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Compelling Characters

So I had a 10 post series planned out for this great blogging experiment on characters, inspired by Elana Johnson. I spent hours revising them and choosing each and every precious word. I slaved. My eyes bled ink.

And then I saw over 100 people had signed up and will be posting about characters. That’s a lot of posts. So I decided to sum up the series and make this short.

To be compelling, a character needs to be flawed and proactive. His or her flaw should be behind the decision-making and thus drive the plot. We don’t want the characters passive and just reacting to the events happening around him/her (no matter how exciting the events are).

Okay, so I had two (flawed and proactive). Now check out the other posts and learn how to create rockin’ characters.

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In defense of backstory.

Okay, back again, to defend the poor and the misjudged. 

And up on the stand is backstory. Lovely backstory.

How many of you sent off your writing for the first time to a critique partner and got it back with chunks of paragraphs highlighted with the comment – backstory/info dump. And then you learned better? **raises hand** I have.

But backstory is so crucial to an intriguing heartfelt story, even if only a fraction of it makes it into your story. 

What is backstory?

To me, it’s all that background information. Memories. Family history. Events that happened last week or last year. Secrets. Traumatic childhoods.

Backstory is important because…

  • It helps you know your character so he/she can respond and make decisions that make sense.
  • It deepens your character so you create three dimensional characters.
  • It creates intrigue by dropping in hints here and there.
  • Small memories – that are relevant to the story – make a character feel real to the reader.
  • Small memories – that are relevant to the story – show the bond between characters or between a character and a place.
  • Small memories – that are relevant to the story – create empathy in the reader.

If you took out all the backstory from your story, or you didn’t take the time to create backstory, most likely, your story will lack intrigue and your characters will be flat.

Finding the delicate balance of the what, when, where, why, and the how of backstory is all a part of the writing journey. And it varies from genre to genre. I’m still learning.

So, backstory is your friend, right? What did I miss? Any tips to writing backstory?

Click here for an excellent post about the nuts and bolts of writing backstory.

And Thursday, I’ll be defending description. And on Friday I’ll post my version of Writing Compelling Characters for The Great Blogging Experiment. And last time I checked there were over 100 bloggers participating! Can’t wait.

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Writeoncon! Rockon! (A thanks and my personal highlights)

Humongous thanks and a big basketful of confetti and a time slot on the Morning Show and a life time supply of chocolate for the founders of WriteonCon! Jamie Harrington, Elana Johnson, Casey McCormick, Shannon Messenger, Lisa and Laura Roecker, and Jennifer Stayrook. Find out more about them here. Seriously, this website will become the new go-to for writers. Thank you for all your hard work behind the scenes.

Also, a huge thanks to all the editors and agents who volunteered their time to present! Find out more about them here. And thank you to the authors/writers who presented!

Phew! I had to get that off my chest.

Reasons I loved WriteonCon:

  • I could “attend” all the workshops and didn’t have to choose!
  • I wore my jammies and didn’t have to put on any make up.
  • Hopefully, the material will be online forever, instead of just on some handouts or scribbled notes.
  • The organizers did a super job making sure there was something for everyone! And I loved that.
  • Um, I didn’t have to pay? Yeah, that’s a good one.

A few of my personal favorite moments and take aways: (this is according to what I write and what I’m interested in – all the presentations were awesome. But I just don’t write picture books (Not yet) or illustrate (Never).

  • The vlog of Myths and Misconceptions by Holly Root, Molly O’Neil, and Marth Mihalick. Must see.
  • The live chat with Suzie Townsend.
  • Writing a query letter with Jodi Meadows.
  • Query crits with Joanna Volpe.
  • Plot and pacing with Weronika Janczuk (I was in plotting heaven!) (And yes, I had to check about four times to make sure I spelled her name right.)
  • Vlog by Lindsey Leavitt. (Hilarious!)
  • Writing dialogue with Tom Leveen.
  • An Editor’s process of choosing with Martha Mihalick.
  • Vlog with Mary Kole on Avoiding Stereotypical Characters.
  • Author branding with Shelli Johannes Wells
  • First Five Pages with Kathleen Ortiz (lots to be learned).
  • Live workshop with Regina Brooks.
  • Any of the live chats or panels with agents and editors. Especially if you are researching agents to query.

As you can tell and see through twitter and blogs, Writeoncon totally rocked the blogosphere.

Which workshop or presentation did you enjoy? What stayed with you? (Some comments and topics stayed with me but that’s for another time.)

