Character Development


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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How to Create Complex, Interesting
and Memorable Characters
Also: The difference between
plot-driven and character-driven novels.

Allow me to reiterate: A good novel isn’t about What happens. It’s about What happens to whom. This post is all about the whom. Because if readers can’t identify and empathize with your characters, your plot probably won’t matter much. In fiction, even dogs and cats (and rabbits) must have ample personality.

Let’s face it: Every plot imaginable has already been written—many, many times over. Plots written today will seldom, if ever, be truly unique. However, your characters are (or can be) utterly unpredictable, oozing with complexity and charisma. Putting new personalities into established (old) plot lines can create the illusion of originality. If your characters are empathetic, readers won’t mind if the plot feels vaguely familiar—and, hey, they might not even notice. Fully developed characters can be memorable and (imho) the key to a successful novel.

But, first! A preamble.

Fiction typically falls into two major classifications: Plot-driven stories and Character-driven stories. By default, a third also exists, the Hybrid novel—a fairly equal combination of plot-development and character-development. Is the hybrid plot structure better? That potentiality depends upon the writer. And the audience. We all have our preferences.

Need examples?

J.D. Salenger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a character-driven novel. It’s all about a teenaged Holden Caulfield and his various attempts to fit into an uncertain, unrelenting society.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is an example of a plot-driven story. It’s all about the dinosaurs, and their escape from captivity. Crichton’s characters involved are merely onlookers or snacks.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a hybrid novel. The books offers a solid sequence of unfolding plots and sub-plots, yet also features a great, fully-formed ensemble cast. (I consider most sagas and serials to be hybrid efforts.)

Typically, in a character-driven (CD) novel, a story’s focus centers on a character or characters who encounter a plot—or more typically a series of semi-relevant plots or adventures, rather than the singular event that dictates the characters’ roles throughout the story. The author is internalizing much of the story—via thought bubbles (internal monologue) and strong (or unique, or eclectic, or eccentric) POVs. And while a character’s growth arc isn’t absolutely necessary in a CD novel, it’s anticipated. And strongly advised.

In a plot-driven (PD) novel, a singular ‘umbrella’ plot typically takes precedence over a character or characters who are driven or forced into action solely by the plot’s unfolding. One’s inciting incident usually gets the ball rolling. A PD story is often revealed externally (visually) rather than focusing on the personality (or emotional stability or the inner complexities) of a character—or more commonly will contain a group of diverse characters, rather than a single POV. Together, these characters can provide various, disparate, often conflictive, perspectives as the plot unfolds.

As previously stated (See Simple, But Exciting), a novel consists of three main components: 1. Solid plot-momentum; 2. Solid character development, and; 3. Appropriate scene/realm building. When writing a novel, little else matters. Structurally, a PD novel may contain a far greater percentage of plot structure and a relatively smaller amount of character development. Conversely a CD novel will contain a greater percentage of character development—and likely a greater insight into a character’s inner being. Scene/realm building is equally important in both formats.

In Mark Helprin’s character-driven Winter’s Tale, a magically-tinged reality sets an elegant, almost fairy-tale quality to accentuate the mythic qualities of Peter Lake, the story’s MC. It’s difficult to separate the complexity of the book’s grounding (scene-setting) from the personalities who inhabit the story—and only serves to strengthen the bond between author and reader.

In Tom Clancy’s plot-centric techno thriller The Hunt For Red October, the same rules apply, Clancy providing proper grounding for a target (techno-savvy!) reader base. Clancy spends an inordinate amount of time describing the technical details and operational components of a Soviet Tycoon-class submarine—and those fictional sailors aboard the Red October better damn well know those features as well. And although Clancy’s characters remain largely focused on the emerging plot (one will seldom see Jack Ryan at a PTA meeting, for instance) they remain complex enough to keep the drama riveting.

Whether character-driven or a plot-driven, both formats require proper grounding. (See Scene-Setting.) So don’t skimp on building a suitable location or realm that will suspend disbelief. Grounding readers also requires a good deal of continuity (AKA, a character’s choreography from scene to scene). So be sure to update every character’s current environment before continuing forward plot momentum. Has night fallen? Have several hours, days, weeks passed between scenes? Has a character moved from a deep forest wood to a bustling city? Has a character’s mood or emotions changed? Has a bright, sunny morning turned to a gray, rainy afternoon?

How do you acknowledge new characters who first appear in a scene? One suggestion: don’t just throw readers a random name—give each character a bit of personality and/or motivation as well. Just a line or two is sufficient for the moment. If that character is to reappear again in the story, give them sufficient identity for readers to remember them 5 or 10 or 50 pages hence. One not need build an elaborate dossier every time you introduce or re-acquaint readers with a character, but drop a few hints about who this new character might be. Such as:

“Hello,” Ryan said. “I’m your new neighbor.
“Hello,” Phil replied. “Nice to meet you.”

Might become: “Hello,” the young man said, smiling broadly, holding out a bottle of pino noir. “Welcome to the neighborhood. My name’s Ryan. I live next door.”
‘. . . . .” “Nice to meet you,” Phil replied. He couldn’t help notice the ragged scar that sliced across Ryan’s cheek. An old war wound, Phil assumed, shaking his new neighbor’s outstretched hand, returning the smile, albeit warily.

That’s all it takes—a snippet of personality, an off-hand comment, a curious presumption. Readers will remember those small touches, if adroitly placed.

