Characters Need To Act–Even In Pitches

“Conference season” is approaching. Well, perhaps it’s in full bloom. At any rate, chances are, serious writers are considering a conference or two they’d like to attend this year because they will have the opportunity to meet agents and editors and perhaps pitch their story.

So what is a pitch? I thought this might be the time to reprise the article about crafting the pitch for a story. Here’s the revised version of the one that appeared here in November 2012.

– – – – –

I’ve read too many novels in which the main character has no plan of action. Things happen, and he responds when necessary. In other words, he is reactive, which means outside forces are largely responsible for any character development that might occur.

Some time ago agent Rachelle Gardner allowed writers to post in the comments section of her blog one-sentence story pitches which whittle a novel to its bare bones—the premise.

According to former agent Nathan Bransford, there are three necessary elements in a twenty-five word pitch:

– The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
– The obstacle
– The quest

Gardner expands on this to include the following:

→ A character or two
→ Their choice, conflict, or goal
→ What’s at stake (may be implied)
→ Action that will get them to the goal
→ Setting (if important) [emphasis mine]

In the template she borrowed from Mr. Bransford, the character is to “overcome the conflict.” She then gives an example pitch she borrowed from Randy Ingermanson of a well-known story in which the character “battles for his life.” (Examples are always helpful!)

In response to Gardner’s invitation, many writers bravely put their pitches out for critique. However, I noticed one commonality—not universal, but frequent: the recurring actions in which the characters engaged in these pitches were things like “revealing” or “discovering” or “finding.”

Yes, those are verbs and therefore actions, but they are not graphic or explicit. They aren’t necessarily reactive, but they don’t show what the character is actively pursuing.

I’ll be the first to admit—writing an active pitch is not easy.

For one thing, not every story has a character hunt down the killer or free the princess. Some stories key in on the protagonist’s inner struggle, but the key word there is “struggle.” The hard work of facing life as a victim of rape or of recovering from a divorce or fighting out of addiction or any of the other cataclysmic events that can change a person, must still come through as active in a pitch.

A character can defeat her doubts or conquer her fears, but she can also do something more particular in your novel. The more unique or original, and active, the verb in your pitch, the more likely it will catch an agent’s or editor’s attention.

Here’s the pitch I wrote of a few familiar stories (fictitious or true). Do they sound intriguing? Do you recognize them or are they too general?

  • When a trusting king expects instant riches from the miller’s daughter, she must outsmart a magical imp to save her life and that of her firstborn son.
  • When a rebellious prophet sails away from God, he must survive the stormy consequences of his rebellion and repent in order to escape a watery grave.
  • When a family leaves their secluded home for a day, they must solve the mystery of the disturbing break-in that decimated their daughter’s belongings.
  • A loyal lieutenant must escape through a window and live like a fugitive in order to avoid the undeserved murderous rage of his father-in-law, the king.

No doubt you can improve on these, but each contains action. And action is what you want to show those reading your pitch.

Now it’s your turn.

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The Uniqueness Of Fiction

brethren-1988-1989Most of my life, including the years I worked as a secondary school teacher, I have written. However, until I decided to write a novel, I didn’t think about the fact that the majority of my writing experience involved nonfiction. I wrote letters, book reports, essays, term papers, and notes to the parents of my students. But fiction? Not so much.

Still, I was confident I could write a novel. Why? Primarily because I knew how to write, but also because I was a reader. I knew stories. In fact, I’d even taught short story units to my classes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered all the things I did not know about writing fiction. Mind you, as a lit major in college and an English teacher for years and years, I was actually ahead of the game. But when I started in on the story I’d imagined, I had no idea fiction was its own unique animal. In many respects, when considering all types of writing, fiction is like a zebra among horses. Or a unicorn, if the fiction is speculative.

power-elements-of-fiction-seriesSo, what sets fiction apart? The simplest answer is that stories—fiction—must have four elements: a setting, characters, a plot, a theme. These certainly are the basics and each needs amplification—so much so that the first book in The Power Elements Of Fiction series deals with plot structure and the second deals with character development. Setting and theme do feature prominently in the upcoming third book in the series, but not exclusively.

Why? Because fiction techniques are as important as the required fiction elements. Those techniques include such things as point of view, foreshadowing, plot layering, cadence, tone, description, mood, and more.

