Have you ever struggled with a story idea only to give up because it seems like every plot has already been done?
Maybe that’s because it has.
How Many Plots Are There?
In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker claims that there are only seven different plots in all of storytelling.
Booker’s argument sparked much discussion among writers and readers, and a great debate ensued. Was it true? Are there only seven basic plots? And if so, how could any story written after the first seven possibly be original?
You can have a lot of fun trying to categorize your favorite fiction into one of Booker’s seven plot categories:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Voyage and Return
- Rags to Riches
Booker’s concept of limited possibilities within fiction is not a new idea. Joseph Campbell dissected the major elements of narrative and produced the Monomyth (or Hero’s Journey) in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which identified the core plot elements of successful storytelling. Campbell’s ideas have been applied, tested, dissected, rearranged, and resurrected by writers, filmmakers, and literary analysts.
Do all great stories fit the Monolith pattern? Some claim there are basic elements in the Monomyth that any decent story must follow. Others says that the Monomyth is just one of many storytelling possibilities.
Another common breakdown of plot boils them all down to three:
- Man against man
- Man against nature
- Man against himself
And we wonder why it seems like everything’s been done before.
What About Characters?
If anyone’s ever claimed there are just seven characters in all of fiction, I’ve yet to hear about it. Sure, there’s the protagonist and the antagonist, and a whole bunch of stereotypical characters (the sidekick, for example), plus a bunch of character archetypes. But characters are people. They’re animals and aliens. Sometimes they’re inanimate objects. Even cities and worlds have been known to play the role of a character in a story.
And characters, like people, are infinite in their possibilities. Plus, readers connect on an emotional level with characters. A plot may be interesting, even fascinating, but it’s the characters that make us feel attached to a story.
When you think about your favorite books, what do you recall? Is the plot unforgettable, or do the characters make a story memorable?
One of my favorite novels of all time is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I’ve read it twice, and if you ask me what it’s about, I won’t be able to tell you much in terms of what happens in the book. What I will tell you is that the main character, Holden Caulfield, is so vivid that both times I finished reading it, I kept expecting young Mr. Caulfield to come walking through the door. He was that real – in my mind, he actually lived off the page!
What’s More Important – Plot-driven Stories or Character Fiction?
There are readers who insist that they need a gripping plot to keep them interested. Others say that the best stories are built around characters. And writers are split on the issue too. Some work from a plot outline while others work at character development and then let the characters move the action forward.
I get a lot of my creative writing tips by listening to author interviews, and one of the most common questions that interviewers ask novelists is about their writing process. Did they start with an outline? Was there an entire plot planned out ahead of time?
Interestingly, most authors respond with something like: “I let the characters tell the story. If I planned the plot ahead of time, I’d know what’s going to happen, and that would take all the fun out of writing it.”
Let Your Characters Take the Wheel
We’re compelled by fiction because there is something in it that resonates as truth. Though many wonderful stories are plot-driven, we are often drawn to a particular tale because we feel a connection with the characters. We understand them, sympathize with them, and relate to them.
We see ourselves in them.
Of course, the best stories make good use of both plot and characters. However, once the plot wraps up, readers and writers are still left with characters. Sometimes they go on to other adventures (in trilogies and other series). Other times, we can only imagine what became of them after the story ended.
Whether plot or characters drive your own fiction writing is totally subjective. Each writer must find a style for story development that feels comfortable and produces desired results. But if you haven’t given character-driven fiction a try, then make an effort to attempt it, even if just once. You might surprise yourself, and you might have a lot of fun discovering the antics your characters will get into when you let them drive the story.
Are you a storyteller? Do you want to be? Then I suggest you pick up a copy of Wired for Story, ASAP.
This is easily the best book on writing fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. The book takes a fresh approach and tackles fiction writing from a scientific perspective. Thus the subtitle: “The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.”
Before all you left-brained creatives bristle at the word science, know this: the book is completely accessible. It doesn’t confuse you with complex scientific jargon. Instead, it uses simple examples (mostly told as stories) to demonstrate the science behind story.
What keeps the reader’s brain engaged? What causes the reader’s brain to wander off in search of something more compelling? How do you hook readers in the first place? If you want to know the answers to these questions, you need to read this book.
Not only does Wired for Story answer these questions, it explains what are the most critical elements that your story needs in order to resonate with readers. And as an avid reader, I found myself nodding along with every piece of insight and advice this book offers.
