3 Disparaging and Harmful Writing Trends

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Copywriting (writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing) has seeped into the mainstream, and its frequency is harming literature.

Inaccurate and blatantly false information repeated enough times often becomes “truth.” Urban legends are examples, as are quotes attributed to the wrong person. Bad grammar can be added to the list.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on Don’t Believe What THEY Say about writing rules and when to break them. The main thrust was that if a writer knows the rules, and has good reason, the “rules” become “guidelines” and can effectively be ignored. Has Good Reason remains the crucial point.

The First Trend: Many Get it Wrong, Period.

Lately I have noticed the “period”—and comma, for that matter—is not getting the respect it deserves, often an afterthought rather than fulfilling its basic function. This type of punctuation is unfortunately becoming commonplace:

Dan said, “I don’t know anything about it”.

The period must be within the quote for clarity, not outside as a forgotten cousin.

From a blog post:

Do not ask for permission. In other words, do not say anything like “it seems to me”, “in my opinion”.

Instead of disregarding the above examples as written by inexperienced or amateur writers, what follows is an article’s opening paragraph from a trusted and long-standing professional publication.

Newsweek Mon, Jun 5 5:00 AM PDT

The countries have accused Qatar of embracing “multiple terrorist and sectarian groups”. Qatar has called this move “unjustified”, claiming the accusations have “no basis in fact”.

Are there no editors at Newsweek? The three errors—each the same type—are glaring examples of poor punctuation, and thereby, bad writing. In each case, the writing is easily corrected by placing the comma or period within the quotations.

Why does it matter? “Oh, Rick,” you say, “you’re just a Grammar Nazi.” I don’t think so.

Whenever writing stops the reader, credibility is harmed, both to the writer and the topic.

From Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks . . .”

The example the “Little Book” uses:

“The Fish,” “Poetry,” and “The Monkeys” are in Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems.

Clarity for the reader is paramount; without clarity, readers turn away from the writing. A reader prematurely leaving our stories is not what we want.

Second Trend: Even Favorite Authors Disappoint

Jim Butcher is a favorite fantasy writer and best-selling author; his Alera series is a fine example of multi-viewpoint epic fantasy—some of his concepts border on genius.

Yet, his recent writing has left me underwhelmed. Although the story itself piques my interest by its uniqueness, and much of the characterization is finely tuned, poor grammar has halted my reading several times—writing that “stops” a reader, thereby pulling them from the illusion of disbelief, is salt poured on an open wound.

The use of exclamation points from The Aeronaut’s Windlass:

“Creedy!” Grimm called as he made his way over the mist-shrouded gangplank from the airship dock in the Fleet shipyard atop Spire Albion, and onto Predator. “With me!”

Captain on deck!” called Kettle, down in the hold. “Mister Creedy to the deck!”

When a character “calls” or “yells” or “screams,” an exclamation point is, well, pointless: one or the other is correct, though I would declare using four exclamation points—twice coupled with “called”—in four sentences effectively detracts from the importance of the story’s action.

There’s also the problem of five prepositional phrases strung together (over, from, in, atop, onto) in a single sentence, but I won’t delve into that here.

Whether lazy writing or poor editing, or perhaps both as the book was rushed to publication, there are no excuses for ineffectual grammar that stops the reader.

More on using exclamation points here:

Third Trend: Fragments Without Purpose

A recent headline:

Henry Cavill has the cutest giant dog and we. must. pet.

I know writers who love and frequently use fragments. Fragments are effective tools when the writer wants to emphasize a particular point or speed a story’s pace, and is especially telling when used within dialogue.

Taking the last part of the prior sentence, writing as, “. . . and is especially telling when. used. within. dialogue,” is simply poor writing.

Don’t do it.

Don’t do it is more effective than don’t. do. it.

Strive to be a better writer than what passes for current trends.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Critique Meat

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The critique goal is to improve your writing and editing skills; the fall-out is helping another writer do the same.

As writers, we understand noun and pronoun usage, plot movement, character arc, overstating, under-explaining, but they are at times hard to gauge in our own stories. Am I telling the reader what they need to know, or too much? Enough description or does the particular paragraph border on purple prose? How and when should I emphasize an important point to make sure readers do not miss it?

