I’ve been sitting on this for about a month now, because there wasn’t a contract and I didn’t want to jinx it. But it’s really happening, so I am super excited to tell you all that my short story “Polaris in the Dark” will be published in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthology! It’s an anthology of science fiction stories about diverse characters aimed at middle grade readers. My story is about a blind girl indentured on the train that runs around the rings of Saturn… until she escapes. This isn’t the first story I’ve written about a blind character, but it is my first ever science fiction story, which is really cool. I had a lot of fun inventing gadgets that I actually want in the real world. Also it’s my first professional sale, so yay! If you’re interested, you can vote for the cover of the anthology here. I’ll keep you all posted as the anthology develops.
I’m still having trouble believing it, but 2016 is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for my annual round-up of the year. And what a year it has been.
Twelve months ago, I was working at the New Hampshire Disabilities Rights Center. I’d only been home from Italy for a few months, and Mopsy and I were still working through our nerves about other drivers while walking around town. I’d just submitted my final law school appplication—and I’d already been admitted to several fine schools. Now, I have just completed my first grueling semester at Harvard Law School, and when we aren’t studying, which isn’t that often, Mopsy and I are cruising around Boston like pros.
The only goal I set for myself this year was to not be afraid. I think I was mostly successful, though it was hard to keep that in perspective when I first realized I was going to have to do a lot more cooking than I originally anticipated, or when I was exhausted from studying for seven days straight and terrified I was going to fail my civil procedure exam, or when I woke up from my recurring hospital nightmare this morning feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Or when the election happened.
But with my signature optimism, when I look back at all the things I did this year—so many of them brand new—I have to give myself credit.
Everything I did at the DRC was totally new to me, from attending hearings to investigating voter accessibility. After I finished my internship, I went on a road trip to visit all the law schools I was still considering. When we were in New York visiting Columbia and NYU, my mom and I also went on two tours of Alexander Hamilton’s New York—one of the financial district and one of Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, and Morningside Heights. They were fascinating. Then my Italian host parents, Stefania and Bruno, came to America for three weeks, and we visited Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, New York City, Boston, and of course New Hampshire with them. my older brother got married. I went to the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind for the first time, where I tried ballroom dancing, swing, and 1Touch self-defense. Then I spent the summer learning my way around Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston.
And then I started at Harvard Law School, where every single thing I’ve done has been new. I’d never read a legal opinion before. Now I feel like I read nothing but legal opinions. I learned how to do legal research and how to write in legalese. I learned how to think in a completely new way that I’m still not used to and I can’t describe. For the first time, I took final exams with no indication of my grasp of the material—an experience I’d never like to have again but unfortunately I will have to repeat five more times. And right now I’m in the middle of my first ever job search, complete with cover letters. So many cover letters.
But I haven’t done only law stuff. I joined a book club with some of my amazing sectionmates. So far, we’ve read Kindred by Octavia Butler and Cinder by Marissa Meyer (the last one was my recommendation if you hadn’t guessed). Right now we’re reading The Dinner by Herman Koch (well, I haven’t started it yet). I also tried out for the law school a cappella group—I didn’t get in, but it was fun to try—and I also applied to write for the law school parody—didn’t make that either but it was both the first script and the first parody I’ve ever written.
I’ve also started becoming politically engaged this year. I’m not going to go into the election too much here, because it really isn’t what I want this blog to be about, but I have written about my feelings on the election,and of course you’ve seen my posts on Braille literacy and the Foundation Fighting Blindness’s #HowEyeSeeIt campaign. I was chosen as a section representative for HLS’s law and government program, and I’ve applied to volunteer for a 2017 gubernatorial campaign.
All along, I’ve kept writing. At the beginning of this year, I started queryingagents about my novel. I paused when law school hit, but I’m going to send out a new batch of queries in January.
My story “Dissonance” was published in Abyss and Apex in April. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it right here. And over the summer, I wrote and revised three more stories in the Phoenix Song universe—what i’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I also wrote a poem set in the same world, my first poem since tenth grade. With a lot of luck, you might see those some day ever.
Once law school started, while I did write less, I did keep writing. I made sure to find time to write at least a couple times a week, not only because I love it, but also because I’ve found if I don’t write, I become first cranky, then miserable, then practically nauseous. When I feel like I’m drowning in law, my stories keep me sane. I finally got back to revising my memory-wiping academy novel, and I succeeded at my summer writing goal of getting the number of projects I’m working on down to two. And in the last couple months, I’ve been trying new things with my writing too. I wrote my first ever 250-word flash fiction story. I usually have the problem that every short story I write turns into a novel, so I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to do it, and I was pretty darn shocked when I actually did. And right now I’m almost finished with the first draft of my first ever science fiction story. This story was actually inspired by whatever happened with my left eye back in January when my vision went all dark and shimmery for a day. Funnily enough, that was the same incident that inspired my first blog post of the year, about my decision to be brave.