We’re All Wired for Story
“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution.”
- Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
In the past year, I’ve read several books on the craft of fiction writing. I don’t think I finished half of them. Some were unrelatable (like the one that used a bunch of novels I’ve never read or heard of as examples). Others were written in a tone that I found dull (and in one case, offensive).
So when Wired for Story arrived in my mailbox, I was a bit hesitant. But once I got started, the book was hard to put down. Not only did it address issues that most other books on the craft of storytelling miss or gloss over (even though they are of critical importance), I found it fun and entertaining, too.
I found concepts in this book that I could immediately put into practice. I experienced several aha! moments where I thought that’s exactly what my manuscript needs!
“Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time.”
- Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
My favorite chapters dealt with characters (and more specifically, the protagonist), explaining the importance of creating characters who inspire emotion from the reader, characters who want something (one thing internally and something else externally), and characters who possess the all-important inner issue. I immediately recognized the validity of these concepts and because they were explained so smoothly, I could even see where my own characters were missing the mark.
Perhaps most importantly, Wired for Story will get you out of your own head and force you to think not like a writer, but like a reader. You want people to buy your book, read it, and give it positive reviews. So, you better be cognizant of what their expectations are and what they will experience when they read your story. Why should they care about the protagonist? How will they relate to her goals, struggles, and inner issues? Or will they?
Best of all, I found Wired for Story to be highly motivational. I couldn’t wait to finish each chapter so I could work on my own story and apply the concepts I’d picked up.
Whether you’re thinking about writing a novel, in the middle of drafting a story, or working on revisions for a screenplay, this book will keep your head in the game, because it’s a constant reminder that writing is a delight. It cuts through the fluff and gets to the heart of what makes a story work.
Get Wired for Story
“Writers are, and always have been, among the most powerful
people in the world.” – Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
We’re all wired for story, but are you wired for storytelling? Find out what really hooks readers and what keeps them glued the page, and learn how to write a story that people will read and love. What are you waiting for?
101 Creative Writing Exercises is jam-packed with fun and practical writing exercises.
You’ll learn useful writing techniques while gathering ideas and inspiration for all your creative writing projects.
Experiment with fiction, poetry, freewriting, journaling, memoir, and article writing.
Today, I’d like to share an exercise from “Chapter Five: Fiction.” This creative writing exercise is titled “Potter Wars.” Enjoy!
A lot of artists struggle with the desire to write original material. Of course we all want to be original, but is that even possible?
Some say there are no new stories, just remixed and rehashed versions of stories we’re all familiar with. When we say a piece of writing is original, a close examination will reveal that it has roots in creative works that preceded it.
Most of us writers have had ideas that we shunned because we thought they were too similar to other stories. But just because your story idea is similar to another story, perhaps a famous one, should you give up on it?
Look at this way: everything already exists. The ideas, plots, and characters—they’re already out there in someone else’s story. Originality isn’t a matter of coming up with something new, it’s a matter of using your imagination to take old concepts and put them together in new ways.
To test this theory, see if you can guess the following famous story:
A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger. This leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he receives training to learn superhuman skills. Along the way, he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. Our hero is also helped by a number of non-human creatures. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves.
If you guessed that this synopsis outlines Harry Potter, then you guessed right. But if you guessed that it was Star Wars, you’re also right.
This shows how two stories that are extremely different from one another can share many similarities, including basic plot structure and character relationships, and it proves that writing ideas will manifest in different ways when executed by different writers.
If it’s true that originality is nothing more than putting together old concepts in new ways, then instead of giving up on a project that you think has been done before, you should simply try to make it your own by giving it a new twist.
Use the synopsis above to write your own short story. However, do not write a space opera or a tale about wizards.
Tips: One of the key differences between Star Wars and Harry Potter is the setting. One is set in a galaxy far, far away; the other in a magical school for wizards. One is science fiction; the other is fantasy. Start by choosing a completely different genre and setting and you’ll be off to a good start. For example, you could write a western or a romance.
Variations: Instead of writing a short story, write a detailed outline for a novel or novella.
Applications: This exercise is designed to demonstrate the following:
- It’s not unusual for two writers to come up with similar ideas.
- A vague premise or concept will be executed differently by different writers.
Instead of worrying about original characters and plots, focus on combining well-known elements in new ways.