Early in my writing journey, I read an article in Writer’s Digest magazine that talked about word choices and the importance of selecting the right one to fit the mood, the meaning, the character, and more. I thought, “Pffft, nobody does that! Way too much work.” Well, here I am more than ten years later, advocating for the same thing. In fact, I’ve learned that writing good fiction requires hard work.

Sometimes the writing might seem painstakingly slow. And it’s easy to think, No one will notice if I labor over a better word for this scene than the one that originally popped into my head. While it’s true that readers won’t notice what I did, the converse is true also—they will notice what I did not do. If I’m lazy about my word choices or sloppy with my point of view, readers may be pulled from the “fictive dream” I created and which enveloped them.

That’s the one of the death knells for a novel. Every time a reader realizes the story isn’t real, they’re less engaged, less compelled to keep reading.

A second death knell is to put a reader to sleep. So fiction techniques that help a writer create an appropriate pace and scenes filled with action and vibrant description and interesting characters, are vital to a story’s success.

A third toll of the bell ringing over a failed story is predictability. If the story is clichéd, unimaginative, stale, readers are apt to put the book down and never pick it up. Consequently writers need to begin with a fresh concept and create stories that feel both familiar and new at the same time.

Then, too, the better books stay with readers long after they finish the last page. They may even re-read those books. Why? Because the voice is enchanting or the ideas memorable or important or because the characters deal with timeless questions. Readers think about those books and about the ideas they generated. While the idea of thinking about a subject seems more fitted to nonfiction, certain fiction mechanisms exist that allow the writer to spark deeper thought. However, without the proper fiction techniques, a writer may inadvertently create a story with an essay attached—not something that readers generally gravitate toward.

Finally, fiction can generate emotion in readers. A writer using the right fiction techniques can bring readers to tears. Or to laughter. Writing in such a way that readers feel with and for the characters they’re reading about, requires great skill. Unique skill. Most nonfiction appeals to a reader’s mind. Fiction appeals to their heart.

In the end, I’m glad I took the long road to learn fiction techniques. You see, I wrote a novel and a half before I started seriously studying fiction. I would never recommend that route to anyone else, but as I learned and revised and rewrote, I saw how the story developed into something better and better. I also realized that rewriting, which I’d thought at one point was unnecessary and a waste of time, actually was a vital part of the storytelling process.

I learned that fiction has unique strengths which require unique techniques—ones that a little study and practice can develop. Writers may write, but fiction writers tell stories, and in so doing, we use a different skill set from nonfiction.

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Power Elements Of Character Development On Sale

PowerElementsCharacterDevelopment[1000][1]This week Power Elements Of Character Development, the second ebook in my Power Elements Of Fiction series, is benefiting from Amazon’s Kindle Countdown Deal, a unique promotional program. Or perhaps I should say, writers who wish instruction about character development will benefit.

The way this program works, Power Elements Of Character Development is on sale today only for $.99. Yep, that’s less than a dollar. There aren’t many things we can buy these days for less than a dollar, even at a 99 Cent Store, so this is a real bargain.

Tomorrow the deal isn’t quite as sweet, but will still be a great buy—the book will be on sale for $1.99. That’s a fifty percent discount, so obviously, it’s still a nice deal.

Thursday the price increases another twenty-five percent—to $2.99. But yes, that means those who buy will still enjoy a twenty-five percent saving.

Finally, on Friday the price will revert to its regular $3.99 rate, which, as books go, still provides a significant amount of important instruction for a modest sum.

Lastly, I’d appreciate any reviews from those who have read or who will read Power Elements Of Character Development. When readers talk about the book, it helps those trying to make a decision know if this book is for them or not.

In that regard, here’s one of my favorite lines in a review: “This was such a refreshing change from the ‘build-a-character’ books that suggest a type-casting approach.”

Oh, yes! The last thing I want to teach is building characters using a type-casting approach!

For those of you who have already bought the book, perhaps you’d consider sharing with others this week’s special pricing so other writers who would like to create the best characters possible can benefit. Thanks in advance for helping to get the word out.

