Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Creating Realistic Characters

By Katie DePoppe

After mastering the basics of grammar, punctuation, and diction -- and then navigating the uncharted waters of rules you're allowed to break -- comes what I believe is the second most daunting task in writing: creating realistic characters. 

How do you even begin?

Here are a few ideas to reflect upon that may help in building meaningful and layered characters.

Study Personality Types

Researching Jungian psychological types or archetypes is a good place to begin.The Myers-Briggs (based upon the theories of Swiss scientist, Carl Jung), the DISC assessment (which includes both positive and negative personality traits), and Strengthsfinders (the assessment and explanations are within one book) can help you gain insight into how a certain character may logically react in specific situations, interact with others, handle conflicts, etc. Let the personality type act as a sort of skeleton for the character, and use it to jump-start the creative process as you begin building a fictitious person.

Think About Their Life Before the Story 

Think critically about the main characteristics of characters that you're attempting to convey, and why they are the way they are. Say a character is ambitious or anxious or merciful or lacks in self-esteem. We don't become that way overnight, and neither should a character. What led them to that point? Why does this character seem to make the same mistake over and over again? Or why does this one never say what she means?

Even if there's a part of a character's growth that falls outside of the book or story's timeline, creating a sort of linear timeline of personal or emotional growth (or lack thereof) of a character in your notes can be extremely beneficial in creating a person who is realistic.  

Keep a Spreadsheet or Notebook

Are there regional sayings you love? Or witticisms from someone in your life that are too good to be lost? I keep files within my email, my Evernote account, and my commonplace book (more details on that in a later post) with uncommon or otherwise potentially characteristic words or phrases that could belong to specific characters. By keeping a record, not only do you remember clever, nostalgic, or memorable terms or phrases, but such notes can help you find and control aspects of language that may cause confusion or dilution of an otherwise memorable figure.

Study Acting 

This is purely anecdotal on my part, but it makes logical sense to me: Writers who have either studied acting or who have experience in script writing, seem to have an upper hand in creating believable characters. An acquaintance of mine suggested reading Constantin Stanislaski's book, Building a Character. He tells actors they should be able to answer one question at all times: "What would I do if I were this character in these circumstances?" If we ask ourselves this same question when we're writing, it certainly seems it would help to realistically shape both the scene and the people in it. 

Katie DePoppe is the founding editor at large for Azalea, a magazine that celebrates the lifestyle, history, and culture of the South Carolina Lowcountry. She is the curator of and a contributor to Azalea's blog, The Azalea Room, which explores Southern culture as a whole. Join her Facebook group, The Southern Lit Project, an extension of her blog series, The 50 Books Every Southerner Should Read. An aspiring author of Southern fiction, Katie is a member of Word Weavers International, ACFW, and is a life-long member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. Connect with Katie on Twitter @KDePoppe or follow her on Instagram @katidepoppe.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writers, Show Don’t Tell

by Susan F Craft

I believe our primary goal as novelists is to give our readers a powerful experience and to entertain them. As Christian writers, especially, we must strive for excellence.

One tool for reaching excellence is something most authors have heard before – in your writing, you should “show, not tell.”

Showing creates mental pictures in the reader’s mind. When readers get a clear picture, they are more engaged in the writer’s story.

Writers reveal their characters through several means:
  • What they say…
  • What they think or feel…
  • What they do….
  • Description…
  • What the other characters say about them…
  • How other characters react to them…

1. Use Dialogue
Dialogue allows the reader to experience a scene; instead being told how a character feels, the reader can hear it for themselves.
(Instead of: “I love you,” she crooned. 
Write: “I love you,” she said, cupping her hands around his cheeks and caressing his bottom lip with her thumb.)

But, watch your dialogue attributes. It’s quite all right to use “said.”

2. Use Sensory Language
In order for readers to fully experience what you’re writing about, use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.

Sight—is the most important sense to engage in good creative writing. You must paint pictures for your readers. A good fiction novel makes them feel as if they’ve literally stepped into another world. Words let people see what doesn’t even exist.