Sometimes, our fiction writing projects dry up. The characters turn out to be flat, the plot becomes formulaic, and the story suddenly seems lackluster.
This is when a lot of writers give up and file their half-finished manuscripts into a bottom drawer never to be seen again. What a waste of time and energy.
But before giving up on a project, why not try to resurrect it? Some stories may not be salvageable, but many can be rescued with a little innovative thinking and a few fresh fiction writing ideas.
Fiction Writing Ideas
Today’s writing ideas will help you enhance stories that are suffering from a variety of maladies ranging from boring plots to unrealistic characters. Scroll through these ideas and see if your story can’t be revitalized.
- Give your characters more than a goal. The characters’ goals are the core of almost every story. They are looking for love, trying to return home, or attempting to save the world. In addition to a goal, give your characters secrets, regrets, ulterior motives, bad memories, or any other issues that will shape their decisions as they move toward the goal.
- Deepen the plot. Most plots are actually pretty simple, but things get really interesting when you introduce subplots or make the plot richer by complicating it: the hero’s goal is to save the girl but what if he will gain something great if he doesn’t save her?
- Breathe life into the setting. Sometimes, a story’s setting is just a backdrop: Anytown, U.S.A. But you can enliven a story by giving the setting a little time in the spotlight. Any setting, from a deserted island to a major metropolis, can have personality.
- Make new character connections. Relationships often drive plot and conflict. What if two characters who barely know each other find out they share a friend (or enemy)? Build interesting relationships between all the characters in your story.
- Add a twist. Some plots plod along pretty predictably. Give your story some zing by tying the plot up in knots. Nothing keeps readers glued to the page like plot twists and cliffhangers.
- Fine-tune the descriptions. Don’t tell us the character is staring at a wall. Show him staring at something on the wall: a crack, an ant, or peeling wallpaper. If a character is wearing blue jeans, tell us whether they’re old and faded or crisp, dark denims.
- Enhance the dialogue. Are all the characters speaking in the same voice? It’s probably your voice. Give each character distinct expressions. Maybe one character says “dude” a lot while another is constantly assigning pet names to everyone he meets.
- Push conflict to the brink. There’s a reason the hero never diffuses a bomb until one second to detonation. Get your characters so deep into conflict, readers start to believe there’s no way out. Then, save the day!
- Strengthen the themes. You can plan which themes will be threaded through your story, but if you don’t, themes will emerge on their own. Identify the themes, then strengthen them. If you notice redemption is a theme, have a character humming “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley.
- Introduce an archetypal character. These characters stand out and feel familiar. Introduce a mentor or a trickster or give one of your existing characters some archetypal qualities.
- Scour your favorite stories for tried-and-true fiction writing ideas. If your story hits a slump, just think about how some of the writers you admire have handled similar problems.
- Give your story greater meaning with symbols and symbolism. A white rabbit marks the beginning of an adventure, water indicates birth and rebirth, winter symbolizes death. Create your own symbols (like the mockingjay in Hunger Games) and look for objects of importance that can become symbols, such as a pen, pendant, or some iconic image.
- Dip into your characters’ back-stories. They had lives before the story started. Give readers a taste of each character’s past through dialogue (in which they relate something that happened to them) and flashbacks.
- Add tension and intrigue to the plot by making a deal. One character wants something that another character has. To get it, she has to strike a deal. The higher the stakes, the more riveting the read.
- Use repetition for emphasis. Repetition works especially well with symbols. A boy gives a girl a pen when he goes away to college and says “Don’t forget to write.” She writes, but he never writes back. She holds on to the pen and the hope that he’ll come back for three years. Then, she loses the pen. As soon as she loses it, she meets someone else. The pen makes repeat appearances, emphasizing its relevance to the story.
- Complicate your characters. Would a spinal surgeon have a bunch of tattoos? Probably not, which means if the spinal surgeon in your story has a bunch of tattoos, he’ll be mysterious and extra interesting. Choose personality traits and descriptions that don’t quite add up!
- Make the story emotional by killing off a significant character. Some authors have a hard time with this one, but death is part of life. In fact, it’s the one thing we can all count on. Killing a character is almost necessary when your cast is constantly facing danger of a life-threatening variety.
- Plant a red herring in your story. It confuses readers in a delightful way. It looks like the heroine will fall for the charming doctor but it turns out the man she really loves is a dreamy architect. Red herrings work especially well in mystery stories.
