Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From flat to fab (or at least believable): The Word Nerd weighs in on characterizations

A. C’s previous posts on characterization introduced excellent ideas and advice on creating characters by making them underdogs, placing them in jeopardy, and by giving them vulnerabilities and conflicts to resolve, either within themselves, between themselves and others, or between themselves and their environment. I had a few thoughts on this (of course).

Characters are created with the following in mind:
     other characters’ perceptions of them
     appearance --but with a million caveats.  I shouldn’t have to tell you what they are, right?

There are many stellar characterizations in literature that I could hold up as examples, but I chose Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather than give us a running internal monologue from Atticus’s point of view, the story is told from the point of view of Atticus’s daughter Scout.  However, thanks to Lee’s use of dialogue and other people’s perceptions, we get a fairly thorough picture of Atticus as a lawyer, a legislator, a father, a friend, a brother, and as a crusader for human rights.  He seems nearly perfect in all respects--patient, tolerant, brave, unselfish, intelligent, loving--the moral center of the book. However, the seemingly mild-mannered man who appears to fit into segregated Southern society like a hand into a glove is actually a boat-rocker and a progressive thinker. Atticus’s job, his reputation, and even his family are placed in jeopardy when this white attorney from a small Alabama town decides to take the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman. His children are taunted in school and the case is discussed at dinner tables all over town. Atticus is quixotically and stubbornly determined to wake up the citizens of his town and make them rethink their ideas about not only race, but also about their own humanity and what that might mean.

We empathize with the middle-aged widower and single parent who never remarried after his wife died. He never mentions her in the book. Our narrator was only two when her mother died of a sudden heart attack. She only knows about her from the stories her older brother Jem tells her and from the vitriolic comments flung at her from one of the neighbors, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, on how the overall-clad tomboy was a disgrace to her mother’s memory. Romantic-minded souls are left to infer that losing his wife was so painful that Atticus cannot bear to speak of her. Cynics might say that perhaps the marriage wasn’t a happy one and that he’s sparing his children the details. Our modern sensibilities question Atticus’s motives for not talking with his children about their mother. While this may not be considered a “flaw,” it creates tension for the reader and depth--even a little mystery-- for the character.

Atticus Finch cannot conceive of the idea that such an evil human as Robert Ewell can exist, despite the unsavory revelations made about Bob Ewell during Mayella Ewell’s testimony on the stand at Tom Robinson’s trial. Atticus is certain that Ewell had gotten his anger out of his system the day after the trial when Ewell spat on him and threatened him; and that since “there’s not much chance to be furtive in Maycomb,” it’s not likely Ewell will try anything else. Until a moonless Hallowe’en night when Ewell follows the children home from a party at the school and attacks them  in the schoolyard.  Scout and Jem might have met a violent, senseless death that night. Instead of infusing Atticus with a more obvious weakness such as hubris or a quick temper, Lee, in a stroke of brilliance, makes idealism Atticus’s “flaw.” He clings to the belief that all humans are basically decent, and this extreme hope and trust in humanity nearly costs him his children.

Lee leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Atticus’s idealism is admirable or foolish. Many lively classroom discussions have resulted from the information Lee doesn’t give us. A good writer is able to create a layered, complex character who is, by turns, admirable and frustrating. 

Up next:  The flawed, tragic hero.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Using Dialogue to Characterize

An author can show a great deal about a character's personality simply by what he has the character say.  Is your protagonist a worrier?  Have him say pessimistic things.  Is she trusting to a fault?  Show it through the words she uses to defend a dubious person.

To introduce my students to this skill, I put them in groups of five or more and have them complete the following activity.  I usually set up a few online chat rooms for the lesson, but it can also be done verbally, with one student acting as the group's scribe, or individually, with students creating short scenes involving four or more of the characters.

The Cast of Characters

1. Veronica: Self-absorbed, obsessively concerned about her appearance, insists on being the center of attention
2. Albert:  Extremely intelligent, a know-it-all, likes to use big words
3. Myrtle: Quiet, lacks self-confidence, wants to blend into the background
4. Donna: Pessimistic, gloomy, depressing
5. Mike:  Doesn't take anything seriously, thinks everything he says is hilarious
6. Ralph: Loud, bossy, blunt
7. Paula: Optimistic, cheerful, overly helpful

The Situation
You and a group of people are marooned on a deserted island. Together you will discuss how you're going to survive until a passing cruise ship or airplane spots you.

The Task
  • Each of you has been given a slip of paper with a name and a personality on it. During this activity, everything you say must reflect your character's personality. DO NOT tell anyone anything about your character other than his or her name.  Your job is to SHOW that personality through dialogue.
  • Beginning with Character #1, take turns creating a conversation. Make sure each character has at least five chances to speak.
  • REMEMBER: Your character should be responding to other characters' comments in ways that match his/her personality.
I end this activity by asking students to describe the personalities of their classmates' characters.  Almost invariably, dialogue is enough to reveal each character's basic traits.

Next Week:  Characterization advice from guest blogger Lynne H. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Everything I Need to Know About Characterization I Learned from Gilligan's Island

Any author who is at all serious about her craft would be well-advised to invest a little time in researching literary archetypes.  These "tried and true" personalities can provide interesting starting points for your own cast of characters.

If you're a teacher, show an episode of Gilligan's Island to your students and see if they can identify the following characteristics in the castaways.  If you're an author, complete this activity as a relaxing exercise in character analysis.