Finally, I added some new sections to the blog this year too. Now, in addition to links to my published short stories, you can also read the stories behind the stories to find out what I was thinking when I wrote the stories and why I made the choices I did, as well as other fun facts and even some of my own illustrations. I’ve also been having a ton of fun writing the posts from Mopsy’s point of view, and I hope you’ve had fun reading them, because there’s more to come.
And after I don’t know how many New Years resolutions, I finally learned to use Twitter. The secret was linking my Twitter and Facebook accounts so I only had to worry about one. I also entered a couple Twitter pitch slams for my novel, which not only got me in touch with some agents but also got me into the habit of checking Twitter and tweeting—twelve hours of tweeting and constantly refreshing does that sometimes.
I didn’t really conquer the world in 2016. In fact, especially in the last few months, between the pressures of law school, the election results, and the feeling that I just wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to or moving forward with my writing career as fast as I thought I would, I’ve often felt like the world was doing a good job of trampling me into the dust. But looking back on all I’ve done and all the new things I’ve tried, I’d say all and all, 2016 was a reasonable success. Now that I have a handle on how law school works, I feel like I can balance things a little better second semester. We’ll see how well that actually goes, but after a few more good nights of sleep, I’m ready to hit the ground running in the new year.
So bring it on, 2017.
Since I’ve finished my internship at the Disabilities Rights Center as well as my grand road trip of visiting law schools and the grand tour of the northeast with Stefania and Bruno, I’m taking summer off before law school. With the exception of a trip to Florida for the National Federation of the Blind’s annual national convention this week and the changes to the Braille code I need to learn (more on both those things later), I’m staying home, playing, and writing. After this year, I won’t have another full summer off again for who knows how long. So why not?
On the other hand, I don’t do well with no goals or deadlines. I just sort of flop around. In fact, writing-wise at least, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been flopping around a bit for a while. In college, I was part of a writing group that met every week and shared pages from continuing stories. There was pressure—not a ton of pressure because we were pretty laid back about it—but there was pressure to keep writing on the same project and to make progress on that project, because everyone wanted to know how things turned out. It was lots of fun, but it was also great for keeping me focused. And since college, I’ve been finding that I’m missing that focus. I’ve been having a hard time staying focused long enough to actually accomplish anything—or even to feel like I’m accomplishing anything. I feel so scattered, working on so many projects.
Here’s the thing. I probably have been making progress on all these projects. It just doesn’t feel like it. And it’s too easy, with so many projects, to avoid any problems I’m having with any of them, because the minute I get stuck, I can switch to something else and not actually address the reason I’m stuck.
I think it’s probably okay to be working on multiple projects at once, but I think I would be more productive if I was at different stages in each story—the planning stage in one and the writing stage in another, for example, or writing one and revising another. But when I have three or four things going, and I’m in the beginning of writing all of them, it’s hard to feel like I’m moving forward on any of them, even if I am.
Complicating all of this, I’m starting law school in the fall. Everything I’ve heard about the first year of law school is that you have no time to do anything ever. I don’t know how true this is, or how true it will be for me, because I’ve always found time for writing no matter what else I’m doing. But if I’m going to get any writing done in law school, I need to be organized about it. More than that, I need to feel like I’m moving forward, or I won’t be motivated to do anything.
So this summer, my goal is to clean up my writing desk—figuratively speaking. Right now, I’m in the middle of four pretty major projects. By the end of the summer, I want to be done with or at a different stage in three of them.
The first is a set of seven linked short stories set in my Phoenix Song universe—what I’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I’ve written and revised three of these stories, and I’m partway through a draft of the fourth. By the end of the summer, I want to have a rough draft of all seven.
Second is a fan fiction novel I’ve been working on for fun. I’ve never written fan fiction before this. I don’t have anything against fan fiction, I just have so many story ideas of my own that I never had time for it. But I had this great idea and my friends really wanted to read it, and I was sort of blocked on everything I was writing last year, so I thought I’d give it a spin. It’s been a lot of fun, but I still have a ton of my own stories that have been taking a backseat to this, and if I have limited writing time in law school, I want to use it to work on my own original stuff. So by the end of the summer, I want to have completely finished that and gotten it off my plate.
Next, I came up with an idea for a sequel to my upper middle grade fantasy novel—the one I’m querying agents about. Actually, if I go ahead with the sequel idea I have, it will be a trilogy. Friends who have been published have advised me that it’s not always a good idea to write a sequel for a book that hasn’t been published, because there’s no guaranteeing that a publisher will want to publish a sequel, and you will have put a whole bunch of work into something that will go nowhere when you could have been working on something else. And again, upcoming limited writing time. My novel could definitely stand on its own, but I have an idea for a sequel that I love. So I started an outline to clarify my idea and make sure it is in fact a viable story—and assuming I get that far, I’ll need to pitch the idea to people with a reasonable amount of coherency. I don’t have any intention of writing the sequel yet, but I want to finish the outline and then outline the third book by the end of the summer.