Occasionally, an avant-garde or experimental story idea may come along, offering little more than riveting dialogue from unique personalities. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, or example. Or Manuel Puig’s richly intimate, dialogue-heavy The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Or—and these are cinematic examples, BTW—1981’s My Dinner With Andre and 1990’s Mindwalk. These plot-lite stories may only hint at any sort of tangible story line. The unfolding drama stems wholly from dialogue and personality/perspective.

Building the Basic Beast: What to Consider.

When you begin to write a story, you’re introducing characters who are new to you, and also new to readers. However, these paper-people have been (theoretically) living full, complex lives long before they appear on the page. Thus, even if your plot dictates that your characters attempt to save the world—rocket scientists who discover a giant meteor about to obliterate Mankind, for instance—they have presumably led full lives filled with various ups and downs. Some have perhaps endured difficult childhoods, lost (or won) love and probably come into focus with a great deal of emotional baggage. What to omit? What to include? And when? That’s up to you. Do you immediately describe their past lives in great detail to readers? Absolutely not! But it’s important that you know who they are, and who they’ve been, and what makes them tick. And then you begin to parse those personalities/POV’s/motivations slowly to readers.

In other words, if the end of the world is around the proverbial corner, the rent’s still due, or maybe your MC’s getting divorced, or someone’s having mother-in-law issues or has a runaway kid sister. Maybe somebody discovers that the meteor’s actually a giant diamond and thwarts any effort to destroy it before he can scoop up a fortune for himself. The more conflicted or erratic or flawed your characters, the more likely they’ll feel “real” to your audience. Readers love relatable (and yet unpredictable) characters.

So bring your characters into your story fully formed…at least inside your head.

However! I do think it’s important to reveal certain atypical, physical traits ASAP. For instance, if a character stands 7-foot tall, or is wheelchair-bound, or is a pointy-eared, 3-foot tall Orc, readers don’t want to be surprised to discover such visual attributes 100+ pages into the story. Introduce those atypical aspects as soon as you can, to help readers create a reasonable mental image of your cast.

In this age of fractured cultural norms and political correctness, one should be aware of treading carefully if a character is Black in a sea of white faces, (or, a white face in a sea of otherwise Black characters.) So give readers visual clues ASAP. Avoid stereotyping or using outdated clichés as shortcuts.

For instance, if Edward’s lost a leg, long ago in some obscure Afghanistan battle, mention it once and, unless there’s a plot-specific reason, don’t mention it again. So I strongly suggest not mentioning Ed’s a one-legged Afghan vet every time he appears on a page. Give your readers credit for remembering such characteristics and traits.

The same rule applies to atypical emotional traits—PTSD, ADHD, Asperger’s, co-dependency, malevolent narcissism, severe anxiety, insanity. You need not directly reveal these traits upon introduction (or ever, unless relevant to your story) and can hint or imply such neuro-divergency through speech patterns, or dialogue, or other characters’ speculations. Or simply allow readers to deduce such traits for themselves.

A few potentially major stumbles that some writers (and many new writers) make are believing that:

  1. Your characters are here only to serve your plot.
  2. Your characters must be fully developed immediately upon introduction.
  3. Your characters are ‘born’ the moment you introduce them on the page.
  4. Dialogue (and linguistic patterns) aren’t that important….

Let’s evaluate each.

1. Your characters are only here to serve your plot.

Not so! It’s probably more accurate to say that your plot’s here to serve your characters. Your characters are your story’s sensual presence. It’s through their fears, or curiosity or humor or warmth or love that readers will respond to the humanistic quality of your story. Without characters present, a giant meteor hurling toward Earth is simply a story about two rocks colliding. But place a handful of likeable astronauts and physicists and that one, young, misunderstood assistant rocket-scientist with a crazy idea of how to save the planet—and now you’re ready to manipulate the emotions and gain the empathy of a bejillion breathless readers.

2. Characters must be fully developed immediately upon introduction.

Nope. Nobody wants to read a dossier on page 1. By gradually revealing fragments of proper scene-setting (your story’s physical realm) and plot momentum (leading readers from here to there), you’re gradually revealing various snippets of a character’s personality as well. You’re basically teasing readers—challenging them to read on and discover more about the people who inhabit your story. Every scene you write should contain all three elements—a little of this, a little of that, and then a bit of the other. Meaning a writer can allude to a physical appearance, a personality (quirks and all) and possible plot-related motivations over several scenes or chapters. It’s okay to tease readers about those paper-people who inhabit your book. Sure—just as IRL—it’s fine to make a memorable first impression, but give readers room to gradually acquaint themselves. Curiosity is a great motivator—and a motivated reader will turn page after page after page….

3. Your characters are ‘born’ the moment you introduce them on the page.

This one’s tricky. You, the writer, have soooo much to reveal about a protagonist, or an antagonist, and/or that crucial, although seldom-scene best friend. However, it’s important to realize that these people existed (existentially, of course) long before you decided to drop them onto the page. Some are going through personal issues—an impending marriage, or divorce, or maybe one has a gambling addiction, or is confronting a recent, tenuous sobriety, or maybe has a kid sister who disappeared 14 years ago—all of which may have little or nothing to do with your primary plot. (…or might they?)

Secondary plot-lines can have tremendous value in character-building. A singular plot, with various characters auto-focused on a single resolution… sorry, but that can get tedious or monotonous. However, give characters additional issue or problems (“What do you mean my check bounced?”) can infuse nuance, rapport, insight and empathy to your characters. I mean imagine that the aforementioned meteor’s going to strike Earth in 23 days. And your MC’s just been evicted from her apartment. Throwing obstacles large and small can humanize your story and make your paper-people feel very, very real.

