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The mind churns out a million thoughts a day –– most times without you even realizing. What am I going to do today? Why’d I wake up so late? I need to lose weight. That girl that walked by was cute. Why didn’t I smile? These things flow in and out of our heads at all times; most times too fast for us to analyze them –– hence therapists and psychiatrists. One of the perks of being a fiction writer is the ability to finally be able to control thoughts –– albeit fictional ones –– and channel them toward defining a character.
There are a couple ways to do this over the course of a story, and which way you choose depends a lot on what point of view your story’s set in. If first person, you can just shoot the thoughts out interspersed between narrative, which actually has a nice effect. Tom grabbed the bag of chips from the rack and stuck them under his shirt, we ran out of the store and down the block our lungs burning. What the hell am I doing?
If third person, you have to reveal thoughts in a slightly more indirect way. Instead of just blurting them out, you say something like Mike saw the kid who lives downstairs, the one with the Mohawk and hoop earrings. He hated the way he looked.
An important thing you must keep in mind while playing with thought is balancing it with action. Tweaking with that balance is what makes a good and memorable character. What someone thinks vs. what they actually do. Your characters are going to have desires. Do they act on them? Or do they just think about them? It’d be easy if thoughts and actions were in sync, but life doesn’t work like that –– humans don’t work like that. And the goal is to make your characters as human as possible. Read more »
When you meet someone, before anything comes out of their mouth, appearance is what you judge them by. It’s the reason why Mom nags you to tuck in your shirt, to shave, to floss, to brush your teeth and attempt to smell nice –– it makes a difference. In fiction, appearance isn’t nearly as dire as in real life because often times you can introduce a character without having to describe him or her. You can just have them talk. But, there is always room to add some color to that person.
When used right, appearance is a subtle of way of revealing character in fiction. Everything someone wears presents some aspect of his or her inner selves. Body types, clothing and jewelry all lend hints to a character’s values and when molded correctly, allow readers to better understand a character, to see him or her clearly in their minds.
When constructing a character, you should consider how you want them to dress, what they would look like if you saw them walking down the street. Say your protagonist is a man. Does he wear a suit or jeans? If jeans, are they baggy or skintight? Are the rips in the jeans stylish or do they scream he needs a new pair. Are his eyes narrow or wide? Too big or too small? Scars? Tattoos? Piercings? Read more »
I took a creative writing course last semester, and one of my assignments was to take a small notebook and lounge around random spots on campus where lots of people congregate: the arts quad, the café, hallways after class lets out, and so on. I was asked to be a listener, to listen to all the conversation going on around me and to jot down some of it. It seemed like a weird request at first, but overhearing a few conversations and seeing how they looked on paper surprisingly taught me a lot about dialogue and what realistic dialogue sounds like.
I have been keeping track of daily dialogue since that experience, mostly in my mind. Thinking about the way different people talk in different situations, what their style of talking reveals about themselves, their character, their education and background, their emotional state or their intended emotional state. Now I am trying to apply those real world examples to my fictional ones, so that they are as realistic and human as possible. Below are some examples of things I’ve picked up along the way, examples which you shouldn’t necessarily follow by the book, but rather keep in mind when you are constructing dialogue. Read more »
Creating the perfect character is as intricate as piecing together a puzzle.
Stories take place in all types of regions and eras, with characters of all types of races, ages and social classes. But when you boil each story down, they are really about the same thing: human nature. They all seek to capture an element of the struggle it is to be human and the conflicts (big or small) one faces in the course of a lifetime, year, day, hour or even minute. Therefore, for readers (humans) to sympathize with a piece of fiction and really be moved by it, they must see something of themselves in the characters that inhabit it.
Humans are complex. We become victims of our emotions and become sad or happy at the drop of a dime. We have vices and things we do that we are too afraid to tell others for fear we wouldn’t be loved. We have thoughts we would rather take with us to the grave than share. We have fragile egos prey to the words and actions of others. We have problems showing love and affection; we have problems receiving it. We lie. We cheat. We steal. We betray.
As a writer, it would be impossible to capture all these facets into one character. In fact, trying to do so is where a lot of writers go wrong –– especially young ones. We create characters that are too generalized because we want them stand for a sect of people: a typical NYC teen, a typical housewife, a typical dad. However, creating a “typical” anything only leads to a flat unoriginal 2-D character that will make your narrative stagnant. Original characters fuel great stories –– individuals with unique intricacies, problems, beliefs and behaviors, and those are the characters we must strive to create. Read more »
Keep a nice little notebook in your back pocket, it'll do you wonders.
SIFI is the name of a little notebook I carry around in my back pocket at all times; it stands for “Shit I Find Interesting”. It’s full of scribbles and illegible statements in no real order. Snips of thoughts, ideas, musings, observations and well, anything I find interesting. It’s the type of book every writer should have.
