Monday, June 20, 2016

Mail Bag: How do you make your characters feel real, and more!

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

While many of you were word warring last week, I got exactly ZERO words written because I was off playing at the One Year Adventure Novel writing workshop with a bunch of super cool teen writers.

This lovely flapper, Linnea, scored herself an Advanced Reader Copy of The Lost Girl of Astor Street

I felt like such a cool kid when Kathryn came in for her mentoring appointment wearing the same jacket as me! (The lighting is weird because we were in this closet of a room with fluorescent lighting.) 
While I did teach one class, this year I mostly hung out with teens in one-on-one mentoring appointments. These are appointments writers sign up for, and we have twenty minutes to chat writing/pitching/fandoms/whatever they want. Some of the same questions resurfaced multiple times, so I thought it would be fun to answer them here too. So it's not technically from my mail bag, but it's like an in-person version.

"How do you make your characters feel so real?"

Many of them had read my Skylar Hoyt series (I gave away loads of free copies of Me, Just Different last year) and said Skylar had felt like a real person to them, and they wanted to know how I did that. I was deeply flattered by this.

With main characters, it's all about spending time with that character in the first draft. I often feel like I have a decent idea of who they are when I start the book, but as I write the first draft, I really start to feel like I know them. So I spend edits strengthening how I wrote the character early in the book when I didn't understand them quite as well.

But my secondary characters (which is the way I think of other important characters, like my main character's best friend, the main antagonist/villain, the love interest, etc.) are different because I never write from their point of view. Everything about them comes through the filter of the main character.

The way I get to know my secondary characters is with character journals, which is something I learned from James Scott Bell's The Art of War For Writers. The example I gave several writers was this: One of my characters had a mother who was a strong feminist. In the first draft, that was just a piece of her personality, but not something that was really explored. But when I read through the manuscript for edits, the mother character seemed thin, so I decided to do a character journal for her.

I said to her, "Hey, talk to me about why you think you have such strong feelings about women's issues?" Thenthis is the important partI start writing her answer in first person. It might sound like this: I was an only child. My mother was a very weak woman, and I hated how my father controlled her.

This goes on and on. The trick is to not think too hard about how your character is going to answer, but to just freely write what comes to you. The first time I did this exercise, I was amazed by several things:

  • The surprise of what I wrote. The character would say things that I hadn't anticipated. (That sounds weird, but we're all writers here, right?) I think it's because you aren't hemmed in by the plot, and these aren't words for the story, so you feel a freedom to just explore the character's thoughts without thinking, "Is this going to work with what I've imagined the story to be?"
  • How long I wrote. My character journals often go on for several pages. Because the character will move fluidly from what their childhood to like to the first time they realized they were different from others to what it was like to change from an adolescent to an adult, and so forth.
  • The strength of the impact it had on the story. Not everything makes it into the story. Most of the backstory, really, doesn't make it into the story. But because I have thought this character through, anytime I'm writing dialogue or action or reaction from them, I have in my head what their experiences have been like until now. So their motivations make sense, and that's what readers respond to.

"How do you know where to start a book?"

This is a tough thing, especially because sometimes it's just a feel. It feels like the best place to start. Helpful, right?

Lots of writers write their way to the beginning of their book. They figure out that what they thought was chapter three is really chapter one. So that's a way to do it.

That doesn't work for me. I actually don't start writing until I know where I want to start and even what I want my first sentence to be. When I spent time digging into what I'm trying to accomplish in a first scene, I came up with these questions that I use to help me brainstorm the best place to start mt story:
  • What's the incident that changes things for the character? I try to back up from that as little as I possibly can. A glimpse of the character's home world, if you will.
  • What's a scene that can showcase my character's strength? Readers want to hang out with someone they find interesting. They don't necessarily have to like them (although that's great too) but they need to find them interesting or they're not going to want to hang out with them.
  • How can this scene also showcase something my character needs or longs for?
These aren't hard-and-fast rules. Just questions that have helped me!

"How do you know when you're done with a book?"

When asked this, I regurgitated a lot of what I said in this post, How do you know when you're done with edits?

"How do you just write a book? I'm always getting stuck because I want it to be perfect, and I know that's not the best way to do it, but I just can't help it!"

As this question came up over and over in mentoring appointments, I was reminded that releasing our inner editor is a learned skill. Meaning, you have to practice it.

I have not always been good at writing without editing myself. The reason I do it now is because  as a young writer, I heard the advice to write a bad first draft, and I decided to give it a try. "With this manuscript," I said to myself, "I'm going to just write the whole thing without editing until the very end."

It was very difficult! I had to recommit to it every day. But I also wrote and finished the book faster than I ever had finished a book before. I discovered that writing a draft this way made me more productive, and after that whenever I was tempted to edit myself as I wrote a first draft, I was then able to remind myself of why I shouldn't.

But it also may not be a system that works for you! See Roseanna White's post on editing as you write.

Happy writing, everyone! How are my 100-for-100 writers doing?


  1. Sometimes I feel like I know my characters, but then when I start to write their dialogue and everything, they flatten out a bit and all tend to sound the same. I feel like I've gotten better since I've started to read this blog, but it's not great yet.

    I have gotten better about not fixing my first draft and saving it for later. It feels really nice to just move on if I have a bad sentence or word that doesn't fit right.

    Thank you so much for the post. This and everything else on this blog has really helped me with the progression of my writing. I've completed almost three weeks of the 100 for 100 and it's going wonderfully. It was just the small push I needed to write more.

    1. I'm glad to hear you're doing so well on the 100 for 100! Great job!

      I have a similar thing happen to me in the first draft. I start out thinking I know my characters, but they never read as vibrant as I want. I'm able to fix that in edits, though. I bet you'll find the same thing is true for you!