Power Elements jingle winner #1

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Writers’ Conferences

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

I had the privilege of teaching a workshop last week in the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference held at the Red Lion Inn in Portland. I hadn’t attended a writers’ conference in a number of years, so it was a delight to be back with familiar faces and people of like interests.

Mostly, though, I was reminded of how valuable writers’ conferences are.

First, I was inspired—to write well and to write for a greater purpose. OCW had two keynote speakers—one a pastor known for his nonfiction and the other a sought-after speaker and fiction writer (pictured here).

In the extended learning classes held each morning, I also received excellent instruction. Some classes dealt with marketing and promotion, others about writing certain kinds of nonfiction, and others about the craft of fiction writing, from novels to screenplays. I chose a class about novel writing, taught by agent Sally Apokedak. Though directed at children’s book writers, the information was relevant to all levels of fiction.

The afternoons offered a variety of one-hour workshops (such as “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys and Wherefores,” which is the class I taught). Again, there was something for everyone during these afternoon sessions which included such topics as self-editing, essentials for a nonfiction book, voice, marketing, story beginnings and endings, synopsis writing, and more.

Third, I had a chance to attend both an editors’ and an agents’ panel during which these professionals answered questions from the audience. These panels offer a window into the business side of the publishing industry, and I never tire of hearing from those on the other side of writing talk about their work, their expectations, their advice for those of us who have not broken into publishing.

Another important part of writing conferences is practical, hands-on learning. OCW offered a pitch session, in which writers could learn how to write a brief pitch they might wish to use when they met with agents and editors, or to hone the one they already had.

The second night I led a critique clinic which allowed writers to break into small groups, and with the guidance of a more experienced writer, offer each other critiques of the first three pages of their work in progress. At the same time there was a poetry class and one on web design.

All this learning and inspiration is important, but another vital aspect of writers’ conferences is the opportunity to schedule an appointment with editors or agents. In some cases a writer can also request a pre-conference critique from the professional of their choice (some conferences offer this service as part of the conference package and others make paid critiques available), meaning that the professional with whom the conferee meets may have already read a sample of his writing before their meeting.

In other words, the agents or editors likely have an idea about how the conferee writes, if they’re interested in seeing more, and what she might need to do next.

OCW provides something I hadn’t encountered before—mentoring sessions. These are thirty-minute meetings with available staff—usually more experienced writers who can field questions, give encouragement, and offer advice to those who aren’t sure what direction they should take next. With so many changes in the publishing industry in the last five to ten years, this kind of help is so valuable.

Writers’ conferences offer one additional help—time to meet, talk, and connect informally with other writers. There’s something encouraging and challenging in getting together—beginners with multi-published authors and mid-list or self-published writers. Conferences seem to point to our commonalities, but beginners can be spurred on to greater heights by seeing successful writers who were once like they.

And published authors can remember how they started, the work it took, and the drive, determination, and enthusiasm they had to keep going. They can give of their time to help others as a way of paying back those who helped them.

Certainly writers’ conferences aren’t essential. As technology improves, and instructional sites such as Udemy and WOW (Women On Writing) proliferate, writers can receive instruction in the comfort of home, saving travel and lodging expenses. These classes can even bring writers into contact with an agent or an experienced writer or a freelance editor. In addition there are Facebook groups and Goodreads groups where writers can congregate online with other writers.

And yet . . . Writing conferences offer the intangibles of face-to-face contact. In a post back in 2013, I included the following information (with some minor editing) about writing conferences:

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Conferences may not be essential, but they are valuable. My recommendation is to plan ahead—pick a conference that seems to be a good fit and start now saving for 2016.

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We Have A Winner

800px-BurmaShaveSigns_Route66I’m happy to announce that we have a winner of the first ever Power Elements jingle contest. We had some great entries. Thank you to each one of you who entered. You made this contest really, really fun.

