Minor Characters

Recently, in the circles that I’m in, more and more people are asking what to do about minor characters. They want to flush them out, give them their own backstory, their own story, understand their background, and everything that makes them tick, but should they do that? How much attention should we give our minor characters? To address this, let’s look at real life.

There are people you encounter every day that you know nothing about. You go to the gas station, fuel up, go inside to get a snack, and the only words exchanged between you and the cashier are:

“Hello, how are you today?”

“I’m great, thanks.”

“Your total will be $5.98.” A pause as the cashier accepts the cash from you, and then she smiles at you and hands you your purchased item. “Thank you, and have a great day.”

“Thanks. You too.” And you leave.

Now, you know nothing about that girl. You don’t know how old she is, if she’s in high school or college, if she’s married or single or has any kids. You don’t know what her talents are, her skills are, or her dreams. You know absolutely nothing, but you’re okay with that. Why? Because you have someplace to be, and getting stuck in a conversation may distract you from what you have to do.

So having characters you know nothing about is fine in a story. Now, another instance of minor characters would be those people you run into on occasion. You’ve seen them enough times you might know their names and greet them. For instance, my mother and I used to go to the park and walk every morning, and at the same time there was this older couple also walking the trail. Their names were Vic and Sid. We knew nothing more of each other except for our names, and we’d greet each other warmly each time we saw one another:

“Hey! How are you? Been a while since we’ve seen you.”

“Yeah, been busy—family stuff, but it’s nice to be back.”

“It’s great to see you again.”

“You too.” And we’d just keep walking, minding our own business.

Another way we may encounter minor characters in real life may be those people we see on a regular basis and may or may not recall the person’s name, but we have a fair idea of what their personality is like and maybe even their dreams. However, they like to talk with you at the most inopportune times, and you never really want to get too drawn into a conversation. An example of this is a cashier at Wal-Mart who has checked out your items on a regular basis. You can’t recall her name, so you have to keep looking at her tag, which reads ‘Jenny’. She remembers you though even if she doesn’t recall your name. You’re the person who’s published a book. In her eyes, you’re famous, and she likes talking with you in a loud voice. She tries to be nonchalant about your accomplishments, and every time she sees you, she tells you about her plans of making a movie. You encourage her, but really, standing in line at the cashier in Wal-Mart is not the best place for this conversation since there are other people in line waiting for their items to be checked through. However, you never see her outside of Wal-Mart, and every time you talk with her, she keeps saying the same thing, and it’s like she never takes any steps toward fulfilling her dreams. You don’t really have time to invest in this person, but you try to be nice.

Now all these are minor characters you may meet in real life. In stories, your characters will encounter similar characters, and you don’t have to flush them out thoroughly. Giving them a personality is always good, and sometimes minor characters will surprise you by actually contributing majorly to the story in ways you never expected, and that’s all right.

The main thing to keep in mind is, “Is this minor character important to the story? Does this character contribute to the story? Do they contribute in a small way or in a big way?” If it’s a small way, you don’t have to develop them too much. Yes, you as the author might know their entire life story and all their hopes and dreams, but that might not be important to the story you’re writing. It’d be very confusing if you have a story about someone who’s on the run from the law, and he checks into this motel where there’s this guy behind the counter who’s dream is to become a cowboy, and suddenly the story shifts to trying to let him accomplish his dream. Sure, there are ways of making the work, but what about the guy who’s on the run?

You’re not obligated it give every character major screen time. In someone else’s life, you are a minor character, someone who they merely passed by on the sidewalk. Yes, you have a lot of depth, huge dreams, and your own bag of troubles, but to that individual whose life you don’t impact, you’re just another face, and that’s okay.

So, when you’re writing a story, if you don’t know how much you should develop a minor character, look at the story, ask how important the character is to the story and how much they contribute to it. Go ahead and give them some personality or quirk to make them memorable to the reader, but then move on. You could have a memorable minor character, and this could be someone that you decide to come back to later and write his own story, but for the time being, don’t overwhelm your book with too many characters.

