Five Tips to Help You Craft Compelling Main Characters

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Craft compelling main characters and your readers will stick with them, journey across worlds and through time with them, root for them, laugh or cry with them, and love them or love to hate them. Fail to craft compelling main characters, and . . . well, your readers won’t.

So how can you breathe life into your main characters, making them leap off the page with words alone? Here are five things to think about.Bring your characters to life with words alone.

  1. Human beings are multifaceted individuals, and your main characters should be as well. People aren’t all this or all that, capable of being defined by a handful of traits or an aspect of their lives. People are unique, with characteristics and foibles that set them apart from everyone else. An individual may even have a trait that seems to contradict his or her other traits. If you want your main characters to take on lives of their own, then they need to be just as complex and rounded out.
  2. Your main characters should each have something that they really want and work toward obtaining, whether it’s large or small, concrete or abstract. Get to know your characters—who they are, what they desire, and what their motivations are—and storylines may spring to mind from this knowledge.
  3. Make your characters’ actions, dialogue, thoughts, etc., believable and consistent. But that doesn’t mean your characters must be predictable and boring, completely lacking any ability to surprise readers. Just hint at the possibility that one of your characters may do something out of character and show how he or she is capable of it in the pages leading up to the surprise. You don’t want your readers left thinking, “No way would XXX do that!”
  4. If you want your main characters to be captivating, make sure they are dynamic and give readers the sense that they are capable of change and growth. Whether they do change, to what extent, and whether it’s a good or bad thing depend on your story. But as characters progress through a story, they usually undergo some degree of transformation.
  5. “Show,” don’t “tell.” When you carefully craft a passage, showing lets you reveal more information about your characters. It grabs readers, invests them in your story, and invites them to interact with it. And it forces you to reveal your characters in pieces, slowly, like real people become acquainted with one another. By carefully selecting characters’ actions, speech, thoughts, and appearances, you can create individuals who take on lives of their own.Make sure your main characters are worthy of the spotlight.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place in your story for characters who fade into the background. Your story needs a supporting cast. Just make sure that the characters you place in starring roles are worthy of those roles and are complex enough to see them through.

How do you get to know your characters? Please leave a comment!

Five Tips to Make Over Your Writing Style

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You know when you read something that just works? Where everything fits together and flows nicely? Well, as Nathaniel Hawthorne explained, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” But hard doesn’t mean impossible or unpleasant, and as with anything, you can work to improve your ability. Refine your writing style with these five tips.Your writing style is made up of a variety of "blocks" that work together to form a cohesive whole.

  1. Read voraciously and in a variety of genres. Think about what you’re reading and how it applies to your work. You can learn a lot from studying other writers. See how their words affect you, how they craft their words to convey their meaning and evoke certain emotions or attitudes, and how they handle different situations. Study books, articles, and blogs about the art of writing. And form a book group with other writers (in person or online) to discuss everything you’re reading and expand your perspective.
  2. Write, write, write . . . and write some more. Reading is great, but the best way to improve your writing style is to write. And shut off your internal critic—do not edit (at this point). Your own style will emerge. Play around with how you write things, your word choice, sentence structure, paragraphing, descriptions, and everything else. Adapt them to what you’re writing, and see what works as you experiment.
  3. Reflect and revise. Think about what you’re trying to do with your writing, what you want readers to take away. Writing is about expressing ideas, so you need to make sure the style you’ve chosen to write in effectively conveys your ideas to your target audience. Is your word choice appropriate? Are the words you selected too complex or too simple? Do they fit together nicely? Does your sentence structure reflect what is being written? Is it too complex or too simple for the ideas you’re expressing? Could your sentences be written more powerfully in a different way? Are your paragraphs logical, or do you have a reason for jumbling them together?
  4. Take the time to listen to your work—literally. Read it aloud, or have someone read it to you. Doing so lets you hear the flow of your words, sentences, and paragraphs. It helps you identify any choppy areas where your writing needs to be smoothed out.
  5. Find an unbiased critique partner. You’re closely invested in your writing. You know what you’ve been through with it. Working with another writer provides necessary objectivity, a fresh perspective, and an opportunity for growth. You can bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other. Each of you will become a stronger writer for it.

How do you work to improve your writing style? Please leave a comment!

He Said, She Said—Thoughts on the Third-Person Point of View

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Third-person point of view can be single vision, multiple vision, omniscient, or objective.With so many aspects of your story depending on your point-of-view decision, here are some elements for you to consider regarding third-person point of view. Its versatility makes a form of this perspective a great option.

With third-person point of view, the narrator is a voice you craft to relate your story rather than an actual character. But your narrator does (usually) have access to one or more characters’ minds. The pronouns “he” and “she” and their variants are associated with this point of view.