These are the more difficult things to know. Readers will pick up on different nuances depending on their skill (and yours), and some will be missed. So be it—I do not recommend writing to the lowest common denominator. Still, we writers must be cognizant of the reader with each word choice, every sentence, and the order delivered.

James’s critique of my novel surprised me in what he noticed, and alternatively, a couple items he missed . . . or did he? Will a foreshadowing seed hinted in the early part of the book bear fruit when he arrives at the fulfillment? Some items remain to be seen. Just because he did not mention a particular hint does not mean the seed did not get filed away to sprout at a future time in the novel. I wait to see if I succeeded or vagueness undermined me.

Critiquing involves a slew of issues (contextual, logistical, rational), but the most helpful is the sentence and phrasing missteps a fellow writer will see that the creator missed—the “Meat” of improving your writing.

The following items from his critique point to the common things we know as writers but still miss when editing our own writing. I will comment as necessary. James pointing out the flaws magnifies the need for me to improve my editing skills—again, one of the main reasons for finding an honest critique partner.

Readers can and do put aside some logistical issues demonstrated by readers who have “studied” the Harry Potter books—what they won’t forgive is poor writing.

What follows are examples of poor writing James found in my manuscript: some work as originally written, others need improvement, and others are just bad.

Examples

Set-up: Aban is my protagonist’s mount. At this point my MC is taking a seriously injured comrade to a healer.

Example: Aban dashed, smooth and sure through the narrow pass, across the bridge to Nychelle’s Gate where sentries yelled for him to stop, closed gates forcing him to do so.

James’ comment: This would carry a little more urgency broken up. eg., “Aban dashed through the narrow pass and across the bridge. The gates were closed. Sentries yelled for them to stop.”

Urgency is an important ingredient.

Next sentence: The gate swung outward.

James’ comment: Needs a small beat there. “There was a pause (tension), then the gate swung outward.”

Tension is good.

Example: “Tristyn’s allegiance is critical to any success of defeating the King.”

James’ comment: omit “any success of.”

Yes, cut unnecessary words.

Example: “Winter will be upon us, and we need to get a base camp to work from.”

James’ comment: Omit “to get.”

Again, cut unnecessary words. I might even shorten it further and remove to work from.

Example: Her face grew hopeful, he thought. “We should travel together.”

James’ comment: Filtering. Just “her face grew hopeful” tells us that he is thinking it.

Overwriting, check; one of my flaws where special attention is needed. This is a good reminder.

Example: The trainer turned when he rode up, and Aban slowed to a gentle stop beside her. He nodded in greeting.

James’ comment: Name who nodded (the MC). The last “he” was Aban.

My take: Actually, the last “he” referenced my MC, but there remains ambiguity as to who nodded.

Correct noun-pronoun mix-up.

The listed examples involve inferior phraseology, items that can and should—for the most part—be corrected. There are more. Some are embarrassing.

Letting others read your writing opens a chest of concerns and fears. These are normal emotions, ones you can use in your own writing to enliven characters into the minds and hearts of your reader. Study the feelings, the how’s and why’s, the circumstances causing the emotions to better understand yourself and others—and just as important, the people living in your stories.

Writing is growing, and as creators we must continue to learn and improve. Critiquing is a good tool to help on the path of becoming a better writer. I encourage you to find a critique partner, and together, both of you can evolve into the writers you are meant to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Art of Critique: Foundation

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Since last week’s post, James and I returned our critiques to their rightful owners.

Again, I learned a great deal about my writing—and how to improve it—from James’s astute observations. Specific lessons will come in a future post: first, it’s important to lay the foundation and explain the processes which have proven most effective both to the writer and the one critiquing.

Expectations

A critique is not a review. Whereas a review explores the general sense of a story or novel, a critique concentrates on the inner workings, the how’s and why’s a particular piece works or not. Consider it this way:

You want to sell your family vehicle, so you pen a description:

1971 VW Camper Van, sleeps 4, a lot of storage, roof rack, kitchenette table.

That’s the review—general and vague.

The critique may go something like this, with pictures:

1971 VW Camper Van, only 10k on rebuilt engine, runs great, new battery and alternator, recently tuned up with oil change, 5 like-new tires, tow hitch.

In the literary sense, a review deals with the reviewer’s opinion if you should read the story or novel, whereas a critique considers the “particulars,” the nuts and bolts of prose and purpose.