4. Dialogue isn’t that important.

Dialogue can make a break your story. Good dialogue can transform cardboard characters into real people. Great dialogue can transform well-written characters into literary icons.

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” This infamous line from the lips of author Thomas Harris’s far-from-vegan Hannibal Lecter. Or take George R.R. Martin’s classic, off repeated line; “Hodor!” Because sometimes a single word (even from a minor character!) can reveal an astounding character-trait or plot device that might just become eternally meme-able. Such is the power of dialogue.

Other memorable quotes? How about:

“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in To Have And Have Not.

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (Not to mention Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be….” a line that’s almost become a parody of famous literary quotes.)

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. (As well as Clark Gable’s—as Rhett Butler—“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) BTW, In 1939 the Hays-Code era censors went ballistic with this one.

“Time is the longest distance between two places.” Tom Wingfield in Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.

“My God. It’s full of stars!” Keir Dullea—as David Bowman—in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

…but I digress!

I suspect that few/none of these memorable quotes are accidental comments. None feel ‘off the cuff.’ Meaning I cannot emphasize enough the importance of well-considered dialogue.

They say that the eyes are windows to the soul. In fiction, dialogue is the window to each character’s soul. (See Dialogueparts 1-thru-8—for more in-depth info.) However, in the here and now, do realize that for many writers, dialogue adds the necessary depth to produce well-developed characters. For those writing a story in First Person POV, internal monologue (What secret is Emma keeping from me, I wondered. What isn’t she telling me?) is as equally important; absolutely essential for readers to fully understanding the complexity of your solitary MC. I’m aware of some novelists who try to avoid inner monologue (a fear of deep emotional commitment perhaps?) when writing First Person narratives—but I wouldn’t recommend it. IMHO, First Person POV demands that type of soul searching. If plumbing the depths of a character’s soul isn’t as important to you as developing nifty, Adrenalin-packed plot structures, then I suggest sticking to writing in Third Person POV. (…which isn’t a slam, BTW, just an observation. We write what we write best!)

One last word of a advice. A fictional character should (typically, but not always) be larger than life in certain ways. I’m not talking superhero type awesomeness; just that novelists typically emphasize both the good and bad in everyday people. All my protagonists are a bit smarter, better looking, nicer and far more extroverted than I’ll ever be. Everyday people inhabit an everyday world. But in fiction feel rather blasé—so accentuate and embellish whenever possible.

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Story vs. Plot


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Story vs. Plot. What’s the dif?
(Also: How to resolve the
“My story’s-too-short” dilemma)

I’m aware of confusion among many newbie novelists concerning the difference(s) between plotting and storytelling. So what exactly is a plot? What exactly is a story? Are plotting and storytelling identical? While the two terms might appear synonymous upon first glance—they are not.

A fictional plot contains a series or sequence of events, circumstances or the collective steps of a journey (physical, emotional, spiritual) that typically begins with an inciting incident and unravel in linear fashion—from your story’s Once Upon A Time… until the conclusive The End.

A story is a fusion of the three primary components necessary to create a complete, believable fictional reality. A story must include: 1. Plot momentum, as well as; 2. Character development, and; 3. Proper (meaning sufficient) scene-setting. A good story will seamlessly blend all three components — and will comprise little else. (See Simple, But Exciting.)

Character development should be self-explanatory. That is, the deeper, more fully formed and complex your characters, the truer-to-life those paper-people will become to readers. Insufficient (wooden, superficial, mundane, re-active*) characters lack the charm, attitude, unique individualism and compassion (for a protagonist) or else lack sufficient heartless, conniving and/or downright evil (your antagonist) qualities. Pro-active characters will skillfully, creatively and intuitively create or solve problems — and proactive protagonists won’t simply and repeatedly react to whatever obstacles a writer dumps in their way.

Proper scene-setting is more than simply visualizing a bare-bones environment for readers. Scene-setting means providing characters with proper stage-setting, and the subtle visualization of all necessary elements in a scene. Scene-setting also allows readers to occasionally stop and smell the flowers (for no other reason than stopping to smell the flowers). With each new scene or chapter you begin, it’s imperative to update (if necessary) the scene’s new whereabouts, any new time frame—has darkness fallen? Have days passed? You’re even noting any mood or emotional shifts in your characters. Your job is to note any relevant changes and make the appropriate updates.

Scene-setting also means providing readers with necessary sounds, smells, and attitudes… so don’t skimp on using a multitude of senses. The aroma of a sizzling steak or the screech of a hungry osprey can be as emotionally relevant to readers as defining a quaint village, a crumbling hillside castle, an angry sea or a cadmium colored sunset. In terms of a timeline, do you begin your new scene on a new day (or night), the following day, next Tuesday, or 2027? So if your last chapter ends around noon, and 10 or 12 pages into your new chapter, readers discover street lamps aglow, you’d have better revealed to us right up front that night has indeed fallen.

Or, to put it very simply:

PLOT: Is what happens.

STORY: Is what happens to whom.