Smell—is the most nostalgic of the senses. Without using a lot of words, smell can evoke memories and is a useful way of getting your characters to remember an event from the past in the form of a flashback.
  • The smell of burning leaves and pine straw.
  • The sour smell of clothes left too long in the washing machine.
  • The stench of a van load of teenage football players returning home from a game.

Sound—is the way of adding to your scene as if adding soundtrack to a movie. Few settings are silent, but if they are, describe the absence of sound. 
Onomatopoeias are useful – hiss, crackle, jangle, tap-tap, click. 

Taste –is evoked when characters are eating and drinking, or actively using their mouths and tongues. 
Tasting the first falling snowflakes on the tip of our tongue.
The shock of unfamiliar toothpaste.

Touch - can be painful or pleasurable or help describe the person or place
Turning a pillow over during a hot, muggy night and feeling the coolness.
The smoothness of 1000 thread count cotton sheets.
Touching a curling iron to your forehead.
A cold, sweaty handshake.

3. Use Active Verbs

4. Be Descriptive
How often in your early learning were you taught to use adjectives and adverbs, and then, later on, you were told to get rid of the adverbs?  (Adverbs are great words, used sparingly.) Being descriptive is more than just inserting a string of descriptive words. It’s carefully choosing the right words to convey your meaning. Paint pictures with specific words or groups of words.

You can't tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented artist, or a spoiled little rich girl. We won't believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to let us see your character act out, to let us feel.

Warning: when using description, don’t overdo it and don’t give the details all at once. Otherwise, you can end up with a “police blotter” description.
He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He wore a red shirt and jeans, and a brown leather jacket.

5. Be Specific
Specificity will fill in the gaps from telling and bring life to scenes.

Instead of writing, “I had never felt anything like it before in my entire life,” take the time to try and describe what that feeling was, and then decide how best to convey that feeling to the reader.       

Tell: Nathan looked exhausted.
Show: Nathan slumped against the wall and closed his eyes.

Tell: It was a dark and stormy night.
Show: The wind tore at the trees, flinging icy rain from the pitch-black sky.

Tell: Mary wasn't a natural mother and she found the children very trying.
Show: Mary couldn't believe it could be this much work. Couldn't they leave her alone for five minutes to read the paper? She'd put the cartoons on for them and given them crayons and paper, but apparently that wasn't enough -- they still wanted her.

Half Show-Half Tell
Sometimes you can do a half show-half tell. This is where you get a character to describe another person. Let them do the telling instead of you.

"I'd be careful around him, if I were you. He's a sly one that one, he can't be trusted."

Because a character has said it, it somehow makes it appear more real to the reader than if we'd just written "Tom was sly and couldn't be trusted."

When to Tell, Not Show!
All this doesn’t mean that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy, and it doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show.

If you show don't tell all the time, your word count will be way too high, and in a novel the reader may get bored of all the padding. No one wants to be able to see every part of every building or every scene that clearly.

So you tell the things that are of no real importance to the story but are necessary to move the story along:
"The doorbell rang."
Unless there’s a reason the reader must know the sound of the doorbell, this sentence is fine. 
But what if the doorbell is significant?
(When Clara pressed the doorbell of the Dallas mansion, the first fourteen notes of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” resonated through the intercom. Clara was still giggling when the door swung open, and there stood Dixie Lee Houston herself.)

(The doorbell rang once.  Then twice. Then five times in succession like a persistent woodpecker furtively tapping on vinyl siding.)

"Mary picked up the remote control and turned the television back on."
Again, we don't need to know anything more about these things, so telling will suffice.

Write first; let your creativity take over; allow the thoughts to flow; never edit as you go.  Once the words are on paper, then go back and check for show, don’t tell. 

Pray about and for what you are writing. Ask yourself, will this glorify his name? Will it lift up your readers? Will he or she be a better person for having read what you’ve written? Will you handle rejection with grace and accolades with humility?