Here are the Honorable Mentions:

    Write it
    Shape it
    Then watch it grow
    Plot and person
    Become the show.
    Power Elements of Character Development

    By Heather Randall

    When heroes struggle
    To complete a plan
    Readers, invested,
    Cheer: You can!
    Power Elements of Character Development

    By Delores Liesner

And the Runners Up:

    Things almost all
    Main characters share:
    A want, a need,
    And a way to get there!
    Power Elements of Character Development

    By Kathleen Brown

    Nice round characters—
    Are we need!
    Flat ones make for
    A boring read!!!!!
    Power Elements of Character Development

    By Kathleen Brown

Now our top three spots:

In Third Place

    Inner conflict
    Is a must
    Or, like a pie,
    Your book’s all crust!
    Power Elements of Character Development

    By Kathleen Brown

In Second Place

    Heroes real
    And characters deep
    Make a book
    They’ll want to keep
    Power Elements of Character Development

    By Joshua Deem

And our winner in First Place!

Power Elements jingle winner #1

By the way, I’ll be contacting the winners of the top three places about their prize.

Also, if anyone wants to post the picture of the winning entry, please feel free to copy it or contact me and I’ll send you the jpeg. Thanks again for all the fun and your help in promoting this book.

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Repetition Has Many Faces

statue-many-facesGenerally repetition in writing refers to the author’s use of a word or phrase more than once within a passage such as a sentence or perhaps a paragraph or scene. Unless used intentionally, such repetition can be distracting (See “Repetition And Redundancy” for a closer look at this type of repetition) .

However, repetition has more than one face.

For instance, an author may unintentionally give several characters the same quirk. The main character may “worry her bottom lip” in the first chapter, third chapter, and fourth. That’s her tic. But then in chapter five in waltzes a minor character who begins to “worry her bottom lip.” If the mother-in-law and then the pastor’s wife and the sheriff’s deputy all start “worrying their bottom lip,” we have a serious problem.

But even if the repetition doesn’t spread that far, it’s still problematic. Certainly people share nervous habits and even quirks, but the author has used the same wording, which prevents the readers from seeing the peculiarity of the way these two characters, who share the habit, carry it out.

This same principle applies to dialogue as well. If one character has a pet word or ends sentences with something out of the ordinary such as, “so how about that?” no other character should share that tell.

Sometimes the dialogue repetitions are more subtle—the cadence of a sentence, a questioning inflection, specific vocabulary. Each character should have his or her own voice, but when the unusual pops up in Dorothy’s speech and Jasmine’s speech and Miguel’s speech, there’s a problem. Unless the author intentionally shows the characters mimicking each other or coming from an environment that would reasonably influence them to talk in similar ways.

A third face of repetition is that of scenes. Especially in romance and action adventure, love scenes and fight scenes should have a uniqueness so that readers don’t think they lost their place and are re-reading an earlier scene. There should be something different about each battle, about each romantic encounter. Otherwise, that which should engender emotion becomes a source of boredom.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve experienced this kind of ho-hum attitude in some superhero movies. Another monster tipping over cars and kidnapping the hero’s love interest and smashing buildings. Wake me when it’s over. I suppose for those who love the special effects or who haven’t watched a superhero movie before, all the explosions and near misses can be exciting. But the repetition of them reduces tension since we’ve seen that scene before. And reduced tension kills fiction.

Finally, characters can be repeats. No, not precisely so, not in every facet. But authors would be wise to vary some basic character components, starting with physical features. I’ve read manuscripts, for example, with an inordinate number of blue-eyed characters. Or green-eyed. Or both.

In one of my early drafts, I realized I had created all my characters tall. In the same way, be sure that all your characters aren’t beautiful or muscular.

Character social status should also be varied. Besides making my characters tall, I created all of them single. Not particularly realistic. Of course, not every character should be married, either. In fact, not every character should be rich or middle class. Not every character should come from a sordid past. Not every character should live in the suburbs. Not every character should be brilliant or talented or college-educated. Not every character should attend the same church, nor should they all reject religion. Unless, of course, the storyworld you’ve created requires this kind of uniformity.

Aphid_on_dandelionOne more thing writers should avoid when creating characters—making them all the same age. People your story with old as well as young, those facing death and those about to be born, the newly married and the fifty-something’s celebrating their silver anniversary.

A story with variety is much more interesting than one seeded with repetition. Be aware of repetition’s many faces so you can squeeze the life out of the ones you don’t intentionally plant in your story.

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Contest Time

Caption_for_Burma_ShaveFor the most part, my writing tips deal with fiction, though some principles are true to writing of any genre. I’m departing from the norm today and introducing a contest—a poetry contest, of sorts.