This leaves my memory-wiping academy novel, which I decided earlier this year that I want to expand and split into four books. The first draft, which I finished just before I graduated college, was designed as a test to see if I could write the plot of a young adult trilogy into one book. The answer is yes, I could, but the book was one hundred sixty thousand words—which is way too long if you didn’t know that—and that’s when I glossed over a lot that I wanted to explore deeper. Plus I had a lot of extra plot I left out because I started panicking about the length. And also there were a bunch of plot holes that come from being one of my first drafts. So I started on that around Christmas but didn’t get very far (because of all the other stuff I’ve been working on). This revision will be my project in law school.
It’s a lot to get done this summer, but I write fast, and I’m pretty sure I can accomplish most of it. But I better stop talking about it and get writing.
Welcome to my final post on writing awesome characters. If you’ve missed any of my earlier posts, I’ve talked about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters; developing your characters so they become real people to your readers; and finally killing your characters. I want to finish up with characters by discussing point of view. Point of view could be its own series of posts in and of itself (and maybe I’ll get to that later), but here I’d like to talk about it as it relates to your characters.
To give a very basic overview, point of view is literally the viewpoint from which you are telling the story. The most common points of view are first person and third person limited. In first person point of view, the story is told directly from the point of view of one of the characters, usually the protagonist. To describe it another way, the point of view character is telling the story as it unfolds around them. First person point of view uses the pronoun “I”: Today I went to the store and bought kumquats. Third person limited, however, is not told directly from the point of view of the character, but instead the story is told about the character, narrating their actions, thoughts, and feelings from the third person. It uses the character’s name or the pronouns “he” or “she”: Today Jameyanne went to the store and bought kumquats. You can also have third person omniscient (where the reader sees the thoughts and feelings of all the characters) and third person objective (the story is told objectively with no thoughts or feelings for anyone). Even rarer types of point of view are second person (Today you went to the store and bought kumquats) and first person plural (Today we went to the store and bought kumquats. All the kumquats.) Complicating matters even more is the idea of the narrator of the story (especially in third person scenarios) having thoughts and feelings of their own unrelated to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. You can also have multiple points of view in a story, and there are myriad ways to do that. In my small child magician novel, for example, I have three points of view: my young magician (in first person), her mother (third person), and her father (third person).
But I don’t want to get into the specific nitty gritty details of all these types of points of view. I’m talking about your characters and their stories, because once you have your plot and your characters, you need to decide how you’re going to tell the story. A key part of that is deciding your point of view. Who’s telling this story? And whose story is it anyway?
In almost all cases, your protagonist is the answer to both questions. There are other options, certainly, but there’s a good reason why this is the most common approach. If it’s your protagonist’s story, then your protagonist is the character you want the reader to connect with most, and the easiest way to get a reader to fall in love with a character is to give a direct window into the inner workings of that character’s mind.
But let’s not just leave it there. What if it’s not just the protagonist’s story? What if it’s many people’s stories? Or what if, as you developed all your important characters, you’ve planned out lots of character arcs, and you want to show them?
One option is multiple points of view, but there are dangers to that. I’d say, when there get to be more than four or five point of view characters, the story can feel confused. I felt this way, for example, when I recently read Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel for the first time. While I was pretty sure who the protagonist was, I couldn’t be sure it was actually her story because there were so many points of view. This isn’t to say that lots of points of view can’t be done. By the end of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, there are at least nine point of view characters running around, and that worked for me, but at the same time, she built up to that, adding a couple point of view characters each book. And while this works for me, it might not work for everyone.
Something else to be conscious of if you plan to work with multiple points of view is what the protagonist knows versus what the reader knows. Not only can it get confusing, but when other characters know important information—and the reader knows they know—but the protagonist doesn’t know, it can lead to the reader being frustrated either because the protagonist appears stupid or because the characters aren’t communicating with each other. I find this particularly true when one of the point of view characters is the villain. I get really, really annoyed when the villain goes and reveals his plans, and then I know them, but the protagonist is still angsting about not knowing what the villain is up to. A huge part of this for me comes back to the question of whose story it is. If it’s the protagonist’s story, I want to follow the protagonist along her journey, to make discoveries when she does and to feel what she is feeling, not before. Call it simplistic, but that’s the most enjoyable reading experience for me.
Finally, it’s crucial to consider the length of the story you’re telling. With multiple points of view, you’re implying that each POV character has a story of their own to tell, their own path through the plot. However, if you’re writing a 5000 word short story, chances are good that the scope of that story is too narrow to focus on more than one character. If you’re writing a novella or novel, on the other hand, you have more room to explore other characters’ journeys through their perspectives if you so choose.
I’m not saying don’t use multiple points of view—I do it myself. But there are things to be careful of when you decide to do it. If you decide not to use multiple points of view, you can still have character arcs for multiple characters. As long as your protagonist doesn’t completely live in a bubble, they’ll notice the people around them changing (they don’t even have to say anything explicitly), and your readers will notice it too. Basically, this boils down to showing the other characters’ journeys externally, as they are observed by your point of view character.