  2. This helps a lot with my characters. I'm currently in the first draft and still kind of getting to know my characters, so it can be a challenge, letting go of that inner editor.
    It's nice knowing that I don't have to edit every little iota that I write. I'm currently handwriting my book with a pen, so I only get in between 120 and 500 words each day, but the fact that I can't press that all too convenient backspace has helped me keep on writing. (Because who wants to waste ten pages of expensive paper trying to get one sentence right?)
    It's been a lot of fun doing the 100 for 100 challenge. Right now I'm working on raising my word count each day to 300, but it's going to be interesting with a busy schedule over the next few weeks!
    Have an awesome day!

    1. Writing long hand often helps get me out of writing ruts, and I think not having a backspace makes a big difference!

  3. This was such a helpful post, thank you so much Stephaine! It was exactly what I needed, seeing as the MC in the story I'm working on right now is pretty flat and could use some work :).
    100-for-100 is going very well for me, I haven't had one grace day so far and I hope I never do! I've written roughly 14k or 15k words so far.

  4. Such good advice! The 100-for-100 is going great! I've banged out an astonishing 10k words already, if you can believe it. But I've been editing as I went, so most of that was cut, LOL. Still. GOALS ARE BEING MET!

    1. That's great, Jason! Hooray for goals being met!

  5. This is great advice. Thanks. :)

    I wrote one hundred and twenty words or so on June 1st then I went 6 hours away for a friend's Grad party and to visit who I haven't seen in a year, then I had the Grad party for another good friend and a horse show. So in other words... I legitimately forgot about the 100-for-100 and didn't write anything for 8 days. So I failed right off the bat. But since then, those are the only days I've missed and I've written about 2.2k so far.

    1. Graduation season can be so hectic! Glad you got back on track, Elizabeth!

  6. Thanks for this advice! Very helpful as always--I don't know what I'd do without this blog! And the 100-for-100 is going very well! I've got a lot further just from doing this and the word wars helped too! Good luck to everyone!

    1. We're glad you hang out with us, Charlotte! Glad it's helpful.

  7. I really want to try the character journal thing now! I've been trying to develop some of my characters more but I didn't know how since I mostly just see how they turn out in the first draft and go from there. That's such a good idea though!

    And for the 100-for-100...I'm pretty much done. I tried for a few weeks but I couldn't keep up since it's the opposite of my normal writing habits. Usually I spend a few months plotting and doing other stuff like that, and then I "binge write" (is that the correct terminology?) for a few days and finish a book. I can't go long periods of time writing just a little every day, especially when I'm still plotting the book I'm writing.

    But good luck to everyone else who's doing it!!!

    1. Katie, it's great that you tried something new, though. It's always helpful to know more about what works for you.

      I was skeptical about trying character journals since character interviews have always bored me. I couldn't believe how well it worked for me. I hope the same is true for you!

  8. I'll probably need this advice soon, when I'm editing my novel (I have a lot of characters to develop).
    The 100 for 100 is going great! I'm proud of myself, doing this is really helping me get into the habit of writing. One question, I'm going to a no-technology overnight camp for five days. Will that count as the "Grace Week?"

    1. I've found that if I don't have access to my computer, I can scribble out 100 words of my story onto paper fairly fast :).

    2. I prefer to write by hand for my first drafts. It just works best for my and I can pump out 100 in ten minutes

    3. Thanks! I'll try to do that.

    4. And if not, then yes, you could count it at your grace week :)

  9. I'm doing awesome. My second week was really bad but the word war helped so much. I'm almost at 6000 in my WIP

  10. I love this tip about character journals! I might have to try that with some of my less-developed characters :)

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

  11. I am doing okay on my 100 for 100 challenge. I have missed a few days but I am doing my best!!

  12. Ugh, I missed the last day of word war!
    As for making my characters feel real, I make my characters NOT flawless. I hate flawless characters. I like to feel the characters flaws, history, and mistakes. I like writing the flaws and their history myself too.
    I enjoy making my characters surprising. Characters that are predictable are tedious. In real life people aren't predictable-usually at least. My characters can and will do shocking things. That aren't flawless. And hey, everyone makes mistakes.
    Thank you for this wonderful and inspiring post! It was great. Without question.

  13. One Year Adventure Novel is how I got my start in serious novel-writing, so it makes my heart happy to see that you mentored at another workshop! <3 <3

    currently I'm re-writing my WIP... and thinking hard about my first chapter. I start the whole book off with my character waking up from a nightmare (which I know is wrong on so many levels, eep), but I seem stuck in a rut and I'm not sure how else to do it. Chapter 1 starts after the nightmare, so I don't actually include the dream sequence, but the subject of the nightmare includes critical backstory right from page 1. I'm not sure how to get away from the waking up scene without losing that information.

    Great post! Love these mail-bag editions. :)

    1. As for your chapter one problem, maybe instead of showing your MC waking up, show her in the middle of the day. For example, how something in real life reminds her of the nightmare, or how she's still a bit afraid from the nightmare. And if you don't want the info dump, just say it reminded her of bad times (before so-and-so), her childhood (like when ....), when so-and-so used to be friends (but then things changed), etc. Hope this helps!

  14. I'll defiantly use those character journals for editing my first draft. Sometimes one of my characters seems only like a younger copy of his father so these journals will help.

    100 for 100 is going great so far. Unfortunately I've had a grace day every week so far, but on the second week I wrote 6, 464 words. Plus I've finished the first draft of one book and I'm now working on another project. 100 for 100 is helping me to learn to write everyday.

    Can't wait for your next post. :)

    Sorry about the long comment.