The Best Friend
As the name states, this character is a loyal ally and a peacemaker.  He can be an easily distracted daydreamer but is also recognized for his cheerful, optimistic nature.  

The Chief
Impatient, demanding, and loud, the CHIEF is also a charismatic leader.  He excels at organization, recognizes the latent potential in others, and knows how to motivate people.  Despite his brusque personality, he cares about his companions and does everything in his power to keep them safe.

The Charmer

The CHARMER is a charismatic smooth talker and sometimes a bully.  He's enamored with himself like Gilderoy Lockhart from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, avoids unpleasant tasks, and revels in being the center of attention.  At times, he exhibits moments of surprising generosity.

The Nurturer
 The NURTURER is compassionate and loving and is happiest when interacting with others.  She is generous to a fault, her selfless nature often putting her at risk of emotional injury.  She's a personable character who is a friend to all.

The Spunky Kid
 The SPUNKY KID is dependable, enthusiastic, and committed to teamwork.  Her courage and devotion make her a steadfast ally.

The Professor
 Okay, this is a no-brainer, but the character is still worth mentioning.  The PROFESSOR is an intelligent, curious problem-solver who enjoys a good challenge.  Because of his vast knowledge, others turn to him for answers, but his keen mind can make him inflexible and oblivious.

The Seductress
Another no-brainer if you've watched this sitcom even once.  Appearance means everything to the SEDUCTRESS because she uses her beauty to manipulate men.  She is uninhibited, aggressive, and often insensitive to the needs of others.

The Boss
 The BOSS is confident, sophisticated, and commanding.  Because she isn't easily intimidated she can almost always hold her own against other strong personalities.  She may seem aloof, but she has the capacity to be caring and friendly.

You might notice that although there are only seven castaways on Gilligan's Island, I've included eight different archetypes.  Interesting characters aren't always -- and shouldn't be -- pigeon-holed into one specific category.  Memorable characters will often cross lines in unpredictable ways.

This activity can be completed with any number of different novels, movies, and television shows, but I like to use Gilligan's Island as an effective lead-in to characterization through dialogue.  Stay tuned next time for a fun, motivating dialogue activity that has been very successful with my students. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Deepening Your Characterization

Human beings are multifaceted creatures.  Like the yin and yang of Asian philosophy, "light" and "dark" attributes are subtly intertwined within us.  For every strength or noble quality, we possess fears and shortcomings we hope to suppress.  Fictional protagonists seem more real and intriguing when they possess a similarly dual nature.

To help yourself or your students deepen a character's personality, I suggest the following activity:
  1. Fold a blank sheet of paper in half, left to right, and open it again.
  2. Label one side of the paper "Light Side" and the other "Dark Side."
  3. Think about the character you're about to analyze.  Are her most visible attributes positive (Light Side) or negative (Dark Side)?  Complete steps 4 through 8 for that side of her personality.
  4. Pick an animal that could represent a dominant personality trait.  For example, a lion could be used to symbolize courage or a turtle to represent shyness.  Make a rough sketch of that animal.
  5. Pick a mineral and sketch it.  For example, gold to represent a generous heart or flint to represent a lack of compassion.
  6. Pick a color.  Most cultures associate certain colors with certain attributes.  Which colors could symbolize purity, cowardice, anger, or cheerfulness?
  7. Select a plant that symbolizes part of your protagonist's nature.  Is your character tenacious?  Maybe ivy could be used to represent this.  Is he a drifter?  How about a tumbleweed?
  8. Finally, pick a mode of transportation.  What qualities would a Sherman tank bring to mind?  How about a tricycle?  One or more of your choices might even be useful as a symbolic object in your story.
  9. Now look at the opposite half of the paper.  Here's where you really put your creativity to the test.  For each object you've already sketched, you must now think of its opposite.  Maybe you chose the lion to represent your character's courage.  If you decide on a mouse as its opposite, what hidden insecurity might this indicate?
When I've demonstrated this activity using other author's characters, I've never failed to be surprised by the polar opposites lurking within well-developed protagonists.  The hero of one story might be outwardly courageous yet struggle with paralyzing episodes of self-doubt.  The lead character of another story might be fiercely loyal to her friends yet be short-tempered with them when under stress.

The greatest value of this activity is that it can help an author think more deeply about the mixture of admirable qualities and flaws that will make her protagonist memorable and "human."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Revision Strategies Part III: Guest Blog from Lynne H.

*raises right arm to the square*
I promise not to call you “delusional” for thinking your writing is perfect.

Some aspiring writers struggle to honestly criticize their own work  They fail to notice awkward word choice, repetition, redundancies, sloppy plotting or awkward pacing, and underdeveloped characters. As any good therapist will tell you, “admitting you need help is the first step.” There are ways to tackle this; let me show you a few.

Read your work out loud, either to yourself or to somebody else. Hearing your words read aloud might help you identify what sounded good in your head but doesn’t work on paper. If your speaking voice sounds too much like the one in your head, have somebody else read it aloud to you. A different voice speaking your words might make a big difference to your perception of your writing.