The job of the critique is not the same as that of an editor, though there may exist an overlap. Nor is a critique what you would ask of a Beta Reader—more like the reviewer mentioned earlier, except without the goal to convince an audience either way.

A critique is not criticism, even though each is derived from the same root word: criticism is most often thought to be negative (though not necessarily), whereas a critique is affected by an attitude of assistance.

The creator may “feel” items pointed out are negative, but should refrain from an emotional attachment. Instead, face suggestions within an analytical framework—the point of critiquing (like self-editing) and being critiqued, deals with the separation of the two mindsets. It takes practice to improve.

Nonetheless, know this at the outset: being critiqued is rejection’s first cousin.

Critiques hurt. At times it resembles having your heart broken, complete with phases of embarrassment, anger, confusion, and doubt. The pain eases in time, and if we learn from the experience, we can become better writers, better lovers and partners, and the pain is substantiated by improved future endeavors.

James Scott Bell, when referencing how to handle rejection, says to put on the Rhino Skin. Don’t allow the pain to conquer the will to write, to improve, to reach the maximum level of your abilities. By donning the Rhino Skin, you give yourself a gift—the ability to learn.

Approach

Honesty is key: gentle, never harsh. Praise where a description works or a good bit of characterization helps influence the protagonist’s motives and goals; conversely, correcting poor grammar, a disruptive verb tense, or pointing out a viewpoint switch is part of the critiquing purpose, and thoughtful suggestions assist the writer.

When I get a portion of James’s novel, I read it through to get the story flow. Only brief notes about plot questions initially concern me.

Secondly I go through the entire manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line, correcting grammatical and contextual errors. This process is the meat and potatoes of the critique, and the phase taking the most time. I estimate to properly critique 30,000 words takes between 4-6 hours.

It is time well spent.

The third stage incorporates both the first two by editing individual notes I made to guarantee suggestions are clear and concise, and that I am not nit-picking.

Not nit-picking is a matter of attitude, one that needs to be approached with care. Remember that in the same way you agonize over word choice and syntax in your writing, so does the person whose story you are helping improve. Here I would add that it’s unwise to critique a first draft, that too-raw version.

When I finish the three phases of the critique, I write a synopsis of what worked and what didn’t as a whole. Rather than pointing out each passive verb, I highlight a few in the manuscript and then comment in the synopsis what I viewed as an overuse of passive voice (or repeated phrases, words, etc.). In this way, I concentrate on problems of tension (or lack thereof), awkward phraseology, or the use of nouns and pronouns to improve the story’s readability.

Writing, and therefore critiquing, requires discipline and a focus on the rules of the craft, but each writer has their own style and voice. As the one performing the critique, take care to not attack the intended voice.

A critiques’ purpose is to help the writer improve; there is no place for ego or the black and white of right and wrong. You will not correct all the things mentioned in your manuscript, nor will they.

You have undertaken this task to help the writer concentrate on what you perceive as shortcomings—phrases that stopped you or did not seem consistent with the rest of the prose— and to improve your own editing skills.

A word of caution: Do not undertake to critique a writing style or genre you are unfamiliar with; this does an injustice to the writer, and you want more for them.

Next post will detail a few specific suggestions James made to my manuscript.

See you on the next page,

Rick

As promised, here are a few links to critique groups.

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com
http://www.fantasy-writers.org/
http://www.critiquecircle.com/
http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.shtml

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Critiquing Another Writer Will Improve Your Skills

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Critiquing another writer is a fabulous tool to improve your own prose. In order to embrace the responsibility of assisting another (and likewise releasing your creation to someone you do not know well), you must step from the solitary cave where all writers do their best work. The experience, though at times numbing, can be a great benefit for a number of reasons.

Writers tend to make similar mistakes and exhibit the same flaws and weaknesses; seeing errors in other’s writing illuminates some of those same mistakes in your own.

Critiquing, like self-editing, requires a different mind-set than creation, a sterner attitude requiring development and conscious attention to detail.

Talking with dozens of writers about “judging” another writer’s work (an inaccurate description, by the way) the topic is one task many dread, and thereby avoid, often because of fear they lack the skill or don’t want to hurt feelings. Understandable, yes, but like most writers’ fears—rejection, question of being good enough, etc.—overcoming them pays huge dividends. Simply, critiquing another enables you to better edit your own writing.

