Focus on Craft: How to Create Sympathetic Characters

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Monster

Is it just me or is time accelerating? If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, congratulations! You’re just about to hit a milestone: the end of Week 1. Which means you’re feeling either euphoric, or scared out of your pants. Today I’m reaching into the archive for a topic that’s important at every stage of novel writing: creating characters your readers will want to spend 50,000+ words with. Whether you’re still in the early stages or polishing your ending, it’s worth stepping back to gauge whether your main characters are pulling their weight around here.

HOW TO CREATE TRULY COMPELLING CHARACTERS

“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.
” - Stephen King

How’s that for an awesome quote? I thought it would be perfect to kick off a new series where I take a quote or piece of advice from a famous author and talk about ways to apply it to your writing.

So let’s talk about sympathy.

Stephen King is hitting upon one of the most important skills you can have as a writer—the ability to create an emotional bond between your readers and your characters. Without that, it won’t make much difference what happens when the “monsters” come out. And by the way, this is vital not only in fiction, but memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction as well. Ever come across a first-person essay or memoir that made you say, “Give me a break! This guy/gal is way too arrogant”? You can substitute shallow, close-minded, or otherwise unlikeable. . . the point is, you probably dropped that book before the plot even took off.

So how do you go about making a character sympathetic? Here are a few examples:

Stir in some complexity. One of the biggest turn-offs in fiction is a flat character. In real life, people are multi-faceted. What makes people interesting is that we rarely can predict exactly how they’ll behave in a particular situation, and that’s because we all have so many layers to our personalities. The best writers know how to build that same complexity into their characters. On one hand, you want your readers to feel like they know your character intimately, like they can count on him in some way. But if he’s too one-dimensional, we’ll have the feeling that we can predict his every move, and that means you’ve taken that trust-building too far. Creating complexity is a big topic and I’ll go into it further in an upcoming post, but to start, try thinking about how you behave differently with some of the people you’re closest to in your life. Who are you with your spouse? With your parents? Your boss? There’s only one you, but you probably have a slightly different persona or demeanor with each of these people. How can you play that up in your writing? The more real your characters feel, the more likely your readers will care about them.

Give the character a (forgivable) flaw. You’ve probably heard this before: a character who is too perfect can be as problematic as one who is unredeemable. Why? Because it’s just not realistic. How boring would Indiana Jones have been without his exasperating stubbornness? And would women and girls the world over have fallen for Edward without the brooding (but not sullen) or self-sacrificing (but not masochistic) sides of his personality? A well-placed flaw makes a character easier to identify with (“That’s something I’d do—I’m pretty headstrong, too.”) And it can make us admire him even more if he’s able to overcome it. Just be careful not to overdo the flaw, or you could end up with the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Put the character in a painful situation. You don’t literally have to turn monsters loose, à-la-Stephen King. In literary fiction, readers like to see how characters deal with the kind of thing that could happen (or perhaps is happening) in their lives: caring for an aging parent, surviving a divorce or infidelity from a partner, a betrayal of some kind from a son or daughter. In sci fi or fantasy, it could mean a choice between family and country/kingdom, or between honor and personal happiness. But regardless of the genre, the situation has to resonate with the reader—meaning on some level she has to recognize the character’s pain or believe she or someone she knows could experience it. You’re not likely to have to battle orcs or evil Druids to save your homeland, but you probably know someone who has served in the military and been sent overseas. Or maybe you’ve had to move away from your home and family—against your wishes—to take a job. A difficult situation makes our hearts go out to the character and creates underlying tension: will he make the noble choice we hope he will? Especially with that flaw we’ve started to notice?

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Best wishes as you whip those protagonists into shape!

Are You Ready for NaNoWriMo? To Outline or Not

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shutterstock_225367318Happy Halloween, Word Café readers!

With apologies for a necessary blogging hiatus, I’m back with a vengeance just in time for NaNoWriMo. I’m excited to kick off a series geared to that awesome event, but if this isn’t your year to participate, never fear. I aim to make the content useful for authors at whatever stage of the writing process you find yourself.

Today, I’ll focus on strategies for preparing to dive into that exhilarating first step of novel writing. Have you got your outline ready? Or are you dead-set against that kind of formal planning?  Regardless of which writing style you go with, some type of targeted brainstorming and planning is indispensable; it’s just a matter of which kind gets you stoked. Here is a list of helpful resources to give you a boost and help you decide which camp you fit into.