Find some people to read and critique your pieces. Choose friends, colleagues, or even relatives whom you trust to not look at your work through rose-colored glasses.  If you only choose people who are afraid to be honest or who really aren’t critical thinkers, you’re not going to get much help, so perhaps you could start by giving them one chapter and see what suggestions they come up with.  If people use words like “interesting” or “amazing” or “needs more detail” but cannot tell you what they specifically find “interesting” or “amazing” or just exactly what details they’d like to see “more” of, they might not be the right ones to help you. Look for people who can ask you specific questions about your work. Readers should ask questions like:  “How did Cecelia and Elliott get from just-meeting to best-friends so quickly?” “So, Justine is an expert sword fighter after only one lesson?”  “I’d like to know more about what the building looked like.”  “Wait--is she really as ‘slender as a willow sapling’?” “Do you need to describe the sun as ‘glowing’?” You may, of course, ignore any and all questions, but I submit that seeing your writing from the perspective of another can be a real eye-opener.

Some writers find writing groups helpful.  You can join groups of writers who are all working in the same genre (romance, fantasy, etc.), or you may prefer working with a mixed group of writers who are working in diverse genres. You may be uncomfortable with the intimacy of reading and discussing your project face-to-face with live people, but it may be preferable to having undetected ridiculousness in your writing, and the bonus is that you’ve caught it before it got out there for people like me to get snarky about.

Or, if you prefer the relative anonymity of cyberspace, you can join one of the dozens of online writing communities.   A caveat:  It’s an absolute crapshoot as to whether you find reliable, helpful critique buddies on one of these or not. I’ve seen some pretty laughable stuff get rave reviews.  I’ve also seen some nasty flame wars.  The same anonymity that protects you can turn other people downright hateful and cause them to say things they’d never say to a person’s face. 

Read negative reviews of published works.  Pay attention to what caused the reviewer to give a negative critique of the work in question.  Get cheap used paperback copies of novels and underline the crappy bits.  Write notes in the margins.  Converse with the author. It can be therapeutic to see that bad stuff gets published all the time. Tell yourself that surely you can overcome some of the foibles that made this particular author look so ridiculous.

Of everything I’ve mentioned here, however, I’ve saved the most important bits for last, and even gave them bullet points for emphasis (you’re welcome):

     Analyze your work as a reader and not as a writer.
     Analyze others’ work as a writer and not as a reader.
     Develop a thick skin.
     See writing as a journey and not just as a means to an end.
     Take responsibility for your own work.  Don’t count on editors, beta readers, or your writing group to fill the gaps in your skills.

Up next:  Some help with “fleshing out” your characters.

Be sure to check out Lynne's blog at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Less Is More: Trusting Your Reader

Over the past few weeks, I've been reworking a story I 'completed' several years ago.  At that time, I considered it the best writing I'd ever done.  Sadly, at that time, it probably was.  Let's just say 'editing' is too mild a term for what the story needs.  Words like 'decimation,' 'reconstructive surgery,' and 'pulmonary resuscitation' come to mind.  

While ruthlessly annihilating waste-of-space sentences, trimming repetitive paragraphs, and chopping bulky scenes, I've noticed a common theme.  In almost every case, the necessary eliminations have come about because I failed to trust my reader.

What does it mean to trust your reader, and how can you tell when you aren't doing it?  Trust is having faith that your reader will be intelligent enough to fill in the blanks on her own.  Not trusting is giving into the temptation to explain.

I'm an educator, so it's in my personality to explain.  Sometimes I explain the same thing twice, which is to say I repeat a similar thing in two different ways.  (Since the point of this post is trusting your reader, I'll assume you've already spotted the lame attempt at humor in the preceding sentences.)

On a sentence level, check your writing to see if you do anything like this:

"Get out!  Get out NOW!" she shouted, her face burning red with anger.

One could reasonably argue that your average reader knows your character is shouting without being reminded of it in the sentence tag.  But does the reader even need to know the protagonist's face is "burning red with anger'?  Sometimes the most unnecessary words are the hardest ones for an author to let go.

Here's where confession time begins.  I don't just explain with sentences.  Sometimes I explain in entire paragraphs.  When I'm really on a roll, I use an entire scene!  In the aforementioned manuscript, I repeatedly resorted to inner monologue to sneakily force my protagonists to explain the romantic feelings they were experiencing.  Shameless of me, I know, and any savvy reader will see right through it.  If a little dialogue, a furtive glance, and a warm blush aren't enough to get the point across, it's time for me to reassess my 'show don't tell' techniques.

Almost as bad as the last example was an entire scene (Now deleted!) created to showcase a few of my favorite research 'gems.'  Several pages existed so I could slip in something about the 'chape' of a sword's scabbard and several more came into being so I could explain how the natural oil in the scabbard's wool lining protected the hero's sword from rust and corrosion.  (There!  I finally found a way to use it!  I feel much better now.)

Your reader is intelligent.  He proved that by learning to read.  So take a few risks.  Trust that he'll get the point.  And if you still have lingering doubts about people 'getting it,' you might consider looking for a trustworthy beta reader.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revision Strategies (Part II)

In Part II of an ongoing series of guest blogs, Lynne H. shares more of her editing expertise with the Creative Writing Toolbox.  Thank you, Lynne!
By way of explanation, the previous post A. C. graciously included in his blog dealt with what authors call “sentence-level” revision.  This post will contain more of the same.

