Tag Archives: writing fiction

What aren’t your characters telling you? (And what aren’t you asking them?)

A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who is trying to write a story. She has characters, plot and setting in mind. She even has a few scenes mentally scripted out.

Overall this lady has a start to a book. The difficult issue at hand is starting the process of writing itself. She knows the characters in passing, but not well enough to get in their heads and let the words flow out.

So I shared with her a tip that the Allied Authors of Wisconsin shared with me: Interview your character.

I thought it would be easy enough. Just imagine yourself in a room with this other person and ask them questions. I’ve done it before, and it works great.

Then, a few weeks ago, we were eating sushi and talking about life. I brought up her book and asked how it was going. Miserable, she confessed that she had gotten nowhere from the last time I talked to her. Apparently, she put the heroine in a room, and the gal just crossed her arms, refusing to talk.

“OK, what did you ask her?” I asked.

The questions were complicated and required the character to relive painful memories or detail out descriptions of her life — things that would be hard for any person to adequately answer in real life, especially to a stranger.

It was at that point I knew that something I thought would be simple had been taken to a level of complexity I never anticipated.

“Don’t start with the hard stuff,” I suggested. “Get her to open up with the easy things.”

“What easy things?” she asked.

And I started to list off some simple questions.

  • What’s her favorite color and why?
  • What does she like to eat?
  • What does she do in her spare time when at home alone?
  • Whom does she talk to?
  • Does she read? If so, what?
  • What kind of music does she like?
  • What’s her nickname, and who gave it to her?

This progressed into more detailed questions. However, the restaurant was closing, so we made a promise to meet on the weekend, and I would help her through the interview process.

That Sunday we started with her heroine and the male counterpart. The questions were simple at first, like the ones from earlier in the week. Eventually, they became more detailed, more personal. The very cores of the characters were examined, and painful past events, guilty feelings, and revelations that my friend had never known about her characters came to light.

In four hours we did more than what had been accomplished in the prior months.

Now this is not to say I am a miracle worker. I am not. This gal could have done the whole process on her own. The problem was overthinking the solution and making life far more complicated far too quickly.

Long story short, here are some things you may want to keep in mind when starting an interview with a character:

  1. Start out with easy questions — topical things that help you flesh your character out.
  2. Then get into more detailed questions. “Why,” “when,” and “how” are fantastic vehicles to dive deeper into a character’s psychosis.
  3. Ask the tough stuff once you have a better impression of who the character is in your mind. Even the little details that seem superficial can mean a lot.

For example, her character loves to watch classics movies and movies from the ’80s because that was what she used to watch with her parents before they died. Why is this important? The character is holding on to her past too tightly and is trying to remember all the good things about her childhood while punishing herself with the same memories.

This information came from the questions “What do you like to do in your spare time?” “Why do you do this?” “How long have you been doing this?” and “What do you feel when you do this?”

As a side note, if you have multiple characters and one refuses to talk…stop the interview. Move to the next character. You may find that you learn more by asking your other characters for their impressions of the silent one. Later on, go back with that uncooperative character and tell them what the other characters’ impressions of him/her are. You may find your silent partner starts talking.

If they don’t, well, silence can be golden. Maybe you learned more about that person than you ever thought you would, even with a “failed interview.”

Also, although the process might be unfamiliar, never feel stupid about this process. If need be, write up a list of questions and have someone else ask them instead. Then you can answer for that character.

Personally, I prefer to just sit in the room of my mind and not only listen to what the character is saying, but what they are doing and how they look. Body language is a marvelous thing, even imaginary body language. Your characters may have various tells and quirks that they don’t even know they have. One character of mine, Zander, likes to chew on his hair. He doesn’t realize he does this. How do I know? I watched him do it while interviewing him.

As you progress, you may want to have characters that are close to each other sit in subsequent interviews together. Their speech patterns, their body language, and even their interaction can be valuable.

For instance, when I did this with Zander and his sister Gwen, I realized that Gwen would lightly smack Zander’s shoulder when he started chewing on his hair. She never said anything, but it was how she reminded him not to do that. Gwen and Zander are both introverts, but while Zander shrinks inside himself and lets his sisters do all the talking, Gwen will force herself to be a happy and gregarious person. But they only take on these roles when they are together.

It can get complicated, but starting simple can take you further than you think. As the saying goes: you must learn to walk before you can run.

Alexia Lamont contributed this article.


Watch out for these five overused words

When a fledgling writer first takes a stab at the craft, he or she is apt to make a few fundamental mistakes.

