How to Create Instantly Likeable Characters

One of the best writing guides I’ve read and studied from lately is The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Mass. It has some incredible insights on not just how to craft the emotional landscape of your work of fiction, but also a handful of other insights on how to get in touch with your own emotional world to better inform the characters you create. After all, the characters we create in one shape or form are extensions of ourselves all of which who yearn to be understood and expressed with the respect they deserve.

Crafting characters, as you know, is one of my favourite aspects of writing because without people there are no stories. It is through the characters that we get to relate to in navigating the human experience, and that’s why it’s important to make them as true to life as possible, no matter what the setting is or whatever other lifeform they take that isn’t exactly human.

For many years I’ve had pre-conceptions of what makes relatable and likeable characters, and unfortunately a lot of those pre-conceptions were at a very shallow, if not obvious, layer of the human spirit. Make your characters flawed like real people. Take traits from people you know and blend them together. Oh and let’s not forget; give them goals, motivation, and conflict like every other human being has.

And while these are all important aspects of what create multi-dimensional characters, I am here to introduce something that I’ve missed over the years!


Virtue as the Cornerstone of Love

We live in a world where gritty anti-heroes are starting to take centre stage, villains are becoming more sympathizable, and we have overall entered into an era in which there’s a strange embracing of the darkness. And yes of course this all important to our evolution in not only our tastes in fiction, but also our human progression, but one thing that hasn’t had much spotlight on lately is virtue.

An act of kindness goes a long way.

They seem insignificant in the moment, but a bunch of tiny acts of kindness add up.

And in the end, it all makes for a better world to live in if we could all just give each other a helping in whatever way we can.

Whenever we see someone or hear about someone doing a good thing for someone else, it makes us feel good by extension. That’s because we’re social empathetic creatures. We end up feeling the good nature of the giver who gave a helping hand to someone who needed it and we feel the gratitude of the person in need. Throughout our lives we fluxuate between being people who are capable of giving to the less fortunate, and being in unfortunate situations ourselves in need of the generousity of others.

Whether it’s from a stranger or a close loved one, we can’t help but feel a sense of euphoria from an act of kindness we either give to or receive from others. This can range from simple things like dropping a few coins in the shaking can of a homeless person on the street to something more personal and expansive like lending an empathic ear to a friend who has a problem to deal with. Nothing feels better than a win-win situation where we don’t have to lose something of value, whether it was a long awaited desire or a piece of our conscience.

Whatever way you choose to create your characters, it’s imperative that you give them an act of virtue that makes your reader develop a natural admiration for them. Even if you choose to create an anti-hero character who is resistant to their responsibility of greatness, we want to see at least a glimpse of goodness in them because it’s the potential that we want to root for so it can come into fruition later on in the story.

Saving a Cat Moment

In Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald writes about how a simple saving a cat moment can make a protagonist instantly likeable, especially if you include it early on in the story. This gets us to admire the goodness in thecharacter and in turn remind us of the goodness in ourselves–and to take it even further it allows us to see the potential in ourselves to become even better human beings.

So what does a Saving a Cat Moment look like?

It can literally be saving a cat that’s stuck in a tall tree.

Or it can be something more subtle or even more grand than that!

Here are some rapid fire examples from my own stories and other stories I’ve enjoyed over the years. None of them will be ultra specific as to boil down the core principles of the acts themselves.

How to Save a Cat in Several Ways

  • Stepping in when someone is being bullied
  • Mentoring an eager apprentice in a specific skill or vocational path
  • Comforting someone in grief
  • Equipping someone with an important life lesson
  • Providing someone with a sense of purpose
  • Volunteering at an old folks’ home or a homeless shelter
  • Helping the disabled get around town
  • Saving a suicide victim moments before they execute their plan
  • Saving a child from an abusive home situation
  • A parent bonding deeply with their child
  • A spouse bonding deeply with their partner
  • Admitting to fault and asking for forgiveness

The list can go on forever. There’re definitely an infinite amount of other examples I could have put and some that you are starting to think of right now, in which case feel free to share in the comments below!