After getting rid of illogical phrases (blinking eyes, nodding heads, silently nodding heads), the next thing to do might be to edit for specific word choices that seem repetitive or redundant.  If you already caught some of these in your first search-and-destroy, go back and catch some more. If this is your zero draft and you don’t edit as you go, there will probably be more *facepalm* moments for you than for some of us who are the edit-as-we-go types. 

Be on the lookout for:

how many times a character shrugs
purses his lips
rolls her eyes
lifts or raises an eyebrow
nods (silently or otherwise)
or how often does the hair on the back of somebody’s neck stand up?
And no, you can’t get away with these as long as you vary the modifiers you throw at them.  

Do the characters’ eyes become nearly anthropomorphic (as in “my eyes went to his face”); does his gaze or glance “fall on” something or someone too often?  Do you overuse certain verbs, as in “he cast a glance in her direction” or “her final insult was cast over her shoulder as she left the room.”?

Are you considering your readers, or are you merely trying to show off your mad thesaurus skills? Have you fallen in love with the word effulgent and are you insistent on using it anywhere it will fit?  I’m not asking you to “dumb down” your prose or condescend to your audience, but you might want to reflect on why you’re using the word. 

Please realize none of these are “evil” in and of themselves.  What we’re mainly talking about is the annoyingly repetitive use of such words or phrases. While in editing/rewriting mode, you might try using some of the tools your word processor has to seek out some of the more overused words and either destroy or replace them (it’s actually called “search and replace,” but I prefer “search and destroy”).

Another suggestion, maybe a little more fun:  go to, click on the “Create” link and copypaste a paragraph, a page, or an entire chapter of your novel and examine the resulting “word cloud.” It will be obvious which words you may be abusing; they’ll be the ones in larger print.

Also, as regards repetition: how many references are you making to a character’s voice, eyes, hair, build? Such references slow your pacing and get in the way of character development that would be more useful, such as personality quirks, thoughts, or relationships with other characters. “Okay, okay, we get it.  He’s the hottest guy in school/ the company/ the universe.  Move on!”

As for redundancy, look for sentences like: “He was gone, but I could still feel the warmth of his hand on my arm.”  If this isn’t a flashback to when our speaker was ten and now-deceased Grandpa Simon placed a hand on our speaker’s arm to tell him or her a secret or to share some truth about life, “still” may be dispensable and superfluous (this is where you say, “I see what you did there”).  Watch for overuse of modifiers, as in:  “The people suffered innumerable and infinite injustices at the hands of the Council,” “Czongor wisely and astutely disagreed.” “We took a tedious and monotonous route through the barren desert.” Some would even consider “barren desert” redundant. 

What to do if you still cannot see some of the glitches in your own work?  That’s for the next post.

Thanks again, Lynne!  For more of Lynne's insights, visit her at

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Avoiding the Ing

A common problem shared by many amateur writers is their emotional attachment to the dreaded Ing.  What is this insidious affliction?  See if you can spot it in the following passage:

Walking down the road, Carol heard something.  Looking over her shoulder, she shuddered.  Following her was a ten foot tall hairy creature.  Licking its lips, it reached out with a massive hand.  Seeing its dirty hangnail-covered fingers, Carol screamed.

Skilled writers avoid drawing too much attention to any single word or phrase unless there's a strategic purpose for doing it.  Gerund phrases -- especially when scampering one after another like lost puppies across a page -- draw attention from the story and focus it instead on the mechanics of each sentence. 

Experienced writers start a sentence with a gerund once or twice every few pages at worst, once every ten or fifteen pages at best.  An observant writer can make it through entire chapters without resorting to these attention-stealing sentence starters.  Creative writing teachers can help younger and older authors alike learn to overcome this habit through guided revision of paragraphs like the gerund-infected example above.

Almost as bad as "ing" openers are sentences starting with "as" or "when."

As I opened the door, something moved.  When I stepped in, I heard a floorboard creak.  As I turned toward the sound, an Ing stepped out of the shadows.  Swallowing hard, I backed away.

Another way to cure your students is to have them use their word processor's "find and replace" function to seek out and highlight any sentence starting with "ing," "as," or "when."  If they're serious about their writing, this can be an eye-opening, writing-changing experience.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Word Nerd weighs in on Revision strategies

Lynne H. (a.k.a. the Word Nerd @ is more than a mere reader or editor.  She's like a no-nonsense personal trainer for writers.  I've been the fortunate beneficiary of her critical eye on my last two projects, and I've asked her to share some of her editing insights today.  Thank you, Lynne!

Thanks, A. C., for inviting me to post on your blog.

Stephen King said it well:  “When you write you tell yourself a story. When you rewrite you take out everything that is NOT the story.”

 I’ve been asked to talk about revision. Revision (not to be confused with proofreading)  is probably the most difficult part of the writing process, but it is also the most important. Consider “revision” as a “re-seeing” of your work. This is where you focus on content:  characterization, action, tension, pacing, and word choice. There is analysis involved.  Sometimes it is painful. You may have to give up some beloved phrases, ideas, or plot points.  You may have to delete a character that isn’t working. Put your ego on the shelf and think of your story, your characters, and, most important, your readers.

First revision hint:  Be logical! Go through and find the “easier” fixes, those dealing with redundancies or word usage first.  Look for “blinking eyes” or “nodding heads.”  While we’re on the subject of nodding, is it necessary to tell your readers that somebody “nodded silently” as Brandon Sanderson does so many times in the Mistborn series?  “Silently” is completely superfluous, unless somebody’s brains have been replaced with marbles.  Maybe they can nod “slowly” or “briefly,” depending upon whether they’re hesitating or hurrying as they acquiesce, but “silently”?  Please, no. On that same note, look for redundancies in your descriptions.  “Round orbs,”  “loud explosions,” or “tall giants,” for example.