Ideas strike writers at all times of the day. You can be on the train and over hear an interesting conversation, maybe see someone who looks eccentric maybe wearing something odd––and an idea for a story or a character might follow. You can be in class, zoning out in the back and in that moment of lapse, your mind jumps to a vivid thought, a memory of use in a story maybe even a scene. Or, you could just be lounging with your friends, talking shit around a table. One might say something, a statement that summarizes a complex belief of your age group, maybe a bit of slang that’s poignant, possibly useful for your narrative.
There are a lot of ways in which college students spend their free time. Personally, I watch films. There’s nothing better than a good flick on a boring day. Last year, I probably rented out half the selection in the library and paid a ton of late fees (and accordingly got a Netflix account this year). I love films because they take me away for a couple hours, like a good novel. They inject fear, inspiration, laughter, knowledge and a whole bunch of other things into my day. And as a writer, they teach me a thing or two.
Before I jump into the benefits of watching good films, I really need to define what I mean by a film, or better yet, what I don’t mean. A film is not the summer box office hit you took your girl to. It’s not the action flick with explosions every two minutes and it’s not the drama with the played-out lines any half-conscious person can see coming a mile away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig those movies too––I’d watch Megan Fox in Transformers any day of the week––but that’s not what I’m talking about. Read more »
Cursing, slang and other blends of the english language are just as legitimate as "standard" writing.
I recently passed around a draft of a short story I’d been working on for the last month. It concerns a kid named Javier from the Bronx, who is in search of love on Facebook. The story’s purpose, among other things, is to paint a picture of life for an inner-city teen and the role Facebook plays in youth culture. I wanted my story to be genuine, so I wrote in language commonly used in my neighborhood. This language includes cursing, slang, Spanglish and references some may find vulgar. Gauging the feedback I received, most enjoyed the story, but the language put some off. Some felt I overdid it and others couldn’t get through it because they felt there wasn’t a place for cursing and slang at all. At first I thought I was wrong, maybe my language was too vulgar, should’ve toned down the fuck’s and shit’s. And maybe that was true; I might’ve been too authentic. But the larger issue I realized was that some people weren’t appreciating the language. Some still held the belief that slang and cursing is vernacular of the uneducated and had no place in literature –– and that’s wrong. Read more »
Learning how to edit your own work is crucial for a writer.
When it comes to my own writing, I crush easy. I fall in love with sentences, placing them on pedestals like God himself penned them rather than little ol’ me. I feel like they’re etched in stone, like I can’t hit backspace a few times and make them disappear. It’s a problem a lot of beginning writers have. In a perfect world, we’d have editors to send our stuff to and kick back while they go nuts with red ink and spit it back spick and span. But this ain’t a perfect world, and we’re not nearly successful enough to afford those dudes, so the next best option is ourselves. Being a good self-editor is important for a young writer. It allows us to screen our writing and weed out a good chunk of the faultiness in it. I’m no expert, but in the last year I’ve improved my editing abilities a lot with a few steps I’ve learned through experimentation and experience. Read more »
When you're thinking about how to make it as a writer, think about hip-hop
I’ve been a hip-hop head for a lot longer than I’ve been a writer, ever since Mom let me buy Jay-Z’s Dynasty album back in 2000. Hip-hop gets a bad rap sometimes, but I love it. It’s raw, it’s passionate and believe it or not, it teaches me fundamental lessons I apply to writing.
The first lesson is having confidence in my artistry and myself.
Hip-hop is all about self-promotion. In every track, an artist is telling you how great his lyrics are, how fly he is, how tough he is, how intelligent he is, and so on. Some people see that as egocentric. I see that as having confidence, or as its commonly referred to in hip-hop circles –- swag. In the hip-hop world, swag is the way you dress, walk and talk. In the literary world, I’d liken it to the confidence you have in your writing and yourself as a writer. Read more »
Developing your own style: Like searching for that perfect shirt.
I started really gettinginto girls in middle school. Like most boys my age, I was clueless. Had no idea what they wanted or what they were looking for.
This improved a bit in high school –– after countless mishaps making for great stories between my friends –– where I came to a better understanding of what it takes to attract a female. The best lesson I learned during that trial and error period is the importance of a unique personal style.
This isn’t a fashion blog and I’m definitely not a fashion blogger, but I think my lesson in personal style transgresses quite well into the literary world.
Style is just as important in writing as it is in getting that special lady –– or guy –– friend. If you think about it, what are you really trying to do with that manuscript you’ve slaved over for x amount of months or years? Sell it right? And how do you go about doing that? Make it attractive. Give it a style that’ll stand out from the rest. Developing a unique style of prose is a key ingredient to becoming a good writer. It makes you recognizable to readers, and helps you develop a following. Read more »