On the Writers in the Storm Blog, I offer suggestions how you can create characters with voices so distinct that your readers can “hear” theme music for each one.
Do your characters feel flat? Do they all sound like you and only you? Tune in to the music of character voices, make them sound more like the different instruments of a band or orchestra. Make music with your character voices and your readers won’t be able to get enough of the stories you write.
There are many things to consider when creating your story characters. Many how-to-write articles suggest creating a detailed profile of your characters. Delving into a character’s birth place, likes and dislikes, job, hair color, and using tools like spreadsheets and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires can be helpful, but characters are more than the details on a spreadsheet or form. Character are more than their story role, more than the point of view you choose for them, and more than what they do in the story. Your characters each need a voice, a unique voice. But how do you create that?
The Key to Understanding Characters
When a writer is told they’re too young or haven’t lived enough life to write about it, it’s often because of a lack of understand the basics of character or even life. A general understanding of psychological personality types will go a long way to helping you create varied and interesting characters.
Learn about the fundamental personality types. Go deeper than Wikipedia, though it may give you an overview that is helpful. There are literally millions of sites on the internet that discuss variations on personality types. Choose one that’s reliable like psychcentral, psychology today, and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Whether you write by the seat of your pants (a pantser) or you have a detailed outline (a plotter), or anywhere anywhere on the line in between, you’ve likely gotten stuck in your story. That’s disconcerting at the best and devastating at the worst. The story comes to a screeching halt and you beat yourself up. Yes, this happens to plotters sometimes. Unfortunately, it happens to pantsers more often than not. But don’t worry. There’s a way to solve or prevent most stuck-in-the-middle events. Use goals & obstacles to fascinate your readers.
In story writing, a goal is what your main character wants. It might be the blue ribbon in the county fair or to save the world from a weapon of mass destruction. But you knew that, didn’t you? So why am I harping on it?
And it isn’t just a want. It’s a need. To fascinate your reader, the main character’s want must mean something. It doesn’t have to be a theme-heavy, my-soul-will-be-destroyed type of meaning. But if your character does not achieve their goal, they lose something valuable. This irrevocable loss changes the principal character’s life for the worse (at least in the character’s estimation). A high schooler believes with his whole being that if he doesn’t win the football game and impress the recruiting agent, his life is ruined forever. That can make for a page-turning story.
More About Goals
The more concrete you can make the goal, the clearer it will be for the reader. How do you know your goal is concrete? By asking yourself, can the character take a picture of it?
You can add a layer to goals and make the story deeper, more complex.
Add a Layer
To deepen the story, you can add a layer to the character’s goal by making it misunderstood. What the character THINKS she wants and what she NEEDS to avoid that sense of loss are two different things. In the high school football player above, what if he’s suffering from a chronic illness that will eventually destroy his ability to walk? He may think he wants the memory of the football victory to sustain him, but what he needs is to learn to cope with his illness. And when he loses the football game but gains a new understanding of how he can live and be happy, it will be a satisfactory ending.
But even if the path to a goal isn’t straight, it isn’t interesting, Use goals & obstacles to fascinate your reader.
Most how-to write instruct you to have lots of conflict in your story. But that word has connotations and meanings that confuse many of us. What it really means for a story is to prevent your character from achieving their goal. Set obstacles in their path. Obstacles can be a person (or persons), a place or environment (nature), or the character herself.
In a successful story, there is usually a single major obstacle, often a person we like to call the bad guy or the antagonist. Initially, the bad guy has all the control. It’s the bad guy’s moves that cause the protagonist to react, to choose an alternative path. And the bad guy hones in on the main character’s flaws with every obstacle he throws in the path to success.
More About Obstacles
Vary the obstacles your character must overcome. How do you do that? With subplots. One subplot could be the foul weather on the last day of practice that causes a temporary injury or maybe the opposing team kidnaps the main character and dumps him in a location so he can’t possibly get to the game on time. Almost any subplot will work. Though it will have more impact if it’s at least tangentially related to the want and need.
If the character does not overcome many obstacles, the story isn’t satisfying. And if the obstacles are all the same, the story isn’t satisfying. If at least one obstacle doesn’t make the character back up and try again, the story isn’t satisfying.
A successful, satisfying story is one that keeps throwing obstacles in the character’s attempts to get what they want. The obstacles make the character work to achieve their goal. The harder the character works at achieving his goal, the more satisfying the story ending.
The most successful stories all use goals & obstacles to fascinate the reader. Don’t believe me? Take your favorite stories and analyze them.
You and your imagination are the magic idea generator. But your magic story engine is the push—pull, the try-fail, the never-quite-successful moves toward an important goal. First drafts are supposed to be messy. That’s okay. Fine-tuning is for the rewrite process. For this first draft, use goals & obstacles and you’re well on the way to fascinating your reader.
The first line of a story has a major job—to catch the attention of the reader. The right reader. As a writer it is, arguably, the most important line we write. So how do we write a great first line?
The Job of the First Line
If the job of the first line of a story is to catch a reader’s attention, then all it has to do is shock or be surprising, right? Well, that may work for some stories and some readers. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not necessarily the right way for the story you write today.
The most important job of the first line is to hook the reader, but it’s not the only job of the first line. The best first lines also introduce a writing style, a mood, a theme, and hints at conflict to come. Now, not all of us can write the perfect first line. But we can learn techniques that will give us a great first line.
No One Right Way
I’ve said it repeatedly. Every writer must find what works for them. The biggest shocker is that one way won’t work for every story written by the same writer.