Whereas creation is fueled by a driving emotion, critiquing (editing) is powered by the analytical portion of the brain. Learning to better critique another transforms self-editing from agonizing to productive as you prime your brain to look for certain aspects—verb tense, active vs. passive, viewpoint switches, logistical inconsistencies, and a host of others—to repair your own creation.

Writer’s Groups and Clubs can be counter-productive, but at times can be helpful—it’s a matter of attitude. Whether within a group or matched to an individual, there should be a spirit of cooperation with one-upmanship banished to the cold outdoors.

When in one writer’s group—in which we exchanged short stories to be critiqued—another writer pointed out a market for my story I had not considered: that story, “The Accomplice,” sold to Women’s World for $500, but more importantly, a by-line in a magazine with several million readers. I am forever grateful to the fellow writer who encouraged me to submit the story.

Here, though, I want to focus on one-on-one critiquing, and finding a suitable counterpart is imperative. I was fortunate in that regard.

James and I met while walking our dogs at the local park. Soon into our conversation we discovered we are both writers. James writes speculative fiction, so do I; his novel is completed, as is mine; we both wrote from multi-viewpoints, third person past tense; both our main protagonists are immortal. The writing god’s lightning rod struck us both—too much to be coincidence.

One of those instances when the palm of fate’s hand smacks you upside the head.

Before long we agreed to read each others novels. A bit more talk and we decided to critique with the goal to improve our tales, and thus, make them more marketable in our particular sub-genres—his novel is a sci-fi/steampunk, mine is heroic fantasy.

The process began roughly six months ago. We met several times at a local pub to discuss, among other things, our hopes and expectations the budding relationship would unveil.

We discussed the overall process, and after some thoughtful and respectful debate, decided on a line-by-line edit. We also decided to pay close attention to character, plot development, inconsistencies, and general problem areas.

Currently I am critiquing his first 5 chapters, and he holds the second quarter of my novel.

The relationship has been profitable on multiple levels, though not in a monetary way—yet.

I have stated it before: No Writer is an Island. That has once again been proven during the critiquing process.

James and I have far different styles and voices (mine is more flowing with descriptive language—per my selected genre–and James’s is short and pithy with a great deal of action), but it matters little. There are, after all, many ways to tell a story.

Next post will describe the many lessons I’ve learned during our critique efforts, and a few pointers on how to be more effective when working with other writers. I’ll also add links to online critique groups.

The process is all about improving, remember, both your writing and others, so step from your cave and reach out—your courage will make you stronger.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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When Life Gets in The Way

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My wife’s recent and serious medical issues caused a downshift to writing. Time slipped away between caring for Linda, our animals (including proxy ownership of a rescue puppy), preparing meals, and the Eight Hour Grind of earning wages.

Reminded by a friend of the John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I did what I could, wrote in scraps of time when opportunity presented itself, because, after all, I must write to ward off the insanity threatening to creep in and devour me.

(Interestingly, during my research, I learned the John Lennon quote is not his at all, but first appeared in the January, 1957, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes section, penned by Allen Saunders:

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
—Publishers Syndicate).

Sitting down and concentrating on creation proved a luxury beyond my means. I still made notes, jotted down ideas for future writing and posts, but the ability to complete a piece of writing (even a story scene) evaded me beyond the regretfully inconsistent Knights of Writ posts. Although meager in number this year (medical issues started on New Year’s Eve), I am grateful for the Blog and the many followers who helped keep me going.

Lack of writing is not and was not Writer’s Block, which does not exist (more on this in a future post), but time restraints, pure and simple.

I believe in daily writing goals, be it 500 words or an uninterrupted hour: daily is the operative word. But sometimes life gets in the way.

Regardless of what life throws at you, write when time allots, whether five minutes, a half hour, or 90 seconds to jot a note or observation. And don’t beat yourself up. Regardless of the time you have (or the lack), keep the writing wheels greased, no matter how meager. When the maelstrom abates, you will be prepared, and the mind will not have become a rusty and neglected tool.

While besieged by life, note the feelings bombarding you (anger, despair, helplessness, confusion, etc.) as they are fodder for your characters—your emotions are the best source to enhance the readers’ experience with the people you create.

My mind remained active throughout the ordeal, dodging back and forth between preparing Linda’s medications and observing emotions to imbue into a character. During showers, entire scenes played through my mind, hints of character’s subdued emotions and secrets. Despite not writing at the moment of inspiration, which I encourage whenever possible, even now, weeks later, the impressions are cemented into my subconscious, huddling there for future use. This is as it should be.