Inspiration, Motivation, and Determination

The funny thing is as I write this I personally lack the inspiration and motivation to do write this post, but I am absolutely determined to get it written, and therefore words are being written. In other words, no one is immune from what I’m about to say in this post.

It is commonly said you must be inspired to write, but then that is debunked by the claim that you don’t need inspiration as long as you have the motivation to write.

Want to know the truth?

Some days you just lack both inspiration and motivation to write anything, and the only thing that will make you write is your pure determination to write. Some people have the determination to write every day. Others have already resolved to complete this chapter or that scene this day, and some people are just plain stubborn and absolutely set on writing something during the day.

When you write, you might not like what you’ve written. You might write something else and also not like that, and then you write something else again, and still not like what you’ve written, and you feel like giving up, but don’t. By simply writing, you’ve accomplished a lot more than those who simply don’t write at all. Yes, sometimes you have to write a whole bunch of what you may think is junk, but here could a gem in the midst of all that which you can only uncover if you write everything else. That gem is then used for inspiration and gives you the motivation to write more, and next thing you know, you are thrilled about what you are writing.

Of course it’s not that simple. There are a whole bunch of factors in life that like to complicate everything, so lets break things down and discuss inspiration, motivation, and determination individually.

Now we’ve already discussed determination a bit, but let me say it simply: determination is your will to write regardless of how you’re feeling and what you encounter during the day. It may be 11:45PM and you still haven’t written, and determination is writing something before 12AM just so in your own mind you can tell yourself you’ve achieved a goal you set yourself, and you can be proud of that.

Motivation is closely linked to determination. This is because your determination is your motive to write. When you are resolved to do something, you set goals, you make a plan, and you can see the end in sight. All you have to do is do the hard work to reach it, and that is where motivation comes in. Determination is the light at the end of the tunnel. Motivation is the train on the tracks heading for that light.

It is so much easier to have motivation when it’s linked with determination as well. Imagine not having a goal in sight, and the only thing you have in your mind is, “Well, I’m a writer, so I know I should write, but…” And you can fill in the blank.

Now sometimes, you have to write even when you’re not motivated to write. This simply means you really don’t feel like writing, and you can think of so many other ways to spend your time, but no, that’s when determination will strap you to the chair and refuse to release you until you’ve done what you set out to do. It’s not easy to sit down and begin typing when you lack motivation, but as you write, you may find that motivation just comes—or maybe it won’t, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction in knowing you’ve written something.

Now let’s discuss inspiration. Inspiration is like the Holy Grail for writers. It often comes when it’s not summoned or expected, yet it demands you drop everything you’re doing (regardless of the time or place) to write. When inspiration hits you, it’s like being struck by literary lightning where you must jolt down everything lest you forget it. However, just as lightning is largely unpredictable and cannot be harvested, so you cannot rest all your dreams of becoming a writer on inspiration. When inspiration comes, USE IT, but don’t depend on it. Like determination, inspiration can produce motivation, but unlike determination, inspiration is undependable. It’s like that friend who never announces when he’s going to stop by for a visit and just shows up at your front door one day, but you don’t mind because this friend is awesome! However, just as abruptly and without forewarning, he has to leave, and nothing you say can or will make him stay, but you’re not worried. You know he’ll be back—eventually. In the meanwhile, you’re stuck with your roommate Determination, and that’s okay. At least he’s dependable.

In other words, while inspiration can motivate you to write, you cannot count on inspiration and depend on it to motivate you because you have no idea when it will strike. You can’t conjure inspiration because then it wouldn’t be inspiration, and you can’t trick yourself into believing that it is. However, you can rely on determination to motivate you to write since that is totally depended on you and whether you will to write.

Co-Writing

Co-writing—there are numerous of ways to co-write a story. Some people co-write by swapping chapters while others take turned of one person writing one page and the other person writes the next page, or maybe both writers have a their own main characters and write from their POV’s. I cannot list all the different ways you can co-write because I simply don’t know all of them. However, in this post, I’m going to focus on the co-writing style I have found works best for me and is extremely easy for anyone to do, and this style is Roleplaying Co-Writing.

