N Is for Name

Have you ever considered what your name says about you? How does it fit with who you are? Do you have a unique name? Are you a one-of-a-kind person? Maybe your name doesn’t define you at all. Maybe you are shy and have a name that better fits the most gregarious, outgoing girl?

Names can hold a lot of weight, and in storytelling they can give us plenty of fodder for storytelling. They can foreshadow some of our character’s personality traits.

Take, for instance, a girl with the name Charlie or a boy named Sue. While these names were once upon a time used for both sexes, recent trends have made them gender specific with Sue being primarily a girl’s name and Charlie one for boys.

But what if our hero or heroine had a name that was identified with the opposite gender? How would they react? Is there a way to use that to show something about their character? Their tenacity?

Then there are names like Amber or Daniel, names that conjure up certain images in one’s mind, like a popular, outgoing cheerleader for the former or a strong warrior for the latter. How can these stereotypes play into your narrative? For instance, what if Amber and/or Daniel were shy bookworms?

BTW: According to a study released earlier this year, my own name, (via the spelling “Faigy”) is New York’s favorite quirkest girl’s name thanks to the large concentration of Orthodox Jews in the state. (Also on the list are: Shimon, Yaakov and Nechama.) You can check out the rest of the list: http://www.today.com/parents/quirkiest-baby-names-state-t108836

Your Assignment: Research some names for potential story characters. Is there a name that perfectly fits your character? Or, perhaps, one that totally doesn’t fit? How can you use that to make your story and, more importantly, your character stronger and more vivid in the mind of your readers?

M Is for Moral Code

What will your character do when faced with questionable scenarios? Will they call their mother just to say hi or only when forced to once a day on Mother’s Day? Will they tell the clerk at the store that they were given too much change or just walk away a dollar richer?
 
The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about who characters are and what they value. What they believe in – g-d, country, greed, etc. – for better or worse will inform the decisions they make and how they should behave throughout the story.
 
For example:

Jane only speaks to her mother once a year on Mother’s Day. What will Jane do when her mother shows up on her doorstep one random morning and declares she’s moving in?
 
Jane isn’t just going to roll out the red carpet, hand her mother a cup of coffee and the keys to the house.
 
But what if she did? What if Jane acted completely out of character? Can there ever be a case for that? Yes, but it can’t be without a lot of discussion and introspection.
 
When your character behaves in a way that is opposed to the moral code that you’ve established for them, you need to give them a solid reason. Or, alternatively, you can use that as a springboard to a larger issue.
 
For instance:
 
Joe watched James as he stormed off, slamming doors in his wake. Joe didn’t know what to make of his brother’s behavior. Where was the James that barely spoke above a whisper? The brother who stopped to give panhandlers crisp dollar bills or went and shoveled the neighbor’s walkway after a snowstorm just because?
 
Obviously there’s something going on with James and as the story unfolds, you, as the writer, need to explore, explain and build James’ character so that his actions make sense.
 
Your Assignment:  Think about the essence of your character’s moral code. How do they behave with their family? With random strangers? How can you show through your character’s actions and interactions what they value? Are there any circumstances under which they will abandon their personal moral code? Can you use this to deep your story? 

L Is for Looks

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For some reason when I write I tend to ignore writing about a character’s appearance. Maybe it’s because I’ve read one too many books where the character’s “cover” picture (aka the drawing on book cover) that don’t match the way the character is described in the story.
 
Luckily this hasn’t happened to me in my books. I’ve been very luck in that the cover illustrator for my Achdus Club series (the very talented Dena Ackerman, thank you Dena!) has created beautiful and unique heroines for each of my novels.
 
Perhaps, then, and this is more likely, I like to create my own image of just who the characters are. I want to imagine what the hero looks like as he explores the abandoned cabin or the heroine as she rows across the lake.
 
As writers, however, it is up to us to guide the readers. Here then are some things to think about:
 

  • What color are your character’s eyes?
  • Hair? Do they even have hair?
  • How about their height? Weight?