As to Linda’s current health, she rebounded with great vigor—as I write, she is gardening—and her condition is now a matter of maintenance. For that I am grateful, and though worrisome while in the throes of tests, doctors, and still more tests, the events and emotions are available for future writing. After all, for writers,

Life is what happens between writing it down.

And now, excuse me while I draw forth one of those too-close-to-home emotions and pour it onto an unsuspecting character. I wonder how they will react?

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Ultimate Character Checklist

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When developing a character, it’s essential to know “who” that person is, what they represent, and their current journey.

A Character Sketch helps the process, but is only a springboard to creating well-rounded characters; answering particular questions illuminates all aspects of the character—it is then up to you to show the reader what you wish to highlight. Much of what you know about your character will not be revealed, but it is important to be intimately aware of the people you create.

I developed this Character Stretch from a wide variety of sources, altered to fit my needs, with the sole intent of trying to improve my characters. The sketch has evolved, and because of the vast resources used (some surely lost to memory), I hold no bond to it. For that reason, feel free to copy and paste the Character Sketch into a document file, and add or change to satisfy your own purposes.

Characters are made up of three parts: The Outer Person (what the reader sees), which I refer to as the Skeleton; the Interested Person (the actions the character takes and the reader watches unfold), represented by the Flesh; and the Internal Person (what the character, and thus the reader, feels), the Breath of the character.

Character Sketch

Outer Person—The Skeleton

Name, gender, age, general appearance (height, weight, body type), profession and/or skills, education level, family and friend associations with background as necessary to the story; where they grew up (Texan or young girl from Bali), and the particular culture that helped shape them.

Choices of clothing and other possessions (a man who owns a truck or a college freshman driving a BMW) indicates status and is accompanied by layers of attitude; jewelry or not; tidy or disheveled? Somewhere in between?

Gestures or quirks (tilting of head, rubbing hands, brushing at hair, a limp, etc.), not to be overused; if applicable, does the character always put one sock and shoe on before the other, or both socks followed by both shoes? Why?

Speech patterns: slow and thought-out, fast and free of societal filters, contradictions or not, vocabulary and choice of words, sarcastic, impatient, accommodating, condescending—there’s a slew of different reactions and dialogue venues, and you will probably use several in different circumstances for each character.

Paraphernalia and indispensables (purse, wallet, watch, sword, revolver, etc.).

Interests—The Flesh

Favorite and least favorite things to do–how they spend idle time; pet-peeves and prejudices; how they think they appear to others (and how others view them), true or not; to what lengths will they go to accomplish their desires (lie, cheat, and connive, or deal with life’s set-backs and move on).

Is the character’s general attitude haughty, reserved, humble, daring, loyal, over-emotional, analytical to annoyance (we can all be many of these, and so should your characters); typically a good person or one out for themselves (a little of both shows contrast and adds dimension).

Work ethic: what motivates them to succeed and/or do better; what things or scenarios intrigue them? Do they like their job, or tolerate it while harboring deep-seated dreams?

World view? Do they root for the underdog or do they want to associate with the top dog; me against the world or me helping the world, ie., do they feel an obligation to help the less fortunate? What is the purpose of life and their place in it? Is there a God, or does science answer the questions surrounding existence?

Emotions—The Breath

What the character feels when:

They witness someone being mistreated, and what do they do? What do they think and how do they react when they see an animal being mistreated (one’s feeling about animals—dirty, adorable, useful, indifferent—speaks volumes about a person); when someone falls down, do they instantly try to help or stand back and assess the situation before acting?

How do they feel (and act) when they don’t get their way, when they can’t convince another and the outcome is important, at least to them.

What makes them happy/sad? How do they react to their own emotions and the emotions of others? Empathize, sympathize, or neither?

What internal dialogues do they adopt (determined to do better, or wallow in self-pity); do they like who they are?

Their opinion of people outside their economic/social strata: do they strive to be like them or abhor the success of others when they are struggling to make ends meet?

Do they settle for second best or yearn for the best? Do they care about the Jones’s or not in the least? How do they compare their life to others? Do they buy in to media hype or think only fools pay attention?

What do they value? Money, love, friendship, making their own decisions or counting on others to lead them? Loner or social butterfly? Drawn to cliques and the “in group” or avoids them?