Point of view and character overlap in complicated ways. There are so many types of point of view to choose from, with their own advantages, disadvantages, and pitfalls to watch out for. but when I’m deciding what to use, it comes down to the two questions: Whose story is it? And who’s telling the story? And of course, why? (Sorry, that was more than two questions.) These questions are not just about the technical aspects of point of view. They are about digging into your characters and the heart of your story.
Have you ever been reading a book, and a character dies, and you’re completely thrown out of the story? It’s happened to me more times than I can count, and it is the worst.
If you haven’t guessed by this point, this post is not about the old adage to trim down your novel by cutting words, characters, scenes, subplots, etc, though incidentally I’ve gotten pretty good at that. After talking about creating and developing strong characters, this post is about killing them. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series on writing characters, you can go read about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters and about character development in general.
Fair warning, I will be using lots of examples in this post, so there will be some spoilers ahead, specifically from the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, the Lunar Chronicles, The Book Thief, Tamora Pierce’s Trickster books, and the Mortal Instruments. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, where possible, but you have been warned, so read on at your own peril (but honestly, if you don’t know who dies in Harry Potter by this point, you deserve to be spoiled).
So let’s start with looking at some character deaths that drove me nuts.
First, Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey. The climactic sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a huge battle, so naturally people are going to die. Lots of people are going to die. I accept that. Among my writing buddies, I am personally known for killing whole bunches of characters ruthlessly. That is not my problem with some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter. We’ve already lost Hedwig, Dobby, and Fred in this book alone. Oh, and by the way, Harry’s about to go sacrifice his own life. And then we find out, just by seeing their bodies, that Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey are dead. I get that this is the cost of war. But we don’t see them die, and then their deaths pale in comparison to the idea of Harry’s sacrifice. Personally, this combination doesn’t work for me.
To give one more example of a death that doesn’t work for me, let’s look at the end of Mockingjay, when out of nowhere, Prim is in the middle of a war zone and gets blown up. I will admit that the movie did a much better job with this and cleared up a lot of the confusion about what happened (in the movie, it may in fact be something I accept), but in the book, it was not okay. First of all, Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games in the first book in order to save Prim, and by killing Prim, it really makes you wonder, well what was the point of all of this? Furthermore, in the books, Prim is never developed as a character—she is always just an object for Katniss to protect. We are sad when she dies because Katniss is sad, but we are not forced to mourn her in her own right. Finally, though again I think the movie clears this up nicely, there is nothing gained by Prim’s death. She doesn’t save anyone or accomplish anything by dying, and we already very clearly have seen the cost of war *takes a minute to wail “Finnick!”*. And then Katniss votes for one more Hunger Games, for Prim, which invalidates everything even more.
These are just some examples of how a character death can fail. In these cases, and I’ve found in almost all cases when I’m annoyed by a character death, it’s because either the character wasn’t sufficiently developed (Prim) or because the character’s death was not given enough attention in the book (Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey). For the record, I’d also like to say that I really don’t like it when the book ends with the main character dying, even if it’s a noble self-sacrifice. It is never okay with me.
There are plenty of examples of character deaths that work well for me, though, and I’d like to talk about why. First, look at Dumbledore. He is Harry’s mentor, so it’s kind of a given that he has to die at some point. In order for the hero to go off and kick butt, or at least to go camping for a year in search of butt to kick (I say this with love because I actually have no issues with the camping trip that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the mentor needs to get out of the way. Yet Dumbledore’s death works well because it is the culmination of a really dramatic scene. Harry and Dumbledore have stolen the Horcrux and made it back to Hogwarts. Dumbledore is sick, but Harry is confident he’ll be all right once he gets help. But then Snape, you awful person you, and oh yeah the Horcrux isn’t real. Plus, let’s not forget that there’s nothing like the drama of Dumbledore being blasted off the tallest tower. Finally, though we feel like we know enough about Dumbledore to mourn his death, there are also mysteries surrounding his death and also what he didn’t tell Harry in his life.
Next, think about one of the first deaths in The Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder’s younger stepsister Peony, who dies from the plague Cinder has discovered she is immune to. Peony isn’t Cinder’s mentor in any way, but she is the one person tying Cinder to her step-family. Though we haven’t spent much time with these characters yet, we already love Peony, not just because Cinder loves Peony but because we’ve gotten to know her ourselves. Finally, the sheer tragedy of it is just beautiful. Cinder is so, so close to saving her life, but she is just moments too late. I love it.
For similar reasons, I think all the deaths in Tamora Pierce’s books Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen work really well. We know the characters and we love the characters, their deaths push the plot and other characters forward, and with one exception, we see it all. Even the important death we don’t see on-screen is done really well, because we have to witness the other characters’ anxiety and grief while they wait for news. I also have no problem with everybody dying at the end of The Book Thief, though I know people who do, and in other World War II books with similar endings, I have been annoyed at the mass slaughter committed by the author to illustrate the tragedy of war.