One such error is assuming that the more words one uses, the better.  Perhaps it stems from penning so many papers in high school and college.  After all, most essay assignments come with word or page quotas.  A student quickly learns to cram in filler words to make sentences extra robust.

And then...

“And” and “then” can cause problems on their own. But when they team up, watch out!

And don’t get me started on those lovely long words that take up half a line all on their own!

Academic writing aside, most folks who concentrate on fiction and creative nonfiction strive for the opposite.  Simple, straightforward syntax rules the day not only because the writing reaches a broader audience, but also because even advanced readers tend to prefer tight, fast-paced prose to a narrative that is drags due to excessive words.

(Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader.  But few people gravitate toward fiction that reads like a dissertation.  It’s as much a matter of tone as a matter of composition.)

The first step to tidying up a manuscript is finding the words, sentences, and even paragraphs that impede a reader’s progress.  A writer must measure every phrase carefully and decide whether it moves the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by presenting pertinent information about characters, setting, and so forth.

As with most aspect of writing, the devil is in the details, and often it’s the smallest, most innocuous words that clutter up clauses.

Here are five words that appear more often than necessary and should be the first on any writer’s chopping block when tightening up his or her work:


“I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

The problem with “then” is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic value.  Readers assume that, unless otherwise indicated, the actions occur in chronological order.  The event in one sentence precede the events in subsequent sentences.  So in most cases, “then” is redundant.

Despite its semantic shortcomings, “then” occasionally can be helpful in terms of sentence structure variation, rhythm, and clarification.  Just be sure to use it sparingly.

Note: if writing in the present tense, the same goes for “now.”


Like “then,” “also” seldom adds anything meaningful to a sentence.  It belongs to a family of adverbs that show a relationship between ideas, but like its relatives “both” and “either,” “also” can quickly cause sentences to slog, especially if used habitually.

Again, a reader understands that when two thoughts are separated with a conjunction—particularly “and”— the second item also belongs in the collection.  The same is true for the context among sentences.  There’s seldom a need to start a sentence with “also,” as demonstrated below.

Also, “too” and “as well” are just “also” in disguise.


I challenge anyone to write a story of any substance that completely avoids the word “and.”  The result, I posit, would be awkward at best.  But while conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” are essential to the English language, “and” can become a crutch like the others on this list.

Notice my what-not-to-do example for “then”: “I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

Not only does “and” like to tag team with “then” to create redundancy, but also it encourages run-on sentences.  “And” also appears when a writer lists a series of items or actions.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with series, too many of them can make a scene sound more like it belongs in an instructional manual than a manuscript.

Consider this example:

“I grabbed my coat, opened the door, and slammed it behind.  On my way to work, I stewed over the argument I’d just had with my girlfriend, swore at the sluggish traffic around me, and fumed at the thought of what awaited me at work.  Frustrated and weary, I stomped to my desk.”

That’s three “ands” in three sentences, and while there’s no crime in that per se, the idea of grouping actions—and emotions—gets old very quickly.  Yes, combining the verbs “grabbed,” “opened,” and “slammed” in a single sentence is quicker than dedicating three separate sentences to the motions, but employing too many of these “grocery lists” grows wearisome.  Either space them out or determine which actions can be cut—and likely remain implied.

(For that matter, we don’t even need “frustrated and weary” in the last sentence because we already know the protagonist’s mood from prior sentences, and “stomped” communicates the emotions effectively on its own.)


When it comes to speech tags, “said” is very much in vogue.  In fact, novice writers often get scolded for using fancy variations, such as “stated,” “declared,” “reported,” and “told.”

And yet, when a writer intersperses action or deftly uses voice—via word choice, sentence structure, etc.—to otherwise indicate the speaker, “said” just gets in the way.

More on that here.

All in all, reducing the number of speech tags is an easy way to reduce the word count and pump up the pace of dialogue.


“Was”—and “is,” if you prefer the present tense—can present like a plague if you’re not wary.  Just because any given sentence can contain some form of “to be,” doesn’t mean it should.

Action verbs are always stronger than copular verbs.

Let’s look at that last sentence as an example.  I could have said, “Action verbs always dominate a sentence, whereas copular verbs simply connect a subject to the predicate.”  The semantics aren’t identical, but the latter gave me an opportunity to be more specific and more creative.

Another example:

“I was so hungry that I ate the whole box.” vs. “I devoured the entire box.”