Great first lines can reflect the story’s theme. It can reflect an odd or unique detail of the world. Establishing your character’s voice is another powerful way to create a great first line. Convey the stakes with your opening line and you’ll hook readers. Or you can use sensory details and the setting to establish mood and foreshadow what the story will be about.
The one thing that’s sort of consistent is that the first line must convey your writing style. Are your sentences short and choppy or full and flowery? That first sentence will let the reader decide, is this a style I can spend hours reading?
How Do You Learn?
Collect them. Collect first lines of novels and short stories in your genre. Good ones, bad ones, even mediocre ones will help you.
Analyze them. What’s your gut reaction? Are you interested or not? Is it—meh?
Don’t ignore the bad or the meh. Take them apart. Why does it give you that feeling?
Is it dialog? Go a step further. Is it internal dialog or with another character? What’s the dialog. Is it a confrontation, an expression of love or desire, or something else?
Perhaps it’s a unique voice or style of writing. Again, what is it expressing? How do you feel about the character or setting? What do you expect will happen next?
Is it heavy on description? What mood does it convey? Does it convey a theme? Why would the author of this story choose this location?
Perhaps it’s an action beat. What action? Why is the action important?
Don’t neglect popular stories outside of your genre. You never know when one might spark an idea that would make your first line great. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of 100 best first lines. Or check out the ones on my First Line Fridays posts.
How I Wrote a First Line
The giant bronze angel of death loomed over Miranda Clarke’s shoulder.
I wanted to convey a location, an action, and a situation that firmly created the world in my reader’s mind. But how? The story world had so many elements of the real world it could confuse my reader.
I kept asking myself, how is this world different? What symbols would there be? How would their daily life be different? If I were one of the elite, my life would be one of luxury. Why would I want to run away from that?
I tried dialog. I tried an ‘every day’ scene. And I tried several settings. I also tried many symbolic representations of the society.
My story is a dark dystopian alternate history. The symbolism of the statue, this particular statue, looming over Miranda conveys theme, potential conflict, and the society. And the first paragraph, and subsequent paragraphs, build on the theme and conflict and society.
Does my first line appeal to every reader? No, of course not. You don’t want a first line that appeals to every reader. Your first line should entice YOUR readers to keep reading.
You Can Write a Great First Line
First, thanks to reader Jan G for giving me the push to write this post sooner rather than later. Second, know that you can do this.
Usually, a great first line doesn’t come in the first or second draft. Often the writer writes and rewrites the first line many, many times. Stephen King rewrites his first lines for months, sometimes years.
There are lots of good first lines out there. And there are many great first lines out there. How can you write a great first line? Scribble some bad first lines. Write many good first lines and you’ll find a great first line. Write a great first line and let your readers decide if you penned the perfect first line.
November is coming! November is coming! Writers are frantically preparing for the month of NANOWRIMO. In case you’ve been living under a rock, NANOWRIMO stands for National Novel Writing Month. Since 1999, a simple challenge to write 50,000 words in thirty days has grown to be a non-profit organization supporting and cheering on hundreds of thousands of writers. The push is to finish no matter how unpolished the words. Because until you write the first draft, the perfect phrases, you cannot craft the perfect final line.
Prepare for NANOWRIMO
Many participants spend October planning the novel they’ll write in November. In the race to prepare, the writers create outlines and character bios and lists of complications and setting details.
That means that advice for the participants fills many October blogs. This blog is not a lot different. In past years, I’ve written advice on how to revise their NANOWRIMO novels. In reverse you can use that advice to build a novel. Read my Re-visioning Your Story posts if you want that kind of writing advice. This year, instead of advice, I share a few last lines as inspiration.
The Perfect Final Line
He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.
Frankenstein; or,The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, 1817
While many participants won’t finish, the effort puts thousands of words together for stories that have yet been told. And most of the results of NANOWRIMO will need serious editing. No matter. My wish for you is to find within those words the source for the perfect last line. The line that will resonate with readers for years to come. Good luck, participants!
In my post Two Secret Rules for Writers, I said the secret was that there isn’t a secret in writing. I may have to take that back. The truth is there are dirty little secrets to writing a good story. One secret? There’s probably no new story under the sun. Why? Are we writers’ incapable of an original thought?
Heck no! The originality comes from the blend and the bend of the story as told by that particular writer at that particular time. Stories come from the stories we have consumed (read, heard, or viewed). So they are all a melding of a ton of different things.
To write the best stories one must study the masters. Study the successful stories. What makes them tick? And how can I use that in my story?
Pantsers decry outlines and story structure to their story’s detriment. The way the human brain processes story demands a structure we can recognize.
You don’t have to start from an outline, but whatever you write must have the parts in it to be successful.
I’ve mixed bits and pieces of Westerns and Space Opera and Thrillers and mythology. Yes, they went into one story. And it worked because I used structure to help me put the pieces where they made sense.
How? I looked at the choices the main character makes at each stage of the story. The types of decision made in the Western fit my story so there’s my beginning. Mid-point decisions made in a thriller and a myth, inspired my story’s mid-point. And the crisis decision(s) came from the Space Opera. In a way, I’ve borrowed the bones of four (or more) different skeletons. My characters, my setting, my story throughline written in my words flesh the story out.
Studying stories can trigger creative ideas and solutions when writing my own stories. This is one of the dirty little secrets to writing a good story. But it’s no secret that Fellowship is going live on Monday, July 8th. You can pre-order now. And, if you follow my Facebook author page, I’ll let you know about a short, online launch party I’ll be having soon.