With Roleplaying Co-Writing, each author gets a set of characters—usually one main character for each writer, and then choose the supporting characters. While it is possible to share a character, it’s simply easier and less stressful if one writer to have possession of the character rather than being concerned with the other writer writing the character wrong.

Once the characters have been spread out evenly between the two writers, you then put the characters in a scenario, and each writer writes the dialogue and action of their own character. This is where the fun begins. Although you know what must happen in the scene, you don’t know how it happens, but you let the characters be themselves while you slowly steer them in the direction of the purpose of the scene. What exactly is exchanged and occurs in these scenes are completely unpredictable, and sometimes it can change the entire course of the story, but that is where the fun lies. Here’s an example I co-wrote with Nan Sampson Bach. She wrote Juan’s character while I wrote Julianne. The bold are hers. The italics are mine (Note: this is the actual raw version of this scene prior to smoothing out the two styles of writing with any editing):

<~>~<~>~<~>

When he stood, he leaned heavily on her, but Julianne didn’t mind. She just looked up at him concerned. “Are you okay?”

“Estoy bien. Sólo necesito un poco de agua.” He shook his head, tried again. Was he slurring his words or was the spinning room now affecting his ears? “I meant to say, I am fine. I just need a little water, that is all.” He tried to push away from her but stumbled and went down on his knees. “Maldición!” God help him, it had never been this bad before. He needed his Gate. He needed to tap into the energy there. He sensed Julianne next to him, trying to help him up and his face burned with shame. He pushed at her feebly, but he had no strength left. “Leave me, Dona. Por favor. You do not need to see this.”

But Julianne insisted. “What is wrong? What do you need? Tell me!” Her heart raced with sudden fear because she sensed this wasn’t simply exhaustion.

His vision was graying. “I need the Gate. I need to make a sacrifice to the Gate. For the energy.” He tried to focus on her face, tried to smile. “I have used it too much, spent too much. It is like a drug, Dona Julianne. It takes its toll.” He shook his head. “You should go. Fetch your Mage Prince. He must know what I know of The First. If I am unable to do this thing, then he must.”

Sasha’s words spun round in his head as he collapsed onto the floor. “The more you use it, the more you need it, Juan-Carlos. And the more you need it, the more it sucks the life out of you.” And then the crafty Macedonian laughed.

Julianne realized he needed power. She had forgotten the magic of the Gate had sustained him, and she sat back briefly before thinning her lips and coming to a decision. “You need power. Does it have to be from the Gate?”

She was speaking, but he was having trouble understanding the words. If only she would speak in Spanish. Damn the English – how had they managed to take over the world?

Julianne decided not to wait for an answer. She was the creator of this realm, and in that way, she was the most powerful person present. Taking a deep breath, Julianne turned him over, so he was lying on his back. She hesitated but then bent over and kissed him.

However, it wasn’t a simple kiss. As soon as their lips touched, Julianne reached onto his mind and the close connection they had, and she poured as much power into him as she could. She sensed his strength returning.

After a moment, she finally pulled back and winced, bringing a hand to her head. “Ow—why didn’t anyone ever say those fairytale kisses leave people with headaches?”

It took him a moment to process what had happened. “What… what did you do?” He assessed himself, found his energy had returned, almost at full force. It was not the same sort of juiced up buzz he used to get from a sacrifice to the Gate, but he felt refreshed and the weakness and exhaustion that had plagued him for months was gone.

<~>~<~>~<~>

As you can see, this style is almost as if co-writing paragraph-by-paragraph, but it’s not quite. Sometimes one writer will write multiple paragraphs to show different thoughts and actions of their characters.

What did we use to write back and forth? Some people use Google Docs, but my preferred means are Facebook Messenger or email, and then I copy and paste what we’ve written into a document. It’s simple, consistent, and readily available.