Trust your reader to be as logical as you are and delete any unnecessary information such as “Rebecca clasped Jane’s two hands in her own two.” Yes, sadly enough, such passages in published works exist. Unless this is an alien species that holds hands with their feet or boasts more than one pair of hands, you have not added any relevant description nor have you aided your reader in seeing what you see. Better:  “Rebecca clasped Jane’s hands in hers.”  And some would argue that “in hers” isn’t necessary either. Now you have room to have Rebecca look in Jane’s eyes and thank her, warn her, or encourage her, which goes much further toward character development than letting your reader know that each girl has two hands. 

The benefit from using logic and eliminating redundancies when revising is that you get clarity as a bonus. A clearer sentence is a stronger one.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Four): Jeopardy

Okay.  I've saved the obvious for last.  The biggest and most blatant way to stir up sympathy is to place a protagonist in mortal peril.  Remember my earlier posts on tension?  Here's another example of a technique that serves a dual purpose.  Jeopardizing a character creates equal parts sympathy and tension -- unless the protagonist is so unlikeable readers want his story to end.  (I've read a few of these.  I didn't make it halfway through the book.)

Imagine The Wizard of Oz without the Wicked Witch of the West pursuing Dorothy at every turn.  How much of the story's impact would be lost without this plot device?  How easy would it be to become complacent about Dorothy's fate?  Similarly, in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, the immediate danger posed by the relentless Ringwraiths makes us more sympathetic to Frodo's plight.  In The Elfstones of Shannara, Terry Brooks achieves this effect by sending the bloodthirsty Reaper after his protagonists.

A character doesn't necessarily need to be pursued by murderous villains to find herself in jeopardy.  The threat of a deadly disease, financial ruin, heartbreak, or ostracism can also drum up reader sympathy.  Find a story without elements of jeopardy embedded in the plot and you'll probably find a story you quickly lose interest in.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Three): Vulnerability

Vulnerability.  We've all experienced it at one point or another.  It was emotional when you were trying to work up the courage to ask that cute girl to the junior prom.  It was physical when you faced the class bully in the parking lot after school.  The right amount of vulnerability at the right time can convince a reader to sympathize with a protagonist.

In his Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) introduces us to three highly vulnerable protagonists.  Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are children.  Violet, the oldest, is only fourteen while the youngest, Sunny, has barely started cutting her baby teeth.  What's more vulnerable than a child?  Try three children who have just been orphaned and placed in the hands of a despicable relative bent upon exploiting them.

Throughout the series, Snicket places the Baudelaires in one vulnerable situation after another.  First, creepy old Count Olaf tries to marry young Violet to get at her inheritance.  When the children escape, he systematically kills off every adult who attempts to aid them.  Eventually, he even succeeds in turning the police against the children by framing them for his own supposed death.

James Patterson preps his readers within the first three chapters of his YA novel Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment.  After escaping a secret lab where she and her friends have been genetically altered and equipped with wings, Max and the 'Flock' hide out in an out-of-the-way house high up in the mountains.  Things go terribly wrong, however, when a pack of mutant half-wolf, half-human creatures kidnap Angel, the youngest member of the Flock, and transport her back to the terrifying lab.

Patterson develops Angel's vulnerability by describing her personal space as being "like a nest -- full of stuffed animals, books, most of her clothes."  She has "blonde curls" and Max loves Angel most because Angel is "just so incredibly sweet and loving herself."  By the time the evil Erasers show up to grab her, readers are quickly ready to worry about Angel and to root for Max to save her.

Anytime you wish to open a door to reader sympathy, consider placing one of your characters in a position of extreme emotional or physical vulnerability. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Two): Hardship

A vital skill every writer must learn is how to convince readers to emotionally invest themselves in the protagonist's failure or success.  They must celebrate with him when things go well and worry about him when things don't.  A simple way to win reader sympathy is to place a likable character in the midst of hardship.

J. K. Rowling uses Harry Potter's misfortunes to lure us into her young protagonist's story.  In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone we quickly learn that Harry's parents have been murdered then watch him suffer abuses in the Dursley household.  Harry lives under the stairs, receives a pair of Uncle Vernon's used socks as a birthday present, and is constantly tormented by Dudley and his friends.  Is it any wonder we silently cheer for him when he finally escapes to Hogwarts?

This doesn't just work with likable characters.  Even an unsavory one -- if his life has been hard enough -- can win our grudging sympathy.  Take Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example.  As Gollum travels with Frodo, the unfortunate details of his past life slowly begin to unfold.  We learn that he was once named Smeagol and lived among friends and family.  We see how the ring warped his mind, turning him into the treacherous he has become.  We watch the 'good vs. evil' battle between his split personalities and might even come, as Frodo does, to pity Gollum while simultaneously loathing him.

Place your character in the midst of hardship.  Take away his friends, family, home, or all of the above.  The more difficult things become for your protagonist, the more likely it is readers will start to care about him.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part One): The Underdog

What do Rocky Balboa, Dorothy Gale, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen have in common?  Other than the interesting fact that each character's name has a symbolic tie-in to nature, the answer is they're classic examples of "underdogs." 