Thoughts on life’s purpose and death.

Frugal or wasteful? Planning for the future or living every moment like their last?

Describe a character’s rage, pain, fear, or helplessness? How do they react (physically and internally) when beset by emotion? Do they control their feelings or let loose with tears, hurtful words, or do they fly into a tirade.

When developing a character, place that person in a tense or stressful situation and see how they react. These exercises are great for getting to know your characters, and while the instances you create may not be used in your writing, they just might. Let yourself go to discover who this person is and what floats their boat.

Some writers suggest interviewing your character; try and see if it works for you.

Working through different scenarios will enhance the relationship you have with your characters, and will help readers see them better.

You may not answer all the questions, and that’s okay—the purpose is gaining a better understanding of your character. You may find, like me, that the Character Sketch is filled in bit by bit as your writing progresses.

I titled this The Ultimate Character Sketch, but it only fits that description if you modify to suit your own needs. Have at it and make it fun–writing should be enjoyable, after all.

See you on the next page,

Rick

P.S. I love the graphic at top of page, but I do think it needs the word, MORE, added.

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The Making of a Hero — Part 5

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Description is a Silent Tool

The last several weeks I have written about The Making of a Hero, focusing on three of four ways a writer brings the protagonist to life: through action, dialogue, and thoughts. The fourth, and no less important aspect, is description.

Description—within the context of your hero—is the Silent Tool sprinkled through the narrative, interspersed between the action, dialogue, and thoughts in such a way that adds to the character’s personality.

The first thing to understand about describing the viewpoint character is not how they look. The reader will develop a mental picture of the character no matter what you say about their physical features . . . mostly.

The worst possible scenario is having a character look into a mirror or glassy pond and describe what they see:

Mary gazed into the bathroom mirror to see auburn-streaked hair falling around a face she thought too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

Some of the description works, but looking into the mirror does not. Instead, leave out the mirror and the words effectively tell the reader how Mary feels about herself:

Mary thought her cheeks too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

The physical features are the least important information revealed to the reader. What we want is for the reader to know the main character, feel what they feel, see what they see, and thus, what the character thinks about the world they occupy.

A man exited the bathroom and started across the basketball court. He wore shorts and flip-flops, with large tattoos on each calf—Wiley Coyote on the left, Yosemite Sam on the right—sunglasses pushed up onto his shaved head, and swaggered as if an exclamation point marking the words on the back of his shirt: Old Men Rule.

This description tells the reader as much about the viewpoint character’s perception of the man as the man himself. We “see” the man, but more importantly, the words “swagger” and “as if an exclamation point” speak more to the viewpoint character’s appraisal than the man himself.

Description can also be used to set the character’s tone. In the following example, the viewpoint character’s awareness of the world imprints his mood.

A dove’s mournful cooing broke the silence, followed by chirps and calls in a soothing musical symphony. A songbird’s lyrical, trilled melody beckoned a mate, silenced by a crow’s sudden cackle, echoed by other shrieking black birds until the calm morning lay shattered in angry tones.

Be cautious of using too much description within the narrative as it can pull the reader from the story’s forward movement. Some refer to too much description as Info-Dump or Back-fill Overload; the best way to avoid such problems is to sprinkle character description within the action of the story—an enhancer, not a distracter.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 4

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Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

In the last post I wrote, “Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly inner-reflective.” Yet, people are all these things and more, so why shouldn’t the characters exhibit these traits?

Your hero (like real people) can and should have doubts, harbor prejudices, and even be a little self-absorbed . . . in their thoughts.

While the hero acts and speaks in ways demonstrating confident forward movement, inside their head they can be a tangled mess.

The contrast between “thoughts” and “actions” help illustrate a complex character, a person at odds with themselves, one rattled by internal conflict.

Conflict is critical within the fiction framework, and a superb way to show a character’s unsettled mental state is within the natural ebb and flow of confidence.

A person with internal fear and doubts about their abilities, the chance of success, or even a reason to continue, becomes a hero when they push aside debilitating emotions and battles to right a wrong, especially when one of the battles is against their very nature.

In my novel, The Returning, a disheartened and disillusioned immortal yearns to (finally) die the last time and sleep with the Fathers. The challenge was to show his inner struggle of having no purpose (that he recognizes), but still give him a strong constitution—the “hero touch.”

