Category Archives: Writing Process

Are All Writers Introverts?

What do you think are the chances of ever coming across a Help Wanted ad that reads like this:

CREATIVE WRITER
La La Land, NJ

Fiction factory seeks imaginative daydreamer to brainstorm, draft, and revise/edit story ideas for potential publication. Applicant must have been born with a calling, and posses a quiet, low key personality, yet still be temperamental enough to be artistic. Salary + bonus and full health benefits included. Send resume and writing sample by June 30, 2013.

Zero? Damn. Ah, well. I’ll apply anyway. See what happens. Never know. Right?

I’m currently knee deep in Susan Cain’s innovative new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts. One page in, I already knew it was the book I’d been waiting for my entire life. Through this impeccably researched chronicle of the introvert’s rich inner life, I’m learning to understand myself with a whole new kind of clarity.

Cain also gives a great speech on the topic on Ted Talks. See video here.

Contemplative “Window Cat” Clifford M. Kinsman → in Cats and dogs

Since the notion of introversion has been ruminating in my mind lately, I’d like to ponder a question out loud: Can a writer—a keen, devoted, fanatical writer—ever be anything but an introvert?

I can hear the shouts already. “Of course not! I’m a writer but I’m also a very sociable person!”

This may be true. And of course there are plenty of gregarious writers in the world. Take me for example. I’m a textbook introvert—but I’m also a teacher. I love being in front of a classroom. Like everything else in this world, there is spectrum. Take any given Are you Introvert or an Extrovert personality test and if zero equals pure introvert, and one-hundred equals pure extrovert, most people will fall somewhere in between.

However, through my reading of Quiet, I’m learning that introversion and extroversion go beyond personality styles and daily verbal word count. Cain suggests that it has more to do with responses to stimuli and levels of energy. Extroverts, according to studies, aren’t as distracted by outside noise or activity, while introverts are more likely to be bothered by disruptions. Extroverts get their energy from interactions with others or at social events; on the other hand, introverts get their energy from inside themselves. So, hence, extroverts=external energy going in vs. introverts=internal energy going out.

“Lonesome Fishing” Shi Yali → in Sea & water

The crazy part? The part I never allowed myself to realize is this: Neither one is better than the other. Cain says we  need both types (and all the kinds in between) of people to keep this world functioning the way it does. It’s evolutionary. So far, nature hasn’t weeded out the timid folks. Society, however, places higher demand on the extroverted way of being. (But hey, don’t you remember an old saying: the WHO shall inherit the earth? :))

So how does all this relate to writing? The title of this post poses the question of whether or not writers, by nature, are typically (key word there) introverts? We all know some classic examples.*

1. Emily Dickinson
2. Virginia Woolf
3. J.D. Salinger
4. T.S. Elliot
5. The entire Bronte family

But surely not every single writer who ever lived dreaded even the mere thought of a cocktail party? Am I right? I’d be willing to bet, however—and I say this on no other grounds than I’m both a writer and an introvert—that many of them did…dread the dinner parties and such.

Face it; writers are the kinds of people who need downtime—and not just to do their work. Writing is one of the few activities that is done primarily alone (not counting television series, for which there is often a team of writers), but your typical novelist, journalist, memoirist, short story writer, and poet works solo. And by nature, introverts are more comfortable being alone than extroverts.

“Waterfront Bench” for the introvert Brian Norcross → in Landscape

Ask yourself, who is the most outgoing, vivacious, liveliest person you know? Is he or she a writer? (It’s funny, actually I know a lot of extroverted readers, but when it comes to sitting down at a computer for hours at a time…not a chance) I’ll doubt it. Extroverts need a lot of action to feel stimulated and writing—even at its best—doesn’t provide a whole lot of action.

I’m not making any assumptions of course. Nothing is ever black or white. But I will venture to say that generally speaking, writers are people who posses rich, inner lives that reveal thoughts and ideas from the heightened states of consciousness that can only come from spending a lot of time in solitude.

Thoughts? Can you think of any extroverted writers? Or more examples of introverted writers?

By the way, this was recently posted on BuzzFeed:31 Unmistakable Signs That You’re an Introvert

*Did I say introverted? I meant reclusive 🙂

13 Comments

Filed under Self Discovery, The Writing Life, Writing Details, Writing Process

Time is On My Side (Or is it?)

Can’t you just hear Mick Jagger’s rousing voice now? Of course he was only twenty years old when he uttered these famous words; plus, he was referring to the inevitability that a lover would return to him. But in essence, time has been on Mick’s side, hasn’t it? How else could he take part in the production of one-hundred singles, over two dozen studio albums, various compilations and live albums, and not to mention the fathering of an inexplicable amount of offspring? Besides, fifty years later and Mick (along with the Stones) are still touring, performing, and rocking out.

Pretty impressive. Not going to lie.

Photo Source: newyorkchronicles.blogspot.com

But this isn’t about the prowess of The British Invasion. It’s about the life of the average writer—particularly those writers leading a presumed double life, i.e. day jobs, parenthood, general housekeeping—and his or her capricious relationship with time.