Need more prompting? Okay, so let’s say you want to write a story about a ship sinking. Let’s call this tub the R.M.S. Titanic. A rough outline of your plot might be that of an unsinkable ocean liner speeding across the Atlantic, hitting an iceberg and gradually descending into the icy depths of history. Good plot (and certainly the tragedy’s been written enough). The choreography of the ship’s sinking — the unseen iceberg, the waterproof bulkheads failing, the boilers blowing up, the eventual founding and the ship ultimately splitting in two — that all makes for a riveting plot. But where are the people? How do they cope? Without a host of characters integrated into your story, you’ve basically written a book about buoyancy, or the lack thereof.

But put 2240 souls aboard that sinking ship — and perhaps focus on a dozen of those passengers, each with a different, dramatic, chaotic story to tell — now you’ve turned that very basic plot idea into a very spine-tingly, emotional story. Who’s the hero? Who’s the coward? Who survives? Who doesn’t? Who watches their loved ones go down with the ship? Again, a good story isn’t necessary about the what, it’s about the who.

Finding yourself with a too-short page count?

Newer writers, working on early drafts, tend to work primarily on plot-development first and foremost—which is perfectly okay. When you’re in draft mode, ain’t nothing wrong with defining your plot from beginning to end before you begin to embellish and elaborate. After all, you want to know where you’re going and how to get there. But once a writer’s sure of that destination, it’s all about plumping up character personalities and motivations, and grounding readers in the here and now.

Typically (and this is a generic observation… exceptions always exist) for every 100 pages of plot momentum, one can easily write 100 pages of character development as well, some of which may directly or indirectly influence your plot as well, but can also add back-stories or side-stories or include secondary characters who fail at their tasks (or intentionally thwart your MCs…who then have to try again). And a writer can easily add 50-100 pages of scene-setting, exploring/explaining realms, adding visual excitement to scenes. Heck, some writers (and George R.R. Martin comes to mind) can write a dozen pages simply visualizing a feast, setting the table and choreographing a scene before the action even begins.

So if you find your characters moving mechanically through the book, mindlessly following the plot—realize that there’s room for all sorts of embellishment and unexpected twists and nuance. How many times have you seen a character fail to start a car, when time is of the essence? Those few moments of frustration aren’t directly plot-related, they’re intentional interludes meant to add tension and drama. You’re upping the emotional ante and giving readers additional reasons to turn the page.

Should you decide to throw in a few extra characters to foil your MC’s efforts, you can add dozens or hundreds of pages to a manuscript that don’t directly influence/effect the plot, but that add to the overall thrill ride. Not to mention that you’re creating characters far more exciting (clever or scary, unlucky or frivolous or devious…or whatever) for readers to discover.


* What’s a reactive character? That’s a character who’s always (or most often) responsive to an unfolding plot. Reactive characters typically resolve obstacles through luck or <gasp!> coincidence. (More than one or two discreetly placed coincidences and your novel may begin to feel fake or unbelievable.)

A reactive character wanders from scene to scene, and has little need for personal growth (See: Character Arcs), rational deduction, fortitude or tenacity. Sure, protagonists often initially react to initial drama or danger (again, your novel’s inciting incident) and occasionally to various situations beyond their control, but once a protagonist is motivated, it’s up to him/her to actively confront said drama or danger, to make important decisions and take control of the situation, no matter the risk.

For instance, your disgruntled PI can’t simply solve a crime by sheer luck alone, blundering into clues and having witnesses suddenly pop out of the woodwork, pointing fingers. Your gumshoe must make logical, skillful pro-active choices to solve the case. Or maybe your MC wins the lottery. (Somebody has to. Why not her?) But a character who’s flat broke, finds a dollar bill on the sidewalk and then spends it to win a billion dollar lottery, a day before her eviction, divorce and potential suicide? That’s borderline coincidental. So is the cop who defuses a bomb with 3 seconds remaining on the timer. (How many times have you seen that one? It’s not only coincidental, it’s pretty much a cliché.) Your protagonist(s) must actively rely on their cunning and knowledge to survive (or fall in love, or solve a dilemma or win the big game, or whatever). Sure, protagonists must be occasionally lucky… but too damn lucky? Unless you have an ironclad reason — a literary equivalent of a last-second Hail Mary Pass that wins the Superbowl — that’s pretty much taboo.

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Emotional Triggers

Understanding Our Behavioral Triggers

Commentary by
Eileen Workman

FATIGUE, STRESS, CONFUSION, fear and anxiety too often serve as behavioral triggers, causing many of us to abandon our emotional centers and jettison our inner peacefulness out of the mistaken belief that we can “fix” our feelings by fixing our surroundings.

The problem with that assessment?

These “surroundings” often include other people who have little to no idea that we are experiencing any of the above emotional symptoms. So when we direct attention outward and misidentify “others” as the source of our triggering, we actually bypass our own deepest source wisdom that is lovingly informing us what we truly need.

Why do we experience these symptoms in the first place? We experience fatigue because our body signals that it needs rest and recharging.
We experience confusion because our mind signals that cognitive dissonance has arisen and we need to relax and stop trying so hard to make sense of what we don’t yet understand.

We experience fear because our emotional body is signaling an urgent need to move away from vibrational frequencies we feel, but cannot see.
We experience stress and anxiety because our entire system begs for relief when we have over-invested in past stories and future expectations.
Notice that these signals are internal mechanisms designed to inform us how to be or not be—not to inform us how to change or fix others, or how to change or fix our environment.

Too often, we interpret our own inner distress as motivation to blame, shame, or guilt “others” into radically altering their own behaviors so that we no longer need to experience these important feedback signals. But what happens when we take radical self-responsibility for attending to these inner feedback loops and use them to inform us what needs changing—within our personal field of awareness?