The point is that whatever good deed your characters perform, they need to come from an earnest and authentic place, even if they have resistance toward it at the beginning. It might be a hard sell if the character performs the deed for admiration and ego gratification as opposed from the goodness of their heart. But you can even make it so that it can start off as an ego boost that eventually touches the character in a deep and moving way where it inspires them to seek even more virtue.

So there you have it, one of the best ways to make instantly likeable characters. It may be obvious to others, but this fell under my radar for a very long time having been so obsessed with the more technical aspect of writing over the years. Sometimes we all need to get back to the basics and remember what we all (hopefully) learned in kindergarten: be kind and share your toys with other kids.

Now I’d like to hear from you, the reader!

What are some other good deeds can we add to the list? What good deeds have you writte your characters to perform in your stories? What acts of kindness from fiction and reality have inspired you?

And as always, if you have any feedback on my writing tips feel free to comment down below. Did I miss something? Should I elaborate more or less? Even feel free to tell me if it was completely useless information, in which you are welcome to give me your two cents on how I can improve Your Write to Live!

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How to Make Small Talk (In Fiction) Interesting

Most writers could attest to associating small talk with pulling teeth (or any other painful experience). This is because we as writers are attuned to the sole fact that good stories are jam packed with meaningful and life changing conversations between characters. The kinds of conversations people rarely have in real life, but if were to summon the courage and honesty they require, their lives could also be drastically changed.

In turn, this is one of the biggest reasons why I think people gravitate toward fiction. The Very Heart and Soul of Fiction is the relationships between characters and readers love to live vicariously through them to experience what it’s like to speak from the bottom their hearts.

So it’s no wonder that small talk and in real life are painfully boring to sit through. Imagine the following passage to be from a novel and then tell me if you would keep on reading.

“Hey, how have you been?” Martin asked.

“I’ve been okay,” Sonya replied. “How about you?”

“I’ve been good.”

“That’s good. What did you do today?”

“I just worked and studied, how about you?”

“Me too.”

*snore*

Next!


Now normally I think such a conversation in real life and in fiction would be incredibly boring, but I’ve come to step down from my high horse of the Meaningful Conversations Only or Go Away mentality and have come to understand the importance of small talk. And yes it is actally important.

Why you ask?

It’s because small talk is how we gauge each other’s level of engagement with life and with others. When people talk to each other, what’s more important than what they talk about is how they talk to each other. Or put more succinctly, how they can make each other feel as they talk.

So my proposal is that if you have a work in progress that has a scene you fear might suffer from too much small talk, here are some ways you can beef it up to make it interesting:

1. Add Meaningful Action

“Hey, how have you been?” Martin asked offering his hand to shake.

2. Add Meaningful Re-Action

“I’ve been okay,” Sonya replied, resting her hand in Martin’s. “How about you?”

“I’ve been good, too.” Martin stroked the back of Sonya’s soft hand with his thumb.

3. Add Context and Tension

It has been a few days since they last spoke. Even though Martin and Sonya had only met a couple weeks ago, speaking every night and day for two weeks straight–only to suddenly and have weekend of non-existant correspondance felt like an eternity for them.

Martin and Sonya, at this moment, both felt the urge to note the individual voids they respectively felt over the weekend without each other. But Martin did not want to come across as too desperate for her affections, while Sonya held her tongue back because she had been taught by her parents to not be too inviting toward men.

And so an awkward, yet comforting silence passed as they held hands and stared into each other’s eyes.

4. Express Emotions Through Action

“That’s good.” Sonya wiggled her hand free from Martin’s grip and giggled. She pursed her lips and looked away. “What did you do today?”

Martin scratched the back of his head and looked around, pretending to be curious as to what caught Sonya’s eye. “I just worked and studied,” he said. He clenched his fists and bit his lip a bit, shoulders rising to his neck.

5. Add Suspsense

Sonya watched as Martin’s eyes darted around the room. His normally calm demeanour had transformed into a jittering mess of ticks and stutters today. A part of her worried what could possibly be wrong with him. Did she say something wrong the last time they spoke? Did something happen to him? Or is he actually a strange and unstable man and that she should find a way to get away from him immediately.

