Writing Tip: Character Flaws

Power of WordsWhen I teach creative writing to inexperienced young writers, a major element that “makes or breaks” a story is flawed characters. Too often, writers want to make their protagonists into flawless superheroes and overlook the importance of flaws.

Think about it: no one is perfect in real life. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Can you think of a fictional character who is perfect? Superman has physical and emotional limitations. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. When creating a character, think of vulnerabilities: fears, allergies, idiosyncrasies, Achilles’ heels. Readers like knowing that characters are just as flawed as humans. Readers also like seeing characters develop as a story or a series progresses. If a character starts out “perfect,” that character has nowhere to go (except, perhaps, down?).

Perfect characters are off-putting. I often think about Ayn Rand’s heroes, Hank Rearden and Howard Roark. Aside from what we might perceive as arrogance (Rand would call it “confidence”), they have few flaws. They know what they want, they know how they’ll get it, they know that they’ll get it, and they ignore all else until they succeed. Her heroes are much less likeable than more “human” characters. If your character is a genius, he might be socially awkward. If your character is a perfect social charmer, he might be challenged in climbing his career ladder. If there’s a perfect genius or a genius socialite, we’re getting into the realm of cartoon characters, not realistic characters with whom we can empathize.

I also like to think about the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I remember discussing in college why the character of Satan seems so relatable to human readers. It’s because he’s a flawed character, and he’s working hard toward a goal. Some of the other characters, the more religious ones, seem too perfect for a reader’s liking.

Let’s look at some examples. First, a goofy one. Let’s imagine a detective. This detective is the best crime solver in the world, only—she’s addicted to chocolate. That’s right. If she sees a plate of nonpareils in front of her, she’ll pause on a hot trail just to have a bite. Imagine the fun you could have with such a character! On some level, we can all relate to being so obsessed with something that we’ll intentionally harm ourselves to get it. (Have you ever waited in line for midnight tickets to a well-anticipated movie? Thrown off a diet for a tasty morsel? Stayed up late reading a great book even with the knowledge that you’d be tired at work the next day?)

Second, a more serious example. Your character is all-around likeable, moral, intelligent, and loving. The only problem is, his family died in a house fire which he managed to survive as a young child. Though the memory is foggy, it’s left him with a sense of worry. He’ll constantly seek out a physical escape route whenever he’s in a new setting, just in case something should go wrong. He’ll schedule unnecessary maintenance checks whenever something even remotely seems to go wrong with a car, appliance, etc. When he has dinner at his new girlfriend’s house, perhaps he snoops around, checking wires, cords, and plumbing code just to make sure she’ll be safe. This makes for an interesting character and interesting situations. He won’t be able to help himself, and the reader will have a fun time being held in suspense: just how much will his new girlfriend tolerate before she kicks him out?

In any case, flaws make characters more fun to read (and easier to care about). Of course your character should have great qualities as well, but make sure you add some idiosyncrasies to keep things real.

Book Trailer Reveal: Patriots and Tyrants

Freedom Forge Press is pleased to reveal the book trailer for our upcoming novel. Patriots and Tyrants by D. G. Bagwell is the first in the Grandchildren of Liberty series. Check out the bottom of post for information on how to pre-order the book at a special pre-release price.

 

Patriots and Tyrants-Front-CoverWhen genius JP Cain saw the nation he loved crumbling, he did the only thing he could. He founded a new one. He and 117 like-minded souls founded the Republic of Secundus, a nation on an alternate Earth that was anything but Eden. Filled with animals out of prehistory, Secundus forced the colonists to fight for their very existence. If they could win, a new dream would be born: A republic based on the ideas of personal freedom, liberty, and responsibility.

Two decades later, the citizens are embarking on a new mission: to help free the world they escaped. The United States has broken under the yoke of tyranny, and Secundus’ best hope rests with political prisoner, former historian, and radio personality Lukas Faber.

But even with JP’s technology and their drive, can the people of Secundus overcome the forces of the UN, the mass media propaganda machine, and the shadowy figure pulling all their strings? They are all that stand between Earth’s greatest tyranny and true personal freedom.

Let the battle begin…

Patriots and Tyrants is available for pre-order on our publisher’s store. Pre-orders will receive a special introductory price of $12.95 (free shipping to US addresses) and will be fulfilled as soon as paperbacks are available from the printer. Reserve your copy today!