No, I'm not talking about flying canines in red capes.  I'm referring to a useful way to build sympathy for your character.  Think David and Goliath, cornered gazelle against rampaging lion, Cowboys versus Aliens.  To get your audience rooting for your protagonists, sometimes all you need is to put them up against vastly overwhelming odds.

In the Hunger Games Suzanne Collins effectively uses this technique not only with her major characters but also with minor ones.  Take Rue, the diminutive contestant from District 11, for example. While Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are preparing for the bloodshed and destruction of the gladitorial-like Hunger Games, Rue shadows them from practice station to practice station. Katniss notices how Rue looks like "a bird ready to take flight," realizes Rue couldn't "tip the scales at 70 pounds," and broods about how the small girl will be up against "a 220-pound male with a sword."  With a few masterfully chosen descriptions, Ms. Collins garners immediate reader sympathy for Rue.

How about Rocky Balboa versus Ivan Drago in the fourth installment of the Rocky films?  Ivan trains with hi-tech machinery, has an 1800 pounds-per-square-inch punch, and has already killed world champion Apollo Creed in the ring.

Overwhelming odds equals underdog.  Underdog equals sympathy.  Find a successful story, and you're likely to find an "underdog."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Battle Within

Cliffhangers, frustration, unanswered questions, and raising the stakes -- all of these are powerful tension builders.  But this last technique may be the most powerful of all.  It's the universally human experience of inner conflict.

Give your protagonist two or more mutually exclusive goals or desires and you immediately create inner conflict.  Consider this actual situation:

At college a young man came across a girl he'd known since early childhood and started dating her.  Soon after this, he realized he was in love and wanted to marry her.  But one of his deepest secrets held him back.  When he was in high school, he had been involved in a stupid prank leading to a car accident that killed the girl's father.  He and his friends fled the scene, never revealing their role in the incident.  Now it had come back to haunt him again.

Should he reveal the truth and risk losing the woman he loved?  Or should he keep the secret, marry her, and live with the gnawing guilt?  Either way their relationship was bound to suffer.

These are the kinds of choices that generate inner conflict.  Create compelling enough turmoil and readers will stick around to find out how the protagonist resolves it.  What compromise will he have to make?  Will he regret his choice later?

Inner conflict is a technique that, by its very nature, also leads to powerful characterization.  While the tension steadily builds, your protagonist is making difficult choices that gradually define him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Long, Hard Road

Nothing tunes a reader out quicker than a main character who achieves his goals too easily.  It's like being in class with the annoying brainy kid who gets an A on every assignment and doesn't even break a sweat.  Real people have challenges.  Their lives aren't easy.  Ironically, when we read to escape our own problems, we want to immerse ourselves in the setbacks of a frustrated protagonist.

Tension Technique #4 -- frustrating your protagonist -- is all about making it as difficult as possible for your character to accomplish his goals.  Give anything to him too easily and you've thrown aside what should be one of the most often used tools from your author arsenal.

If Reggie needs to win the Battle of the Bands (goal) to get the attention of his secret crush (motive), a few obstacles thrown in his path will not only build sympathy but heighten tension as well.  Maybe Reggie's old electric guitar gets stepped on three days before the competition.  Reggie searches pawn shops and garage sales for two days; but, when he finally finds a replacement, his jealous rival, accompanied by a gang of cronies, chases him down an alley and steals the guitar.  By a miracle, Reggie manages to acquire a third guitar.  Blow an amp and break a few strings two minutes before his band goes on stage and you've really cranked up the tension.  The very things that make life more difficult for Reggie is what makes readers root for the hero and turn pages.

To introduce this technique, I sometimes give students an unsolvable crossword puzzle.  Every time they think they've found an answer, they discover it won't fit.  You don't want to let this activity drag on too long, but a few minutes of frustration and an example or two from a popular novel help get the point across.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gambling with Happiness

Every protagonist has a motive.  Without a motive, the protagonist would be perfectly happy sitting on the couch at home eating potato chips and watching TV.  A skilled novelist knows she has to do something to shake things up in the protagonist's life.  We have to upset Ms. Protagonist's balance of happiness so she crosses the "adventure threshold" to get her comfortable stability back.  Here's where Tension-Building Technique #3 comes into play.  It's what Donald Maass in his excellent Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook refers to as "raising the stakes."

Raising the stakes happens every time you introduce a situation that makes it more important for your protagonist to restore balance to her life.

Suppose Katie's brother has just been murdered, and her Type A personality won't let her rest until the killer is brought to justice.  The police have written off Bill's death as a suicide, but Katie knows Bill better than that and decides to look for his murderer on her own.  In the meantime, however, new evidence arrives, implicating Katie in the crime.

How important has it now become for Katie to solve the crime?  The stakes have now been raised.  But wait a second!  While Katie is evading the police and getting ever closer to discovering the real killer's identity, Mr. Murderer now discovers what she's up to and decides to finish her off.

What started out as an emotional tragedy has now ballooned into a life or death situation.  Mix in a lot of unanswered questions and a few chapter-ending cliffhangers, and you might just have your readers hooked.

I like to use a "rotating story" to give my students hands on practice with raising the stakes.  Each student creates a character, a motive, and a goal which she then hands off to a second student.  Student #2 looks at the character's goal and decides what would make it twice as important for the character to accomplish it.  Now the story moves off to Student #3 who must triple the importance of achieving the goal.