As she continued to stare at him as if he was having a stroke, Martin fought the urge to mention that he’s been thinking about her all day. No matter how much he had invested his time and energy on his job and on his studies, Sonya came to mind, and he wishes he could just tell her that mere fact.

Martin cleared his throat. “How about you?” He finally asked, trying to ignore how bland and boring it was to say that all he did was work and study.

“Me too,” Sonya said, grabbing his trembling hand.


Well I hope you enjoyed my cheesy attempt at writing a romantic scene between star crossed lovers (never have I ever claimed that romance was my forte)!

Let’s recap why this scene was so much better by adding these five ingredients.

Meaningful action adds to small talk to show that what is not being said is more important than what is being said. A meaningful reaction from the other character(s) will show the level of their awareness toward the current vibe and situation. Adding context and tension will make some of the discomfort more bearable to the reader because then their curiousity will be piqued about why small talk between these characters is so much more uncomfortable than everyday small talk.

Once all these things have been established, you have the opportunity to express each character’s emotions through the non-verbal cues they provide to each other and to your readers. This makes them more susceptible to holding their breath and wanting to know how it will all turn out if you also add suspense to see if the discomfort will dissipate or detonate.

So that is how you make small talk in fiction more interesting.

As for real life?

I have no damn clue.

Sprouting Symbols in Stories

Planting the Symbolic Seeds

We’re all pattern recognition machines. Whenever we experience repetition through objects, places, and actions, they implant an impression in our minds to create future expectations. And within getting those expectations met, the reward system in our brains releases dopamine, making us feel not only a sense of joy, but also a sense of comfort and familiarity.

This is why babies love when you play Peek-A-Boo with them. When you cover your face with your hands or hide behind the couch, they expect you to “pop up out of nowhere” and make a silly face that gets them giggling their cute little baby laughs.

In fiction, you want to do the same thing. You want to play a literary form of Peek-A-Boo through Symbolic Action. A reoccuring object, place, or action engages your audience’s sense of familiarity and by letting them feel safe from an expected routine, you are given the opportunity to also trigger the part of the human brain that thrives on novelty.

Or simply put; you want to mix the new with the old.

What this does is symbolize how an aspect of your story is progresses over time. This can range from how an important plot item is used throughout the story, the state of a physical location your characters frequent, or how characters relate to each other through repetitive actions.


Papa Can You Hear Me?

Today we’ll focus on reoccuring actions and how they symbolize ever changing relationships between characters. In particular, I will be using the father and daughter combo from my work in progress It Starts at Home; Antonio and Johanna Pascual.

The story starts off with Antonio blasting his heavy metal music as he drives Johanna to her first day of high school. He just wants to drop her off and go to work, unaware of how nervous she is, and thanks to the rockin’ tunes he’s so used to pumping on every car ride, he’s even more oblivious to how reluctant she is to start this new chapter in her life.

She wishes she could say something. That she’s not ready yet and wants to stay home for the day. Or worse, that she actually feels sick to her stomach and is unsure if she can physically manage herself in this new environment.

Johanna tries to speak up, but her tiny voice is buried beneath pounding drums and distorted guitars, and all that Antonio can offer her is yelling “you’ll be fine,” before returning to his mini headbanging session. She keeps trying to complain and his solution is to remind her to not be afraid and be sure to make new friends.

Needless to say, Johanna ends up feeling ignored and down right invisible.

What this symbolizes is the distance between father and daughter, even though Antonio drives Johanna around quite often. The fact that Antonio chooses to listen to the noisy music of his own teen days over the soft tiny voice of his teenage daughter comes to show their giant lack of communication between each other.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Throughout the book, similar car rides occur where Johanna has a desire to communicate with her father, but the metal music continues to serve as a point of contention between them. He uses it to drown out the nagging voice of his wife and the whiny voice of his daughter, both of which have valid things to say to him, but tension rises the more he attempts to ignore them.

Furthermore, his wife Miranda is actually offended by his choice in music. Because she immigrated to Canada from a traditional Filipino family, and that she met Antonio at a youth church group, she feels that Antonio is listening to “the devil’s music” which clashes with their Christian values.