Special thanks to Jason Lee of Vektor Visual for his artistic vision and expertise on the cover!

Writing Tip: Over-Explaining (Trust Your Reader)

Power of WordsMy early writings were guilty of over-explaining. As a teacher, I’m used to explaining instructions over and over again. Half the time, students aren’t listening; the other half, they aren’t focused. In my daily instruction, I’m sometimes asked to repeat the same instructions, in different ways, three or four times.

This does not translate well to writing.

Over-explaining in writing creates boring, tedious prose that makes a reader want to put the book down. Good fiction writing is the opposite of analysis. Points are implied or made indirectly, not blatantly stated.

When I first started writing, I wanted to make sure my reader got my point. I’d write things like:

Jane walked a lap around the track, narrowly missing the piles of goose droppings that always ended up near the high-jump mat. She shook her head and wondered why her school was the only one without a rubberized track to practice on. The other schools, with their fancy districts, had so much money that they bought rubberized tracks for the fields as well as field houses for the indoor season. During the winter months, Jane had to practice in the halls of her high school. She grimaced at her shin splints, something caused by the hard hallway floors. It just wasn’t fair that her school didn’t have the money for more proper equipment. This also meant her school could never host any track meets. It wasn’t like the other schools, which had fancy uniforms that seemed to be new every year. Jane’s school could barely afford shorts and jerseys that matched…

I’d go on and on. I wanted to make sure the reader understood that Jane was bitter about her district’s lack of money compared to the wealthy districts in the surrounding towns. As a young writer, I’d re-read the paragraph and nod my head—take that, wealthy districts! Jane hates you! And now all the readers out there will know it!

I never put myself into the mindset of a reader. What I failed to realize is just how wordy and full of “telling” (not “showing”) that paragraph actually is. “Telling” too much leaves little (or no) tension. Readers like the feel smart when they read. They prefer to be “shown” things and feel like they’re figuring things out for themselves. The dark secret is that a good writer works very hard so that the reader doesn’t have to. If a piece is well-written enough, the reader will feel smart, but it’s actually the genius writer who put all the pieces in place.

In the above scene, what I should have done is added tension somehow and shown how Jane felt about the other teams. Maybe I could place her at a track meet:

The 1600 was called for warm-ups, and there was only one heat. Jane laced her shoes. She bent to stretch, but she didn’t quite touch her toes: dried goose droppings caked the tips of her sneakers. Sprinting on the dirt track in back of her school was never a good idea during early May, but where else was she supposed to practice?

To her left, a trio of runners in shiny red shorts stretched in unison. Even their sneakers matched. Hell, even their bejeweled hair clips matched. Damn Southport and their money. One of the girls looked in Jane’s direction and giggled. Then she cupped her hand and whispered something to her teammate. The three of them chuckled. Jane followed their eye line to her shorts.  

Yes, they were the same shorts the boys’ team wore. Yes, her team had run out of girls’ shorts. So what if Jane was the only distance runner for the girls and came up with the short straw when it came time to distribute uniforms? The only thing that mattered was how anyone performed in the race, and Jane was about to show them all. She took off for a warm-up lap, leaving the giggling clones behind her.

By adding conflict and other characters, I’m able to show not only that Jane is bitter about her district’s financial situation, but also that she is not going to give up based on her condition. In fact, the end of this short scene suggests that Jane will use her circumstances as motivation for success. In any case, it’s a stronger scene, and it trusts the reader to pick up on Jane’s bitterness without explaining too much of it.

I’ve read too many books written by talented writers who then sabotage their own talents by over-explaining:

She shivered as he glared at her from across the room. She felt the edge of her pocketbook to make sure the can of pepper-spray was still there. She was terrified he might attack her.

In the above example, the first two sentences do a great job showing us how the main character feels: she’s obviously scared of the guy staring at her from across the room. We don’t need to hear that she is terrified; that’s already been shown through her shivering. The threat of attack is inherent in her reaching for the pepper spray.

Sure, there are times when it’s easier and simply more efficient to condense information into “telling,” but in general, “showing” allows more tension, provides better characterization, and increases reader interest.

Writing Tip: Exclamation Points!

Power of WordsWriting Tip: Exclamation Points!

This lesson will be short and sweet. Exclamation points annoy editors. They annoy readers, too, even if only on a subconscious level. Why?

They’re lazy. And tacky. They’re a mark of an inexperienced writer.

The bottom line: Use exclamation marks sparingly. Instead, let your language do the work.