So this is the basic idea of Roleplaying Co-Writing, but there is a lot of work that must be put into it in order for it to work. You can’t just randomly start co-writing with someone and expect a full-fledged story to emerge…okay, so you can actually do that, and a story will begin to form, but there comes a time where you need to pause and communicate with each other where the story should go. Here are a few things you need to know prior to actually co-writing with someone:

  1. Do you two have similar writing styles?
  2. What are the areas where you are weak but they are strong and vica versa? (are they better at writing fight scenes than you? Are you better at describing a medieval setting than them? Etc.)
  3. Are you both confident in your writing abilities and willing to improvise at a moment’s notice? (if one person is unwilling to allow their character to make a mistake or get hurt, it will be difficult to co-write with such a person.)
  4. Can you communicate well with your co-writer?
  5. Can you be completely honest with them? (if the two main characters are supposed to fall in love, but you feel your co-writer’s MMC is too wooden, your FMC won’t fall for him. So either change the story or delve into the wooden character to uncover unspeakable depths. The two co-writers must be completely honest and willing to work with each other, untangle any complications for the success of the story.)
  6. Determine and agree on goals for the story (Are you writing just for fun or to explore a different genre of writing? Are you hoping to publish the story one day?)

Now, before you begin writing, it is highly recommended the two of you outline the story. It could be a rough outline or a very detailed outline—whatever you want, but the point of this is agreeing on the events and direction of the story. If you can’t agree on that, you will spend a lot of time arguing and not writing. One of you may be more prone to outlining, so let that person pull together the actual outline, but brainstorm it together!

Remember, the outline is only a guide. If you follow it perfectly, fantastic, but rarely does writing ever go exactly how we planned, so you need to improvise and work with what is handed to you. ALWAYS COMMUNICATE. If a story is moving off track from the outline, communicate with the co-writer, bring it to their attention, discuss if you should stay on the outline or not, and if you opt not to stay on the outline, explore the possibilities of the future of this new direction. Once you’ve written an outline, this does not mean you’re locked into it. Stories have minds of their own and will unfold exactly how they want to or else they will give you Writer’s Block.

Now, one thing you should know prior to committing to co-writing using this style is that it is very addictive. You can literally write all day—and still get other stuff done although you might get irritated when there’s an interruption in your life that prevents you from reading what your co-writer sent to you. I co-write a lot on my phone. I go about my day, doing my usual work, then play fetch with my dog, wash the dishes, cook a meal or bake cookies, and converse with people, but then my phone chimes with a reply, and I look at the message, type a reply, and send it, and then I resume whatever work I was doing. It is incredibly fun—too much fun sometimes that it can actually become stressful because all you want to do is write! A solution? Set aside a time of day (an hour or two) when your co-writer and you will write. That way writing won’t get in the way of your real life, and your real life won’t get in the way of your writing.

Does this mean you can’t work on the story throughout the day until that set time? No. If there is a scene approaching where the only characters involved are characters you write, that is called a solo scene, and you may write it whenever you want. It’s good to write it ahead of time, so when the story finally gets to that point, your co-writer isn’t waiting around for you to write that scene. Rather, you can just send it to them once you’ve reached that point, and the two of you can progress to the next scene which you must write together.

So, this is merely one way co-writing. It is incredibly fun. To quote Nan Sampson Bach, whom I’ve been co-writing with recently: Co-writing is an absolute blast. You get a terrific feedback loop, that keeps the energy and interest high, and the level of spontaneity makes the writing feel real. It’s highly addictive.” So if you’re interesting in co-writing and just aren’t sure how to approach it, I highly recommend the Roleplaying Co-Writing style. Once you get a hang of it, you’ll have a blast. Hope you the best!

Overview of the Different Tenses

Let’s examine the different tenses. Next week’s post will show how important tense is especially when handling a flashback, but today, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basics.

Tense can be simple or very, very complex—depends on however you want to make it. Simply put, tense tells us when something was or will be done—past, present or future. There four categories of tenses, and each category has a past, present and future tense. This is where the confusion comes in, so let me just show you:

Tense Categories:

Simple

Progressive

Perfect

Perfect Progressive

Simple Tense:

Past: John tried cooking yesterday

Present: Hannah knows better than to let him cook again.