Over time though, Antonio gradually learns to put the volume down when the ladies in his family are speaking to him. Most of the time it’s much to his detriment, but it’s a hard pill of pride to swallow to actually start listening to his family. And even on the flip side, for his family to respect his preferences because Johanna and Miranda spend a huge chunk of the novel judging him for everything he likes.


Reaping What You Sow With Symbols

Along with my favourite aspect of fiction being character, I have recently fallen in love with recognizing symbols and how they can serve as tools to further describe the progress of a story. It greatly reflects how our lives change over time despite some of the routines we engage in from childhood up into our adult lives.

Think about how you celebrate your birthday compared to how you used to when you were a child. Sure, cake and candles are the staple of every birthday celebration, but as you depart from your childhood you outgrow the need for face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles. (Unless you still do face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles well into your 20’s, I won’t judge!)

To celebrate and symbolize your ongoing maturity you begin to add different elements to your birthday parties like alcohol, expensive vacations, or whatever else floats your boat.

Likewise in fiction, you want to use symbols to implant familiarity in your audience and take them on a ride toward growth by letting your symbols sprout.

Are there any symbols that you appreciate in your favourite stories?

Have you used symbols before? Upon reflection, were consciously or unconsciously planted?

With expanded knowledge on symbols, do you plan to employ them in your work? If so, how so? Let me know in the comments below!

(Stay tuned for more on symbols in the future…)

How Being a Wallflower Improves Your Writing

It is a common stereotype that writers are quiet people, and often feel isolated even in a crowd of people out in public. While this is a generalization, and I know that there are some charismatic and extroverted writers out there, their introverted counterparts and extroverted writers themselves can benefit from being wallflowers.

Wikipedia defines it as: “A wallflower is someone with an introverted personality type (or in more extreme cases, social anxiety) who will attend parties and social gatherings, but will usually distance themselves from the crowd and actively avoid being in the limelight.”

Wikipedia goes on to explain how wallflowers would much rather observe a social setting than engage in it, and this is where today’s writing tip comes in. You don’t have to suffer from social anxiety or introversion–as if it’s something to “suffer” from, as most people come to believe–in order to utilize today’s writing tip.

Whenever you find yourself out in public in a moment of silence, take note of how people behave and what the setting looks like. You can either write this down in the notepad of your mind, in an actual travel sized notebook, or even on the notepad app on your smartphone if you have one.

What this will do is give you a myriad of ingredients you can use in future writing. Even if some details never make it on the pages of a manuscript, it still helps to get the mental exercise flowing in order to sharpen your ability to observe and absorb. Here is a list of things to pay attention to and take note of:

For People

  • How do they express themselves physically? Do they use grand hand gestures and speak loudly, or do they move minimally with hushed tones?
  • What are they talking about with their conversation partner? How excited or bored are they in engaging in this conversation?
  • Take note of the contrast of these two “characters,” if there are any.
  • What kinds of clothes are they wearing and are their wardrobes congruent or juxtapositional to their behaviour? Maybe they’re wearing fancy bowties and suits while swearing like sailors, or sporting some baggy low riding pants and talking like gangsters.
  • Pay attention to physical and verbal ticks. What kinds of words do they use often and what noticable movements do they make? Maybe they like to say “like,” a lot like it was like a comma. Or maybe they tend to rub their eyes with the heel of their palm whenever they are disagreed with in conversation.

Just remember to keep in mind that you shouldn’t watch too hard or they’ll find it creepy. Best to use your peripheral vision and pretend not to be listening. Since it’s none of your business what they’re talking about, you don’t want to eavesdrop too much. Just enough  to notice a few patterns.

For Settings:

  • Inspect the architecture of your surroundings. Is it all brand new and recently constructed, or has this place existed for quite some time? What are some details that give away its age? This can range from burn marks in the cement from too many smokers having step foot upon it, to smooth and undented walls.
  • How does it feel to be there emotionally and physically? Is it cold or warm? Do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable?
  • Are there any noticable scents or odours pervading the air? If you’re at a restaurant, perhaps the aroma of fried chicken triggers your gut to hunger for it, or if you’re in a warehouse the stench of dirt makes it hard to breathe to the point of even tasting the duskiness of the environment.
  • And here’s my favourite: close your eyes and pay attention to the sounds that surround the environment. Is it noisy or quiet, or even somewhere in between? If you’re at a mall, pay attention to how assaulted you are with different radio stations playing different types of music as you move from store to store. Or if you’re at a cafe, notice the low hum of patrons conversing or that university student’s fingers click clacking against their laptop keyboard as they rush to finish an overdue paper.