Here’s an example:

It’s raining outside!

The exclamation mark tells me, as a reader, that there’s something exciting or important about the rain, right? But what? Instead of using an exclamation mark, choose more specific, precise language to bring a clearer message to the reader. The message should still contain an “inherent sense of exclamation,” but the punctuation mark itself should not be necessary.

For instance:

The rain pounded the window, pushing through the tiny crack at the bottom. (Inherent sense of exclamation: The house is going to be flooded!)

The rain obliterated the convertible. (Inherent sense of exclamation: Should have put that top up!)

The rain soaked into the drought-dried dust, speckling it with life-giving water. (Inherent sense of exclamation: There won’t be a second Dust Bowl!)

Noah had been right after all. The flood started with three heavy drops that announced a deluge. (Inherent sense of exclamation: A flood of Biblical proportions!)

All of the above sentences contain an inherent sense of excitement, but the language of each sentence already implies the excitement. In these instances, an added exclamation mark would just look tacky.

The rain pounded the window, pushing through the tiny crack at the bottom!

The rain obliterated the convertible!

The rain soaked into the drought-dried dust, speckling it with life-giving waters!

Noah had been right after all! The flood started with three heavy drops that announced a deluge.

Tacky.

And unnecessary.

Exclamation marks don’t have to be eliminated entirely, but as a general rule, if you can show it with language, avoid using an exclamation mark.

Writing Tip: Point of View

Power of WordsWriting Tip: Point of View

Point of view is one of the last things I “got” as a student of writing, but when I did, it was an “aha!” moment that changed my writing. Point of view is one of those things that we don’t actively realize as we’re reading, but it’s necessary for good storytelling.

We are human. By nature, we are limited in our perspective on the world. If I’m sitting in a room full of people, I’m going to be focused on things that interest me—perhaps dynamics between couples, or maybe I’ll be checking out hairstyles in anticipation of my upcoming appointment at the hairdresser. If I’m an athlete training for a triathlon, I might be checking out body figures, looking for muscle mass peeking through clothing. The point is, my focus in any given situation will be limited.

When writing, it’s important that each scene is told through one particular point of view. The “point of view character” is the character through which we experience a scene. It may sound counter-intuitive, but to help the reader better understand and enjoy a scene, we must be limited in the amount of information we are given. When we provide details, they must come from the perspective of the point of view character. If I’m the point of view character, for instance, I might not know what my face looks like, but I do know how others react to me.

As an example, let’s examine a scene that will be told in third person limited to me. Here are two versions:

She stood at the counter staring at the cute shop clerk. Her face turned into a crooked smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. Then she blushed as the guy behind the counter smiled back.

She stood at the counter. Her lips contorted involuntarily. He really was that cute. She smoothed the folds of her paisley shirt to calm her burning cheeks, but when she looked back up, he was still staring at her, smiling back.

In the first example, we step out of the point of view character. Unless there’s a mirror at the counter, she would be unable to see her smile in order to compare it to her shirt. Likely, the man behind the counter is the one comparing her smile to the design on her shirt. Since we’re supposed to be in her POV in this scene, we can’t step outside her body and look at her.

Instead, she can FEEL her lips contorting, and she might GUESS at what they look like, but she wouldn’t know, and it’s not a detail she’s likely to notice. Think about it: when was the last time you compared your smile to something (unless you were looking at a picture of yourself)? Similarly, she cannot see herself blush, but she can feel her cheeks heating up. In the second example, “he really was that cute” allows us into her mind.

Staying within a single point of view character (per scene) is important because if we experience a story in an omniscient way, we become overwhelmed and bored. As humans, we want a character to latch onto, to know, to root for. Any character is going to be flawed (this is a good thing), and experiencing a scene through the character’s flaws lets us understand that character as a human being.

Here is that same scene written in an omniscient point of view.

She stood at the counter, thinking about how cute he was. Her lips curled into a smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. He couldn’t help checking out her curves, and she smoothed her shirt as a way to hide her embarrassment. She looked a little bit like his ex-wife, but he couldn’t tell without seeing the eyes. He continued to stare at her, willing her to look up. When she finally did, she was blushing, and she hoped he didn’t notice too much. The last date she’d gone on had been disastrous. Her face had stayed red the entire time. But now, he was smiling back, and he couldn’t wait to ask her out for drinks. While he continued smiling, she tried to remember what in the world she had come to the store to buy.