Over the weekend I went to Sears to pick up my newly repaired watch. As I forked over the fifteen dollars it hit me: I’m actually paying someone to provide me with yet, another device to tell time. There’s a clock in every classroom at the college where I teach. My husband and I have two alarm clocks in our bedroom. Downstairs in my kitchen, I sometimes feel cross-eyed staring at the double digital imprints on the stove and microwave. Our cable box tells the time. If I turn on the television and go to the preview channel, I can see the exact hour, minute, and second of the day. Sometimes TD Bank even offers a courtesy update in between commercials. My car shows the time. This laptop I’m currently writing on shows the time. My iPhone has clock app. If interested, I can view the time in the Philippines.

mrceviz → in Graphics

It’s no wonder so many people I know (myself included) are near-lunatics. The constant ticking and tocking and shifting numbers are forever reminding us of the things we haven’t yet done, of the things we’re supposed to be doing. As a writer—particularly one who aspires towards publication—this obsession with time has had some pretty negative impacts on my psyche.

Many of us have been asked this question: what is your biggest fear when it comes to writing? Some obvious answers might be “failure,” “success,” or “failure to reach success,” or even, “successfully reaching failure.” Others might say, “Never being good enough,” and “not finding an agent,” etc.

In hindsight, my personal writing fears have always been rooted in Time. Not finishing in time. Not finding the time [to write]. Or worse, not making time to write—in essence, wasting time. Wasting precious, valuable time. Not using enough time. The list goes on.

Consequently, this fear often spirals out of control into some sort of wicked slippery slope. The ‘what if’s’ run rampant and in a span of two minutes “time” I wind up feeling depleted, doomed, and hopeless.

It sounds something like this:

How could that author finish an entire, polished manuscript in only nine months? Well maybe if I had all day every day to write then I would too. Oh my God, I’m thirty years old and I have nothing to show for it. The publishing industry is changing faster than I can write and what if by the time I’m finished with my book no one is reading anymore? Everyone is just watching cat videos on YouTube? What’s the point of investing all this energy into something people don’t even do anymore?!

Every time I open my inbox I get flooded with offers—webinars on the ‘craft,’ books on snagging an agent, methods for improving characterization, tips to enhance social media! At this rate, it’ll take me a decade to master all this stuff, never mind actually write a novel…what if I compose an amazing story, written brilliantly, but I get rejected because I’m lagging in social media? What comes first? Chicken? Egg?

Not to mention with all these other things on the horizon—buying a new house, selling this house, and starting a family, what if I lose track of my goals? I’ll end up putting it off and putting it off and next thing I know I’ll wake up one day and I’ll be seventy years old and no one will be reading anymore because the world will have gone to s**t and in fact no one will even be talking to each other anymore, let alone reading, we’ll have the attention spans of fish and…and…and…it’ll all be lost, and I’ll say, Man! I wish I had spent more time on this when I was thirty….

Merelize → in Objects

And so it goes. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to revise and edit. Even still, there’s mastery of the craft. All of this takes…you guessed it, time. And this is why I fear time. I don’t fear failure, actually. I fear not having the time to fail. I don’t fear rejection. I fear not having enough time to be rejected.

But at least I’m discovering that this is a counterproductive way of thinking. In all the time I spend seething about my lack of time, I could be well, doing something about it.

I’ve discovered some “truths” to help this issue of time when it comes to writing.

1. The writing industry IS competitive. But that’s a good sign, because it means that there are thousands upon thousands (probably millions, in fact) of literary types out there that want to keep this craft alive. And where there are writers, there are readers.
2. Some of the greatest novels I’ve ever read took the author years to write.
3. As long as I’m doing something towards my writing goals each day I’m making good use of my time. Even if it’s simply subscribing to a helpful blog.
4. It helps tremendously to ask myself where I was in the writing process one year ago today. This shows me how far I’ve truly come

Then of course there’s Mick Jagger. You could always reflect on that guy’s life. Because, be it as it may, The Rolling Stones know how to make good use of time.

Osama Hasan Khan → in Objects

I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes on “Time”:

“All that really belongs to us is time; even he who has nothing else has that.”
-Baltasar Gracian

“An unhurried sense of time is in itself a form of wealth.”
-Bonnie Friedman

“Calendars are for careful people, not passionate ones.”
-Chuck Sigars

“If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.”
-Maria Edgeworth

“We must use time as a tool, not as a crutch.”
-John F. Kennedy

15 Comments

Filed under Why We Write, Writing Fears, Writing Process

Uncross Those Arms: How Body Language Plays a role in Life & Fiction

massagenerd → in Clip Art

Human beings are a language-centered species, yet we communicate far more often with our bodies. Each day, we send signals to others via postures, facial expressions, and other seemingly benign gestures. In fact, that body language is often a more accurate indicator of our true feelings than our verbal cues.

Learning to decode the body language of our family members, friends, significant others, and co-workers can often shed great insight into “what is really going on in there.”

