A couple of tips on writing credible characters

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

 

I was not going to post anything today, but I was trying to write something for my new novel and got stumped by one of the most elementary things in writing, so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

There are several questions a writer must ask themselves when they set out to write anything: What, when, where, and (today’s problem) who? That’s right, characters, every story needs them, obviously, so let’s explore:

As the writer, you are obviously the one to decide about every aspect of your characters; their gender, age, origin, and dispositions are all yours to choose, and that is a lot of freedom. On the other hand you will be restricted by several things as well: what “makes sense”, reader expectation, and your assumptions about certain kinds of people, and where you want the story to go.

What do I mean? Well, a character needs to be believable, doesn’t it? Many stories fall flat simply because their characters behave or talk in a manner no actual person would, which robs the whole story of authenticity. Then comes the sad truth that both you and your readers will expect something from certain kinds of people, whether if it’s a certain lingo, manner of dressing, or behavior, and those expectations might clash with one another. Lastly, you need to incorporate your characters into the plot of your story.

That last point might sound easy, but somewhere within those eighty thousand words there will be a point where you might struggle to find a way to connect the dots of why your character might want to do something that you need to happen without you needed to make sudden adjustment to your character as a whole (which would force you to backtrack and change things).

 

So what can you do to avoid reaching 150 pages and then getting stuck with your characters being incoherent messes?

  • First advice is, as always with writing, read. Read a lot. Get inspired by writers who write good characters that you like, see what they do and how they construct their characters.
  • Look at and listen to people. This will help you with dialogue as well.
  • Be organized. Make notes about your character, a sort of CV on who they are, where they’re from, what they do etc. This will also help avoid any contradictions from sprouting up anywhere in longer pieces, also note their physical appearance.
  • When making those CVs for main characters, really dig in there and put as much flesh on those bones as possible. Give them not only a town of origin, imagine the neighborhood they grew up in, things that shaped their lives, loves and losses.
  • If your character comes from a different culture, gender, religion than you, research those groups. It would be pretty embarrassing writing from the perspective of an African-American and succumbing to clichés and stereotypes.
  • Don’t be afraid to let go of something that you planned for, but isn’t working.
  • Don’t try too hard to emphasize any aspect of your character’s personality, it just reads as forced.
  • Know the value of indirect characterization. Don’t rush to write down every character trait explicitly, let the reader see your character being brave/good/cowardly/angry or whatever by the way they act.
  • No one is perfect, so give your characters flaws. There is something more endearing about a flawed hero, it makes them all the more relateable.

 

These are just a couple of tips on how I write characters. I do make a sort of CV for them and often consult it. For side characters who are there for only a few pages you don’t have to bother to do all of that, but if you are trying to make a point through them by making them a woman/black/Muslim/gay or anything, make sure that it’s credible.

Where Have You Been?

My book, Where Have You Been, was published in September 2016 and follows the day-to-day life of Iraq veteran Johnny Milaowic and his addiction to heroin and crack. This is definitely not a happy book, but I kept a light tone by using the “I” perspective of a man who sees the world in an odd way and tries to gloss over a lot of the more terrible parts of his life. The story follows his struggles to hold on to his girlfriend Jenny, the changes in the dynamics of his group of friends, all of whom are addicts, and trying to lead a more or less normal life.

Ok, so I know I said I will not turn this blog into a marketing platform for my book, but I’d be doing myself a HUUUUGE disservice if I don’t at least mention it. Seeing as this is a blog on creative writing, I will also share with you a thing or two on the process of writing my book, and a little bit on the journey to have it published on subsequent posts.

Let’s get this out of the way. My book, Where Have You Been, was published in September 2016 and follows the day-to-day life of Iraq veteran Johnny Milaowic and his addiction to heroin and crack. This is definitely not a happy book, but I kept a light tone by using the “I” perspective of a man who sees the world in an odd way and tries to gloss over a lot of the more terrible parts of his life. The story follows his struggles to hold on to his girlfriend Jenny, the changes in the dynamics of his group of friends, all of whom are addicts, and trying to lead a more or less normal life.