 
Don’t make this a laundry list of description – Joe at 6 feet, 5 inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes, he was a bit of giant – rather give some thought and “color” to the description. Have the character’s appearance unfold within the story. Perhaps this description comes from another’s character’s observation or even the character’s own observations.
 
For instance:
            * For the first time since he was a young boy, Dan wished he had a box to stand on. Instead, he had to tilt his head all the way back to get a good look at Joe who towered over him.
 
            * Joe raised and lowered the bedroom mirror. He’d long since gotten used to the idea that no mirror would give him a full view of how he looked. If he put the mirror super high on the wall, he couldn’t see his feet and if he put it low he couldn’t see his face.

 
Each of these scenarios allow us to envision just how tall Joe is, but does so without being specific numbers. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, writing the descriptions this way also provide a key insight into the thoughts and feeling of your characters.
 
(For more on this topic see D Is for Descriptors)
 
 
Your Assignment: Go over your story and see how you describe your characters. Is there a way to make the descriptions more colorful? Will rephrasing a scene or two with descriptions allow your reader to get to know more about how the character is feeling or thinking?  
 


K Is for Keepsakes 

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If you were on a desert island what five things would you take with you? Or, similarly, if you had 15 minutes to evacuate your home what are the most important items that must come with you?
 
Many people would say family photos followed by a pet, but what comes next? What else matters to a person so much that they wouldn’t want to leave it behind?
 
No, this week’s column isn’t about planning for a disaster, it’s about thinking about how your character lives and what matters most to them, beyond just the people in their world.
 
For instance:

  • Does your character have tons and tons of stuff or hardly any personal possessions?
  • Is she or he a pack rat or a minimalist?
  • Are things strewn all over the house or does everything have a specific place in labeled boxes and bins?
  • Is there an item or two that your character can’t function without?

 
Think about these questions and try to imagine how they might play out in your story.

  • Would someone whose home is meticulously clean with everything sorted and labeled have a car that was filled with junk? What would motivate such a seemingly incongruous action?
  • How might the appearance of a person’s home affect how they dress? How they speak?
  • What would happen to your character if one of those keepsakes that matter most was lost? Will they be able to simply shrug it off or will they spend hours and hours digging through a landfill to find it?

 
We are all attached to our stuff, some more than others, and though we may not want to acknowledge it, on some level it does seep into who we are and what we want and do.
 
YOUR HOMEWORK:
Come up with a list of things your hero or heroine can’t live without and then create a scene where the item is lost. How will your characters react? Can they find an easy substitute or will they be paralyzed with fear? Is the keepsake something they always carry with them, like a lucky charm, or something they have buried in their dresser where only they can see it? Why is it important? Use the answers to these questions to shed some light on your character’s inner actions and feelings. 


J Is for Journey

PictureWhere will your character’s journey take them?

Whether you realize it or not, your characters are on a journey. No, they don’t necessarily need to be physically traveling somewhere, but they do have to get somewhere – at least internally – in your story. Characters, like people, need to be moving. They need to have goals, wants, desires and they must take actions to help them at the very least try and reach their goals. 

Ask yourself, what motivate your character? Why are they the person they are? What incidents in their past have most-shaped who they are in your story? What are their dreams?
 
Once you have the answers consider how the events in the story will intersect with the journey your character has had until now. Will it change who they are? How does their personal history influence how they will respond to actions in your story’s plot.
 
By answering some of these questions, you will gain insight into your characters and how they will act and the journey they will take when they face all the challenges you as the writer will throw their way.
 
YOUR HOMEWORK:

Grab a piece a paper and jot down a few things that have happened to your character in the past. Then, jot down some of the challenges they will need to face in your story. See how they will meet (or even fail to meet) those challenges. 


I Is for I

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Every writer has a choice to make when they start writing their story – and that is who is telling the story. The “who” will impact how you put your story together and how you and the reader connect.
 
In fiction, there are two main forms of story narrator: first person and third person.
 