- Let your characters be affected by the events that unfold. The point of a story is to show characters experiencing something significant or meaningful, something important enough to change them. By the end, the characters should undergo attitude adjustments, adopt new philosophies, or otherwise evolve from who they were when we first met them.
- Engage readers with irony; it makes people think. The atheist experiences a miracle. A fugitive on the run gets captured because he saves someone’s life. A fire station burns down.
- Play around with the language. Most readers care more about the story, but they’ll notice if the prose is choppy or dull. Study literary devices and read a little poetry to build your vocabulary and make the best possible word choices.
- Good guys do bad things and bad guys do good things. Sure, truly evil or purely good people turn up on Earth occasionally, but really, most people are a mix of good and bad. The same should apply to your characters. Give the hero a criminal record. Show the bad guy doing something decent.
- Take a broader view. If you’re writing a murder mystery, the main character can have a love interest. If you’re writing a romance, you can throw in a few mysterious twists. Don’t be overly attached to your genre. Sprinkle a little magic on your story.
Got Any Fiction Writing Ideas?
Got any tips or ideas to add? Have you ever put a story on the chopping block and then saved it? How did you do it? What storytelling tricks do you have up your sleeve? Share your favorite fiction fixes and writing ideas by leaving a comment.
You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.
Isn’t that the kind of novel you want to write?
Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I just don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the second act, I move on and find something more intriguing.
The Best Fiction Sticks
I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down, and what makes some stories impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.
But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated movie over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the film, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the movie get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.
The most recent book I couldn’t put down was a trilogy: The Hunger Games. I’m a science fiction girl, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless but she was brave, strong, and honorable. It’s rare to find female characters of this caliber in fiction, and it’s not every day that a novel with such positive messages becomes a worldwide sensation.
Writing Better Fiction
If we want to write better fiction, we have to read the best fiction, and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my find focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: believable characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are a bit more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better-than-average fiction:
Give Them a Reason to Read
If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile and pity whoever ends up with it. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. The must have purpose, an objective if you will.
Don’t Bore Your Readers
Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot, and dull scenes that have little purpose will bore readers to death. Keep the conflict coming and the action moving and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.
It’s the Little Things
Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbols that have deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.
Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings
Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.
Do Something Different
Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on your story.
Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense
This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I read recently did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed — not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was a bit jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care all that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.
How Do You Write Better Fiction?
When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Please welcome Dr. John Yeoman with a guest post on enriching your fiction with emotion.
How can we deepen our characters with the finer nuances of emotion – and so skillfully that readers have no option but to engage with our characters? And with our stories? In a word, how can we enrich our tales with empathy?
The term is not as simple as it looks.
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, there are two kinds of empathy – affective and cognitive. Emotional and cerebral. Psychopaths lack affective empathy. They might be high in cognitive empathy and be able to identify the feelings of others superbly well. (Psychopaths are often clever confidence tricksters.) But they cannot identify with those feelings.
They cannot feel them.
Take the recent case of the serial killer Anders Breivik who shot 69 teenagers on a Norwegian island in July 2011. We can safely describe him as a man without affective empathy, a monster, a psychopath.
Yet we’ve all lunched with psychopaths.
They may be industrialists, academics, barristers, even authors. (Arguably, a few psychopaths have won Booker prizes.) But their private lives are a trail of misery. They have harmed, emotionally, every person they have touched.
As authors, how can the distinction between ‘affective’ and ‘cognitive’ empathy help us write better stories? To make our work engage the reader beyond the cerebral level of a chess game, we must appeal to both centers in the brain: affective and cognitive. And get the balance right.
Here’s how to do it – using the Three Levels of Empathy
Level 1. Show the surface emotions felt by each major character.
This is no trick, even for authors who personally lack affective empathy. Body language will do it, at a superficial level, and the idioms are many. As narrators, we can use a banal phrase such as “she winced”, “he glared” or we can be more creative: “She snapped her bread stick in half,” “his fingers drummed the table top,” etc.
But is body language always true? Forensic psychiatrists tell us that liars, unless very practiced, will voice a lie first then reveal the truth in their body language.
“That allegation is false!” Slowly, he narrowed his eyes.