Future: He will burn the house down next time.

Progressive:

Past: John was taking cooking lessons.

Present: Hannah is trying to convince him that pouring oil on a heated pan is not a good idea.

Future: John will be returning to class.

Perfect:

Past: Hannah had scrubbed the stains off the pan.

Present: John has asked for her not to throw away all the food.

Future: Hannah will have gotten new plates tomorrow.

Progressive Perfect:

Past: John had been trying to become a chef for a long time.

Present: He has been working very hard.

Future: Next week, he will have been taking cooking classes for exactly three years.

Confused or bored? Yeah, so am I. The good news is we’re not going to focus on every category, but let’s summarize:

Progressive uses helping verbs (am, is, are,was, were, will be) attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.
Perfect uses forms of ‘have’ (have, has, had) attached to a verb ending with ‘ed’
Progressive Perfect uses ‘have’ and ‘been’ attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.

In other words, all three of those forms are telling rather than showing because they make the verb passive rather than active. That is why we try to avoid those and work with the simple tense

95% of stories are written in Simple Past Tense. More recently there has been a rise in Simple Present Tense, but it’s still not as popular as past tense. This is because the roots of storytelling go back to oral tradition, and such a tradition began by the boasting of adventures and accomplishments our ancestors did. No one sat around the fire listening to Homer tell what ‘is happening’ to Troy; he told the story as it had happened. Go to any storytelling competition, and see how many stories are told in present tense.

Is writing in present tense wrong?” Not at all. Simply be aware that it is not the most popular or preferred tense in the reading world because it feels unnatural. When I see a book is written in present tense, I often put the book down because I don’t want to know what ‘will’ be happening. I want the story to be finished and completed before I even pick it up. The past tense gives me the reassurance that the events in the story are the past, and the consequences have already been realized.

Now, some people prefer present over past, and that’s all right.

The single pet peeve of any reader (be it your audience, fellow writer, or editor) is shifting tenses within a story. If the story begins in past tense, keep it in past tense. If it starts in present tense, don’t change it to past because you want to.

What about flashbacks? If the story is written in present tense, can’t the flashbacks be written in past tense?” Ah, flashbacks—a complicated creature, but we will discuss that in next week’s post since there is a connection to flashbacks and tenses. 

Determining the Person

Before you write a story, you must know which ‘person’ you will write it in. This isn’t as simple as “Oh, well, I wrote a story in third person last time, so I’m going to write in first person this time.” It might work out that way for you, but when you approach a new story, you must listen to your characters. Listen to the voice of the story.

I once co-wrote a story with a young writer, and our story was written in third person. As we wrote more and more, I coached her in different aspects she needed to improve. One day she revealed something to me, “I hate writing in third person. I only ever write in first person.” On the surface there is nothing wrong with a preference of person. However, if that preference gets in the way of your practice of the other persons, then it’s a problem. It’s part of the Playground Experience to play with different persons.

Let’s recap on the terminology of persons in writing:

Person: The narrative point of view in which the entire story is written. There are three kinds of ‘persons’—First Person, Second Person, and Third Person.

First Person: I, me, my, and mine, such as I watched the meteor shower last night.

First Person Plural: We, us, and ours: We watched the meteor shower last night.

Second Person: You and yours. You watched the meteor shower last night.

Third Person: Elizabeth, Samuel, he, his, him, she, her, hers, it, its, they, them, their: Elizabeth watched the meteor shower.

Third person is the most popular choice for writing novels. First person is more common for shorter pieces of fiction—especially flash fiction, but it is gaining popularity with novels.

Second person is the least popular for two reasons: it is commonly tied into present tense, which is an uncommon tense to use for writing, and it can come across as accusing the reader of actions they’d rather not do. It’s almost like those ‘choose your own adventure’ books or short videos. The last thing the reader wants is to die or get hurt in the story, but when you don’t fully understand what’s happening in the story, you can’t make choices wisely.