In first-person stories, the person telling the story is the main character. Everything readers know about the story comes from the protagonist’s thoughts, actions and observations. First-person stories are quite common in mystery and urban fantasy novels
 
In third-person tales, an outside narrator is relating everything that is going on. This is the more common type of storytelling, and can be found in most fictional genres.
 
There are some other types of stories as well. Some authors choose to mix first- and third-person storytelling by alternating chapters between what the protagonist is experiencing and what is happening in other parts the story world. There is also a less-utilized storytelling device where the story is told in second person as in “You went outside and couldn’t believe what you saw.” (As this is quite rare, I’m not going to be dealing with this storytelling tactic.)
 
Let’s explore the differences in first- and third-person storytelling. Take the sample scenes below. In the first paragraph, the scene unfolds through first-person narration. The second paragraph is the same scene told in third person.
                    
FIRST:
I started walking down the stairs. As I did, I worried about what I would find. How would I handle the crowd of people? What if they asked me questions I couldn’t answer? My chest felt as if there were rocks piled up on it. I used all the techniques I had learned in yoga and took a deep, cleansing breath. I did it again and again, until I felt steadier, lighter. I can do this, I told myself.
            
THIRD:
She took the steps with slow deliberate movements. She didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to know what she would be facing when she reached the last step. Each step took her closer to the ensuing chaos. Her chest felt tight and it was getting harder and harder to breath. She forced herself to breath and tried to reassure herself that she could face whatever was waiting for her.

While the main difference is in the pronouns (I, he, she or we, they), the tone of both scenes is also different. Which of these scenes speaks to you?
 
In many cases, choosing whether to go with first- or third-person storytelling is a personal choice. You as the author are free to choose whichever style feels most comfortable. Understand that there are limitations to each.
 
In first person, you are always in the mind of your character and you never know anything other that what she knows, sees and feels. You experience the story with the protagonist. You discover clues, insights and more as she does. The world is narrowed through her lens only.
 
In third person, the reader is slightly removed as they are not experiencing through the protagonist’s own eyes. Instead, the reader is told what is happening. The benefit, however, is that additional information can be conveyed to the reader that the main characters are not privy to, which may make for a richer story.
 
Like your word choices, story setting and character names, deciding which form of narration you will take is highly personal. It will impact how your story unfolds. For big sweeping views, a third-person narration may be best. For small, intense views, first person may work better.
 
Only you as the writer will be able to say which one is best for your story. Good luck!  
 
Your Homework: Take a scene you are currently working on and try writing it in both first and third person. Does one way flow better? Is one of the styles providing you (and your reader) stronger insights into your character? Are you feeling limited by one type of narration? Use these questions to guide you to deciding which narration is right for you and your story.

 


H Is for Home Base

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Have you ever gone on a trip and noticed that when you get to a certain exit on the highway or touch down at the closest airport you instinctive say, I’m home. Geographically speaking, you may still be quite a ways from your physical home, but you are in your element or sphere. You know what to expect. You know the shortcuts, the language, the people.Your home base may not even be a physical spot. It came be a religious connection or an interpersonal connection, but it conjures up the same sense of belonging and surefootedness.

The same is true for your characters. They have a place that is their touchstone, their home base. (If they don’t have a single place where they feel safe or at home, this then becomes their home base – the feeling of exclusion.)

Whether you characters have positive or negative feelings about their home base, it is a core sense of who they are. It impacts them in ways they may not even imagine.

Consider the protagonist who left home as a teen after gaining a bad reputation in town; his run-ins with the local sheriff were legendary. Now he’s back. Everything about his home base will resonate and evoke some kind of response. The smell of his mother’s pasta sauce, the color of the walls on the high school gym, the sounds of kids riding their bikes in summer.

How does our hero react to these stimuli? How does it inform the choices he will make? Will he revert to his old ways or will his adult self be able to adapt and find a new way to connect to his home base?

On the other hand, what about the person who has never left? What if, suddenly, home base is no longer the peaceful sanctuary it once was? How will she deal with the changes?