And as my last point was about to do there, a story then begins to take place. Whether it’s a story you’re inventing in your head or a story that is unfolding right before your very eyes, noticing all these details will help you craft more detailed scenes in your writing. We don’t notice details until they go missing, and the mark of good writing is incorporating them in a way that integrate into the scene without drawing too much attention to itself, rather they help embellish the main focus of a story which is human interaction.

Being a wallflower has its perks (no pun intended in reference to the YA novel). Chances are people around you will leave you to your own devices and you can take the opportunity to jot down details of your environment in order to build your vocabulary and the wide range of possible ideas you can use in your writing.

Have you ever paused and taken a social situation in as a silent observer?

What kinds of details and sensations have you gleaned for doing so?

If you haven’t been in wallflower mode before, how does this whole suggestion feel to you? Let me know in the comments below!

Your Novel in One Chapter

fightclub17.jpg

When I go shopping for a new book to read, I like to open potential purchases to the halfway point and read whatever I stumble upon. Why that’s madness, you must say, how will you know what’s going on dropping in the middle of all action? You need to start at the beginning! 

I assure you that I at least flip a few pages back to make sure I’m reading at least the beginning of that midway chapter. I’m not a monster.

My reasoning behind this is because I want to know if the author is able to maintain a strong focus on theme, characters, and plot throughout the entirety of their novel. Something always needs to be happening that not only progresses the story, but also encapsulates the spirit of all that has transpired so far.

Simply put, every chapter in a novel should encapsulate the entirety of the novel in and of itself so that if you were to isolate any chapter from the novel it belongs to, it can read like a self contained short story.

One of my favourite books actually started off as a short story that then became a much later chapter in the full novel of Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. It’s the chapter where The Narrator shows up to work with cuts and bruises on his face after having fought in a fight club the night prior, and nobody at the office has even the slightest nerve to ask what happened to him.

This is such a great story in itself because it raises so many questions and depicts something completely out of the ordinary. Despite it being very minimalistic in its narration, it is actually a very jam packed experience.

What I personally love about Fight Club and Chuck’s work in general is the ability for his stories to tell a lot without saying much. It’s pretty much implied how bored The Narrator is with his 9-5 job and life in general if he’s willing to get beaten to a bloody pulp at a late night underground fight club, and not even call in sick the next day.

Encapsulating a Novel Into One Chapter

Basic Plot

 

So this is a very basic plot line graph commonly used to organize the entirety of a novel. It helps you introduce your characters, settings, and themes, and build toward a climactic moment that defines the whole story. This allows you to easily detail the story into three acts: beginning, middle, and end.

What I’m proposing is structuring your chapters in the very same way as if that chapter defines your entire novel if it were to be taken at face value. This way your story has a strong emphasis and focus on what it’s all about at all times, with very little time allotted for the story to drag for a moment.

And that’s not to say that pacing wise stories aren’t allowed to slow down, of course they are, that’s when some details get the time to sit and simmer with the reader. Likewise, if a chapter is short and quick paced, the very little details you provide should still be just as fleshed out with knife like concision, very much like the original short story that later gave birth to Fight Club.

In order to create a well focused chapter, even to you pantsers out there, I highly suggest using a chapter graph that divides chapters into three scenes, and even having those three scenes divided into three mini acts of their own like this:

Chapter graph

Every chapter you write won’t have a clear cut structure like this, and like some rules, you might break these guidelines from time to time, but generally this is the structure that ensures your chapters can also function as self contained short stories.

Click here to download your FREE Chapter Graph!