For instance, there might be a simple sentence in the story that reads: You went to the fridge and grabbed the milk carton. The reader might dislike milk and argues, “No, I didn’t! I’ll have the orange juice!” This pulls the reader out of the experience of the story and therefore breaks the connection.

Some people might like this, but most of us don’t, so when we see a book is written in second person, we put it down. Our life is dramatic enough. We don’t need a book on something we’ve never done but written as though we did do it.

However, every writer should practice writing second person just as a skill to have. The best time to use it is when writing stories in the form of letters although I have read some extraordinary stories written in second person in which I completely forgot they were written in that person. If a story is well-written, the person really won’t be noticeable.

Now, back to first and third person. The main difference is the limitation of POV. In first person, the point of view is limited to the character narrating the story because we as individuals cannot read other people’s minds. Third person, however, can be all-seeing, all-knowing, and wherever you want whenever you want.

These two should be distinctly different.

Or should they?

Yes, first person is limited to a single individual’s interpretation of events and people. Unless you’re a narrow-minded and lacking an imagination (in which case you really shouldn’t be a writer), you can read people—their facial expressions, body language, the aura around them—and determine their motives. The more you know about them and their background and dreams, the more you understand them. Even if you can’t pinpoint their agenda precisely, you can still get the feeling, “This person is up to no good.” Now, apply that to your writing:

I watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling my stare—she caught my gaze and smiled thanks.

How did the narrator know Elizabeth felt his stare? Have you ever stared at someone long enough that they finally turn and lock eyes with you? You never approached that person and asked, “Did you feel my stare?” You know the weight of stares, and you know it is an actual feeling. Apply your knowledge of life and your experiences to your story, and it will broaden your abilities especially in the otherwise limited first person narration.

Now, taking the same paragraph, but let’s switch it to third person.

Samuel watched Elizabeth stare at the stars blazing across the sky in wonder. Ever the city girl, she never had clear, dark skies to view a meteor shower. Her mouth moved with ‘wow’s each time a star streaked across the sky, and—feeling his stare—she caught his gaze and smiled thanks.

There lies the trick. Switching first person to third person without disrupting the flow of the story. When you can do this, you will fully understand both persons, but you can develop each to your preferred writing voice and style.

As an exercise, write a story you never plan to publish. Experiment using each person in the course of the story, but do so in a carefully constructed manner—not merely switching persons because it suits you. Plan it, and then achieve it. I once wrote a novella that went from third person to first person to second person back to first person and finally to third person. Sure, I likely will never publish it, but writing it helped me better understand the differences and similarities with each person.

Someone might tell me, “I can’t write in third person! I like first person better!” Having such a preference is fine and acceptable. Your writing style might consist mainly of first person or third person, but don’t think that you ‘cannot’ write one of the other persons especially when you might called upon to do so.

Remember, most people are comfortable with writing in first person because it is closest to what they wrote in their journal/diary prior to story writing. You shouldn’t eliminate third person until you have at least tried it and mastered it enough to be comfortable with it. If it’s not your preference, that’s fine, but at least you know you can do it.

Origin of the Narrative

Last week, we discussed the narrative—the telling part of the story—and I explained how necessary it is. Now we’re going to take a step back and determine its origin—not the literal origin but rather its beginning with each writer. So, where does the narrative begin? Lets consider the general beginnings of a writer.

As a young person, your parents or teachers probably encouraged you to keep a journal. This is usually the first introduction a young person has to writing. It is a ‘safe place’—someplace you can go and tell all your secret thoughts, dreams, desires, fears, and failures without being rejected or discouraged. You begin by recounting your day and how the events unfolded. You capture snippets of conversations you truly had or overheard, and you draw (sometimes literally) pictures of things you saw or imagined. Journal writing is very sacred, and they might never be read by anyone other than yourself all your life.

Then as you get older, you might dabble with poetry—maybe as homework assignments or as mere experimentation for yourself. It’ll likely appear in your journal here and there. The key with poetry is its profound depth of emotion. It is raw—very close to you, and it might be rare for you to share them with anyone. You don’t want people to know that side of you or all those secret thoughts or feelings in those situations. No, you have a persona to present, so you lock them away—howbeit in immortal ink on paper.