I think how readers feel about character death can be so subjective. It depends on the reader and the book. Some of the situations that I described as not working for me might work for someone else, or might work better in a different book or different context. I prefer happy endings to tragic ones, or at least endings on the positive spectrum as far as endings go, but I recognize that not everyone shares this preference, and I have certainly been won over by books that don’t have happy endings. I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules on how to effectively write a character death. I’ve killed a hundred characters in one move, and I’ve also killed an important character off-screen, though I can’t objectively say if any of those deaths work. There are all kinds of reasons for and ways to kill characters, whether because the character is a mentor or someone tying the protagonist down, or because the character’s life is part of the cost of war. Honestly, when I’m going into the last book in a series, I feel this awful and wonderful trepidation knowing that in some way, for the story to be significant, someone important has to die, but at the same time I don’t want anyone to die because I love them all so much. Of course, if it’s a long series, people have probably already died, so I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for someone to die in the last book. Also, I’m definitely a fan of fates worse than death, such as Simon’s choice at the end of the Mortal Instruments series.
But while I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on what makes a character death effective, I will say that for me it’s important that the character is sufficiently developed, that their death is given enough attention in the book, and that it is significant in some way to moving the plot and characters forward. I feel like it’s very similar to what I said a few days ago about developing your characters in general: people want to read about other people. Your characters lives should feel so real that your readers love them, cheer for them, and weep for them, and so should their deaths.
It’s been a while since I last talked about writing characters—I was distracted by other things—but fear not, I still have a few things to say on the subject. So, last month, I talked about how to write strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters. Now, I want to talk about developing these characters: how do you make these characters leap off the page and into your readers’ minds and hearts? Because, in case you haven’t guessed, it isn’t all about their motivation. Your characters can have excellent goals and excellent reasons for pursuing those goals, but no one wants to read about a bunch of stick figures. People want to read about other people.
So how do you turn your characters into real people? You develop them. There are so many ways to do this, and I’m not sure one way is better than another. I know people who write a short paragraph about each character outlining their most prominent traits. I know people who write a simple scene—like an encounter at a supermarket—about each character to get a grip on their voice and their thinking. There are character questionaires all over the internet, or you can create your own. When I was in high school, I used to fill out a 200-question worksheet of my own devising for every single character, but that got to be too much, because I tend to work with large casts, and honestly, no one cares what fruit your character would be if they could be a fruit. So I stopped that.
Now, I honestly tend to wing it. A character’s motivation can tell you a lot about the person, so I figure that out first, and then I extrapolate from that, and then I extrapolate some more. Sometimes, when I conceive of a character, I have a very clear picture of who they are, but other times I need to really dig into their personalities. As I write, who my characters are tend to come together for me, and this is even clearer as I revise. One time, when I had a large group of characters to introduce in one scene for the rest of the story, I spent some time looking at tropes of how personalities within groups break down. I figured out who I wanted to be what kind of personality within the group and then how they overlap, and that gave me a starting point to build their characters. When all else fails, I take long walks or long showers and ask myself one question after another until I figure out the basics. All I need to start writing are the basics. The character will grow on their own as I write and revise.
There are two things I like to think about when it comes to developing my characters, however. The first is character arcs. Like plot arcs, a character arc looks at the character’s path from the beginning of the story to the end. I examine where the character starts in terms of their personality, and I then look at who they are at the end of the story. Finally, I look at the events of the plot and I decide how these events affect the character—their personality and their motivations. A character’s personal journey doesn’t have to be straightforward. It isn’t just, this is who the character is at the beginning, and this is who they are in the end, and they just slowly change over the course of the book. A character can change suddenly. A character can change in a different way before they grow into the person they will be at the climax and finale of the story. A character can, and should, struggle with their growth and their identity. All these things make a character more realistic and thus more relatable.
The other important part of character development for me is looking at personality traits. I hear a lot of talk about character flaws, but I don’t buy that as a way to develop your characters. For one thing, it’s so general and overused that my initial response whenever anyone brings them up is “What does that even mean?” But beyond that, your characters don’t possess flaws. They possess traits. Yes, no one is perfect, and your character shouldn’t be perfect either, but I don’t think looking solely at the ways they are flawed is constructive. It’s much simpler to look at it in terms of traits that have positive and negative sides. For example, someone who is super organized might do really well in school or at work, but the minute something throws a wrench in their perfectly ordered world, they can’t handle it. Or someone who is stubborn or strong-willed might have the perseverance to pursue their goals, even against seemingly unbeatable odds, but it also means they can be single-minded and inflexible, unwilling to consider another approach or that someone else’s goals might be just as important as their own or even that their goals may be impossible. See what I mean? The important thing is the character’s traits and how they can be both positive and negative in any given situation.