In the example below, the protagonist has died while a young soldier, and has just now realized he has “returned” to the body of a Prince.
——————-
Inhabiting a Prince, whose responsibility and future hinges on ruling an entire country. He wanted to run, to hide, to live this life—like most lives before—in seclusion, with the sole hope of dying one last time and leaving the emptiness of his pointless existence once and forever. Let me have rest.

He clenched his fists and forced his concentration outward. Thoughts shifted to what he must do to survive, what he had always done.
——————–
Inner thoughts are italicized. Even though much of the first paragraph in the example describes the character’s thoughts and feelings, I decided to only italicize the first and last sentence; I did this to make it easier for the reader. Reading an entire italicized paragraph can be tedious, and as shown, unnecessary—the reader understands the character is thinking “He wanted to run and hide . . . pointless existence once and forever.”

Although the story line is in third person past tense (He wanted to run . . .), the italicized thoughts are in first person, present. Using this altered viewpoint pulls the reader into the immediacy of the situation and the character, without the usual viewpoint-verb tense-switch distraction.

Another example of using italics to introduce the thought process, and how the “regular” type face that follows enhances the main character’s disposition:

What the hell am I doing? He shouldn’t have entered the bar, or even gotten out of his car, but knew it was too late now–Jared had spotted him.

Working on a character’s psyche can be great fun, and used intermittently, enhances the reader’s understanding of the “person” you created.

A warning: if the character’s “soul-searching” is explored too often or constitutes the same questions, your hero will (in the reader’s mind) turn into a brooding puddle of emotions whose actions will be derailed by the inner “poor me” syndrome, and nobody cares about heroes feeling sorry for themselves.

Make your hero strong, but vulnerable, and you are well on your way to making a character readers will identify with and cheer.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 3

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Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts

“Shut up and sit down.”
“Please be quiet and find your seats.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you will kindly take your places. Quietly, please.”

Three distinctly different people spoke the words in the examples, and each addressed a unique audience. In the first, perhaps a drill sergeant or caustic CEO; the second might be a high school teacher cajoling his students; the third sounds like a preacher getting ready to start a round of church Bingo.

People speak differently given their personality, background, and situation. This is especially true of your hero.

Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly introspective: their yea is yea, their nay is nay—wishy-washy does not suit a hero. Heroes do not whine about their lot in life, or bemoan that things are unfair—their speech reflects this attitude.

When confronted, your protagonist does not respond apologetically with, “But, gee, Captain, I only led the men over the west ridge because I thought it was a better choice.” Instead, a hero says, “Captain, I led the men the best way.”

Notice the confrontation in the example—dialogue is best served with a side of tension, or at the least, a dollop of disagreement.

Conflict is a required ingredient in fiction, and where better to demonstrate than people’s conversations?

The way people speak and the words they use define them, and it’s important to be aware of the subtle differences when giving your characters a voice.

“I seen Billy at the car wash,” would not be uttered by an educated person (unless in mocking), nor would a person who did not finish sixth grade say, “It’s unfathomable to consider global warming untrue when you view the collected data,” (unless they are self-taught and you’ve previously shown this trait, as in the Matt Damon film, Good Will Hunting).

In the same way a King will be authoritative, a Priest may be demur, a commoner tentative when addressing one above their status. The words each say (and the way they say them) demonstrate their state of mind and their societal position.

Different people may say the exact same words, but their emphasis will alter, and thereby, better describe them and their peculiar views.

Italics can illustrate the differences. Read the following examples aloud with emphasis on the italicized word (and bold to make it easier to see).

What have you done?
What have you done?
What have you done?

Why are you going there?
Why are you going there?
Why are you going there?

Each asks the same question with a subtle difference, the italicized word highlighting the importance of the character’s concern, thus a peek deeper into their personality.

Contractions

Nowadays most people speak using contractions: I’m going to the store, we’re going to the movies, I’ll stay home with the kids. This was not always so. Historical novels seldom use contractions in speech.

I have a character (an educated scribe) that never uses a contraction, which gives him a more formal characterization. Other characters use contractions sometimes, some at every opportunity, each depending on the character illustrated and the scene circumstances. By the scribe not using a contraction—even when appropriate or even preferable—spotlights a portion of his personality.

Dialogue + Action = Deeper Characterization

Dialogue interspersed with an action beat speaks volumes about a character and their mood.