A few weeks ago I downloaded a free app on my iPhone called “Body Language Cues.” It came from Matt Sencenbaugh Education. The more I read on the topic, the more fascinated I became. I immediately set to work trying to “analyze” my fellow people. It’s not always easy, after all, nothing is that cut and dry. But I do believe that all day long, we send unconscious clues to others and vice-versa.

This got me thinking. What a great tool for character development! Understanding body language not only plays a major role in our real lives, but for the average fiction writer out there…this could be a wonderful way to enhance our characters’ struggles, conflicts, and emotions.

massagenerd → in Clip Art

*Here’s a general breakdown:

Common Cues

• Balled fists, elbows pressed firmly at the sides and spastic movements indicate fear.
• An arched, inclined, downward facing posture indicates sadness.
• Relaxed, loose muscles and the absence of a rigid form indicate a general sense of happiness.
• Hands that are jammed into pockets often suggest a lack of confidence or feelings of uneasiness.
• Arms that stay resting at the sides with open palms, and feet planted parallel on the floor can be a sign of humility.
• An obvious “up and down motion” of the Adam’s apple suggests anxiety.
• When someone’s upper body is directed towards you, it means he is in agreement with you or he likes you. If someone casts her upper body away from you, it means she disagrees or finds you repelling.
• A deadpanned, impassive facial expression may be interpreted as “Go away!”
• Arms crossed tightly at the chest is a self-soothing gesture. It may be a form of relieving anxiety.
• A shrug shows indifference, surrender, or a relinquishment of accountability
• Tilting the head backwards, or “lifting the chin and looking down the nose” indicates authority, dominance and haughtiness.

Sexual Signals

• Dilated pupils almost always suggest a keen interest in another person.
• If a woman studies her hands during conversation, it often indicates she is attracted to the person she’s speaking with. It may also convey nervousness.
• Women who intermittently cross and uncross their legs may be showing interest in their conversation partner.
• If someone “mirrors” or mimics your actions he or she may be telling you that they find you intriguing or engaging.
• When a woman unconsciously spreads her legs during conversation, it is often a sexual come on.

massagenerd → in Clip Art

Let me out of here!

• Someone who clinks their nails against a drinking glass or rapidly shaking or bobbing his foot likely is expressing that he wishes he were someplace else. This is often a gesture that signals impatience with the situation.
• If a person’s eyes are glossy, “dull or unfocused” they are likely bored to tears
• Fast, rapid nodding of the head can imply annoyance or agitation, while easy nodding shows comprehension and interest.

Liar, Liar

• The tone of voice of a liar will often be flat, unvaried.
• Liars will try to shift the course of conversation by using ironic humor or sarcasm.
• Liars won’t always crack under pressure. If their conversation partners stopping questioning and simply stare at the supposed liars, they will become uneasy. The ones telling the truth will often get indignant.
• Liars will often cough or clear their throats throughout their bogus explanations.
• Liars’ voices will sometimes change in speed and pitch. They might start speaking at a faster or slower rate. Also, they might use some words in a “higher-pitched” tone.
• Liars might display some typical nervous gestures such as nail biting or rubbing their palms down their thighs.
• A lowered gaze might be an indicator that someone is hiding the truth

*Most information came from “Body Language Cues” Matt Sencenbaugh Education.

In conclusion, it’s incredible how often we communicate in nonverbal ways. The culprit may not even be aware of his own actions! With these ideas in mind, it can be a great additional to the characterization in your story. Characters who display subtle signs through body movement and facial expressions will come across more rounded and humanistic.

Recommended: Video from TedTalks. This is a fabulous lecture on “power” body language and how it reflects our success. If you have the time, it’s really riveting

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are 

Do you know of any other body language cues that I may have left off the list?

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Filed under Characters, Writing Process

Un-Follow Your Heart: When Our Blogs Lose Readers

Got my ducks in a row?

Got my ducks in a row?

I know I shouldn’t focus so much on the numbers, but The Intrinsic Writer’s “following” has been rather stagnant for the past two or three weeks. Right now, I’m stuck on number 264, which is both low and high depending on who you are, and where you’re at on the blogger’s assembly line.

Last week my number was 266. Over the weekend it dropped to 263. Then yesterday, it jumped up a notch to 265. When I checked this morning, I saw that it had sadly fell to 264.

Sigh.

Let me tell you this. The more followers I lose, the stupider my latest post seems. On Facebook, the “un-friending” tactic is the ultimate social media bitch slap. On Twitter, it’s a little less severe, since avid Tweeters tend to have followings in the ten-thousands.  But on our personal blogs, the occasional “un-follow” feels a little more, well, personal.

I’m always two steps ahead with my blogging, often pondering ideas days before they are written. This alone takes vast amounts of mental energy. Then, when I compose a post, I don’t just write off the whim. Any of my loyal supporters (you know who you are and you’re wonderful) knows I’m no willy-nilly blogger. I take time to craft my pieces. I put thought into them. I aspire to spread knowledge and raise awareness.

So when someone dumps me, kicks me to the curb, gives me the shaft…it hurts.