So, that’s how I approach character development. This is what works for me, but like I said, there are so many ways you can do this, and I don’t think any one of them is better or worse than the others (except I really don’t think looking at character flaws works). However you develop your characters, it is an extremely important part of the story. You are asking your readers to spend time with your characters, to invest themselves in their lives and their problems, to cheer for them when they conquer challenges, to yell at them when they make bad decisions, and to scream and flail when they suffer. For your readers to do that, they have to feel—really, they want to feel—that these are real people.
I am still reveling in the publication of “Dissonance” (and if you haven’t read it, go do so, now), and since it’s relevant, I wanted to take some time to talk about music in writing. If you didn’t know this already, music is very important to me. I’ve played the clarinet since I was eleven, and I enjoy singing (though usually in the shower). So it stands to reason that music works its way into almost everything I write. But for me, music in writing is a two-fold concept, and I’m going to talk about both aspects here.
First for the obvious part, literally writing about music. I’m not talking about stories that are solely about music—though I do have several of those kicking around. I’m talking about the role music may play in a story. When you think about it, music is a huge part of our culture. You can’t go anywhere without hearing it, and it affects you. You have favorite songs and songs you like but don’t want to admit you like and songs that oh my God if you hear them again you are going to yank your ears off. Why shouldn’t it be the same in your writing?
I have stories where the entire world’s magic system is based on music—like “Dissonance”—and I have a novel series I’m working on where the main character’s magic operates through music. But it doesn’t have to be so big and grand at all. In almost all my other stories, my characters have songs that hold special meaning for them, and beyond that, music is always part of the world—whether fantastic or real. It is played on street corners or in restaurants and stores or over the radio in the car. People sing, hum, or whistle, or they tap their toes in fingers in time with whatever song is going in their head. It is music’s all-encompassing presence that I try to incorporate into my stories, even the stories that aren’t about music at all (though it’s considerably less encompassing for those).
This is all well and good, you might say, but how can you pull it off without being obnoxious? No one likes it when authors include singing in their stories. Before I read Lord of the Rings, I never understood this viewpoint. I liked songs in writing. Then I read Lord of the Rings, and I got it completely. I was less than a quarter of the way through the book when I was like, “oh God, if there is one more song, someone’s gonna die!” My trick is to keep it short—no more than six lines at a time. If I have a longer song, I break it up with description of what the characters are doing or thinking or feeling. If there’s a chorus, I intimate that it will repeat, but don’t actually write it out. I also make sure that it is relevant—to the story, to the character, to the setting, something—relevant in a way that can’t be accomplished just by describing the music.
The point is, music is a huge part of our world and our culture, so I try to make it part of the worlds and cultures I create in my stories. But believe it or not, I’m not always writing about music, which leads me to the other aspect of music in writing I want to talk about, because even then, there is music in my writing.
I’ve seen a lot of writing advice given about finding your voice as a writer, and I never really got that, honestly, because I try to develop a different voice and style for each story I write. What’s important to me is finding the musicality in the writing—the rhythm of the sentences and the lyricism in the words you choose. This is why I believe that reading out loud is such a fundamental part of the editing process, because it springboards your words off the page and into life. It doesn’t just show you places where your prose need smoothing, it lets you hear the music of your words, which are the heartbeat of your story. If you can manage it, read out loud to other people, because they might spot something you don’t.
I don’t believe there’s one right rhythm for sentences (in fact one of my friends and I always seem to have just slightly different ideas of what sounds good to us). I don’t believe that only certain styles produce lyrical prose. I don’t even believe that lyrical prose is always called for. But I do believe that music and writing are not separate entities. I believe that they are, in fact, so tightly entangled in each other that it would be difficult to separate them. Even if you aren’t writing about music, the music is in the writing.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about beginning to query agents for my novel. All very exciting stuff, and it’s getting more exciting. When I left you, I said all I had to do was polish my query letter and finish up my synopsis and I’d be set to go. Well, the synopsis wasn’t going so well, but I didn’t want to lose all the momentum I had going, so I said, I’ll pick five agents who don’t require a synopsis for my first round of submissions, and once I query them, I’ll really get down to editing the synopsis. So that’s what I did.
Except for the synopsis part.
Before I submitted my queries, I had written a five page double-spaced synopsis that took a reader through the entire book, blow by blow. I had then edited it down to three pages. Most agents want a one-two page synopsis, and this was where I was struggling. If you’ve never tried it, describing a 330-page manuscript from start to finish in one page is really hard. Really, really hard. Throw in the fact that this 330-page manuscript has two storylines—one from the protagonist’s point of view in the present and one from her parents’ points of view in the past—and it gets even harder. So yeah, I was pretty stuck, and I was pretty much ignoring it. I figured I had until I was rejected by all five agents before I needed a synopsis for the next batch, and that was plenty of time.
Until one of the agents didn’t reject me and instead requested sample chapters and, you guessed it, a one-page synopsis. It was a moment of great excitement—my query works!—but also sheer terror. Now I needed a working synopsis—a working, one-page synopsis—and I needed it now. Actually, I really needed it yesterday so I could be submitting it now. And, oh yeah, I still didn’t know how to do that.