When fatigue arises while we are in a public setting, we can gracefully extract ourselves and go rest as a form of loving self-care.

When confusion arises while we are engaging in dialogue, we can take a moment to breathe in and allow the mind to calm itself, or we can simply drop our attachment to thinking “about” whatever seems to be troubling us in the moment.

When fear arises, we can come more present and aware of why the frequency of fear has arisen. If it’s a genuine emergency, we can move away from the perceived threat. If the fear has arisen because we have misinterpreted the vibrational frequency of others as “dangerous” to our well-being we can relax and allow the feeling to pass, because likely it’s simply an echo of a past situation.

When stress and anxiety occur, we can realize these signals serve as invitations for us to come more alive to THIS present moment and to be lovingly and tenderly compassionate with ourselves.

This does not mean we stop changing things, or that others will now not ever change because we haven’t actively sought to fix them. What it does mean?

We have reclaimed our inner power to reconnect with our souls, hearts, minds, and bodies in ways that best serve us, without us needing to apply physical force, the emotional abuse of shaming or blaming or guilting, or the mentally prompted repression of others in order to “fix” what presently disturbs us.

Embracing and honoring the wisdom of our own inner feedback loops empowers us to live our healthiest, happiest, and most creative lives with peaceful intentionality.

— Eileen Workman
Author of Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
and Sacred Economics (The Currency of Life)




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More Common Obstacles


rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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More Common Obstacles that
Novelists Commonly Confront

I’ve previously mentioned those few literary hurdles I often confront when working with novice writers. Getting stuck (See A Few Common Obstacles) is the most common dilemma that new writers encounter—and a conundrum that all writers face at one time or another. Although the act of getting stuck generally assumes that we’ll eventually get ourselves un-stuck as well. That occasionally annoying perceptive rut known as writer’s block isn’t supposed to be a chronic condition, after all, and most of us manage to work our way free, sooner or later.

However, if getting stuck increasingly feels like a permanent situation, or if you find yourself consistently accumulating little more than first scenes or first chapters—project after project, year after year—the issue(s) you face may run far deeper than simply a matter of ‘learning the ropes’ or ‘running out of fresh ideas.’ If you’ve been toiling away for a year or two on any single project, yet remain unsatisfied with the results or with your level of creative output, perhaps it’s time to dig a little more deeply into your writer’s psyche. Even if you consider yourself to be a gifted writer, your inability to produce adequate results (in terms of quantity or quality) may require some personal introspection. In other words, many of us must at some point confront those emotional or psychological issues that might be inhibiting our progress.

And while the prospect of ‘personal introspection’ may carry a certain negative weight, don’t worry—it’s not a euphemism for ‘you suck at writing.’ Rather, if you’re aching to write but can’t seem to gain any traction, self-reflection is simply my suggestion (unscientific as it is) that you look inward before contemplating all those extraneous external factors. Various assumptions for not writing—I can’t find a sharp pencil!; or It’s raining out!; or The rent’s overdue!—may feel like adequate excuses (and sometimes they can be) but more often than not, such superficial symptoms simply disguise a far more complex, subconscious quandary.

While legitimate factors such as fear of failure, or what if I’m not good enough? or even the very real fear of success do exist, those psychological roadblocks can often be overcome by simply acknowledging their presence. Thus, consider this: I’m certainly not good enough if I give up, but if I try, I may surprise myself. Because the only thing worse than failing to finish a novel is the unwillingness to start a novel.

And you won’t know if you don’t try—and not trying (or succeeding) is often the result of unrealistic self-doubt or lack of confidence. Every writer born has suffered through great gobs of self-doubt. (Stephen King’s disposal of his first manuscript, Carrie, only to be resurrected from the trashcan by his wife, Tabatha, is legendary. Had he not have been married, the iconic Mr. King might never have sold a single book.)

For first-time writers (especially those without concerned spouses like Tabatha), those often ubiquitous subliminal roadblocks can feel pervasive and insurmountable… because sometimes our brains are funny that way. But, guess what? Every problem has a solution. Every story has an ending. There’s always a way to get from Point A to Point Z, no matter how seemingly hopeless the journey might appear. However, each of us needs to dig deep to find the patience and persistence to go the distance. So finish. That’s Rule #1 after all.

Refer again to Perfection should you remain uncertain. Because (spoiler alert!) perfection doesn’t exist. (You can always change a word, a sentence, a paragraph…) So stop trying to obtain the unobtainable. Allow your first draft to be little more than a messy, incomplete rough sketch of whatever greatness is meant to come. Allow yourself sufficient time to tweak and refine and polish through numerous, subsequent drafts. Even if you can’t achieve perfection, pretty damn good is worth striving for. (And also quite possible!)

Ask yourself What’s the worst that can happen by trying, by staying the course? If you can’t convince yourself to go the distance, maybe writing a novel isn’t your best creative outlet. Yet other creative endeavors may await you, and it’s probably important to discover your options before you spend a year writing an uninspired (no offense) 400-pages that will ultimately disappoint you.

However, before you give up completely and become a plumber or an astronaut, what unrealized roadblocks or self-doubts linger within your soul, waiting to be discovered?

You may be #1: A Serial Story Starter. Starting a novel is a lot like a first date. The possibilities feel boundless, and our expectations are through the roof. Filled with excitement and confidence—even if our perceived ending (or second chapter, for that matter) remains a bit nebulous—some of us can easily write a fabulous ten or 20 pages with little effort.