And as a result, the slippery slope of toxic mental activity begins to roll: No one likes me, I’m not appealing enough, My writing is no good, I’ll never be published, He or she is interesting, but I’m not.

And so on…

Do I need to take the proverbial “chill pill”? Most likely, yes. After all, blogging is not about racking up the numbers; it’s about making connections with others. I have a group of blogging friends who have helped me in valuable ways, and in the long run that’s all that should matter. And it does. And I know that.

But I’m human and I forget sometimes. And no matter how you slice it, rejection simply sucks. Furthermore, I’m curious. What makes someone “un-follow” another writer’s blog?

Ducks walking Joses Tirtabudi → in Birds

Some reasons to possibly consider:

1. Posts too much

2. Posts too little or sporadically

3. No particular reason, just cutting from the list to make this experience less overwhelming.

4. Just not interesting enough

 Sound familiar?

In response to # 1: I don’t post too much. I’m not blowing up anyone’s inbox…I don’t think. At the very most I’ll post three times a week.

In response to # 2: I don’t post too little either. Again…three times a week. I’m consistent, yet not obsessive.

In response #3: Not much I can do about that.

In response # 4: My worst nightmare realized.

But hey that’s life, right? No matter what I do there will always be some “non-fans.” I’m a teacher, I know. You can be as fair and engaging and helpful as you can, but some students just will not take to your style.

Focus on the ones that do…in teaching, writing, and in any endeavor.

While I’m at it I’ll tell you what makes me ‘un-follow’ someone’s blog. I’ve only done it maybe three times at most. We are all striving to get our voices heard and we are all struggling with the truth that getting people to give a !@#$ about what you have to say is a very difficult enterprise. This is why I typically don’t kick people off my list. I know how it feels.

However, I draw the line at these two notions:

1. Not following the standard blogging “etiquette.” If I reach out to you, leave comments, make it known that I now subscribe to your site, and I hear zilch from you, yet meanwhile you’re posting away and responding to other bloggers, then likely, yes, I will set you free. No hard feelings. There’s just obviously no “blogger chemistry” there.

2. You leave a nasty, unprecedented, comment to one of my posts. I’m not talking about simple disagreement; that’s good, in fact, that needs to happen sometimes to keep the conversation going. But a rude, uncalled for comment or unrelated rant will give me plenty of incentive to give you the boot.

I’ll reiterate…it really isn’t about numbers. Unfortunately though, the brain recognizes numbers. We’ve been trained since a very early age to assign meaning to said numbers. Therefore it’s only natural that we bloggers become “follower counters.”

Still, it’s nice to recognize the true, underlying purpose in this enterprise and that is to make friends, to show support, and spread ideas.

I am still curious though…what makes you “un-follow” a fellow blogger?

58 Comments

Filed under Why We Write, Writing Process

It’s the Time of the Season: How Weather Affects Our Stories

I can remember a lazy afternoon a few years back in my old apartment; I had just finished watching The Sex and the City movie (part I) when I did something I don’t normally do—clicked on the DVD’s bonus features. For whatever reason, I decided to watch the entire movie again while listening to the director’s, Michael Patrick King, commentary. What really struck me was his use of the changing seasons to move the plot along. I’ll paraphrase here, and you don’t have to be a regular SATC viewer to understand the point.

In the beginning, when Mr. Big leaves Carrie on the proverbial altar it is autumn. I remember the characters discussing a September wedding. Simultaneously, we discover that Steve committed adultery, and while it’s obvious that he is deeply sorry, Miranda stubbornly refuses to make amends and begins to plan her new life as a single woman.

Throughout the cold, blistery winter that follows it is clear that Carrie has fallen into a deep depression. The director even shows how she dyes her black—as if to reflect her emotional state. Miranda too, seems to be barely pulling by, and the tensions lead to a big blow out between the two women on Valentine’s Day.

Then spring comes. Carrie has pulled herself up from her own fiery depths and changes her hair back to its normal, lighter color. Miranda and Steve make plans to meet on the Brooklyn Bridge to attempt reconciliation. I can remember the scene where Carrie and Miranda are walking through Central Park—spring has exploded. The trees are full of plump blossoms, petals float through air, and the grass is green with the vitality. Carrie and Miranda have a new way about them—the fog has lifted. The hard times are over.

When I look back at my life, I see that my wildest, craziest memories were during summer. My darkest periods were during winter. My sense of hope was strongest during spring, and my most prevalent transitioning periods were during autumn.

So I got to thinking…how does the use of the four seasons enhance or reflect plot, setting, and characterization in fiction? As a literature major in college I learned that the seasons often stand as metaphors for the following concepts:

The Four Seasons. From questgarden.com

Spring: Conception

Summer: Life

Autumn: Old Age

Winter: Death

That being said, how can we utilize this in our writing?

Spring: This is classically a season of new beginnings, of hope. Perhaps, for one of your characters it is the end of a depressing period (like old Carrie Bradshaw’s). It is a good time for decision making—a good time to fall in love. The mood of spring is renewed energy. What kinds of situations might your characters go through in the springtime? Spring may also be the perfect season for a happy ending—sort of like a restored sense of faith that all is well.