The good news was I wasn’t starting from scratch. The bad news was I felt completely overwhelmed. I had a three-page synopsis that was split into the past and present storylines, similar to how the book is set up, but it was awkward and clunky and way too long, and even I—with my expert cutting skills—was having trouble making it shorter. I started to panic. I wanted to get these sample chapters and synopsis off to the agent as soon as possible, but I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t know how to make myself ready to do that. And did I mention I should have had this done yesterday?
Once upon a time, I was crazy organized and on top of things. I had homework done a week in advance—that sort of crazy. Then I went to college, discovered television and a social life, and learned to procrastinate. And as I remembered after the fact, this is not the first time I’ve been caught off guard and had to produce something at light speed. And it worked out really well then, too (I got into Alpha). But this wasn’t a short story. This was a whole book boiled down to a page.
I panicked for about half an hour all over my skype writing group and some people from Alpha who’d helped me with my query. Finally, they managed to get me calmed down enough to think straight. They reminded me that the synopsis isn’t really that important. It’s not something to blow off, certainly, but many agents view it as a formality, a way to tell that your story has a beginning, middle, and end, and nothing whacky flying out of left field in the last sentence. My sample chapters were good, they reminded me. I just had to calm down, finish the synopsis, and get it out the door.
And that was all well and good, but I still didn’t know how to fix the synopsis. A couple people suggested that, since the parents’ storyline really is a subplot, it didn’t need to take up nearly as much room in the synopsis. I could just include a quick paragraph about it when the protagonist finds out the relevant information. I went back and forth on this. The parents’ storyline is really important to me. In earlier drafts of this novel, I had people insist that I cut it all together, but I really felt like it added a whole other layer of complexity to the novel and to my protagonist’s motivations, so I stuck with it. So I didn’t want to just eliminate the parents from the synopsis, because I reasoned, if they aren’t important enough to include in the synopsis, why are they so important to the novel? And I couldn’t say something along the lines of “The novel is told in three points of view,” because according to all my research on how to write a synopsis, you aren’t supposed to get that meta—no themes or motifs or even discussions of writing or point of view—just the plot and characters and some stuff about the setting. But this idea of boiling down the parents’ storyline into a short paragraph and then inserting it at a critical point in the synopsis clicked with me. Best of all, it allowed me to focus my wildly scattered panic into motivation and energy and get to work.
I cut out all the stuff about the parents, getting the synopsis down to just over a page. Then I wrote my short paragraph about the parents and stuck it in where I thought it should go. Now, instead of a three-page synopsis, I had a page and a half. Much more manageable. I went through sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, restructuring and trimming until, at last, it fit on one page. I was victorious! And best of all, when all was said and done, I was actually pretty proud of my work. It didn’t feel like something I’d thrown together in a few adrenaline-fueled hours, it felt strong and polished, like it might stand a chance at convincing an agent that I know how to tell a story.
There’s a lesson here. If I had finished the synopsis earlier like I’d meant to, I could have avoided losing my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that lesson. But here’s the thing, all that time that I was “procrastinating” on the synopsis, it was still stewing in the back of my mind. That’s why the new take on how to handle the parents’ chapters clicked with me so quickly—my subconscious was probably already halfway there. So when someone lit a fire under me, I had everything I needed to get it done and get it done well. And now, if anyone else asks for a synopsis, I have it.
And now that it’s done and I’ve caught my breath, I can take the time to really savor how exciting all this is. It may turn out that this particular agent isn’t the right fit, but maybe she is, and anyway it’s great to know that my query has grabbed someone’s attention and that I’m on to the next step. So keep your fingers crossed for me.
In the past couple weeks, I’ve talked about what makes a strong protagonist and antagonist. This week, I’m going to talk about the side characters (as far as I know, there is no “agonist” term for these guys). These aren’t the good guys or the bad guys of your stories—though they will certainly have their own alliances. Personally, I find creating strong side characters can be more complicated than creating a strong protagonist or antagonist, but it’s also sometimes more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love my good guys and bad guys. It’s their story I’m telling after all. But the other guys can be lots of fun.
In some ways, you don’t have to know quite as much about your side characters as you do about your main characters. Of course, this depends on how important each character is, both to the plot and to your main characters. You don’t need to know as much about these characters because they aren’t going to be claiming center stage, but you need to remember that they are often important people in your main characters’ lives—friends or family or coworkers—and this means you probably want them to feel important to the reader as well. And even though they aren’t the protagonist or the antagonist, they’re still going to have goals of their own, and those goals are going to contribute to or complicate the forward momentum of your plot (this is one way you get subplots). I feel that side characters, like antagonists, should think of themselves as the protagonists of their own stories.