For an in-depth look at how to master this and other tension-building techniques, I recommend Donald Maass's book.  It's a valuable resource for any writing teacher or author and provides multiple examples of tension at work.

Speaking of motives and goals, check back next week to see how these elements can be used to heighten a story's tension.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Leave 'Em Hanging

In the early days of film-making, a popular technique for bringing audiences back to the theater was to leave a protagonist hanging on for dear life at the edge of a sheer, rocky cliff.  Will Ranger Bob survive?  Come back next week for Episode 2 in a three part series!

Cliffhangers are as interesting and useful today as they were a hundred or more years ago.  The fear of death is universal.  Leave your protagonist in mortal peril and most readers will be reluctant to put your book down.  At least not until they've read the next chapter to make sure the hero survives. (Or cheated and skipped ahead!)

Some of the most annoying (i.e. best) writers find ways to drag the cliffhanger out.  A cliffhanger can be especially effective in a novel written in multiple points of view.  Being a linear type of reader, it hooks me almost every time when an author ends one character's chapter with a life or death situation then starts the next chapter in a different character's point of view.  I'm either forced to wait twenty pages to find out if Character A survives or (Yes, I'm guilty of this!) skim through chapters until I find the continuing thread of Character A's story.  Either way I spend more time reading than I intended.

If something sounds oddly familiar about this technique, that's because a cliffhanger is nothing more than an unanswered question involving higher stakes.  Cliffhangers inspire the same kind of morbid curiosity that makes "rubber-necking" motorists slow down to gawk at an accident on the opposite side of the freeway.  Even though we assume an author wouldn't kill off the main character in the middle of the story, there's still a part of us that needs to know everything will turn out all right.

So leave that gladiator in the bloodied sand with a sword pointing at his neck while you send your reader on a detour to the senator's opulent villa at the outskirts of Rome.  Maybe Ms. Reader will get annoyed and skip ahead, but she's still eagerly reading your story, and that's what you're shooting for.

Will we make it through the next three techniques?  Will it be worth the wait?  Tune in next week for Episode 3: Raising the Stakes.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to Create a Page-Turner

If you're a writer, you're probably also a reader, and if you're a reader, you've most likely experienced one of those nights when you stayed up far too late to see "what happened next" in the novel you just couldn't put down.  The author didn't accomplish this by accident.  Skilled writers manipulate readers by using tension to keep them turning pages.

Before introducing tension-building techniques to my students, I create a little tension of my own by telling them half the class is about to get an F for the day.  I bring one boy and one girl to the front of the room and tell them the participation points for every student of their gender depends on what they do next.

Next, I bring out a balloon (the kind used to make balloon animals) and hold up a pump.  I emphasize that the balloon is old -- the latex isn't what it used to be -- and this balloon will  pop quickly if overinflated.  Then I pump up the balloon until it's completely filled, and this is where the fun begins.

Each student gets to choose how many times I completely push down the pump's plunger.  If they pop the balloon on their turn, every student of their gender gets zero points.  Since I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy, I let the ladies go first.  Invariably they choose to pump it once.  The balloon doesn't pop, but the pressure is on for the boys.  How many times can they pump it without making it explode?

What the students don't realize is this kind of balloon can take another eight or ten pumps even when it looks entirely filled.  The boys -- wanting to look manly -- choose TWO or THREE pumps.  It still doesn't pop, and all around the room I see grimaces and watch students hold their fingers to their ears.

I don't really take points from the losers, but I have created a powerful opportunity to discuss tension.  What is it exactly that brings a movie goer to the edge of her seat or forces a reader to explore that next paragraph, page, or chapter?  It usually boils down to a combination of the following five techniques:

Unanswered Questions

Who was that creepy guy peeking around the corner?  And why was he watching Tara?  Beginning writers tend to tell us in the next paragraph.  They quickly explain his motives then plow onward to the climax of the story.  This might be because they're impatient, but it could also be that they simply don't recognize the power of an unanswered question.

The moment Tara sees her creepy stalker, you, the author, have made an unspoken promise to your reader.  The mere fact this man was important enough to mention implies he will -- for good or evil -- show up again before the story ends.  How will Mr. Reader find out who he is?  Naturally, he'll have to read Chapter Two.  Or is it Chapter Three?  Or Chapter Twenty-Three?  The point is, he has to keep reading to find out.  Authors should always be on the lookout for opportunities to force their readers to ask questions and forge ahead for answers.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling reveals troubling -- and often conflicting -- tidbits about Dumbledore's youthful escapades.  Harry begins to question everything he thought he knew about his hero, and the reader questions those old assumptions as well.  To discover the truth we must follow Harry as he searches for Horcruxes and more information.  Carefully examine any bestselling novel, and you'll find this technique constantly being put to work.

This said, our next powerful technique is. . .

Well. . .  Check back next Wednesday to find out.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Show DON'T Tell

A skilled author paints pictures in her readers' minds.  Like an artist who chooses different brush strokes and colors to portray an image, a professional author needs her own palette of techniques.  Sensory language, strong verbs, slanted words, and concrete words are the author's equivalent to the artist's paint.

Sensory Language

Consider the following sentences:

A) Cheryl was really sad.
B) "I can't believe he's gone," Cheryl sobbed, tears streaking her reddened cheeks.