His attempts at having a normal life are ruined by his inability to deal with conflict, stress, or anything that takes him out of his comfort-zone. A serious fight with Jenny sends him into a spiral, and later on a violent path.

Before anyone gets any ideas, I would like to clarify one thing: This is not any kind of attempt to drag veterans of any armed forces through the mud, on the contrary, I respect all men and women who decided to serve their countries (I was also a member of the armed forces). My interest in this book lies in the lasting effects conflict and poor support of the veterans might have on those men and women, and society in general.

In addition, I am interested in the paradoxical phenomenon of the social view of war. Most people would agree that war, as a concept is bad. Most people would pity returning veterans with PTSD or other injuries. Most people would also pity civilians in the opposing country. So why is it that humans know all this, see the damaged people coming out of a war, and be completely fine with sending more people to war a few years later? That is what baffles me.

Seeing that it’s my first published novel, I am of course very excited about it and sometimes spend a few minutes in my day just looking at it. The hard part now is promoting it. Even in the age of the internet and social media, getting things out there is hard because you are one of a million things out there. Living in a non-English-speaking country is also making things a bit harder as readings and things like that are unlikely to draw a crowd for a book in English.

So now you more or less know what my book is about, let me tell you about the writing process. It started out as a little short story that I just didn’t know how it should end, and which I presented in one of my creative writing groups to rather enthusiastic reactions. As I kept writing, the thing expanded into a novella, and finally a novel.

The hard part, as I am sure it goes for other writers too, was to get the abstract ideas I had in my head into paper. It wasn’t an easy task to translate the “desired narrative effect” to actual dialogue or action, even when I did have more concrete ideas on what should more or less happen in Johnny’s life. Several time during writing I had to stop, make a plan, and about two days later completely ignore it due to some moment of inspiration.

I suppose it’s a matter of writing style, some people have detailed plans on where their stories need to go and how they want to get there. I’m a bit sporadic, but that works for me. I sometimes have a single sentence in my head, and it sounds good, great even, and I build whole stories, or chapters, around that one sentence. Because if this rather erratic style of writing, I found myself writing, deleting, then writing, and rewriting segments, which really gnawed at my pacing. So I, after speaking with another novelist friend of mine, decided to give myself daily goals: 1000 words a day.

Another goal had more to do with content. At the end of each writing session, I wrote down in a note book what will be the next step, and the next day I would take it up and find a way to get there. This helped me make good time; not that I had a deadline, it was more for my own confidence. Another thing that slowed me down, but was both necessary and fascinating, was research.

To better write about the life of drug addicts, I had to get to know that kind of life, no, not on my own flesh. I joined forums and help programs for addicts, I talked to addicts online, and basically tried to find out as much as possible from first hand sources. As a student, I still had access to a lot of resources about different subjects, and I am sure I could have found books on addiction, but I thought it will be more authentic coming from people who lived through it, not just some doctor writing down his observations.

This was just a very general description on the way I wrote it. In subsequent post, I will give more detail as I also get into different aspects of writing, like characters, setting, and action, the 3 major things every writer has to deal with when setting out. I will try to give some advice as well in how to tackle these issues out of my experience.

Where Have You Been is available on Amazon, Thebookdepository, Barnes & Noble, Biblio (United States and England), Lulu, eBay (international), PriceMinister (France), BookWorks and Pubmatch (United States). digital format through online stores, such as Amazon Kindle (France, USA, England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Japan, India), Payloadz, Smashwords (United States), Kobo and more.

What it’s all about

I know the feeling of wanting, almost needing, to live off my art. Yes, I define myself as an artist. Unfortunately, though, life isn’t a musical (Maybe that’s a good thing, though, seeing as I can’t dance to save my life and won’t sing unless I’m ridiculously drunk, and then I’m the only one to enjoy it). I need to pay my rent, and for electricity, water, insurance, food, and the occasional thing for me and my significant other; at least until such a time as I can live off my writing. Yes, I’m a writer, and I have to work. the

“How Do You Document Real Life
When Real Life’s Getting More
Like Fiction Each Day
Headlines – Bread-Lines
Blow My Mind