And yet our creative expectations, like love itself, can be fickle. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for new, assumptive writers to experience that roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows, once the initial rush of balloon-light giddiness dissipates beneath the eventual iron fist of reality. Before long we may begin to sense waves of self-doubt, fading hopes and unexpected stumbling blocks. Some of us will begin to approach our pages, our progress, with a tingling sense of dread. Might starting a novel have been a mistake?

Frequently, as we concoct and/or approach a specific story line, we may realize (correctly or not) that the story inside our head is more difficult to decipher than originally presumed. Maybe the plot sputters, or our premise begins feels weak or clunky. Our characters stop speaking to us or become lost in the fog. So many What if—? questions remain unanswered. So many Now what—? questions feel suddenly impenetrable. Or maybe, 30-50 pages into our story, an even better idea comes to mind. Those feelings are more common than you might think—and knowing when to stop can be as important as knowing when to hunker down and proceed.

It’s perfectly alright to revamp our daydream in another POV, or tell our story in a completely different way. It’s also perfect okay to start a completely new book from scratch. It’s all part of the learning curve, after all, and ’tis far better to disregard 50 or 100 pages and begin anew, rather than belabor to complete an unfulfilling brick of a book that you’ll ultimately stick in a drawer, disgruntled and disillusioned, and perhaps never write again.

Many (most) published writers do have unfinished starter novels and dog-eared notebooks filled with half-baked ideas littering our drawers and PC desktops. Those false starts are also part of the process. We’re still in the process of learning to think like novelists. Sometimes, that development can take years or decades of effort.

Or, you may be #2: A Panster. Thirty years ago, the term panster did not exist—or else did so clandestinely and had yet to evolve into the literary limelight. The term (should you have recently awoken from a coma) defines those freestyle writers among us who write without any perceived forethought or planning or, more often than not, without a clue as to how one’s story might end.

Personally, I love starting a novel with wild abandon, sometimes with only a vague or fuzzy notion of my characters’ personalities/motivations and with a single inciting incident in mind. But within 50-or-so pages I typically realize that I’m confronting too many options to wing it any further.

At that point I begin to outline my next few scenes and/or chapters. And while I shall refrain from mentioning the virtues of outlining yet again, if you’ve missed my last few dozen posts, HERE‘s a quick reminder. Do realize that outlining doesn’t necessarily mean religiously, unerringly, bullet-pointing an entire novel from cover to cover before you begin writing. Outlining can be as brief and as vague as a few jotted lines that jog your creativity or lead you out of a jam or dead end. For me, outlining is also a sort of reality check (can I do this scene differently? Can I do it better?) before I proceed into uncharted waters.

If you are a panster and decide outlining doesn’t work for you, at least you’ve eliminated the process as a potentially valuable tool. So it’s worth consideration.

Or you may be #3: A Daydreamer. (All dressed up and nowhere to go.) We’re all daydreamers, we fiction writers. Ain’t nothing wrong with daydreaming—what’s a novel after all, but a daydream we write down, embellish, and ultimately complete? I’ve known a good many writers who concoct rather brilliant ideas, even come up with a functional synopsis or summary…and then perhaps finish a scene or two, a chapter or two, before realizing that Writing is hard. (Refer again to: A Few Common Obstacles.) For most creative people, coming up with boffo story ideas is by far the easy part. The difficulty comes over the next several months, or years, attempting to complete in exacting detail the story you’ve envisioned. It’s not for the feint of heart. Or for the incredibly busy.

You may be #4: A Closeted Screenwriter. The novel isn’t the only game in town. If you love writing dialogue but hate elaborate scene-setting or nuanced character-building, consider writing a screenplay. A 90-120 page script (translating into a 90-120 minute cinematic runtime), can be completed in a fraction of the time and (imho) far easier to conceive and complete. Ninety percent of a screenplay (more or less) will be dedicated to dialogue. Deep thinking, indecision, unspoken secrets — all are non-existent, unless exposed through dialogue, or VO, or a few dramatically visualized, emotional cues. Scene-setting is reduced to a few lines of often vague information, and yet sufficient for a director to interpret. Thus:


JAKE and MARY SUE walk hand-in-hand down a dirt road toward a tractor shed, where JAKE has parked his old ’67 Flatbed Ford.

(staring cautiously behind them)

Daddy says I’m not supposed to see you any more. He says if he catches us together he’ll throttle me and kill you.


Let ’em try.


He ain’t jokin’, Jake. I’m scared.

(motioning toward the Ford)

Then run away with me, Mary Sue. Today. Right now. We always talked about goin’ off to California. Now’s our chance. Let’s leave this shit-hole, and your no-good excuse of a father, in our dust. No more milkin’ cows. No more takin’ crap from a man who’s far more a drunk than a daddy.


I can’t just up an’ run, Jake. I can’t leave little Billy alone with that man. Not for a single night. I need to stay an’ protect my baby brother. You know that.

In a screenplay, you’re choreographing actions (such as driving away) and emotions (fearing a drunk daddy, protecting a vulnerable little boy) largely through dialogue. In a screenplay, your options of revelation to an audience are simple. You’re either depicting visual actions, or else revealing necessary information through relevant dialogue. 