Most importantly, have you done your absolute best to honor the absolute sacrifice that was made for you?

I gathered information from sites including:

Susan F. Craft authored the SIBA Award-winning Revolutionary War novel, The Chamomile. The two sequels to The Chamomile, entitled Laurel and Cassia will be released January 12, 2015, and September 14, 2015, by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas.  She is represented by Linda S. Glaz, Hartline Literary Agency.Visit Susan on her website:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Writing with Excellence

by Andrea Merrell @AndreaMerrell

New writers want the answer to HOW to be
a simple 1-2-3 formula.
Many times I have been asked these questions from new writers: 
  • How do I get started? How do I know I’m on the right track? 
  • How can I possibly learn everything I need to learn? 

There are no simple 1-2-3 answers, but my best advice is to start at the beginning.

The First Step
Except for occasional writer’s block, putting words to paper or fingers to the keyboard is generally the easy part. Writing for publication is the hard part, but it can be done with time, study, and determination. You just need to know the rules and guidelines.

In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character (a famous author who has become a recluse) gives this advice to an aspiring young writer: “No thinking. That comes later. You write your first draft … with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is … to write, not to think.”

Great advice, but that being said, the second key to writing should be to think.

Use your time wisely when you're editing.
If you’re a natural editor, getting your entire story on paper without constantly going back and making corrections will be difficult. Perfectionism is not your friend (at least at this point). It can keep you working on the same few chapters for months, even years, without finishing your book. If this is a problem for you, politely, but firmly, tell your inner editor to be quiet or take a vacation so you can finish writing. When you’re in the zone and words are flowing (some writers call it word dump), you don’t want to stop the flow to make sure all your words are perfect. There will be plenty of time for that later. As you continue with the story, you’ll make lots of tweaks and changes, and you don’t want to keep going over and over the same ground.

Your writing time is valuable. Use it wisely.

The Second Step
Once you have your words on paper or safely tucked away in your computer, it’s time to start the editing/re-writing/proofreading process. If this is difficult for you, go back over your material and read it aloud. Read it slowly. You’ll be amazed how much this little exercise will help you. Chances are you’ve read it so many times your eyes will skip over obvious errors. By reading aloud, you’ll get a better feel for syntax and sentence structure. If possible, have someone else read it to you and listen carefully as they read. Software programs are available for your computer that will read text, and some are free. Google “Computer Reading Programs” for a list of options.

Getting feedback from others is always beneficial. Every writer needs a writing partner, critique group, mentor, or a professional editor.

The Third Step
Most of all, keep writing!
Keep learning, growing, and—most importantly—keep writing. Make the investment to attend writers’ conferences. This will not only teach you the basics and sharpen your skills, it will help you build a network with other writing professionals. If you’re having trouble in a certain area, there are countless books and online resources available on every possible subject. You can also sign up for blog posts from other writers and editors that will be filled with helpful information.

Don’t get discouraged by rejection letters, negative feedback, or other obstacles that try to derail you. If God has called you to put words on paper, He has a plan and purpose for those words. Keep polishing your manuscripts until they are as clean and professional as possible.

Does that mean your work will ever be perfect? No, probably not. Perfection is something we can spend all our time pursuing and never reach. Instead, strive for excellence in all that you do, which means doing the best you can with what you have.

(Excerpts taken from Murder of a Manuscript by Andrea Merrell, published by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Used by permission.) 

Andrea Merrell is Associate Editor for Christian Devotions Ministries and Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas (LPC). She is also a freelance editor and has led workshops at the Kentucky Christian Writers Conference, Writers Advance Boot Camp, and the CLASS Christian Writers Conference. Andrea’s first book, Murder of a Manuscript, is available on Amazon. Her next book, Praying for the Prodigal, will be released by LPC in 2015. As an editor, Andrea’s passion is to mentor and encourage writers, helping them to polish their manuscripts and make them as clean and professional as possible. To learn more, visit or