For those who like to outline (and helpful tips for those who don’t):

http://www.adventuresinyapublishing.com/2014/09/the-craft-of-outlining-by-kiki-sullivan.html An excellent guide to outlining by Kiki Sullivan, debut author of THE DOLLS, a thriller set in Louisiana. Kiki guides you through outlining an already published novel as a template for planning your own book.

http://www.creative-writing-now.com/novel-outline.html This guide to outlining includes sketching out of key scenes, with lists of questions to help you through the process and spark ideas.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-prepare-for-nanowrimo-to-outline-or-not-to-outline This article from Writers Digest presents informal outlining as a way to avoid dead ends and frustration—a good argument during time-crunched NaNoWriMo!


For those who prefer Seat of the Pants spontaneity—“pantsers” (and a jolt of creativity for those who don’t):

http://www.nybookeditors.com/2013/09/outlining/ This article from the New York Book Editors blog argues for the writing process as art, where the science of outlining may get in the way of unfettered inspiration. The take-away: just write!

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/6-secrets-of-writing-a-novel-without-an-outline Bestselling author Steven James gives a helpful list for looking at the novel writing process with fresh eyes and plenty of flexibility.

http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2014/06/how-to-plan-novel-without-actually.html This is an article from author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford. It offers a bit of a compromise, with helpful prompts for planning the core of your story, whether you decide to make an outline or not.


Whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, wear your badge with pride as you charge into this amazing adventure! I look forward to sharing the NaNoWriMo journey with you here on Word Café.

Do you use a different method for preparing to write your novel? Please share any helpful strategies here!

Before You Hit “Send”: The Three Essential Elements of a Successful Query Letter

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checklistToday I’m gearing up for one of my favorite annual events—the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference this weekend. I love writers conferences in general, but this one is extra special because it’s in my backyard—which means a reunion with lots of friends and colleagues, and a chance to meet writers from Colorado and all over the country. Hooray!

I’ll be giving a workshop about query letters and landing an agent, so I thought this would be a good time to share a snapshot. Here’s the million-dollar question:

WHAT ARE THE THREE INDISPENSABLE, MUST-HAVE ELEMENTS OF A QUERY LETTER? 

Answer:

  • It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening paragraph (and preferably, the very first sentence). A query letter is a single-page, one-shot opportunity to impress an agent. You can’t afford to waste a single line. Whether it’s a provocative tagline or hook, or a reference to a personal connection with the agent (“We met at the RMFW conference last month and you expressed a lot of interest in my contemporary YA novel, XXXX…”), make sure your opening lines pack a punch. As in good fiction writing, don’t get bogged down in background information (“This is my second novel but the first one I’ve submitted. I think I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to take my career to the next level. Blah, blah…”).
  • It shows off your writing style and personality as an author. One of the best ways to show an agent you are a good writer is to give a taste of your writing style right in the query letter. I don’t mean grabbing the first paragraph of your novel (or a random chunk) and plunking it into the opening of your query—that’s hard to pull off and can be a major turnoff. Instead, try to convey a sense of your writing voice—if the novel is funny, sprinkle some of that same humor in the query. If it’s a light-hearted YA, let the agent hear that. If it’s a macabre mystery, give a sense of the darkness and suspense your story contains.
  • It intrigues, amuses, or shocks your readers—makes them want more. The worst thing you can do is try to tell the entire story of your novel. A query letter is a sip that makes the reader want to chug the whole glass. A good way to master this technique is to go to your favorite bookstore or online bookseller and read the back cover copy of novels similar to yours. What is the tone? At what point does the blurb cut you off, leaving you to wonder what’s next? What questions does it plant in your mind as the reader? Try typing up a few of these blurbs on your computer—not to plagiarize, of course, but copying them will help internalize the kind of rhythm and flow that captivates readers.

Want an example of a query that encapsulates all of these elements? Read this story of a successful query from my wonderful colleague and friend, agent Sara Megibow. It’s about her client Stefanie Gaither, whose debut YA novel FALLS THE SHADOW comes out this fall from Simon & Schuster. I’d have to agree with Sara—this query is pitch perfect. 

Need help with your query letter? I offer a double-pass critique (including a look at your second draft once you have revised) for $45. Email your query, or any questions, to anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I look forward to helping you break out of the slush pile!