Where am I?
To quickly enmesh the reader into your story world, anchor her in time and place of your story. Let the reader know where and when the story is taking place woven through the character’s POV—how that particular character would view that particular place. You need to re-anchor the reader with every scene—just in case she had to put the book down.
Even Bad Guys Need Understanding
Often bad guys end up with the depth of cardboard in stories. This stems from not understanding what motivates your bad guy to act as he does. In his world, he’s the good guy. He’s the one who’s not understood or who’s been victimized. He’s certain he’s right and you’re wrong. A good way to find out how he views his world is to identify your bad guy’s bad traits, then spend a few minutes seeing those behaviors from the inside. Become that guy, rationalize how you feel. After walking in your bad guy’s shoes, you’ll end up with a better bad guy and, as a bonus, a scarier plot.
A story is a journey. Where you character ends has logic to it. The end needs to satisfy your reader. She should put the book down and feel as if the map of your story, with all of its pit stops, makes sense. By looking back, she should feel as if this ending is the only possible one. She can envision all the forks in the roads not taken. She can see that driving through the story has affected your character, and that your character, with her choices, has also affected the path. For a journey that feels good, let your plot and character weave seamlessly along the roads of your story.
Tag, You’re It
“Vary your words,” new writers are often advised. The dialogue tag proves an exception to that rule. Sticking with he said/she said allows the tag to become invisible to the reader. Becoming too creative with tags–like he raged, she intoned, he retorted–brings attention to them and slows down the reader. In the same vein, if it’s clear who’s speaking, not every dialogue line needs a tag. Don’t use adverbs (i.e. she said wittily) to do the work of the dialogue. Let the words speak for themselves. If the witticism isn’t coming across, you haven’t picked the correct words. Sometimes using an action to complement your dialogue instead of a tag allows you to get double duty from your effort, giving both movement to the scene and a deeper understanding of the character–a way to show, not tell.
Where do you start?
The usual answer is conflict. But what does that mean? Think of the story you want to tell. Where on the story line does your main character’s life come to a point where she’s about to face a challenge, where her life is about to be turned upside down, where she has no choice but to make some sort of decision to relieve the pressure of the situation she finds herself in. That’s where you want to start–in that instant before that major change is going to happen and set the snowball of your story in motion.
What’s driving your hero?
For a strong story, your main character needs to want something, want it for a good reason, and have a good reason to go after what he wants. To get to that soul-deep reason, keep asking why. He wants the ranch. Why? Because that’s where he grew up. Why does growing up there make him want the ranch? Because he has fond childhood memories. Why do those memories pull at him to buy this ranch? Keep going until you run out of because and that becomes your character’s strong motivation.
Filter Out Distance
Feel, see, hear, taste, seem are all filters that makes the reader view the scene playing out in front of them as if they were sitting in the back seat of a theater. To bring a deeper connection, to make your reader feel as if she’s right in the character’s skin, go through your manuscript and delete as many filter words as you can, and see if you don’t feel a closer connection. Sometimes you won’t be able to take out the filter word, but most of the time all it takes to create a deeper, more immediate, point of view is taking out the ‘she felt,’ ‘she saw,’ ‘she heard,’ ‘she seemed.’ Example: She felt goosebumps running up her arms. Goosebumps ran up her arms.
A Rose Is A Rose, Unless It’s A Daisy
The more concrete and specific your word choice is, the crisper the mind-images you will create for your reader, making her feel as if she’s right there on the scene. If I say a flower, the image you get in your mind is vague and colorless. If I say a yellow rose, the image that pops is vivid and focused–and won’t look anything like a daisy. Choose your words carefully to create image after image that will take your reader deep into your imaginary world, making it impossible for her to put the book down.
Reading your words out loud will allow you to hear how your words flow. Awkward words, phrases and sentences will all stick out. If you’re stumbling, and you know what’s on the page, so will the reader. Another bonus is that you’ll be able to tell if your characters’ voices all sound the same. Your librarian heroine shouldn’t sound like your biker villain. Because of their backgrounds and their view of the world, the rhythm of their speech, their use of grammar, their word choice are going to be different, helping make each seem real. Of course, an interesting twist could be to have the biker speaking like a librarian and the librarian speaking like a biker.
One of the complaints I hear most often is, “I want to write, but I don’t have time.” Y ou don’t need huge, uninterrupted chunks of time to put out pages. Learn to steal time—while waiting for the kids after school, on the sidelines at a soccer game between plays, while the dinner casserole is baking in the oven, during commercial breaks (or even better–give up a TV show!), fifteen minutes in the morning before everybody else gets up and the day has made too many demands. Or you can barter for time—this works well with older children and spouses. Use all this “lost” time and watch the page count add up.
Who’s your hero?
As a shortcut to get to the heart of a character, I use enneagrams. It’s a system of nine character types that helps give you a start putting together a flawed, yet redeemable character. Hair and eye color are nice to know, but what makes a character tick–how he’ll respond to stress, his fears and desires are what’s really important to give you all the delicious tension and growth an I-can’t-put-this-book-down story needs. One of my favorite enneagram reference is The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson.
Getting the Job Right
Every week my local newspaper runs a feature on some area business. I clip the ones that intrigue me. When I need an interesting occupation for one of my characters, I leaf through the clippings. I not only get useful information about the company and profession, but a local source that I can interview for background information and details.
A house is a house, unless you’re trying to describe one that will say something about your character and are architecturally challenged. Getting the details right was an exercise in frustration until I discovered that my Sunday newspaper carries a “Feature House” article every week. Not only does it have a color picture, but the Realtor also kindly describes the distinctive details of the spotlighted home. I clip the ones that appeal to me and save them in a “House” file, which I dip into when I need to house my characters. It’s a simple way of getting the details right.
What’s in a Name?
Ever notice how sometimes a story won’t flow until you get the character’s name right? Flipping through baby naming books is one option. Here’s another: here, you’ll find a random name generator. You can get up to thirty names at a shot, ranging from common to bizarre, depending on what you choose for the parameters. You can limit your search to female or male names or got for a mix of both. It’s a fun way to get the brain thinking outside the box when it comes to finding the right moniker for that elusive character.