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Questions to ask before cutting/adding description.

Description sometimes gets a bad rap, but once mastered, adds great depth to a story. Here is my boring post for the week. Please, go back and read other posts for any hint of humor if you start yawning.

  1. Is your description filled with cliches and well-worn similis? Rewrite.
  2. Do you describe your setting or character as a long paragraphed laundry list? Rewrite. Use one line of description when a character is introduced, but then intersperse extra description through the action and dialogue tags.
  3. Does your description of setting take place in the middle of the scene? Move closer to the beginning.
  4. Did your word choice play double duty? Did they not only describe but help set the mood? Or reveal subtle clues about the character?
  5. Do you end up focusing on one part of the face all the time? You know those ochre-golden-shimmering eyes? Eyes are good, but you can use other parts of the body to show emotion.
  6. Alliterative Allomorph says: Is your book full of descriptions and backstory that you ‘think’ your reader needs to know?  Copy and paste all of your descriptive paragraphs into another document, so that you are only left with the present action. You’ll probably find your plot moves along at better pace. Your readers need to spend time with your characters. Let your readers discover who your characters are for themselves, instead of you telling them who they are. 
  7. Tina Lee says: Does your description follow the route your eyes would? Especially in the case of character description, don’t jump from the face to feet and back again. 
  8.  Kris says: Do you rely on adverbs? My tip – lately I’ve been trying to be conscious of limiting the adverbs to describe action. Use action to describe action. It’s hard, though. Instinctively, I want to use adverbs…slowly, guiltily, weirdly.
  9.  Lisa Green says:  Do you have more description about the beautiful lilies lining the path to the gate or even the hot and mysterious boy with the smoldering eyes than you do of your MC’s actions and reactions? If so, you better go back and figure out what you’re trying to get across to the reader. (I like this one. Proportion. What you are describing should be important to the story.)
  10. Catherine says: Do you find yourself using the same descriptive words and phrases over and over?  Use find and replace to catch those pesky buggers.

Help me fill out the list because I can’t handle being boring any longer today.  Write your question in the comments below along with a suggested answer, and if I pick your question, I’ll include a link to your blog or website. You can focus on any kind of description – setting, character, action, world building. Share your knowledge! Thanks. 

 Update: Thanks for participating and commenting. Great advice! Feel free to add your advice in the comments!

And check out this recent post from Gail Carson Levine’s blog on description and thoughts!  Scroll down to Feb. 24th for the right post. Great advice.

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Aftermath of tension. You gotta have it.

It doesn’t matter what kind of tension is in your story.

Street chase through New york. A blood thirsty vampire hunting for its next victim. A dark alley when the reader knows something bad is going to happen(which happens way too much). A big secret is revealed that changes the direction of the story. A moment of confrontation. A boy wizard facing his arch enemy.

It’s important to the believability of your story to give your character a chance to calm down.

I knew this but only fully appreciated it last week. At my daughter’s spelling bee. I know. Geez. Not even a hotty fallen angel or vampire involved.

My daughter is a good speller. She won last year. She wanted to win again and felt the pressure. My heart pounded for each kid that willingly put themselves in the spotlight in front of their classmates. Talk about tension. But when my daughter stood in front of the microphone, my heart pounded so hard it almost broke a rib. I think the judges could hear it from the front of the room. Maybe even the first graders could hear down the hall in their rooms with the doors shut while watching a Magic School Bus video on insects. Seriously.

Each time my daughter got up, my hands shook and my heart danced the tango – if someone was watching I’m sure I showed all the classic symptoms of high stress. Now, picture an entire hour and a half of this. I was a quivering, shivering wreck of a mom rooting for her child. She got to the final two. They went back and forth, of course, drawing it out just to torture me. It ended. My daughter won.

And I crashed. Totally.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted. I felt it the rest of the day. And I was not in a life or death situation. No witches cackling in the shadows with a wand pointed at me. No vampires swooping out of the night mist. Not even a big bad bully, which these days isn’t so scary anymore.

But it felt like it.

So, if your characters are being stalked, chased, bullied, or if they are in a spelling bee, remember that they will have side effects of feeling that tension. And giving them a moment to catch their breath and relax will only make your high tense scene, your character, and your story that much more believable.

Now, I’m heading off into my wip to, uh, give my characters a breather. You know, the whole scene/sequel, pacing thing.

What kind of tense scenes have your characters gone through? How do you show them recover?

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