certain qualities from different characters to create your own unique character. For instance, take Jack Sparrow’s drunkard, flamboyant behavior, and add the lie-detector abilities of Cal Lightman from the TV Show ‘Lie To Me’. That would be one very interesting character. “I’m sorry, I’m sober at the moment. I can’t tell if the person is lying or telling the truth. Ask me again after a few drinks. Where’s the rum??”

These are merely some suggestions as to how to think creatively when developing your characters. Remember, they’re flawed—not perfect, but that’s what makes them unique and more relatable.