Then again, it might be fun to try and contrast the growing beauty of a spring setting with a struggling character, or an overblown conflict.

Summer: The season of heated romances, vacations, and an overall sense of freedom. While we’re all adults now and often work through summers, but the notion of June through August being a carefree period will never completely fade—it’s morphed into our psyches and it will certainly come across in literature. This is a great season to use if your main characters are teenagers or college students. Summer is an archetypal time for experimenting, doing crazy things, falling in love, and finding ourselves.

On the other hand, summer can come with a good dose of dread. I always think of The Secret Life of Bees where Lily Owens fears what will come with summer’s end, as she may be forced to leave the home of the Boatwright sisters. The truth is, we all wonder how things will change when summer is over Hey, even Don Henley wonders. “Boys of Summer” anyone?

Autumn: This is a beautiful, but often melancholy season. It’s a time where we cling to the past, (again, shut up Don Henley!) or a more favorable time. Vacation is over; reality has returned. In that way, it is a very practical season. Perhaps in a work of a fiction autumn is where certain events unfold that will lead to a period of mourning. A character grows ill, and his deteriorating body juxtaposes the changing, falling leaves.

On brighter, happier note, autumn is a great time to “turn over a new leaf,” and in some cases, it takes on characteristics of spring in the sense that something new is beginning such as, school, college, etc. Plus, you could always milk that whole concept of the harvest.

Winter: For anyone suffering from SAD, this one is obvious. Winter is a phase of harder times. It’s more difficult for the weak, weary, hungry, and war torn. It is fitting to portray a character going through a depressive state in winter (after all, he can always rise up come spring). Perhaps a character who has been jilted, become unemployed, lost a family member, or finalized a divorce could suffer a tormenting winter. He could be on a post-holiday crisis, a period of uncertainly, stagnancy, and hopelessness. Having a winter season in the background for something like this will always be fitting.

Winter is also a hibernation period. Maybe  a mad-scientist type character works on his experiment like crazy during the winter, all holed up in his study only to reveal his masterpiece when the weather begins to turn. Which by the way I believe was the exact scenario in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I do remember a lot of vivid winter imagery in that novel.

This is not to say that a writer MUST make use of the seasons to accurately reflect plot, setting, and characterization. Sometimes it will happen naturally—I’ve noticed that a lot of what I described above indirectly occurs in my own novel. However, I do think seasonal consideration should be applied. As writers we can certainly mindful of this technique. What’s happening in the background at any given time is important. And hey, so is weather. Otherwise we wouldn’t talk about it so much!

Do the four seasons play a role in your writing?

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Filed under Books and Literature, Characters, Description, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Straight from the Gene Pool: How Sibling Relationships Mold Your Characters.

tom vogt → in People “Lollipops”

I want you all to take a minute and imagine life without your siblings. Would you be the same person? For better or worse, I’m guessing that no, you wouldn’t. What if your birth order were reversed?

Whether we want to admit it or not, our relationships with our siblings shape our personalities, goals, desires, and motivations. Don’t believe me? Read this article from Psychology Today

Still don’t believe me? Watch this video from TED Talks. It’s fascinating: Jeffrey Kluger: The Sibling Bond

I apologize to all my “only children” readers out there, because I’m about to get real about sisterly (and brotherly) love—that is, in both life and in literature.

I’ve written posts in the past that detail rather unconventional methods of characterization. Sibling relationships are my latest illustration.

I can think of many examples where these kinds of dynamics are the basis of the story. Other times they are simply part of the backdrop. As a writer there some methods you can use to establish the sibling bond. The following, I think, are among the most typical. Of course being the talented scribes you are, you can fill in all the unique details later on.

1. Sister Spiteful: The classic case of the jealous sibling. I believe it works better when the protagonist him or herself is the spiteful one. That way, as readers, we see the larger-than-life genealogical specimen from the underdog’s eyes. Often in these cases we find that the protagonist is struggling with her own identity. Her perceived perception of her perfect sibling only worsens this. Generally these relationships work out, as the envious sibling discovers her sister or brother has insecurities of his/her own.

My favorite literary examples: The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkenan & True Colors by Kristin Hannah
My favorite non-literary examples: A League of Their Own & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

2. Brother Burden: This is a sibling bond that often carries sad undertones. In these cases we see a brother or sister who must care for his/her sibling. Perhaps the sibling is sick, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, etc. The caretaker is burdened by his brother or sister. His own life is greatly affected. He deals with such debilitating emotions as guilt, blame, remorse, and responsibility. But despite the drain, he can’t leave his sibling behind. If the writer is merciful, he relieves this character at the end.

My favorite literary examples: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
My favorite non-literary examples: Love Actually

3. Pals of Progeny: Maybe they bit each other’s heads off when they were kids. Fought to the death over who got more ice cream, or who was next in line to take a shower. But now they’re grown up and they appreciate each other. In fact, they’re pals, friends, buddies. Brothers who take fishing trips together. Sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. Brothers who protect their sisters, and vice versa. It’s a bond that’s tough to break. In literature these types of sibling dynamics can go both ways—horribly right or horribly wrong depending on the nature of the story.