Not only does the second sentence lose a few unnecessary words, but also it is arguably more impactful because it uses “devoured” instead of “was so hungry.”

Beware of the copular verb’s clever cousins, modals: “can,” “could,” “might,” “must,” “should,” etc.  Used in moderation, copulars and modals are harmless; however, when relied upon too regularly, they are bound to let you—and your readers—down.

I suspect every writer has his or her own stable of overused words or a particular construction he or she employs too often.  How often is too often?  However many times it takes a reader to become distracted by it or otherwise bogged down by it.

For instance, I used the “not only…but also” sentence structure three times in this relatively short post.  If it didn’t serve such a fine example of my final point, I’d likely go back and find other ways to express the same thoughts.

Another example from my fiction writing is the word “eyes.”  For some reason, whether giving a character’s description or trying to convey emotion during dialogue or other action, I default to calling attention to people’s eyes.

But now that I’m aware of this tendency, I always stop after typing the word “eyes” and decide if there’s a better way to proceed, possibly by employing a different sensory description.

The five little words outlined above don’t do much harm on their own.  Their danger comes from numbers.  Pruning a handful of these small words from a short story or avoiding them throughout a novel can add up and result in a leaner, meaner manuscript.

The best writers don’t jack up their word counts with filler words.  They understand that true skill is conveying meaning with fewer words, not more.

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com/2013/06/20/watch-out-for-these-five-overused-words/).

When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????My mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to. We ramble. We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

“Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com/2013/05/09/when-it-comes-to-dialogue-dont-trust-the-word-on-the-street/).

When life is too busy, try a TMS


Never quite enough.

Not enough to do this or that and certainly not enough to dive into the writing we really, really, really want to do and give it all the attention it deserves.

Admit it or not, most of us have felt this way at one time or another; sadly some would-be writers make it an excuse.  Perhaps the TMS approach can help.

For more than ten years, I was privileged to teach a fifteen-week adult enrichment course titled Writing for Publication at a local community college.  I found a common problem with my aspiring writers, twin problems, in fact: trouble carving out a large enough chunk of time to write and trouble actually getting started.

And so the Ten Minute Special was born.


I start each class session with a TMS. 

I present a brief topic to explore, and if you don’t like it, write something else. 

No one will see the work of another.

Spelling, grammar, punctuation…don’t worry about them. 

There is only one strict rule, and that is to write for the full ten minutes.  If you can’t think of anything to write, then write “I can’t think of anything to write,” and after a few repetitions, your brain will get bored with that and start percolating.

Some TMS idea examples: Chronicle the last time you cried; describe a room in your home left to right, top to bottom; take an issue you feel strongly about and argue — convincingly — for the other side; detail the last time you felt ashamed; five minutes of character interaction in dialogue only, followed by five minutes of the same interaction with no dialogue at all; write your own obituary; etc.

At the end of each full course, I’d ask for a critique of what worked, what didn’t, and what could be improved about the class.  Every time, without exception, the TMS would pop up as one of the most valuable elements of the class (often at the top of the list).  Several TMS topics went on to become the basis for short stories or pieces of non-fiction, and at least one TMS morphed into the beginnings of a novel (no idea if it was ever completed).



In high school I played drums and was in concert band, marching band, orchestra, the pit band when we did musicals, the drill team drum squad, and an outside concert/marching band during summer.  This doesn’t count the hours I played and practiced (some may say pounded) on my drums at home.

In short, I played a lot.  And when I wasn’t really playing, I was sorta kinda still playing.  During algebra, my fingers twitched; in history class got my toes tapping; and in English those fingers would dive into a syncopated dance with my tapping toes.  And on those rare occasions when it was not possible for my assorted digits to tap, twitch, or dance, the music moved to my head.  It was always there; I loved it, learned it, and lived it. 

Friends on the baseball team would often walk, stand, sit with a baseball in hand, holding it, rolling it, squeezing it…learning it.  The same with guys on the football team, only with a football.

Another friend liked art class and had a knack for drawing; when he wasn’t working on anything specific, he would doodle aimlessly…living his craft.

Seeing a pattern?

End of digression.


I believe the class-time TMS exercises were especially effective for new and aspiring writers for several reasons: an instant, manageable (hopefully thought-provoking) topic, the time limit and requirement to keep writing helped short circuit that often pesky internal editor, the privacy curtailed self-censoring and allowed total freedom, and the communal aspect of everyone frantically scribbling away providing a shared creative atmosphere. 