In this example, there is too much information. I’m in her head, then his, then hers again. It’s overwhelming. Instead, I need to experience the scene through just one character’s perspective. Even if you’re not a romance reader, a good way to fully understand point of view is to pick up a romance novel. These books are written in alternating perspectives, usually third person limited from the lead male and lead female roles. Usually, these novels switch point of view by chapter—sometimes by scene within chapters.

Editors may refer to switching points of view as “head hopping.” If you hear this comment, it means you have left the perspective of your point of view character and are giving us information that your character couldn’t possibly have known.

When editing, I often scribble the point of view character’s name at the top of each chapter. Then, as I go through the scene the first time, I make sure there is no head-hopping going on. On the second read-through, I try to add details that provide even more perspective from the POV character’s perspective. This is a great way to add indirect characterization. If I’m trying to show that a character is afraid, for example, without blatantly saying “she was scared,” I can use this technique. For instance:

She stepped up to the doorway. A reflection in the glass storm door made her shudder, pulling her jacket tight against her frame. She glanced behind her, but she was alone. She shook her head, wondering what her lawyer would say if he found out where she was. No matter. She was here now. She rang the doorbell and waited. She glanced at the evergreen bushes behind her, the ones screening the porch from the street. The ones that had screened Timmy’s body from view. Her throat tightened, and she pushed against the memories…

In this scene, we can tell this character has had a negative experience with this house, and she is trying to reconcile the past. Because we’re in her head, we know that she’s at the house against the recommendation of her lawyer, and we know she is mourning for someone named Timmy. We can tell she feels vulnerable when she pulls her jacket tighter against her, and we know she is worried when she thinks she sees are reflection in the doorway.  

For point of view, you can always use first person point of view as the narrative perspective (think Katniss of The Hunger Games). Some publishers dig it; some don’t. Just make sure the narrator’s voice is likeable and will offer you a wide enough perspective to tell the whole story. (In The Great Gatby, Nick Carraway becomes a nearly omniscient narrator since he is telling the story years after it has happened, a workaround for the limits of first-person narration.)

If you’re having trouble writing third person limited, write in first person first; then switch. For instance:

I stepped up to the counter, worried that I had imagined the whole thing. I wondered if maybe the silly smiles we exchanged last time had been a product of my boy-crazy brain. I smiled at him, and I breathed relief when he smiled back.

This is written in first person POV, and the switch to third POV is easy enough:

She stepped up to the counter, worried that she had imagined the whole thing. She wondered if the silly smiles they exchanged last time had been a product of her boy-crazy brain. She smiled at him and breathed relief when he smiled back.

A plethora of often-contradicting POV advice resides on the Internet and in books on writing. Some editors insist that the main POV character stay “in control” for at least the first fifty pages. Others are more tolerant of switching perspectives. In any case, it’s a good idea to experiment with point of view early on in the drafting stage. Doing so allows writers to find the best voice (or voices) for the story.

 

Writing Tip: The Reader Is Not Inside Your Head

Introducing: Wednesday Writing Tips

We’re pleased to introduce our newest feature here on the Freedom Forge Press blog. Editor Val Muller will be writing a periodic column featuring mini writing lessons inspired by reading through slush piles, published novels, and working with writers on all stages of the editing process. The feature will run weekly until the list of topics is exhausted. At that point, it will run “as needed.” We’ll be posting a list of all topics here for easy reference. You can also subscribe to our blog to receive email updates each time we post.

We hope you find this feature helpful and encourage you to share it with other authors and aspiring authors.

Write on!

Writing Tip: The Reader Is Not Inside Your Head

Probably the most common problem I see in writing is that, though the author clearly has an entire world playing in his or her head, that world is not being conveyed onto the page. This is a common reason for rejection or request for rewrite. Though it’s true that a writer should “trust the reader” and avoid over-explaining, a writer should also not assume that a reader shares the same background knowledge and information about a topic.

Remember those coloring books we had as kids? Think of the level of detail as providing the outlines of our world. Trust your readers to fill in the proper colors (in reading, most of us will fill in an ocean with some variation of blue), but make sure they have a proper outline of what the world is supposed to look like.