 

 

My Write to Live

blood on paperWhen I was a teenager I had suicidal thoughts, and on some unfortunate occasions, suicdal tendencies. I was bullied by the other kids and wanted to turn to the school staff for help, but most of the teachers I had were authoritatian tyrants or simply uncaring of my well-being. A vice principal I once had talked at me with throwaway advice without taking any time to understand how I truly felt. That same vice principal would later in the year fail to prevent a fist fight I got into, even though I had provided him a ton of evidence it was going to happen. Needless to say, I didn’t have the school staff’s trust because whenever I would defend myself from bullies, I would be the one who would get in trouble and shamed for my behaviour, for my emotions. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, not even my own family, I felt completely and utterly alone.

Or so I thought.

One of the few things I would find solace in was the music of Korn,along with other angsty nu-metal bands, but Korn was my all time favourite since I was a kid. I related to the raw frustration Jonathan Davis’ lyrics were written with and they inspired me to write some of my own in the same vain. Whether the lyrics were about the bullies I wanted to take down, the girls who rejected me, or the general feeling of emptiness by the end of the school day, I wrote lyrics to release these feelings somewhere safe where I wouldn’t get in trouble or be shamed for my behaviour, or my emotions.

Fast forward to my adult years, there was a time where my life was falling apart far worse than I had experienced in my teen years. To name very few issues I had out of a myriad of others, I was getting into intense fights with my family, had to leave a writing critique group due to fundamental philosophical differences, and worst of all found out that an ex-girlfriend of mine had committed suicide.

It was August 2014, I was unemployed and directionless. I had very little money left from a caregiving job I was severely underpaid for and felt empty. Now having grown up and survived my adolesence, I no longer contemplated suicide, especially considering the tragedy of my ex-girlfriend. I no longer cut myself and no longer imagined myself beating my chest until my heart gave out, but I still felt like my life was meaningless and that I didn’t have much reason to live.

Not until I journaled about everything that has been going on for me at the time. Not until I remembered that I had a half finished 2nd draft of a novel just sitting on my computer left untouched for many months. That novel of course was It Starts at Home, the very same anti-child-abuse themed novel that I had fundamental philosophical differences about with my writing group, likewise with my family, both of which, of course, are stories for another time.

For many months after leaving my writing group, I felt discouraged from ever writing again. But when I got back into it and got on my way to completing the second half of the 2nd draft, those feelings of inadequacy and meaninglessness disappeared. Those feelings of regret over my existence were all gone as well, for I rediscovered the joy and meaning I found in writing this story. Sure I picked myself up, applied for work, and got two jobs I put a ton of passion into, but they could never compare to my true calling. My true calling that I drowned out with the noisy distraction called “work.”

Of course! The answer to the question “what am I gonna do with my life?” has been right in front of me all this time, right under my nose, hiding in plain sight: I need to write.

And I stress the word need because writing is a necessity to my life just as much as blood is. To me there is no difference between the blood that drips through my veins, and the ink I bleed on to the page.

I was born a writer. Even when I was as little as seven years old I would skip school to write stories and draw comic books. I’m in love with stories. Whether they’re acted out in a TV show or film, printed in a book or set of lyrics, stories are what makes my life worth living. Not to mention the stories of our lives as I also find a great interest in the real life stories of those around me. All of our lives on this planet are a bunch of stories complete with their own twists and turns, character development arcs, and crossover narratives.

Stories, in any form, help me feel like I’m not alone. To know that others feel the same way I do about life and the human condition, that makes my habitual confusion and anxiety managable. From the lyrics and books I’ve read, movies and TV shows I’ve watched, all my favourite stories have resonated with me on an emotional level. They put the storm in my head into words and action, sequenced in honely crafted narrative that express the growth of character and the universal human desire to overcome life’s many obstacles.

As a writer, this is what I want to achieve. I want to strike a chord in those who read my lyrics, comfort those who will read my books, and let them know that all these confusing and conflicting emotions are all part of simply being human, and although there is no cure to them, they can be managed and understood.

As a writing coach, this is what I want to inspire in other writers. I want to help other writers, as I’ve painstakingly helped myself, to realize the power they have in putting their innermost vulnerable thoughts into the written word. The power to make readers, like myself, feel a lot less alone when life gets them down and when meaning seems all but lost.

The written word is My Write to Live.

It’s Your Write to Live.