Alternatively, he might – at length – cross his arms, straighten in his chair or blink rapidly. The defensive posture comes too late. It’s assumed. Had he acted first then spoken, we might have reason to believe him innocent.
Any author can learn the tricks – and deceptions – of body language. (Just watching a public conversation is instructive.) But so can a psychopath. It’s superficial.
Level 2. Reveal the characters’ feelings from their viewpoint.
Many fine novels go no further than the level of cognitive empathy. The narrator simply describes a character’s feelings. For cerebral crime thrillers, like those of John Dickson Carr, that’s enough. Affective empathy would be an error. The players are game tokens, disposable. We must not mourn them.
But if the reader can slip into the mind of a major character, and feel what they feel, the character gains substance. We might even sympathize with a villain. Affective empathy is at work.
An omniscient narrator holds the whip hand here. Provided the point of view does not shift within scenes (confusing), s/he can give us a guided tour through everyone’s head.
Why had Emma spoken to her that way? Was she jealous? So much for friendship!
The task is more difficult for the first-person narrator, short of telepathy. However, the narrator can still plausibly speculate. Imagine that an heiress has just been told by a hostile lawyer that her wealth has been embezzled. She’s bankrupt.
Her eyes flickered from the sculpted bust of her father to the family crest emblazoned on the wall. They rested on the fresh spring flowers, arranged genteelly in a crystal vase. She said nothing but her face was eloquent. Must I give up my house? My life?
Or a summary can do it:
I wondered if she would collapse, or cry, or both. But she’d do none of these things, I knew. Three centuries of breeding would prevent it. Besides, her lip was too firm. She’d fight me, every bloody inch of the way.
That’s the second level of empathy. A character’s emotions are persuasively disclosed, not by the author, but by another character. However, it’s still cognitive, superficial, cerebral. The emotions are not shared between characters.
3. Show the characters sharing – and responding to - each other’s feelings.
At the third or affective level of empathy the narrator or a major character feels the feelings of another character. One way to do this is with reflection or reminiscence.
I remembered when I was twelve and the bailiff had come to our house, one terrible day. First, the television. At last, the china vase where my grandmother had kept her wool. All gone, into a van. And my mother crying.
The narrator is clearly sharing, in his reminiscence, the emotions of the woman who will lose her home.
Of course, a character need not sympathize with another character’s emotions to feel them strongly – and to respond with passion.
I hated everything about her. The privilege, the arrogance, the smug way in which her eyes told me clearer than words: “My gardener tosses vermin like you on the garbage heap with disinfected gloves.” I felt my face stiffen.
Empathy is not sympathy. A person can feel deep empathy for another person without liking them at all.
A Simple Formula
A great author might switch intuitively between all three levels of empathy in a single paragraph. The rest of us have to work on it. Yet the formula is simple:
- Show the character’s feelings, superficially, from the narrator’s viewpoint.
- Let the character reveal their true feelings.
- Indicate the emotional stance that other characters take to that person’s feelings.
Maybe an author who lacks affective empathy can get as far as level two and convincingly portray how people behave. They simply have to study people. But it’s doubtful if they could depict, with conviction, the interchange of feelings at level three. Why? They don’t know how people feel about other people’s feelings. They’ve never felt them.
To a psychopath, sensibility is a foreign language.
Great novelists operate by instinct at all three levels of empathy. We can learn to do it too. And our stories will become immeasurably richer. Will psychopaths read our stories? Possibly. But will they understand them at the third level of empathy? Never.
About the Author
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for profit can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/story-success.
Characters are the heart and soul of every story.
Almost every great story is about people. Plot, setting, themes, and every other element of fiction is secondary to realistic characters that an audience can connect with on an intellectual or emotional level.
There are exceptions, of course. Some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but they never seem to achieve the massive popularity that stories with rich, layered characters achieve. Why do fans adore Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield, and Scarlett O’Hara? Because they are people.
We connect with characters in fiction for any number of reasons. Maybe the character reminds us a little of ourselves. We might love her because she represents who we want to be, or we might hate her because she reminds us of the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of. Some characters feel like friends; others remind us of our enemies. We might admire a character’s heroism and relate to his philosophy or we might admonish his acts of destruction and hate.
Some writers argue that it’s not necessary for readers to connect or identify with characters in a story. That might be true to some extent, but the most beloved stories throughout the history of literature are populated with characters we love or characters we love to hate. There’s something to be said for making readers care.