To illustrate, consider historical fiction (or even nonfiction). Imagine that the protagonist jumps into a carriage and hurries across town to the port before her beloved’s ship departs for a different continent. Don’t assume the reader shares your idea of a carriage ride. For one, how many horses are pulling this carriage? Is there a driver? Is it an open carriage, or is it enclosed? Are we in a time period when there was not an adequate public sewage system? If so, what smells might the protagonist encounter? Is the road dirt? Packed down and filled with ruts? Cobblestone? Is it a bumpy ride? A smooth one?

Now, you don’t want to kill a reader with details, either. Even in narrative nonfiction, a reader isn’t looking for a historical report. Don’t write, “Mary climbed into the cart, which was a wooden cabin enclosed on all sides with a window on each side. It was pulled by two horses and a driver who sat up front.”

These are boring details. Readers’ brains are going to turn off—if they continue reading at all. Instead, “sneak” these details into the narrative. Whether it’s a thriller, a suspenseful mystery, a love story, or a dystopian tale, readers want to connect emotionally with a character. In any scene, ask yourself: what is the reader supposed to feel regarding the main character? Use that as your goal, and build details to that end.

For instance: let’s say the reader is supposed to be worried for Mary: she really needs to get to the dock in time to stop her would-be fiancé, Thomas, from boarding a ship that would take him on a months-long excursion to a new continent, thereby ending the prospect of a marriage. Let’s say he’s leaving because she turned him down, but she’s had a change of heart. Okay—we have our goal. We feel sorry for Thomas because he’s been turned down, and we sympathize with Mary because she’s made a mistake and is trying to make amends. We also have a natural “countdown” (to ship departure), creating inherent tension in this scene. Now let’s build our details around that emotion:

Mary didn’t even brace herself as the rickety cart bounced on the cobblestone. Instead, she stuck her head out of the carriage’s one window and shouted to the driver. “Please hurry.”

The man pulled his scarf tighter against the chilly morning. His eyes bulged at her audacity, but he kept his tone polite and pointed to the trotting horse. “He’s going as fast as he can, Miss.”

The horse clip-clopped around a rut, but the carriage’s wheel caught in it, slamming the back of Mary’s head into the top of the window. She winced. The wind carried putrid fumes from an open sewer, and Mary swallowed to keep down her breakfast. It was the same wind that would carry Thomas away if she didn’t hurry. She considered climbing out of the moving carriage, freeing the horse and riding it, bareback, to the harbor. But her head pulsed where she hit it, and the world spun around her. She retreated into the carriage and leaned against the seat, hoping the aging horse could win the race against the unfurling sails of The Salty Prayer.

In this example, we learn indirectly that the carriage is closed; the road is cobblestone (and it’s a rough ride); there is only one (aging) horse pulling it; Mary is acting beyond what is proper for the time, but the driver is trying to be polite anyway; there is only a primitive public sewage system; it’s a cold and windy day; the ship Thomas is to board is called The Salty Prayer.

We don’t know what color the carriage is. What color were you picturing? Does it matter to the meaning of the story as a whole? Probably not. Based on the details given, you probably weren’t thinking of a shiny metal spaceship, right? What about the horse? Do we need to know what color he is? In this case, it’s not important. What about the driver? What did he look like in your mind? Did you picture what the open sewer would look like? Does it matter? Even though each reader might have a different description for each of these elements, there were enough details included that we’re all within the same range of possibilities. In a following paragraph, we might add a few details about the other people out that day—seamen, merchants, citizens—to give the reader a glimpse of the world that clearly exists in the author’s mind but does not always make it to paper.

The same applies to settings that are not historical. Imagine a modern high school. Should we assume that all readers have the same idea of what a high school looks like? We probably all have similar ideas, but writers should not assume. If it’s important, for example, that the school has a senior lounge, that detail should probably be described. Are there administrators roaming the halls all the time, or is it easy for a student to roam around undetected? If I’m a reader whose principal seemed to be omniscient and omnipresent, I might question the validity of a work in which students are sneaking around all the time—unless I’m given a few details to explain the culture of the book’s particular high school.

In short: think about the emotion and tension you want to convey to the reader. Use that as the central energy of your scene. Then, build details around that energy, making sure they all contribute to the feeling the reader will take away from the scene. If you want readers to be disgusted, show them why they should be. If you want them to feel sorry for the character, let them share in the character’s suffering and goals. When you sit down to edit your scene, try to take yourself out of your own head, and ask yourself: as a reader completely disconnected from my own background and preconceived notions, what would I actually take away from this scene?

You might find the answer is more bland and boring than you would like.