And then there was the powerful realization that they could write a heck of a lot faster than they’d ever expected.  After a few TMS sessions, it was common to find them finishing three, four, five or more pages in those ten minutes.  Although not a math whiz by any means, I was able to point out how those same TMS efforts applied to their own writing and stretched to 30 minutes or an hour would lead to “making pages” at an impressive rate.

And how does any of this relate to us in — or aspiring to join — the writing business?  Well, when we don’t have the time to really, really, really dive into our work, we can take the brief moments that life grants us to live/love/learn our craft and flesh out a description, jot a few details of setting, doodle a map, chart fragments of potential dialogue, make a list of things we may need to research, detail a character’s history specifics that can help bring them into focus, etc., etc. 


A little here, a little there.

Adds up.

Jack Byrne contributed this article.

Dedicated writers tread fine line between routine and realistic expectations

A coworker from across seas recently contacted me by IM at work. He was impressed with the scripts and guides I had written and asked a few questions about writing. I imparted upon him what the Allied Authors of Wisconsin imparted on me:

Just write.

No matter how bad you think the things you are writing are, just do it.

Further, get yourself into a routine of some kind to promote your writing. For example, on Sundays I will bike ride to my local coffee shop, have a chai tea latte and write for thirty minutes up to three hours. I make the time to write.

It helps. It really does.

Now I have written things that I don’t like in the time I set aside, but you know I don’t regret them…I even decided to keep a few after a bit of polishing.

To me Total Writer’s Block is a myth. If you cannot think of something to write on your current piece, take out a new sheet of paper or open a new file and write something else. It doesn’t need to be good. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t even need to be something you save beyond becoming kindling for a fire. The fact is that writing, even when you don’t exactly know what to write, is an exercise.

Let’s face it, if you don’t practice what you know, you will lose touch and find it gets harder as time goes on and you have to start back up again.

I can speak from experience, having paused in my weekly ritual at the coffee shop. It’s been a little more than two months now, and I am finding that writing is a habit that can be difficult to get back into—like going to the gym. The moment I stopped was the moment I lost momentum.

I could go on about the fact that you need to keep up the practice of writing and making time in a busy schedule, but I won’t. If writing is important to you, you will find the time to write. And if life gets so busy that you need to put down the pen and focus on other matters, don’t feel too guilty. Life is like that.

Feel just guilty enough to start writing again as soon as life slows down a bit and you can make time again, but not so guilty you fear putting thoughts to paper—or screen.

Alexia Lamont contributed this article.

How to make a person

The problem with stories is they require people.

I’m not talking about author and reader—though they, as well as their relationship, are fraught with challenges too—but rather the individuals that populate the story itself.

Some might call these people “characters.”  But a writer doesn’t really want to invent characters any more than he/she wants to come up with a plot.  Sure, we typically end up with those things, sometimes, just sometimes, we transcend.

When a reader flips through pages made of paper or pixels, the last thing an author wants is the audience to see a story as a series of fictional events.  The goal of any storyteller is to weave a spell of deception so powerful that it all seems real at the time.

We aim for an obliteration of disbelief, though if we’re lucky, we invoke a suspension of the same.

If a writer can trick a reader into wondering what a character will do next or, better yet, what he/she would do in an unrelated situation, the writer is that much closer to success.  Because if a reader cares about a character as if he/she were a real person, the reader is more likely to care about the story they’re a part of.

So what’s the difference between characters and people?

Characters have motives.  People have psychology.

Characters follow a story arc.  People exhibit behavior that moves them in a number of different—and often conflicting—directions at once.

Characters have unique voices.  People adopt different voices in various situations.

Those contrasts only begin to hint at why it’s so very difficult to create a person entirely out of words.  Some might argue that it’s impossible, maybe even misguided.  After all, art is meant to imitate life, not become identical to it.  Anyway, as previously stated, the best we writers can do is pick and choose pieces of reality, incorporate them into the folks who inhabit our fiction.

However, just because it’s difficult, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every attempt to eschew the temptation to spew out two-dimensional puppets, rough archetypes, and (especially) lazy stereotypes and, instead, aspire to come as close as humanly possible to creating humans.

And how do you get to know a real person?  By asking questions—lots of ’em.  While working on my first novel, a creative writing professor provided me with a handout that contained a ton of questions.  I can’t recall the source, and I’ve made my own additions over the years, so I believe I’m safe with sharing them in this not-for-profit venue.  The questions have served me well when creating main characters, though I wouldn’t recommend taking the time to answer them all for minor players (unless, like me, you have a penchant for the planning process).