My favorite literary example: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & Ramona and Beezus by Beverly Cleary
My favorite non-literary example: Friends (Monica and Ross) & The Parent Trap

4. Opposing Offspring: These are competitive types. Or perhaps distant types. In these relationships there was always something that wasn’t quite right. It could be based on jealously, but often in the ‘opposing offspring’ dynamo the culprits consider themselves equals. Maybe they’re simply too different from one another. Perhaps at one time, one backstabbed the other. Either way, the conflict is deep and rich; the path to finding solace in one another is an arduous journey.

My favorite literary example: In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner & Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My favorite non-literary example: Practical Magic

A word on birth order:

To take this further, I’ve compiled a list of commonly accepted characteristics based on birth order. This knowledge may further aid your characterization:

Oldest child-people pleasing, bossy, organized, punctual, natural leader, controlling, ambitious, expected to uphold family values, caretakers, financially intelligent, responsible

Middle child-flexible, easy going, independent, sometimes feels like life is unfair, sometimes will engage in attention-seeking behavior, competitive.

Youngest child-silly or funny, risk-taking, creative, sometimes feels inferior, easily bores, friendly, outgoing, idealistic

Only child-close to parents, demanding, leaders, spoiled, self-absorbed, private in nature, may relate better to adults to kids their own age, independent, responsible

Where do you fit in with your siblings? How about your characters? Who is your favorite sibling pair in either literature or pop culture? As usual—looking forward to your responses!

18 Comments

Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Forever Young: How Age Influences Character Development

I turned thirty this past October, and realized, with some degree of pride, how differently I view the world now than I did ten years ago. It’s a fact of life: as we age, our view of the world shifts, broadens, and at times, flat out changes—hopefully for the better.

In life—and in writing—age does matter. Not in terms of intelligence, metabolism, or crow’s feet, but in our perceptions and natural cycles of the human lifespan.

Old woman sitting on bench
Merelize → in People

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure how this notion applies to fiction and characterization; in fact, all it actually takes is a conscientious writer. A fifteen year-old protagonist will have different priorities than forty year-old protagonist, and vice-versa.

And it goes beyond levels of maturity. It’s about experience and life stages. What would be a realistic goal for a twenty-five year old woman? A sixty year old man? I believe the human experience is more collective than we realize, but age does play a major factor.

A character’s mindset, desires, concerns, and agendas should be “age-appropriate.”

Maybe this will help…

I came across a psychology book entitled Introduction to the Lifespan by Spencer A. Rathus. It is a Cengage Learning textbook that is used in the school where I teach.

In one section of the text, it lists the results of a survey taken that asked participants to match certain attributes or personality traits to particular age groups. The results were as follows (I have left out the percentages):

Ages 0+ innocent, unruly, adorable, naïve, endearing, cute

Ages 10+ impolite, manner less, disruptive, insolent, complex, young, aggressive

Ages 20+ in love, ambitious, sexy, young, romantic, daring, attractive

Ages 30+ competitive, hard-working, enterprising, impressive, capable, efficient, strong

Ages 40+ hard-working, slogger, organized, capable, efficient, punctual, tempered

Ages 50+ respectful, cultured, hard-working, organized, provident, methodical, rational

Ages 60+ respectful, cultured, beneficent, humane, benevolent, conciliatory, honorable

Ages 70+ nostalgic, tired, cultured, humane, peace-loving, nice, honorable

Ages 80+ isolated, nostalgic, tired, mourning, sick, unwell, solitary

Ages 90+ dying, isolated, old, alone, sick, solitary

*Source: Gruhn, D., Gilet, A-L., Studer, J., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2010, December 13). Age-Relevance of Person Characteristics: Persons’ Beliefs About Developmental Change Across the Lifespan. Developmental Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a00213151-12

Obviously there is room for argument here, but much of it makes sense. I’ve found that my characters do fit the characteristics of their age groups. It doesn’t have to be an exact science, but it may help to structure your characters’ conflicts around the stages of their lifespans.

Another interesting note: I’ve found that most major characters in literature tend to fall between the ages of ten and sixty. It’s rare to come across protagonists who are mere children (middle grade excluded) or elderly persons.

Two exceptions:

Room by Emma Donoghue. The story is told from the perspective of a five-year old boy.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. This is a two-protagonist story, where one of which is a woman in her seventies.

Both stories are magnificently portrayed.

How about you? How old are your characters? Do they fit the descriptions from up above?

How important is age in fiction? Does it aid the characterization process?

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Birds of a Feather: Your Characters & Their Friends

It’s worth noting who your characters “hang out” with. One of my favorite sayings, and I’ll paraphrase, goes something like this: You are who you attract.

Your protagonist’s choice of buddies can—surprise!—aid in the characterization process.