As part of my promotion for the new Power Elements Of Fiction volume, Power Elements Of Character Development, I’ve decided to use the old ad idea put out by a shaving cream company called Burma-Shave. Their ads are actually a bit of Americana, some preserved in the Smithsonian Institute, sort of like Norman Rockwell paintings, only in poetry.

The ads first appeared on small signs along the highway in Minnesota back in 1925 and continued until 1963. The son of the owner of a mom-pop kind of company producing, among other things, shaving cream that could be applied without a brush, came up with the idea. He spent $200 to put up signs that first year. Sales shot up, so the next year, his dad authorized more signs, and the ad campaign expanded. Eventually Burma-Shave signs cropped up in 44 of the lower 48 states, all positioned along the highway, so that roadtrippers could read them.

The ads were actually jingles—short lines of poetry, often with a twist at the end, and often with a bit of humor, though not always—toward the later years, they often gave driving safety tips.

They consisted of four or five lines, usually no more than four syllables in length, with either the second or the third line rhyming with the fifth, and were followed by their famous Burma-Shave signature. Here are some samples:

800px-BurmaShaveSigns_Route66

She eyed
His beard
And said no dice
The wedding’s off–
I’ll cook the rice
Burma-Shave

A beard
That’s rough
And overgrown
is better than
A chaperone
Burma-Shave

Relief
For faces
Chapped and sore
Keeps ’em comin’
Back for more
Burma-Shave

We’re widely read
And often quoted
But it’s shaves
Not signs
For which we’re noted
Burma-Shave

The bearded lady
Tried a jar
She’s now
A famous movie star
Burma-Shave

Shaving brushes
You’ll soon see ’em
On a shelf
In some museum
Burma-Shave

(Ironically, the last one is among those preserved in the Smithsonian. To read more jingles go the the Burma Shave site)

My idea is to use the Burma-Shave ad concept to help promote Power Elements Of Character Development. So I sat down to write some jingles. Except, what I have to admit is, I’m not very good at it.

Consequently I thought, there have to be writers out there better than I am. What if I hold a contest, offering a copy of the book as a prize for the winner? So that’s what this post is all about.

For any and all who would like to try their hand at writing Burma-Shave type jingles about Power Elements Of Character Development, put your efforts in the comments section below. Moderation is on, so I alone will receive your entries.

I’m contemplating a second, third, fourth, and fifth place prize, but I’ll let you know about that once the entries start coming in. I don’t know if there will be five or fifty and I don’t know how many will be ones I can use for the promotion.

But let me show you mine so you can see, you don’t have to do much to make yours better than mine. *Sad truth!

Ban PEOCD

If heroes
Struggle toward
Their goal
Readers won’t
Get bored.
Power Elements Of Character Development

If heroes
Make a plan
Readers won’t
Put their book
Under a ban.
Power Elements Of Character Development

I know this may seem hard to do if you haven’t read the book, but you can see the table of contents by using Amazon’s look inside feature to get some ideas that will reflect the content of the book.

I’m looking forward to whatever you submit. This should be fun. I’ll just add that by submitting, you’re giving me permission to use your entry as part of the promotion for Power Elements Of Character Development.

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Hiding Information From Readers

writing in diary August_Müller_TagebucheintragFrom time to time I read advice that says novelists should create characters who have secrets. One such article, “5 Secrets about your Characters’ Secrets,” lists out ways that a writer can use characters’ secrets: to develop a plot twist, create conflict, for descriptive texture and intrigue, to use as part of the character reveal, and I’d add, as a source of on-going tension.

In fact, novelist L. D. Alford includes secrets on his list of tools to create tension. He explains the process:

The protagonist’s secrets are wonderful secrets—the trick is that the author can’t reveal them too early. This is an example of not showing (or telling) everything. I don’t like my readers to know anything that is not revealed through showing. To effectively use protagonist’s secrets, the author must only use showing to reveal and must not show everything.

There is incredible power in keeping protagonist’s secrets. Just like in real life, you never know everything about someone else, and you never want to let someone know everything about you. This is the point of secrets—not everyone knows them. The power of secrets is your readers realize they don’t know everything about the protagonist, and they await with excitement further revelations.