Which of these examples shows Cheryl's sadness and which one tells about it? 

There's a place for both of these sentences, but Sentence B is the obvious "showing" example.

We all know what the five senses are: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.  Some writers even refer to a sixth sense -- a protagonists' intuition.  A reader can only see what your protagonist is seeing or hear what she's hearing.  This is where sensory words come into play.  A word like reddened can be used to show (as in Sentence B) the color of another character's face.  Similarly, words like squeaky, rough, salty, etc. give us a sense to latch onto while we sketch the scene on our mental "movie screen."

This is basic knowledge, but young writers don't always understand it.  To help my students, I used to ask them to create a chart with a column for each of the five senses.  Next we watched a 30 to 60 second video clip from a popular movie, jotting notes about what the character was seeing and hearing.  On a second run-through, the students focused on touch, taste, and smell.  These notes could then be used to construct a written version that "showed" the scene.

One word of caution:  Beginning writers (even some not-so-beginning writers) think phrases like "he smelled pollution," "she heard the traffic," etc. are examples of quality sensory description.  It helps to ask, "What is one word that describes that odor or one word that describes that sound."

Strong Verbs

Perhaps even more powerful than a few well-placed sensory words is one carefully chosen strong verb.  A strong verb is an action word with a specific associated image.  Consider the differences in the following sentences:

A) Jim walked down the street.
B) Jim staggered down the street.
C) Jim limped down the street.
D) Jim strutted down the street.

Notice how weak the verb walk is compared to strong verbs like staggered, limped, and strutted.  Sentences B, C, and D create vividly specific images.

Slanted Words

In a motion picture, a director chooses different types of music to create atmosphere and mood.  "Slanted" words (Don't confuse these with italicized words!) are an author's equivalent to mood altering music.  A slanted word usually has a very dark or light feeling and will manipulate a reader's perception.  For example:

A) Raindrops pattered gently against the misty window pane.
B) Raindrops trickled like oozing blood down the cracked window pane.

Notice the contrast between the words pattered, gently, and misty versus oozing, blood, and cracked.  These words are powerful.  They persuade the reader to feel the emotions you, the author, wish to impose upon them.

As an exercise for your students (or yourself) try watching one of the happier, sunnier scenes from the motion picture The Sound of Music.  Next, contrast this scene with the tense climax in the Nonnberg Abbey.  What colors and lighting are used to create lighter versus darker moods?  What objects contribute to these feelings?  The same techniques -- in written form -- apply to novels and short stories.

Concrete Words

Concrete words add a sense of reality to a story.  The word car doesn't create the vivid mental picture of a more specific word like Porsche.  Often a concrete word will tell you something about a character's personality.  The college professor who lectures in Wellington boots is probably quite different from her colleague who shows up on campus in Birkenstock sandals and argyle socks.  

You might argue that your world is too unique or alien for this technique to be effective, but some of the best fantasy and science fiction writers use it to great effect.  If you need an example, try exploring the alien world created by author Anne McCaffrey in her Dragonriders of Pern series.  It doesn't hurt to create names for alien species of plants, animals, and foods.  If you use them in context, your savvy readers will quickly come to accept them as a real part of your created world.

A simple activity that helps young writers recognize concrete words is to assign them categories like "Breeds of Dogs," "Gemstones," or "Names of Flowers" then have them compete in groups to see who can come up with the most words in two or three minutes.  Don't forget to teach them that concrete words are most effective when used like salt or pepper.  The right amount, used sparingly, spices things up.  Too much ruins the meal.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Big Three

If you've taught creative writing to teenagers, you might remember seeing plot lines similar to this:  A group of friends prepares to go to a party.  The protagonist decides she needs a new blouse, so her friends take her to the mall to find one.  At the mall they get something to eat then search through one store after another until FINALLY they find the perfect blouse!  They purchase it, the protagonist wears it to the party, and everyone tells her how great it looks!  The protagonist lives happily ever after! (Exclamation points are essential here.  At least they were in the original story.)

After reading a few assignments like this, you might question why you ever consented to teach the new creative writing elective.  The happy news is that the same teen writer who created this snore-inducing attempt at a story was able to create amazing page-turners once she mastered the following principles:  1) show your story, don't tell it; 2) add tension to your scenes; and 3) create reader sympathy for your protagonist.

The "Big Three" don't magically occur by themselves.  Although a talented writer can eventually pick them up through writer's intuition, a student can quickly turn her writing around within days of learning specific techniques associated with each principle.

I still remember my own experience in a creative writing course.  Our professor constantly lectured us about "showing" our stories instead of "telling" them.  There was one problem.  She never explicitly taught any of the techniques we needed to accomplish it.

"Show don't tell.  Show don't tell."  It was as if these three magical words could instantly transform our writing.  When I finally managed to stumble upon the true meaning of the concept, the professor called me into her office to tell me, "This writing is too good to be yours."

If you expect your students to write like professionals, they need to learn the techniques used by professional authors.  Even a thirteen year-old can master them.  (It's possible!  I've seen it happen.  The challenge is getting the thirteen year-old to patiently keep at it.)  Over the course of my next few posts, I'll focus on these techniques.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Welcome to the blog of creative writing teacher and author A.C. Grant.  If you're a teacher of aspiring teen writers or just want to brush up on your knowledge of writing techniques, the Creative Writing Toolbox is here to help.