Character Writing Tips
Readers won’t care about characters unless they are believable. So how do we make our characters realistic? Why do the most celebrated characters seem so real? How have some writers managed to render animals, aliens, and even inanimate objects into characters that we embrace emotionally?
The answer is simple: the best characters are realistic. They come with all the flaws, quirks, and baggage that real people possess. They are not just names on a page. They have pasts, personalities, and they are unique.
Here are 12 character writing tips to help you develop characters that feel like real people:
- Backstory: we are born a certain way, but our life experiences continually mold and shape us. Each character has a life before the story. What is it?
- Dialogue: the way we talk depends on the language we speak and where we live (or grew up) but there’s also something unique to each person’s style of speaking. We repeat certain words and phrases, inflect certain syllables, and make certain gestures while we speak.
- Physical Description: our primary method of identifying each other is the way we look; hair and eye color, height and weight, scars and tattoos, and the style of clothing we wear are all part of our physical descriptions.
- Name: Esmerelda doesn’t sound like a soccer mom, and Joe doesn’t sound like an evil sorcerer. Make sure the names you choose for your characters match their personalities and the role they play in the story.
- Goals: Some say that a character’s goals drive the entire story. He wants to slay the dragon. She wants to find love. Goals can be small (the character is shopping for a new car) or big (the character is trying to take over the world). Come up with a mix of small and large goals for each character.
- Strengths and Weaknesses: Villains sometimes do nice things and heroes occasionally take the low road. What are your character’s most positive and negative behaviors and personality traits?
- Friends and Family: these are the people in our inner circles, and they have played important roles in shaping our personalities and our lives. Who are your characters’ friends and family before the story starts? What new friends will they meet once the story begins?
- Nemesis: a nemesis is someone with whom we are at odds. This character doesn’t have to be a villain, but the goals of the nemesis definitely interfere with your character’s goals.
- Position in the World: what do your characters do for a living? What are their daily lives like? Where do they live? What is a character’s role or position among his or her friends, family, or coworkers?
- Skills and Abilities: a character’s skills and abilities can get him out of a tight spot or prevent him from being able to get out of a tight spot. Skills can be useless or they can come in handy. Does your character have an education or special training? What can he do?
- Gestures, Mannerisms, and Quirks: One character chews her nails while watching movies. Another runs his hand through his hair when he’s trying to figure something out. Give your characters identifiable quirks and behaviors, like real people.
- Fears: An old fiction writing trick is to figure out what your character is most afraid of, then make the character face it. We all have fears. Characters should, too.
How to Put These Character Writing Tips into Practice
Characters need to be detailed and complicated in order to seem real. These character tips give you a lot to consider, but how do you put them into practice?
You could tackle each idea as a separate exercise. Write your character’s backstory one day. The next day, do a page of dialogue to see how the character speaks. Then, spend some time looking for a perfect name for your character. If you work through all these tips as separate exercises, you’ll end up with a robust character sketch, and your character will be ready to enter the plot of your story.
Character sketches are by no means mandatory. You could also start writing the draft of your manuscript and see how each of these elements develops organically for each character. During revisions, you can check your narrative against this list to make sure the characters are consistent and have all the depth of real people.
How do you create characters? Do you start with a character sketch or do you just start writing? Do you have a checklist (like the one above) to help you know and understand your characters? Got any character writing tips to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep writing.
Good fiction is comprised of many different elements: believable characters, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots. Every decent story has a beginning, middle and end. Intriguing tales are built around conflict and are rich with themes and symbols. And those are just the basics.
It can be pretty overwhelming.
Fiction writing is hard work. It requires a complex and diverse set of skills. Stringing words together into sentences only scratches the surface of what goes into good fiction writing. Fiction that is truly worthwhile is layered with meaning. It’s made up of an infinite number of tiny parts. Most importantly, it has a sense of truth and realism that the real world often lacks.
Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And Stephen King said that “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
In other words, fiction, at its best, feels truer than reality. Great writers make it look easy, but writing that kind of fiction, the kind that’s worth reading, is nothing short of magic.
Writing Exercises for Study, Practice, and Inspiration
It takes years to master the craft of fiction writing, to get so good that you make it look effortless.