After much reading with adventures alongside the books’ characters, you decide to channel your experiences through story form. How do you do it? You choose a storyline that captures your attention—something like a character stumbles upon the truth that fairy tale characters are real and are part of another secret government agency, and everything unravels as the main character (the MC) tries to determine truth from fiction, and so forth. All right, so you have the story, who will be the MC? If you’re a guy, you’d likely decide the MC to be male. After all, you don’t want to mess up writing a female character! The women will likely butcher you if you mess up any representation of them. Women, the same applies for you. You’d likely create a female MC. If you’re young, the MC will likely be around your age—probably a teenager.

So you have the story and the MC, now you have to decide the proper ‘person’ for your story (first person, second person, or third person). Now, up to this point, you’ve only written in your journal with the focus being on all your experiences in life. Naturally that is written in first person, so you’re comfortable with it. That is likely what you will choose as the person for the story, so the story will be primarily from the MC’s point of view (POV).

So what does all this have to do with narrative? It is essential to a story that the narrative be invisible. This means the author must not be noticeable. There are times when I read a story, and I know the author is writing fictional tales of their life. To be honest, I don’t care about the author’s life story (unless I bought the book understanding that is what it is about—in which case, it’d better be non-fiction). I’m an author, and personally I know how boring a writer’s life can be. Who wants to read about someone sitting at a computer writing? There are only so many ways that can be done and redone creatively before it gets boring.

When the author decides to go on an adventure but under the guise of a character, it sticks out. For instance, I mentor young writers all the time, and their first few stories are always about a character of their gender and age carrying out the story. The character has the same personality and habits as their author. This is most evident when the story is set in a different era, and the characters talk with modern dialect when there are no time-travelers.

Author-based characters borderline ‘Mary Sues’—the ‘perfect’ character, who ends up being the most loathed character in the story as well. Why do these characters become ‘Mary Sues’? They’re based on the author, and as a human being, we don’t want to fail. We don’t want to be fooled or make a fool out of ourselves. We don’t want people laughing at us but rather respecting us, and we don’t want to lose. Therefore, the story becomes stilted because it is compromising for a single character, and that is unrealistic. As authors, we strive in making our characters’ lives miserable.

Is it wrong to have a character or narrative based on the author? No. Many books are published where the author is the obvious narrator. The problem? Writers do this when they’re at the beginning stages of their writing and have little experience. This is comfortable for them because of their experience with journal writing and such. When I see a narrator like this in a story, I put the book down. What impresses me more is when the author is completely invisible—when I don’t notice the narrator, and when the characters are so unique and individual that they capture my attention completely and yank me into the story.

“Okay, so how do I make sure I don’t write an author-based narrative?” Since characters and narratives are closely linked together, in order to ensure your narrative is invisible, put distance between your characters and yourself. If you’re a guy writing a story, make your main character (MC) female. If you’re female, then make the MC male. You might wince at this thought, but surprisingly oftentimes men write better female characters than women while women tend to write better male characters. Why? Because in the end, both men and women are people. Down at their core and values, they all have the same struggles, fears, and desires.

When your MC is the opposite gender, suddenly there is a distance. You don’t worry about what people will think of you or if they’ll think you’re the character. Instead, you know that character isn’t you, and you will be more receptive to listen what that character says and show what that character does without fear of you yourself being judged. Once you develop this relationship with your characters, it’s easier to write those characters of your own gender because you have already established the necessary distance between your characters and your own person.

Another way to keep the narrative invisible is to use third person rather than first person because it offers yet another distance. Is it wrong to write first person? No, but it is the person most commonly used by novice writers because of the transition from journal writing to story writing. To become more experienced with writing, you should experiment with all different persons (including second person) until you find which one you are most comfortable with—the one which best shows your story.

When writing, don’t sit there thinking, “Must make my narrative invisible. Must make it invisible. Is it invisible?” Don’t worry about it. Don’t fret over it. All this information is necessary to have in the back of your mind, and when the moment comes, you’ll have it right when you need it. So keep writing. Be mindful of what I said, but don’t fret.