It’s up to the writer to convey emotion as simply, as precisely, as possible. One can allude to visual cues (Perhaps we see Mary Sue frowning at Jake’s suggestion to leave, for instance.) But even that nuanced gesture or expression is ultimately in the hands of the director, working in tandem with the actor, to fine-tune those visual cues, based on the blue-print (script) that you’ve provided.

Nor is there need to transmit unnecessarily detailed info to your audience. Let’s look at the aforementioned Nebraska farmhouse for example. Unless that particular structure/color/location is somehow specifically relevant to the plot, it’s simply labeled (in your script) “a farmhouse.” Whether it’s well kept or dilapidated, big or small, white or brown or a pleasant Robin’s Egg Blue, if its description isn’t plot-specific, it’s irrelevant in your script. A set director or location scout will run those potential decisions past the film’s director.

Realize that a script is simply a tool, one of many foundational elements necessary in producing a film. And you, the writer, are simply the “tool maker.” (And a well-paid toolmaker, should your script make it into a film’s production stage.)

But you’re not the end-user. The director wears that crown. And seldom, if ever, will a script be followed verbatim. Some scripts, by the end of a film shoot, may even be unrecognizable by the writer. So just be aware that a great many story-making decisions — those exclusively decided by a novelist (although somewhat massaged by a publisher) — are now under complete control by a director (or a cinematographer or a set-designer). You’re merely providing those folks with a viable roadmap. A director may dramatically alter your story, change your vision in numerous ways, even hire various script-doctors and/or other writers to fulfill certain needs. It’s just part of the process. Film development is a team endeavor. Once the script is complete, a screenwriter simply moves on to another project.

Certainly, pro’s and con’s exist, and should be examined in far more detail than I could ever explain here. (Nor have I ever completed a screenplay, so there’s that!) I highly recommend William Goldman’s Adventures of the Screen Trade. (Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men…so the guy knew what he was doing.) Also check out Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat.

Writing, selling and marketing a script is a whole ‘nother beast, and in a marketplace far different than traditional book publishing. I have a friend who’s optioned a single script three times. When a screenplay is optioned, typically by a production company or lone producer, your story is in limbo. Meaning that your script hasn’t—yet—been outright purchased, but is being held in escrow as that producer’s exclusive property. No other production company or studio can touch it for a fixed amount time (sometimes a year or more), until that producer either commits to film it or releases all rights back to you.

You are, however, paid a stipend (typically 4-figures, occasionally more) for the luxury of waiting—although there’s no guarantee that a producer will find sufficient money and actually begin production. (If so, you’ll sign a contract and be bumped into a 5- or 6-figure compensation.) And finding yourself with an optioned screenplay is certainly better than having no interest at all.) If your script is ultimately rejected, you’re free to put it back on the market. Some scripts will spend a decade or more, bouncing between various production companies, waiting to find the right fit.

Not ready to give up on your current manuscript? Not ready to give up the prospect of being a novelist? One final suggestion. Put the manuscript away for at least two weeks. Maybe a month or more. Allow yourself sufficient time to clear your head, or to formulate new ideas (write a short story or two, perhaps?) and then approach your your manuscript with a newfound thrill and a fresh perspective. Sometimes, that down time can work wonders.


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Write the Daydream


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Write the Daydream
(Intro to Plotting)

What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?

Sounds simple enough, in theory. But how does one begin? How does one even attempt to begin?* How do so many rudimentary thoughts (Hey, I’ll call this girl Juliette. I’ll name that dude Romeo. They’ll live happily ever—no, wait, I have a better idea!) emerge to produce a provocative story? Maybe we gaze longingly at books like A Game of Thrones, or The Lord of The Rings, the Harry Potter series or The Time Ships, and think WTF!? How do people create such rich, complex, creative narratives? What were they thinking? What were they smoking? I could never begin to craft such an incredibly detailed epic adventure! Until I figure it out, I guess it’s back to watching reruns of The Gilmore Girls.

Well, you won’t know unless you try. Sometimes new or wannabe writers will procrastinate for years, waiting for the right moment (that may never come without that spark of concerted effort.) But it’s far easier, perhaps even more exciting, to fantasize about writing than actually writing. So, yeah, we procrastinate, rebuilding or babysitting our daydreams time and time again inside our heads. And it is procrastination, you know—those unwritten daydreams, those many incidental acts of minutia that feel like writing… (What should I name my characters? I’ve spent months looking through baby-books and still can’t find one I like!) But until you begin actively writing that first page, that first scene, that first chapter, let’s face it, you’re not really “writing.” You’re stuck in idle mode, still awaiting that creative spark, that literary ‘Big Bang.’ (You can rename your characters during or after you finish your first draft, for example. You can begin writing a story in the middle, and work back to the beginning later. You can begin to develop a character or two, or write snippets of dialogue and infuse them into the proper scene later.) But the only way to write a novel is to start a novel, and that is by putting words down on paper. (Or a PC.) Your non-writing hours are either spent actively prepping or researching that eventual book or avoiding that eventual book. And yes, most writers subliminally know the difference. (And if you’re procrastinating, I suspect you do, too.)