Secrets create questions, both for the other characters and for the reader. As other characters react to the existence of a secret or to its revelation, as the main character struggles to keep the secret, tension abounds. But the natural reaction to not knowing is wanting to know, so secrets generate curiosity. What are those marks on her arm which she keeps hidden? Why hasn’t she told her boyfriend that her parents died?

Mr. Alford also says in one post, “The most powerful use of secrets are those that are kept by the protagonist . . . and not shared immediately with the reader.”

Of course, the protagonist isn’t the only character who can have a secret.

Dobby2I think, for example, of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets in which a character named Dobby goes to Harry’s home in order to dissuade him from returning to Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards. Harry can’t imagine why Dobby wants to keep him from going back, and the reader is just as much in the dark.

Later Harry learns that Dobby, a house elf, is trying to protect him from another wizard, one to whom Dobby is bound and who he cannot betray. Dobby’s secret turns into a full-blown “who wants to harm Harry” question which in turn creates tension throughout the book as one person after another falls under suspicion.

There is a limit, however, to the use of secrets. The author should not withhold the information from the reader that reveals the protagonist’s goal or plan. What the central character wants, drives the plot. If that desire is a secret, readers will be left out of the true quest.

Likewise, if the protagonist makes a plan to achieve his goal, a secret plan which the readers don’t know, they have no way of cheering for his success or fearing when obstacles crop up or enemies plot countermeasures.

In other words, if readers aren’t in the loop when it comes to the goals and plans the main character makes, the tension, which is the point and purpose of keeping secrets, will be lost.

Keeping secrets can powerfully aid a novelist when it comes to creating tension, but a line should be drawn when it comes to the goal of the protagonist and the plans he makes to reach his goals. These are essentials that readers must be aware of if they are to care for the character and hope for him or fear for him. They should not be withheld in the effort to give the protagonist an intriguing secret. Rather than creating tension, withholding the key to character motivation creates indifference.

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Finally! Power Elements Of Character Development Released

PowerElementsCharacterDevelopment[1000][1]Back in March, I posted a preview of the Kindle ebook Power Elements Of Character Development, Book 2 in my Power Elements Of Fiction Series. Before I could put the book up on Amazon, I needed to work out some technology issues which took far longer than I expected, but at long last, it’s complete.

So I’m happy (and relieved) to announce the release of this new book, with the actual cover, not the pre-release cover I posted before.

As part of the promotion for the book, I’ve made Book 1, Power Elements Of Story Structure free for a limited time—until midnight Tuesday, May 19.

By the way, here’s your chance to critique an editor, something most writers would LOVE to do! 😉 If you download and read either Story Structure (the free one) or Character Development (the new one), you’d help me out a great deal by writing a review—whether you like the book or hate it.

With all that preliminary out of the way, here’s the description of the book and another sample chapter. (Blog readers always get the inside scoop and the special deals! 🙂 )

Description

Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.

Excerpt

Chapter 9: Qualities Of Good Characters, Part 1

Critical to the process of creating a story that matters is creating characters who matter. Readers must care about the people in a story in order to care about the story itself. However, readers will put down books that are nothing more than long-winded character sketches. Something has to happen, but it has to happen to characters who matter.

What precisely makes a character matter to a reader? From my study, I’ve identified a few qualities that seem to draw readers. Here, in no special order, are three:

* Strong, yet vulnerable. The character is capable, admirable, winsome, but has a touch of weakness that makes him realistic as well as endearing. It’s a bit like Superman disguised as Clark Kent.

Bilbo is another good example of this type of character. He was small and not so very adventurous. He didn’t have any experience away from the Shire, but as Gandalf pointed out from time to time, there was more to him than met the eye. He was smart and intuitive and persistent and loyal. He was not invincible, but when he became invisible, it nearly seemed so. Yet Gollum could hear him and Smaug could smell him and the elves of Murkwood knew someone—a great warrior, they thought—lurked in their halls.

But if Bilbo were a man or a dwarf or an elf instead of a hobbit, he would not have been as endearing. His fuzzy feet and love of second breakfasts made him seem less than ferocious. His vulnerability was the perfect counterbalance to his strength of character.