And Now This Deadline
“Eviction – Or Pay”
Rent”

 

There are the first lines to the opening song of the musical Rent. A group of young artists struggle to pay their rent while sticking to their principles and staying true to their art, which, for them, means concentrating solely on their art and not doing anything else, like… working

Now, while I am not a fan of the musical, I can’t help feeling some sympathy towards those artists. I know the feeling of wanting, almost needing, to live off my art. Yes, I define myself as an artist. Unfortunately, though, life isn’t a musical (Maybe that’s a good thing, though, seeing as I can’t dance to save my life and won’t sing unless I’m ridiculously drunk, and then I’m the only one to enjoy it). I need to pay my rent, and for electricity, water, insurance, food, and the occasional thing for me and my significant other; at least until such a time as I can live off my writing. Yes, I’m a writer, and I have to work.

I have tried many jobs in my life, cooking, which was fun, factory work, which I was good at, selling frozen foods door to door (Bofrost, google it), which I thought was pointless, and selling books in a bookshop. Each job was fun, in its own way. Each job taught me something. But there was always that nagging in me that made me think “I could be writing right now!” and then begins the spiral that leads me to discontent and eventually, fantasies about becoming a professional writer.

Most of those who write professionally have published a whole bunch of books which became successful due to a combination of luck, quality, and good marketing. I just got one book out there with a relatively small publisher, so of course I don’t have the name recognition of J.K Rowling or Neil Gaiman. I also don’t have the time to write two novels a year, or the selling power to quickly convince publishers to publish my hypothetical two novels a year. No, I have to start small, I have to find the time, use the inspiration I find in whatever I can, and stay positive.

Another thing most writers have is a day-job. Either as journalists, lawyers, judges, educators, etc. Other writers, on the other hand, write full-time. They dedicate themselves to their work and succeed. I suppose it’s a matter of finding what is best for you. Whether you can (or need) to combine writing with other work, or just write because that is where your passion is, everyone is a bit different.

Now, what does any of this have to do with the little quote at the top? Simple. It demonstrate the universality of these feelings among beginning artists. In university, I was a member of two creative writing groups, just people who enjoyed writing; though, admittedly, we were also mostly students of the English department who specialize in literature, so some professional interest was there as well. Those groups both had talented young men and women, who, I believe, had really good pieces. But time went on, they took on professional and academic projects and the writing just faded, maybe not entirely, but it went back to first gear and probably found its way to their drawer rather than being submitted anywhere. Only I and one other person made serious attempts to publish, and so far, I’m the only one of the group to publish any non-academic piece. Beyond those feelings is a real struggle: Can I make it with my art? Or, to stay with the analogy: “how would I pay rent?”

I always believed in working for what you want. I never considered “free rides” or lending money, or any such thing; when I watched Rent for the first time my first reaction to the characters’ constant complaining was “Get a job!” But after seven jobs, having just been “let go” from the last, I can’t help but feel that I am like that too, I need to live off my art. I know that there are others out there like me, those struggling with their need to create and their much more urgent need to pay for food, shelter, and video-games, and that for the most part, it’s the creativity that suffers and gets pushed back to once every other weekend while the kids are watching cartoons.

And that is why I started this blog. To not only give myself an outlet for my writing and give myself a platform to rant about the difficulties of getting my second book published, no. It’s also to give others that little push to get them writing, creating, maybe even submitting. I am no great authority on publishing or writing, but I like the idea that maybe someone out there will read this and find the courage to write the next best-selling novel of our time.

I will be talking about my experience in trying to get my second book published, about how I managed to have my first book Where Have You Been published (don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a marketing platform for it), and about my writing habits. I will also try to include exercises in writing to maybe help you get inspired, and get writing. I would love there to be a dialogue between me and my readers, and maybe even receive some of the results you came up with from the various exercises.

So whether you’re really a struggling artist, a student with dreams of becoming the next Stephen King, or someone who would like to have more than just every other weekend while the kids are watching cartoons to create something, this blog is meant for you. We’re all just struggling to both express ourselves AND pay our rent, this is just my way.