Jack crushed the beer can with one hand and tossed it aside. “I told you not to come back here.”

“But, why?” Julie took one step back, clutching her handbag, and remembered she had left the gun in the nightstand.

“I think you better tell me what happened,” Mike said, his hand reaching across the table like a snake coiling to strike.

“I thought you’d think that,” he said, laughing, “and so did ma.”

Clear and believable dialogue is essential to giving your characters life and showing the nuances that make David different than Frank.

If you find your characters sounding the same, go back to your Character Sketch and tweak something about their upbringing, world view, or education: each character needs to be unique, and most importantly, true to themselves.

Next Post: The Making of a Hero — Part Four: Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

See you on the next page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 2

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Writers create and bring characters to life in four ways: through action, dialogue, internal thoughts, and description. In order of importance,

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts
Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description
Description Is a Silent Tool

Although discussion will focus on each tool separately, two or more are often joined to enhance and clarify character depth: dialogue blended with movement “beats,” thoughts preceding action, etc.

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Characters begin as a skeleton. Many writers make a Character Sketch first, find an appropriate name, age, height, weight, job, world view, along with other traits and possessions—owning a sports car instead of a pick-up truck gives the reader a clearer glimpse of character—before sending their creation on their journey.

Next is time to add flesh to the skeleton to illustrate a character’s unique personality, along with a list of motivations, goals, and of course, a number of conflicts. The four tools accomplish this.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I am most interested in the protagonist, but even secondary characters, in order to be well-rounded and true, will require the same attention—minus the internal thoughts to spare the dreaded “viewpoint switch.”

What the protagonist does, and why, is the lifeline the writer tosses the reader. When pulled taut, the character’s actions draw the reader ever nearer until the reader is inside the character, experiencing a life previously unknown. The character—and thus, the reader—becomes the hero of your story.

How does the reader gain such intimacy with the character? The first is through the character’s actions.

James Scott Bell in his book, Revision and Self-Editing, explains one way to gain the reader’s sympathy, respect, and pointed view of your protagonist: it’s a screen writer’s term called the Pet-The-Dog-Beat.

To illustrate, Bell uses (among others) the movie, The Fugitive, to describe the method: in the scene where Dr. Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) is on the run, chased by a determined lawman, he’s in the hospital on a mission to prove someone else killed his wife. As a doctor, he notices a patient in distress, and takes precious time to reroute the groaning patient into surgery to save their life.

Kimble’s act to save a less fortunate puts him at risk and the actions submerge him into deeper trouble—a perfect example of character action pushing the plot rather than the weaker reverse.

My last post used an early scene from the Masterpiece Theater production of Poldark where the recipient of the character’s help actually was a dog, which fit nicely, I think, with Bell’s name for this useful little tool.

There are many ways a character’s actions reveal who they are, what they want, and why.

Whether your character is saving a kingdom or helping a friend get a date, heroes tend to be selfless, and their actions (both right and wrong) deepen the reader’s accessibility to their personality.

Heroes are flawed, just like real people. Your character will make decisions prompting action, and many will be either wrong or wrought with difficulties unperceived prior to being “in-the-middle-of-it.” The character’s actions, prompted by moral self-worth, feelings of what is right and/or necessary, are determined by the portrayal you, the writer, provide.

Is your character forthright to a fault, or reserved?
Does he instigate an argument/fight, or maneuver for peaceful resolution?
Do they walk into a crowded room down the center aisle unabashed, or slip in to a nearby wall?
Does she bat her eyes at the handsome bartender, or is her look direct, intense, and unwavering?

How you define your protagonist (coupled with their view of the world) will be executed through the actions.

Consistency is key. In whatever circumstance you plunge your character, ask yourself a set of questions to determine their logical action:

What goal do they want to reach, and what actions will bring about the result they wish (even if they do not succeed)?

Which character flaw is exploited by making the decision and taking action?

How is their action different from the actions of another character? (This will help separate characters to make the protagonist unique by comparison).

What new danger does the current action cause the protagonist?

Answering these types of questions (develop others for your own story and scene) will shine light on your Lead and their heroic nature while highlighting traits that are problematic for their well-being. Keep your hero acting against the world and his own innate tendencies and you will be well on your way to creating a memorable character readers will want to follow.

Next Post: The Making of a Hero — Part Three: Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

Don’t miss the next post. Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. As always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

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