Interview question for your person-in-progress

  • What does this character look like?  What color eyes and hair does he/she have?  What are his/her height and weight?  What color his his/her skin?  What is his/her race?  Is there anything unusual or unique about his/her appearance (e.g., tattoos, piercings, etc.)?
  • What style of clothes does he/she wear?  Would anyone notice him/her in a crowd?  Why or why not?
  • How does he/she present him/herself?  Does he/she carry him/herself proudly?  Does he/she appear ashamed, shy, or aloof?  Does he/she have any idiosyncrasies or habits—good or bad?  Does he/she chew gum, smoke cigarettes, or have a twitch?
  • Does he/she speak in a particular way?  Does he/she sound educated, snobby, or dull?  Does he/she use slang or the proper dialect?  Is he/she sarcastic or have a particular way of telling a story?  Does he/she have a favorite tagline?  Is he/she always using clichés?
  • What was this person’s childhood like?  Did he/she have any brothers or sisters?  Two parents, one, or none?  Where did he/she live?  Was he/she constantly moving as a child?  What was he/she like as a child?  Was he/she hyperactive or timid?  Does he/she remember his/her childhood fondly?  Are there any memories in particular that stand out?
  • What does this character do for fun?  Does he/she watch or compete in sports?  Hunt, play cards, or play video games?  Is there something he/she collects?  If anything, what does he/she read?  The newspaper?  Mystery novels?  Can he/she read at all?  What types of music does he/she listen to?  What movies does he/she enjoy?  Does he/she have a sense of humor?  What does he/she find funny or not funny?  Is he/she someone you would hang out with in your free time?
  • How does this person feel about lying?  Does he/she lie when it suits his/her purpose?  Is he/she a pathological liar or blatantly, painfully truthful?  Would he/she cheat or steal?  What, if anything, would prompt him/her to kill?
  • How does he/she view his/her vices?  Does he/she see them as sins?  Is gossiping a sin?  How about promiscuous sex?  Is he/she cowardly, only concerned with Number One?  Constantly complaining, prejudiced, racist, or greedy?  Does he/she have any secrets?
  • Is this character an optimist, a pessimist, or something in between?  Does he/she believe in fate or free will?  How does he/she feel about life?  Does he/she love it?  Hate it?  Is he/she merely going through the motions?  What does he/she want out of life?  What is important to him/her?  What are his/her goals?  Money?  Power?  Success?  Fame?
  • Is he/she spiritual or religious?  How does he/she feel about others’ beliefs?  Is he/she tolerant and/or open to new ideas, or is he/she steadfast in his/her ways?  Has he/she ever been in love?  What does love mean to him/her?  How important is it?  How does he/she feel about sex?  Is it important?  Are his/her sexual habits normal or deviant?
  • How does he/she feel about children?  Does he/she love them, feel uneasy around them?  Does he/she want to have children of his/her own?  What might he/she sacrifice for his/her children?
  • What is a typical day like for this person?  Are his/her days full of surprises, or is he/she on a set schedule?  Is he/she comfortable with routine, or is his/her life too stressful?  What does he/she do for a living?  Who are his/her friends?  Does he/she have many, only a few, none?  Who does he/she hate?  Does he/she have any enemies?
  • Is he/she married or single?  Is he/she a loner by choice or desperately looking for someone?  Does he/she have any kids?  How often does he/she see them?  Where does he/she work?  Where does he/she go for fun?  How does he/she interact with strangers?  Or does he/she stay within his own clique?  What would a random person think if he or she saw your character walking down the street?

I’m sure there are shortcuts out there—streamlined lists or other getting-to-know-you exercises—but the more questions you can answer, the better you will know the people of the page.  At the very least, pull open Facebook and see what kind of profile information a real person is apt to display about him or herself.

Since real people tend to censor, exaggerate, and so forth when engaging in social media, maybe it is a good idea to fill in categories like “politics,” “religion,” and “education” as an additional exercise.  After all, just because you know the deep, dark secrets of your fictional folks, that doesn’t mean they would share them with the world.  What kind of Facebook profile would they set up?

That’s the problem with people: so many layers.  And only you can decide how much—or how little—to reveal to the reader.  But before you can make those decisions, you have to get up close and personal with your characters.

The bad news is the stork isn’t going to drop a fully developed character in your lap.  The good news, however, is that if you make the time, your people are always available for a lengthy interview.