The popular third-person, single-vision perspective allows the narrator access to one character’s mind. Readers can intimately connect with and feel for the point-of-view character without having their attention or allegiance split. And you are not limited by this character’s maturity or intellect when selecting words, crafting phrases, or making complex observations to further your story. You are, however, limited in that you can only relate what the point-of-view character experiences, is told about, overhears, or is able to deduce.

With third-person, multiple-vision point of view, the narrator enters the minds of more than one character, however equally or unequally, and it works best in longer stories. It affords you more freedom in what you can write about. More point-of-view characters mean more experiences had, events witnessed, and observations made. You can even relay the same event from different perspectives. This point of view creates a complexity for readers, who have to work out how the different characters play off one another, what the differences between overlapping stories are revealing, and which characters to sympathize with. And it can create suspense when readers know things that the current point-of-view character does not. Just make sure that you have a good reason for using multiple-vision.

Omniscient third-person perspective provides the narrator with unlimited access to characters’ minds. You already know everything about the “world” you’ve created, and with this perspective you can reveal whatever you choose in creating your story. Though this perspective can be used effectively and is also great for building suspense, it has fallen from use and is often considered outdated, oppressive, unrealistic, and intrusive due to its “all-knowing” nature. And many writers find it easier to write from a more limited, more realistic perspective.

Third-person, objective point of view does not allow the narrator to see through any character’s eyes. The narrator is shut out, and everything you want to say must be revealed through what your characters say and do. The goal here is objectivity, but one of the thrills of reading fiction is being able to peep inside someone else’s mind and that is lacking with this perspective.

Which third-person point of view do you gravitate toward? Please leave a comment!

It All Depends on Your Point of View . . .

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First person, second person, third person, and all of their variations—so many point-of-view options present themselves, yet the power of point of view is often overlooked, with point of view becoming an afterthought. And that’s something you want to avoid.

Your point-of-view choice impacts every aspect of what you write. It impacts who tells the story, a narrator or a character. It impacts whose “eyes” readers view the story through, whose thoughts are revealed to readers, and what tone is used. It impacts what background information you can reveal, which events you can describe, and how much detail you can go into. And it impacts who your readers identify with and have sympathy for. So, it’s important to get it right.It all depends on whose eyes you're seeing through.

After you’ve brainstormed and mapped out your story, take the time to reflect on whose story it is that you’re telling and what aspects of the story you want to focus on. You must select a narrator who is capable of relaying the story you want to tell in a believable manner. Do you want to have your main character narrate the story, or a minor one? Or do you want to use a nonparticipant narrator, one who isn’t a character in your story? Should your narrator be omniscient (all-knowing) or limited in knowledge, reliable or unreliable? Would one narrator work best, or would several be better?

Consider the benefits and drawbacks of your different point-of-view options, and select the one that you believe will work best for what you are trying to achieve. Once you’ve given point of view some thought, see how your story shapes up using your selected point of view. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, you can always try a different point of view. Since so much depends on your point-of-view selection, keep at it until you’ve found the best one.

What do you consider when selecting a point of view to write from? Please leave a comment!

The Relativity of Writing Right

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What's right?Recently a client sent me a piece they’d been working on for a while, asking me to “please make the writing right.” That made me wonder, what does it take for writing to be “right”? Do you have to follow every grammatical rule, spelling convention, punctuation guideline, and stylistic instruction you’ve memorized over the years, no matter what? I don’t think so. And whose “rules” would you even follow, since they often vary from style guide to style guide.

Sure, there are basic spelling, grammar, punctuation, and stylistic conventions that you should follow if you want your readers to understand what you’re trying to say, but part of writing right depends on your situation. It’s more of an art than an exact science.

What’s right for one situation might not work for another. An academic research paper will be written in a different tone and style than a memoir, and a professional cover letter will differ from a message sent to a friend. Fiction books operate under a different set of standards than nonfiction ones. What you’re writing impacts a long list of decisions you make as you work on your piece. Should you use contractions? Acronyms and technical jargon? The serial comma? LongWhat's "right" varies from person to person and situation to situation. sentences or short ones? All of these elements, and more, vary from piece to piece.

In short, the one rule you should always follow if you want your writing to be right is to do what works for your writing, for your purpose, and for your reader. Now, I’m not saying you should completely ignore the agreed-upon mechanics of writing—that wouldn’t work for your writing or for your reader, and it would make for some really irritating writing. But once you know the rules, if something doesn’t quite work for you, and you have a good reason for ignoring it, go ahead and do so.

What do you think “writing right” entails? Please leave a comment!