* Influential. The protagonist isn’t a follower. She is generally the trendsetter, the leader, the catalyst. She sees the solution when no one else can, takes the path least trodden, faces the insurmountable odds when everyone else runs. She is the one who sets herself apart with her choice for a career or her choice to renounce her career. She’s willing to go it alone or sacrifice for others or try the impossible. Readers admire her confident leadership.

The protagonist in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables is such a character. Though Anne tries to conform to the expectations of her adoptive parents, tries to fit in with her classmates, tries to stay out of trouble in their small community, she simply has too much imagination, too much ingenuity, too much power of persuasion. She draws people to her like a magnet draws iron, and she woos and wins the hardest heart, the strictest disciplinarian, the greatest tease. She turns enemies into friends and friends into bosom buddies or kindred spirits.

* Active. The main character must not exist to experience whatever befalls him. He must take the initiative, decide to engage his world, and, for right or wrong, make things happen. Along this line, he is self-aware. He knows he has weaknesses and wants to overcome them. In fact, much of what moves him to act is his desire to be better than he knows himself to be.

Lady Marguerite St. Just Blakeney, the heroine in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s historical novel set during the French Revolution, as well as her husband Sir Percy Blakeney, is an active character who does not merely react to events threatening her, but takes steps to forestall evils.

Percy is crafty, daring, beguiling, a protector, a rescuer, a leader. He sees people dying in France for no reason other than their parentage or perhaps because of those with whom they had some past association, and he determines to help them escape. Marguerite does what she does for love—first for the sake of her brother and later for the sake of her husband. She is no less courageous and daring than Percy, though perhaps not as duplicitous. But both of them are active. They take the fight to the villains and because of their willingness to act, readers readily cheer them on.

Strong, yet vulnerable; influential; active: these three traits are at the top of the list of qualities that make a character matter to readers.

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The Em Dash, Not To Be Confused With The En Dash

The Em Dash 2Because self-publishing has grown in ease and popularity, more and more writers are producing their own work for public consumption. Hence, I see the need for more instruction in the use of grammar and capitalization and punctuation, particularly marks like the em dash that may not be well known.

This post, with some minor editorial changes, first appeared here in April 2010. It’s about time I dusted it off, so we can take another look at em dashes. But be prepared: it comes with a writing exercise at the end, for those who wish to undertake the practice.

And now, The Em Dash:

I’ve been accused (gently) of overusing em dashes, commonly referred to without the qualifying “em.” These punctuation marks [] differ in length and use from their lesser known, and shorter, cousins, the en dashes [–].

The thing about em dashes—they are incredibly versatile. They can do some of the jobs that commas do or ones parentheses do or even those that colons do. Maybe em dashes are the lazy writer’s answer to punctuation dilemmas: when in doubt, use em dashes. 😉 Well, it works for me!

Like anything else in writing (and in much of life), however, too much of a good thing becomes not such a good thing. In other words, em dashes in every other sentence may become distracting.

With that caution in mind, let’s look at specific uses of em dashes. First, they separate information that amplifies or explains from the rest of the sentence. Commas, parentheses, or a colon can do this too. Here are a few examples.

Example 1:

    The kingunable to sleepcalled for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Or

    The king (unable to sleep) called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Or

    The king, unable to sleep, called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Example 2:

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attacka plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

Or

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attack: a plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

A second use of the em dash is to separate a subject (or a series of subjects) from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

    Lewis and Tolkienthey are the founding fathers of Christian fantasy.

As noted in an earlier post, “The Ellipsis or the Em Dash,” there’s a third common use—to indicate a sudden break in thought or speech.

    Clenching her fist, Barbara stomped after him. “No matter what you

    Before she could finish her threat, Jeff slammed the door.

One more important point: no sentence should contain more than two em dashes. If further amplification is required, then commas or parentheses should be used.

But what about the en dash, that shorter little mark so similar to a hyphen? The Chicago Manual of Style says its principle use is to connect numbers (and occasionally words). For example, if you give a span of time, say, between 19992004, the proper mark between the numbers is the en dash.

So here’s an exercise if you choose to do it: First, look back at this post and see how many em dashes I used, apart from the examples, then rewrite those sentences using either commas, parentheses, or a colon. Second, identify at least one sentence each in which I used parentheses or a colon and rewrite those using em dashes.

How do you think the change in punctuation affects the sentence?

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