Conversely, some new or wannabe novelists—heads filled with so many swirling, exciting possibilities—believe they can plop down one day in front of a notepad or a PC and simply begin to scribble or type out a coherent, fully-developed story. Most of those writers don’t realize that stream of consciousness writing will only get you so far, but then what? Writing a novel requires an incredible amount of strategy, of organization and finesse. And most of us will likely require a working roadmap (see Outlining) so we don’t lose ourselves along the way. A few lucky writers may be able to simultaneously craft a comprehensive story inside their heads as they write, but that’s an ability most of us do not enjoy.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. One can begin a novel by either illuminating (or alluding to) your plot, or by introducing a character—usually, but not always, a protagonist or antagonist. Since no definitive rules exist on beginning, one can open a novel on virtually anything—although one’s first line/first page should probably have some bearing, directly or indirectly, on one’s story or primary character(s). (See Where To Start.) However, it’s totally up to you. My only suggestion is, make your first line count. Make it relevant, and provocative or subtly revealing. Basically, make it memorable!

As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s fair to say that most novels begin with a single What if? notion or premise. We’ve concocted a vague daydream that seems promising. Or at least interesting. Gee, I wish I could fly. What would I do if I could? What might I accomplish? Or, Linda doesn’t even know I’m alive. If I could only make her notice me! What if…? Or, I love to realm build! Dragons and castles and wizards and dark magic! But where do I start my story? What possibly could happen that will interest readers? Hey, what if a young knight bumps his head, develops amnesia and then….? These fragmented notions, in the hands of a creative mind (or in the mind of creative hands), might easily become the core of a superhero thriller or romantic comedy or epic fantasy—or a thousand other fictional possibilities.

But of course, one will need far more potential material than an original, perhaps fuzzy premise (your inciting incident). You’ll need to transcribe your hazy daydream into a linear, logical story line—meaning you’ll need to squeeze those amorphous thoughts into coherent words, sentences and paragraphs.

Your original idea will likely sputter out in 5 or 10 pages. You’ll very quickly need to create entirely new scenes, chapters and ultimately create a compelling, complete story. How do you proceed? Well, you do what every novelist does. You concoct another fantasy—this time with an overt (or discreet) connective thread to your original daydream. Meaning if your first chapter was filled with knights and dragons and damsels in distress, your next chapter probably shouldn’t be about astronauts on their way to Mars. By connective, I mean either a chapter that’s sequential or oppositional, but relevant in theme, tone and rationality to your already developed story line.

For instance, let’s say we’re writing a classic old, shoot-em-up Western. Chapter 1 might be about a young protagonist named Sheriff Bob, who’s arrived in Deadwood to keep the peace. Chapter 2’s about new schoolmarm named Betty Sue, who’s just stepped off the train from Boston. Chapter 3 is about nefarious scoundrel Black Bart, eyeballing the town’s bank. Three distinct, separate (oppositional) stories at this point. Your characters, and their isolated stories, may very well begin independently of one another for several chapters, although sooner or later those three character will most likely meet up—at which point their lives (and your chapters) will become chronologically connected in a coherent, linear (that is, sequential) fashion. Writing linear chapters: A, B, C, D and E, holds infinitely more appeal to readers than disjointed chapters written A, E, C, B and D. (Although never say never, Pulp Fiction fans). Still, for most of us, continuity is imperative.

But back to the problem at hand. Let’s say you’re fresh out of daydreams after a chapter or two. Let’s return to our superhero notion. Since Superman is obviously taken, we’ll call the protagonist of our fictional wisp of an idea Fly-Man. Okay, that’s a little eerie. How about simply Flyboy. As in slang for pilot. Because, oh yeah, Flyboy can fly.

And let’s say your fantasy, the one you’ve been contemplating for a few months now, is simply about an unlikely, lonely teenager. The kid’s bitten by a radioactive housefly (with apologies to Spider-Man) and with his sudden new superpowers, saves Mary Jane Ellen, the cute girl next door (and his secret crush) from being kidnapped by, dunno—space pirates?

So now what? One nifty thing about creative writing is, whatever happens next, that’s totally up to you. Perhaps there’s no direction at all (yet!) screaming to be followed. What’s your gut feeling? What might make an exciting continuation to Flyboy’s infatuation with Mary Jane Ellen, after his daring, Chapter 1 rescue?

So maybe she falls in love with Flyboy, unaware that he’s really her shy, lovelorn next-door neighbor. That’s an option, although one that may be best served coming later in the book. Or maybe she’s knocked unconscious during Flyboy’s rescue and doesn’t have a clue what happened? Or perhaps, in Chapter 2, we decide to further develop our story’s antagonist, the sinister space pirate named Rodney.

So your next daydream fantasy might be, with his kidnap plan thwarted, how does Space Rodney best plan his revenge on the unsuspecting Flyboy?

You’re creating a reaction (Rodney’s revenge) to the original action of the failed kidnap attempt. And Chapter 3 then becomes Flyboy’s reaction to Space Rodney’s subsequent action… and this action/reaction sequence continues until you find a suitable place, 300-400 pages hence, to end the book. (See Action/Reaction.)

Can’t think of any new, suitable daydreams? Sure you can. If you’ve thought of one, you can do it again (and again, and again). Because that’s the only way to write a novel—layer upon layer of creative ideas, creating sufficient suspense and excitement to go the 300-400 page distance.** So stay curious. Stay creative. Use your imagination. Discover the joys of Outlining… because that’s the absolutely best way to get unstuck, whenever cerebral stickiness sticks.

* Don’t know where to start? See the appropriately named Where To Start.

** While one’s daydreams should be linear, this doesn’t mean that you must write scenes or chapters sequentially. It’s okay to create various puzzle pieces out of sequence—and piece them together as your later daydreams catch up with your earlier efforts. One need not start on line one, page one. Begin wherever you feel the excitement flowing, and connect the dots later.

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