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com/2012/06/14/how-to-make-a-person/).

Rules for SUCCESS for writers

There are no guarantees when it comes to writing—no formulas, no surefire step-by-step plans, no infallible paths to follow.

Okay, okay…I know; there are countless books and magazine articles giving just such plans and formulas, and they almost all appear to make some degree of sense. True. No argument. Read them myself. But there are two important points to consider: following them does not guarantee success, and ignoring them doesn’t guarantee failure.

The best we can do is think about the advice that makes sense to us and discard what doesn’t. I advise you to do the same with the “Rules for SUCCESS” that follow. They make sense to me and might just work for you.

S Set goals…realistic, attainable, daily goals

Attempting to write, revise and polish a book in a week is (for most of us) unrealistic. Setting a daily writing goal of 10,000 words is (again, for most of us) unattainable. Only you can determine a personal goal that is realistic and attainable.

While perhaps not essential—and there are numerous successful writers who have not done so—I would strongly encourage aspiring authors to establish “daily” goals; whether “making pages,” doing background research, mentally creating character histories or whatever else needs to be done.

Doing so daily keeps the material percolating, bubbling and fermenting much more effectively than trying to carve out large, but infrequent, chunks of time to work. Putting even a minimal amount of time and effort into your writing daily keeps the material alive and growing and prevents the ideas and enthusiasm from napping (or going into a coma).

An aspiring musician, for example, with a daily one-hour practice schedule will 99.99% of the time grow in skill more quickly and evenly than one who practices seven hours every Sunday.

U Understand what it means to be the writer you wish to be

If you want to write layered psychological thrillers, you need to understand the human mind and psyche.

If you want to write hard science fiction, you’d better have at least (at least!) a rudimentary understanding of the science portrayed in your book.

If you want to write historical fiction or a whitewater rafting adventure or a police procedural, you’d better research that historical period and learn the ins and outs of rafting and become an authority on how the police work.

And if your goal is to write greeting cards, haunt your local Hallmark store to develop an eye and ear for the craft.

And read voraciously in whatever field you choose to work; read what works and learn from it. Read what doesn’t work, as well; determine what doesn’t work about it and why.

C Control your time

Waiting for inspiration, for just the right moment, for the “muse” to plop down on your shoulder and whisper sweet ideas in your ear is not a plan of action.

Reading about writing or thinking about writing or planning to think about perhaps reading a book about writing in order to be ready when the time is right is not a plan of action.

Planning to write when you get a chance or when the time is right or when the kids get back in school or when the holidays are over or when the spring cleaning is done or after vacation or when the kids are out of school…nope, not a plan of action.

If writing is a priority to you, treat it as such; if it’s not, that’s fine, too. Less competition for the rest of us.

CCreate an environment conducive to creativity

Take classes; read books about writing and writer biographies; attend workshops, seminars, writer/fan conventions, etc. Listen to whatever music sooths or stimulates or moves you. Find and use whatever nudges your neurons, sizzles your synapses or caresses your creativity. Do whatever it takes to keep your right brain self-engaged and questing and growing.

Do not, however, count this as actual “writing” time.

E — Enable enthusiasm by writing what excites you, what gets you going

Some aspiring writers (and some published authors, as well) try to determine “what sells” and set their sights on getting ahead of the curve, regardless of whether this is what they want to write. For most, this path leads to rejection and dissatisfaction and often sub-par work.

Writing well is hard work, even when you love the material. Writing something you don’t truly enjoy can be torturous and depressing.

S — See yourself as a writer

A number of years ago, a major NBA star was hired to work on an athletic show commercial. He was instructed to miss a free throw, but it couldn’t be an obvious miss. He had to look as though he was trying to sink the shot.

It took him thirteen tries.

His self-image as a basketball professional and his “body memory” of shooting free throws were so ingrained, so strong that he literally had trouble breaking out of that reality. His psychological makeup and sense of identity made missing nearly impossible.

If you see yourself as someone who will write “someday” or as someone who “wants” to be a writer or as someone who “hopes” to be a writer, this could very well slow, stall or perhaps even stop you before you get started. While positive think won’t guarantee success, negative thinking will almost certainly prevent it.

S — Send your work out

In my years as a freelance writer, writing instructor and literary agent, I’ve never had nor heard nor read of any other writer having editors pounding on your door demanding to see the contents of your file cabinet.

Write it, revise it, polish it and send it out. Immediately start something new. After all, you are a writer, aren’t you?

Jack Byrne contributed this article.

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