Other than reading plenty of fiction, one of the best ways to master this complicated craft is through writing exercises. I have found that the best fiction writing exercises offer three benefits:
1. Tools and Techniques: it’s not enough to be given a writing assignment that does little more than get you to scrawl words on the page. A good writing exercise imparts useful tools and techniques that, once learned, will stay with you forever.
2. Practice: writing exercises force you to do more than study the craft; they also give you practice and experience. They work your writing muscles, which is why they’re called exercises.
3. Inspiration: inspiration often come when we suddenly see the world in a new way. Good writing exercises point you in a new direction and push you toward fresh ideas from broad story concepts to minute details that enrich your narrative.
The book What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers provides fiction writers with all of these benefits and a whole lot more.
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
I picked up my copy of What If? as required reading for a fiction writing class that I took in college. Ironically, we didn’t use the book much in class, but I’ve kept it close and often turned to it for insight and inspiration. Since it’s a college textbook, it’s a bit pricey, but it’s worth every penny. Here’s what you get:
- 115 fiction writing exercises: everything you could want, including tools and techniques that strengthen your writing, practice for gaining experience, and inspiration for new projects as well as projects you’re already working on.
- 24 short stories: from the likes of Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff, these stories were written by some of the greatest writers in literature and they serve as excellent examples for demonstrating concepts presented throughout the text.
- Selected bibliography: this book could keep you busy for years, but if you want more, the selected bibliography will point you in the right direction. It’s packed with fantastic writing resources.
- Wisdom: many of the exercises include insightful quotes or recommendations for further reading.
- Examples: Almost all of the exercises include student examples, which demonstrate how the exercise can be successfully executed.
When I first got the book, my favorite thing about it was that it got me thinking about fiction writing from new angles. Later, I found that the exercises were good practice for developing my writing and storytelling skills. Even now, when I read through a few exercises, I’m inspired, not just with ideas, but I’m actually inspired to write. I can’t wait to get to work.
Sample it for Yourself
Here are summaries of some of my favorite exercises from What If?:
Keep an image notebook and write down one image every single day by asking yourself “What’s the most striking thing I heard, saw, smelled, touched, tasted today?”
Put Your Characters to Work
Write a story in which your character’s personal problems are played out at his or her workplace. This exercise is a good reminder that too many stories ignore the mundane in order to focus on the extraordinary.
Go Ahead, Yawn
Give your character a physical problem to cope with. The example given is a nun who has a piece of dental floss stuck between her teeth all day. It’s not the central conflict but constant reminders of her discomfort keep readers engaged at a visceral level.
What are some of your favorite fiction writing resources?
Today’s creative writing exercise comes from 101 Creative Writing Exercises, a book I wrote on the craft of writing.
This book guides writers through an adventure in writing. You’ll explore different forms and genres of writing, including freewriting, journaling, memoir, fiction, storytelling, poetry, and article or blog writing.
101 Creative Writing Exercises imparts proven writing techniques while providing writing practice and creative inspiration.
Today, I’d like to share an exercise from “Chapter Nine: Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and Problem Solving.” This exercise is titled “Moral Dilemmas.” Enjoy!
We each have our own personal philosophies and values. Our values come from our families, religions, and cultures. They shape our morals and the decisions we make.
People are complex. What we believe is right or wrong changes when we find ourselves in real situations. Consider an honorable character who believes that one’s highest loyalty is to his or her family. Then, that character learns his brother is a serial killer. Does he turn him in? Testify against him? Stories get interesting when characters’ morals are put to the test.
We all know the knight in shining armor should risk his life to save the damsel in distress. If he doesn’t, then he loses his status as hero and becomes a coward. What if the knight is forced to make a more difficult decision? What if his true love and his beloved sister are both in distress but he only has time to save one of them?
For this exercise, you will put a character’s morals to the test. Below, you’ll find a short list of moral dilemmas. Write a scene in which a character faces one of these moral dilemmas and has to make an agonizing decision.
- In the novel Sophie’s Choice, a young Polish mother and her two children are taken to a concentration camp. Upon arrival, she is forced to choose one child to live and one to die. If she doesn’t choose, they both die. Write a scene in which your character must choose between the lives of two loved ones.
- A single woman is close friends with the couple next door and has secret romantic feelings for the husband. She discovers that his wife is having an affair. Normally, this woman minds her own business but now she sees an opportunity to get closer to the man she wants.