Friends
Merelize → in People

Some questions to consider when creating your character’s “Bestie”:

  1. Is the friend a secondary character? If so, how should he or she be developed throughout the story?
  2. Does the story have more than one main character, and are the characters friends? In other words, is the friendship the focus of the story?
  3. Is the friendship already established at the beginning, or do the characters meet sometime during the course of the story?
  4. What purpose does the friend serve? A helpful hand? Comic relief? Is he/she a drinking buddy? Partner in crime?
  5. Here’s the big one: What’s the dynamic like? Do the two (or more) personalities mesh well? Is a realistic pairing? Do they connect on some level? A hardened biker and a self-involved metrosexual can be friends…so long as there is some common ground. It’s the writer’s job to make it work.

Here are some common story friendship dynamics that you can bend, blend, and harmonize:

1. The Colorful Sidekick:  The goof off. The king’s fool. Think Kimmy Gibbler from Full House. This is a friend who adds some ‘flavor.’ He is audacious, brazen, comical, and flamboyant.

Important: Never underestimate the colorful sidekick. I’ve found in my own writing as well as the writing of others, that despite the personal flaws, these types often prove to be extraordinary friends in the end.

Favorite literary example: Dominick Birdsey’s cheeky, foolhardy friend Leo Blood from Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True.

 2. The Charismatic Crony: Your character both loves and hates her. Best friends, yes, but in most cases, the charismatic crony comes out on top. This is the prettier friend, the skinnier friend, the smarter friend, the more popular friend, etc. We all know the type. And we’re all jealous.

Important: It is possible for this friend to be innocent—she may not be fully aware of her prowess. In other cases, however, she is simply one backbiting buddy.

Favorite literary example: I have two. Gene Forrester’s larger-than-life friend Phineas from John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Rachel’s alluring childhood chum Darcy from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed.

3. The Caring Cohort: Quite simply, this is the friend who picks up your character when he or she falls. In fact, in some cases, this is the friend who sacrifices. Donates a kidney. Kills another. Gives up his own pleasure…all in the name of his friend.

Important: Any “friend” type that I’ve described here can lend a helping hand. The caring cohort goes a bit further.

Favorite literary example: George, who cares for mentally-handicapped Lennie Small during the Great Depression in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (See my most recent “Old School Sunday” post). Also, although this isn’t literature, in West Side Story Tony kills the love of his life’s brother for stabbing his friend, Riff, to death. Now that’s the kind of friend I’m talking about here. Not to mention good old Romeo, who slain Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt for slaughtering his own friend, Mercutio.

4. The Best Friend: They say if you fall down, a good friend will help you up; your best friend will laugh at you. It’s true in life and it’s true in fiction. These are two characters who are practically one. Often, they will go through various life changes, and may struggle with their relationship; but in the end, they usually find their way back to each other.

Important: Generally speaking, this kind of friendship will require two main characters. They will have separate lives, but be forever tied to one another. Often the foundation of the story is the friendship itself.

Favorite literary example: Kate and Tully, whose lives (both separately and together) go through many transitions, and face many obstacles in Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane. Actually, the book reminded me a lot of the movie Beaches, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.

I’d like to leave you with some links from Writer’s Digest, particularly if your protagonist’s friend falls within the ‘minor character’ category:

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role

Questions to Ask (& Strengthen) Your Minor Characters

What are you favorite friendship dynamics in literature? Film?Television? How do your characters relate to each other? Can’t wait for the comments!

 

 

 

 

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Tell me about your mother: A character’s psychological make up

I believe all writers should have a solid understanding of psychology. Nothing too detailed, just your standard knowledge from any given Psych 101 text. This planet sustains over six billion people, yet it’s impossible to find any two who are exactly the same in genetic structure, upbringing, and individual experiences (and yes, this includes identical twins). Humans are complex; your characters should be too.

Character motives run deep. They have to come from somewhere. A general, even rudimentary comprehension of psychology can do wonders for character development. For example, a spoiled, pampered-upon princess type will not likely have confidence issues. However, she may struggle with superficiality. An unyielding, turned-criminal heroin addict may have suffered through child abuse, or been raised by a broken family. It doesn’t have to be this simple; in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. But like us, our characters are products of their environment. If done correctly, every choice they make will have its roots.

“We all have our layers”
Shi Yali → in Food & Drink

 

Character Psychology 101: My own personal breakdown:

1. So, tell me about your mother: Mommy/Daddy issues. Classic. It all starts and ends here. I’ve read so many stories where characters have unresolved conflicts with their parents. My own novel (unconsciously, of course) portrays one of these very predicaments. If applicable, think about your characters’ relationships with their parents. Are they solid? Irreparable? And more importantly, do the characters reflect these dilemmas? Are there manifestations of insecurity? Hopelessness? Do they choose partners on account of who their mothers and fathers were? Perhaps a man who was raised by his overbearing mother has issues sustaining relationships. After all, no one’s as good as mommy. This can be expanded into issues with the family—siblings, other relatives, etc. A broad understanding of how it all works will help put your character intentions into perspective.