But the big difference between your main characters and your side characters is in how you have to develop your side characters, their contribution to the main plot, and their own subplots. In most cases, you aren’t going to be telling the story from your side characters’ point of view. You’ll be telling the story from your protagonist’s, or sometimes maybe your antagonist’s, point of view. It’s very rare that you’ll be telling significant portions of your story from a side character’s perspective, though it can be done. (Never fear, I’m going to talk more about point of view in a few weeks.) So, most of the time, while you’re working with your main characters from inside their heads, you’re working with your side characters from the outside. So your readers perceptions of your side characters will be colored by your main characters’ opinions of them. This can lead to interesting complications—if your main character misinterprets your side characters’ actions, for instance.
Complicating matters further is that not all side characters require the same amount of development or attention. The cashier at the grocery store on the corner, for example, probably doesn’t matter as much to the main character as their best friend or their sister or their love interest, and consequently the cashier probably won’t be influencing the plot as much. So you won’t need to devote as much time to him as you would to someone else. Your characters best friend or sister or love interest, on the other hand, will probably have strong influences over the main character and their decisions, as well as their own decisions and goals that could influence the story in their own right.
While I find working with side characters a bit more difficult than working with the protagonist or antagonist, I also sometimes find them to be more interesting and even more fun. There’s so much you can do—so many factors you can play with. Think of it this way, if you are the protagonist in your story, you do not stand alone. We do not exist in a void with our nemesis. We all make choices, at least in part, because of other people. We are social creatures by nature. Even introverts have family and friends they rely on. And if you want your characters to ring true to your readers, they have to be the same.
As I’m working on my query and synopsis for my small child magician novel, I have found myself feeling very reflective. The query and the synopsis feel like a summation of all I have done for this novel, and since this novel was the novel I just couldn’t give up on, the novel that has grown and changed as I have grown and changed—as a person and as a writer—it feels pretty significant. I wrote the first draft of this novel almost twelve years ago, when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have taken enormous strides in my writing. For one thing, I learned about plot—what it is, how to do it, how to do it well. But at the same time, I also learned a lot about characters, and how characters are the key to moving a good story forward, just as much—if not more—than the plot. Also, I talked all throughout last November about plot, so I’ve decided it’s time I ramble about characters.
When I was in high school, I thought that the trick to strong characters was knowing every single possible detail about them that I could. I created a questionaire of 199 questions to make my characters real (in no particular order), and I answered every single question for every single character. Now, I laugh at my younger self a little bit. It’s not that this stuff isn’t important. It is. It helps you grasp what kind of person your character is. But you do not have to be as anal about it as I was. Beyond useless trivia, it probably isn’t essential that you know what your main character’s best friend’s older brother’s favorite color is. Unless it’s a significant part of the story—like he will only wear bright orange shirts, so the main character can always see him coming from a mile away—then really, no one is going to care that you know that particular fact. What I came to understand in college is that it’s much more important to know the big things than the small things. What does your character want? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? What is their plan to get it? What do they care most about in the world? What are they most afraid of? What are they insecure about? It is these big questions and big ideas that shape who a person is—not their favorite pizza topping or least favorite hairstyle.
But there’s something even bigger that I’ve learned about characters as I’ve worked on my small child magician novel. A strong character is not only a well-rounded character. A strong character is an active character.
I’m going to talk specifically about protagonists right now. (In the next few weeks, I plan to discuss antagonists and side characters and how they influence the story in their own right, so stay tuned.) The protagonist is the main character of the story. They’re the character who—we hope—the reader is rooting for in the story (unless you’re writing an antihero (which I have never successfully done and don’t particularly like to read about, except when I do and then find myself totally baffled). In short, the protagonist is the good guy.
I think I’ve said before that the stories I most like to read and consequently aim to write are driven pretty equally by both plot and character. That means that while the story is pushed forward by outside influences—the plot—it is also moved along by the actions of the characters. A strong protagonist has agency—they are an active agent in their own plot.
It seems obvious, but it took me absolutely forever to get a grip on this. For the longest time, my protagonist was just flipflopping all over the story, being pushed around by the other forces in her life rather than standing up and making her own decisions. I learned that protagonists need to have agency, but it just didn’t sink in. Countless critiquers told me this was a problem, but either they didn’t say so in exact terms, or again I just didn’t get it. Then, at the end of my first year of college, it finally clicked into place. That it took this long for me to get it means that this lesson is really important for me. I think it is hands down the number one most important writing lesson I have ever learned.
For a story to work, your protagonist has to want something. That can be as simple as wanting to stop the antagonist, but your protagonist can have their own agenda entirely separate from the antagonist, until the antagonist gets in the way, of course. But the point is, your protagonist has to want something. Once your protagonist wants something, they have to take action to get it. This action drives the plot forward, and it also spurs character development. Because of course, it can’t be easy for your protagonist to get what they want. There has to be something standing in their way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read. It is when a protagonist takes action to surmount seemingly insurmountable odds, to tackle impossible challenges, and to come out the other side changed, even if they are not victorious (though victory is always an added bonus), that we find stories we love.
You can have an incredible, twisting, turning, thrilling plot, but it isn’t going to work if your protagonist is just being dragged around by that plot. Your protagonist needs to stand up and say, “No, this is my story, and I’m going to play a part in it.”