- Some countries have strict laws regarding drug possession. A family has traveled to one such country for vacation. Upon arrival (or departure), one of the teenagers’ bags is sniffed out by a dog. The bag is opened, the drugs are identified, and the guard asks whose bag it is. Both parents are considering claiming ownership. Everyone in the family knows the sentence would be death.
- Your character gets to travel through time and face this classic moral dilemma: the character finds himself or herself holding a loaded gun, alone in a room, with a two-year-old baby Hitler.
- A plane crashes into the sea. Most of the passengers escape with inflatable lifeboats but they do not board them correctly. Your character ends up on a lifeboat that holds eight people but there are twelve people on it, and it’s sinking. Your character can either throw four people overboard and eight will survive or they will all die except your character, who will get rescued after the others drown.
During the scene, the character should agonize over the decision and reveal his or her reasons for the choice that he or she makes.
Tips: Search online for “lists of moral dilemmas” to get more scenarios.
Variations: If you don’t want to write a scene, challenge yourself to come up with a few moral dilemmas of your own.
Applications: These moral dilemmas also work as story prompts. They force you to put your characters in situations that are deeply distressing, thus creating conflict and tension.
In creative writing, we talk about form and genre. Form is what we write: fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. Genre is how we further classify each of these forms.
In fiction writing, there’s literary fiction and everything else.
In fact, literary fiction and all of the other genres are so at odds with each other that some writers simply say they are either literary fiction writers or genre writers. But what does that mean? Isn’t all fiction considered literary?
Yes and no.
What is Literary Fiction Anyway?
Let’s start with a simple definition of the word literary. Dictionary.com offers several, including the following:
- pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
- pertaining to authorship: literary style.
- versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
- engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
- characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.
So we can use the word literary whenever we’re talking about writing or authorship in general, but it can also mean an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to snobbery.
Wikipedia offers a more specific definition of literary fiction: “fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.” The article goes on to say that “to be considered literary, a work usually must be ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘serious’. In practice, works of literary fiction often are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.’”
In other words, literary fiction has meaning and significance. I’ve also heard literary fiction defined as paying diligence to the craft of writing (or the art of stringing words together), exploring the human condition, and making bold commentary or criticism of society and culture.
Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else
I love literary fiction. Some of my favorite novels are The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which would be classified as literary fiction. These are the kind of books that people study and analyze. They’re taught in schools. People read them for decades, even centuries, after they’re published. They win prestigious awards and are beloved and celebrated by bookworms and scholars alike.
As much as I love literary fiction, I’d have to say that my heart belongs to science fiction. From A Wrinkle in Time to The Hunger Games trilogy, the science fiction that I love best has done everything that literary fiction can do and then some.
In an interview with the Paris Review (which I highly recommend), the great Ray Bradbury said that “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas.” He also observed that science fiction often goes unrecognized for having literary merit and expressed his chagrin:
“As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible… The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”
Some of the other genres have it even worse. When was the last time a romance novel or horror story won critical acclaim or took home the highest literary honors? Science fiction and fantasy writers have enjoyed more critical and commercial success in recent years: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins have dominated book sales, and they are all genre writers. Ray Bradbury himself won several prestigious literary awards. Sometimes it seems like the literary academics (the literati) are coming around and slowly opening their minds to genre fiction.
Yet there is still a stigma attached to genre fiction in certain literary circles. Just recently, I heard someone say they refused to read The Hunger Games because it was about kids killing kids and was therefore garbage. Yet kids are killing kids all over the planet: in gangs, in wars, and in school shootings. It’s not garbage; it’s truth, and that is the purest form of literature.
Looking for Merit in Creative Writing
Of course there is an argument to made about the merit of a work of fiction. I’ve read plenty of literary and genre fiction that said absolutely nothing about humanity or the world in which we live. Some of the literary novels I’ve picked up recently have been so abstract, obtuse, and erudite that after a few chapters, I gave up and moved on to the next book. And I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that is good fun but will never change the world.
Ultimately, each of us decides for ourselves which stories hold the most merit. We get to ask ourselves whether we want a gripping story or a story that makes us think, feel, and question. Do we read to be entertained and to escape or do we read to broaden our perspectives and enlighten ourselves?
Have you ever watched a film or read a book that you thought had a lot of artistic or intellectual merit only to learn that the critics shot it down? Have you ever experienced a story that you thought was just awful and learned that it won awards and prestige? What are your thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.