2. It’s understandable; you were a victim of trauma: War, rape, assault, accident, or abuse. These characters will likely have matters to sort out. It’s likely their lives will not follow a straight line. They will encounter difficulty with day-to-day matters, and their willpower will constantly be tested. What types of activity will they fall into? Drug or alcohol abuse? Sex addiction? Homelessness? Theft, murder, or other illegal pursuits? Maybe it won’t even be that drastic, and of course they can overcome their burdens, but the characters must be shaped by the traumas. It’s simple psychology after all.

3. See, you’re using what we call a defense mechanism: Is your sarcastic character trying to cover up his insecurities? Is your anger-ridden protagonist hiding pain? Is the macho-monster truck-driving alpha male perhaps…compensating for something? Do any of your characters repress feelings? Act out? In other words, certain outer behaviors should likely reflect a tortured inner world.

4. Well, to me, that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Say you have a character who’s certain that no matter what he does, he will fail. Then, not surprisingly, he does fail. Over and over again. It’s a state of mind, almost like a prediction. In some ways, this character is controlling the outcome of his life with his negative thoughts. We do it in real life all the time. Characters instantly become identifiable when they do it too.

5. No, it’s not just in your head; it’s an illness, an actual illness: One my favorite books of all time, Wally Lamb’s I know This Much is True, is about a man who has a schizophrenic twin brother. These characters with mental illnesses cannot be blamed for their actions, and often, extensive research must be done to realistically capture the causes, symptoms, characteristics, and treatments of the disease.

There are spider webs in our unconscious minds. Every person alive today has his/her share of unrealized desires, fears, and latent projections. Since we all strive to create characters that make our readers tick, it doesn’t hurt to understand what makes us tick first.

How about you? Does fundamental psychology influence your characters, whether it’s deliberate or not? As always, excited to hear what you have to say!

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In Memoriam: When a character dies

Merelize → in Church & Cemetery

In fiction, a character’s death is the ultimate spoiler. When I taught high school English one of my favorite books to read with students was A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It proved to be a popular one in my class, as we spent weeks on end discussing Gene Forrester’s motives for “jouncing” the infamous limb, and gravely injuring his spirited friend, Finny. The funny part was each time I covered the story, there’d be at least one student who’d read ahead (or perhaps log onto Sparknotes) and do the unthinkable: spread the ugly truth around the classroom in venomous whispers, Finny dies!

As writers, why do we kill our characters? Is death a good plot twist? Does it make a story better? More dramatic? Emotional? Symbolic? Does death effectively touch on the greater human experience?

I’ll admit it. I’m a convicted character killer. Lock me up. I’m not vicious about it though, I simply understand their fates. As sad as it can make a reader or writer, some characters just seem destined to die, and as far as I know there is no set of criteria to follow, except for this: it must reflect the larger web of the story.Otherwise, as my characters’ divine creator, I think it would be too difficult to do.

Some surface elements to consider:

Who: Which characters will be plucked from the page? This needs to be carefully considered. Usually it’s not the main character, particularly if he or she is also the narrator (unless you’re going for a Lovely Bones angle, which I just find unsettling). If you know who will perish in advance, you can characterize accordingly. If not, there’s always revision.

When: At what point will the unfortunate character(s) pass on? Those who die in the middle of the story might have a dynamite personality to make up for lost time. If a character goes early on, perhaps it’s to set a precedent, or to establish an important plot point.

How: Tragic death? Violent death?Peaceful death?Inevitable death? It all depends on the individual character(s).

Why: This is a big one. Does the death serve a purpose? It most likely should.

I’ll take this last point—the “why”—a bit further. Based on everything I’ve ever read, written, watched in films, or seen on television, I’ve come to find that characters almost always die for one of the five reasons below.

1. The Extraordinary Person Syndrome: This character has a spirit that’s too big for life (not unlike poor Mr. Finny). Think of rock stars—Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—all robbed of life at a tender age. It’s as if their brilliance was meant to be solidified.

2. The Stigma of the Very Important Person: At least to the main character. In fact, maybe too important to the main character. It could be a friend, lover, relative, etc. of the protagonist. This person’s passing is often a lesson in love or guilt.

3. The Evil-Doer’s Demise: A nasty villain. A murderous creep. An abusive spouse, parent, or significant other. This is someone who has done no good throughout the story, and flat out deserves to die. Perhaps at the main character’s hands.

4. The Magnitude of the Martyr: This character’s death will quite literally shift ‘the sands of time.’ A mother of two estranged sisters dies of natural causes, and thus forces her daughters to reconnect. The passing of a woman’s controlling husband will influence her to take a spiritual journey. A former high school quarterback overdoses and brings countless alienated peers back home to pay respects. Get the picture?

5. The Reprieved: This one is for the disease-stricken, the ill-treated, and the less fortunate. They die because the suffering has become unbearable. In death they are in peace.

I believe there is room for some blending. Maybe one character’s end will fit into two of these categories, or three. Even those who die for political reasons, or while at war will likely touch on one or more of these elements. Our characters are our babies, and with time, we share them with the world. Losing one can no doubt be super sad. But sometimes, for the sake of the story, it must be done.

Have your characters gone on to a better place? For what reasons? I’d love to hear your comments, morbid as they may be.

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