 

Speaking of Dialogue…

In my previous post I hinted at a time in your writing when all your characters start to sound the same, but I also said there was a solution for it. Let’s discuss that in this post.

What do you do when your characters lack their own voice? First, recognize the truth: they sound like one another because they sound like you, and you are only one person. However, as I said before, they aren’t you, so they should have their own voice.

Give them distinct personalities and habits. How do they emotionally react to a situation? That will weigh on what they say. Too often we make the characters say something because it’s a common response, but if they just remained silent for that moment, it would speak volumes of their personality.

For instance, recently in my medieval fantasy story, I had a moment where two characters (Conrad and Irene) were talking until they’re interrupted by commotion outside the room. Conrad could have gone out there and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?” but I realized that’s almost a cliché response. I wanted to be different. Instead, I opted for his mere, intimidating presence to silence commotion as he marched up to them. He didn’t need to demand an explanation. It was obvious by his disapproving stare. Yes, that’s not exactly dialogue, but it’s an approach to consider. Maybe in a specific moment, your character doesn’t need to say anything, and that’s what makes him or her unique.

One way to give characters distinct personalities is by borrowing ideas from TV shows or films. Like a character? Study their personality and find out why you like him. Then use those specific elements and apply them to your own character, and sometimes you can blend elements from different characters into one for yourself. For instance, Richard Castle in the TV show ‘Castle’. His ability to come up with wild theories on the fly is kinda cool. Then you have Cal Lightman from ‘Lie To Me’, and his flamboyant way of entering any room—also his ability to read people so thoroughly is remarkable. Put all those traits into one character, and you have something unique. Like Nikita’s determination and fighting streak, but like Carrie’s (from the show ‘Unforgettable’) superb memory and habit of speaking with a southern accent when she’s irritated? Blend it together.

Once characters are given traits unique to themselves, they start speaking, and you have listen. If you listen, you’ll be able to hear their voice.

Now, I will briefly touch upon using dialect and cursing in writing because it applies to dialogue. “Write what you hear,” is the most popular piece of advice regarding dialogue, and this is true. You have the right to write dialogue however you’d like and how your character wants to speak, but beware; if your dialogue is full of slang and cursing, you are automatically limiting your audience. Is that wrong? No. It’s entirely up to you.

When you use dialect in conversations, you take the risk of confusing the readers. If I were to write, “Ah ain’t ‘now no’hin’ that y’all’s talkin’ ‘bout!” It might take a second or two before you translate the sentence as “I don’t know anything that you’re talking about.” The first version might be completely in character and fits right in with a wild west story, but readers aren’t naturally drawn to characters they can’t understand. You can counter this by using body language because that is the universal language:

I don’t know anything that you’re talking about!” Susan shoved Joseph away from holding her back and marched up Sheriff Marcus. Though he towered over her, she jabbed a finger at his chest…

The same idea goes with using cuss words in dialogue. Yes, that’s common language and it’s heard every day everywhere you go and whenever you turn on the radio or the TV. However, keep in mind that writing is a means of communication, and cuss words are simply an empty expression. Yes, they are used for emphasis, but when you look at the skeleton of the sentence, they take up space and are unnecessary. “But my characters curse all the time!” There are ways around it such as simply writing ‘he cursed’—don’t need to go into detail because that only wastes time and space; it is something readers might skip over because they don’t have time for such filthy language. Once a reader begins to skip passages in a book, they will continue to skip until it’s the end of the book, and they’ll walk away with one impression, “Well, that book had a lot of cursing in it.” They won’t remember the story or the character or the plot because the dialogue got in the way.

Am I completely forbidding cursing? By now you should know I don’t make things that easy. Whether or not you include cursing in your writing is entirely up to you, but as always, you must know what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Be aware of each word. If the word is unnecessary, eliminate it.

This much on dialogue then. Next, we will discuss narration—the part of the story where you actually tell rather than show.