Will she feel adrift, gripping at whatever lifeline is offered regardless of the consequences? Will she rise to the occasion and become stronger and create a new home base? Will she simply wither forever lamenting what once was?

We all have a home base. It’s a deep part of who we are and why we are the way we are. Connect to that in your characters and you will find a richer, deeper person waiting to come out.

HOMEWORK: Think about your characters. What or where is their touchstone? How does it make them feel? How does it control their actions, their words?


G Is for Growth

PictureEvery action your characters take are like a tiny seed toward their growth in your novel. As the story develops these seeds must blossom, and create richer characters who learns from their experiences.

Think about who you were 5 years ago, 10 years ago. Are you the exact same person? Well, of course you are! But in some ways you’re not. You’ve learned, you’ve had life experiences. You may have changed jobs, moved, graduated, gained a family.
In other words, you have grown and changed as a person. Everything you’ve experienced in life, good and bad, now impact the choices you make.

Consider this example, last week you drove down the main street in your town. It took almost 15 minutes to navigate less than 2 miles of roadway. You decided that was a fluke and did it again the following day and the day after that. And, guess what, it still took 15 minutes to traverse that road. When you are making the decision of driving down that road this morning, will you leave a few minutes earlier to allow for the extra driving time? Will you find another way to get where you are going?

Similarly, your character needs to learn from his or her experiences. Each action in the book, each conflict are like tiny seeds planting the roots of your character’s growth.

They need to grow as they experience life, aka what’s happening to them in the book. They must evolve and change, conquer their fears and find new directions by the books end. Now, I don’t know that these always need to be great big discoveries. Quiet moments of growth are still growth.

Take, for instance, a story about a widow, who, through the course of a novel, discovers that she not only has an inner strength, but has a hidden talent (say painting) is a story about growth. Likewise a blockbuster novel where there is action on every scene as the hero tries to best the villain is a novel of growth (catch the villain, save the world).

Some posit that not every character needs growth. I recently read an article on character growth that maintained that some characters do not grow and change throughout the story. And, indeed, I recently read a novel where the protagonist was so remote, so removed from the actions in the story she seemed detached from the reader and the plot.

While such characters do have their place in fiction, I, personally, believe that these are not the majority of fictional characters. For most of us, the characters we write will need to learn, grow and change. Thereby becoming truly rich characters in the eyes of the reader.

YOUR HOMEWORK: Think about your main characters. What life experiences have made them who they are? What obstacles do they face in your story? How can those experiences impact their lives? 


F Is for Flaws

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Let’s face it, no one is perfect. We all have our strengths, struggles, accomplishments and actions wish we could undo. These strengths and flaws make us who we are. They give us depth and dimension. They can be the things that people find endearing or annoying about us.

Regardless of how we, or others, perceive our flaws they are a huge part of what makes us the people we are.

Similarly, our characters need flaws to help flesh out just who they truly are. No one wants to read a story about a perfect person. Aside for being boring, they aren’t realistic and can be off-putting and remote making it impossible for readers to get close to. As a writer, you want to create characters that your readers will relate to and find a connection to. For that to happen, they must be believable, flaws, warts and all. For more on this check out B is for Believable.

Your Homework:  Think about your characters. What are their flaws? How does this impact the way they act? Can you imagine a scene where the flaws can add another layer or dimension?


E Is for Environment

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Take a look around the room you are sitting in. Now think about your town, your community. Now think about your job or your friends. How do you fit into these places? With these people? This is your environment, and it impacts and influences you on daily basis.The same can be said for the characters in your novel. They don’t exist in a vacuum. They have places they know intimately and places they avoid, people they trust, people they are wary of.

To create a complete world for your hero or heroine, these places and people must be a part of their world. You need to show your characters in their environment, in their element. It is through these interactions that readers will get the greatest glimpses of who your characters are at their core.

Your Homework: ​Pick a place or two that matter to your protagonist. Try to envision it in your mind. This is what you want to convey to your readers. Use your senses to describe what it looks like, what it sounds like, what is smells like.