Writing a Good Character Description

Originally published 20/05/2018

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.

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Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Writing Apps for Android

Originally published 13/05/2018

It occurred to me this week that we’ve had a lot of Super Snappy Speed Reviews here on Penstricken over the years. We’ve reviewed books [2] [3], TV showsfilmscomputer games and even the Star Trek movies. But we’ve never had speed reviews for writers’ apps. And so today I am proud to present Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for Android.

As ever, the apps I have reviewed here are not necessarily apps that I particularly liked or disliked, but are simply a random selection of writers’ apps that I have tried out at one point or another. As usual, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressions, squished, squashed and squeezed into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

JotterPad by Two App Studio Pte. Ltd.

I love Jotterpad. The writing environment is uncluttered yet with plenty of the features you want from a mobile text editor. It’s also a breeze to adjust the page layout to suit the kind of writing you do. The only real problem with it is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to adjust the layout of specific documents (so  for example, if you write screenplays and poetry, you have to simply accept the fact that all of your poems are going to look like screenplays).

Also if you take my advice, you’ll stick to the free version. The Creative add-ons are alright, but hardly worth the money.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

 
Writeometer by Guavabot

Writeometer is a surprisingly useful tool to help you to track your progress day by day. You can add multiple projects and assign each one a specific word or character goal which you hope to achieve in total and per day. The app will also calculate how long it will take you to achieve this goal and suggest a finish date (though you can choose your own date). Additional features include a writing timer, a daily log, customisable “rewards” for a good writing session, an integrated dictionary/thesaurus (also something about salad that I don’t understand). I didn’t think I’d like this app but I like it a lot.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Story Dice by Thinkamingo

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I find Thinkamingo’s Story Dice an invaluable source of stimuli whenever I come to write six word stories [2] [3] [4] [5] but it works just as well for long stories, too. There are squillions of different images which appear on the dice and you can have anywhere between 1 and 10 dice on the screen at a time. My only criticism is that there is no way to save the image that appears. The moment you hide the app, tap the screen or do anything, BOOM! It rolls the dice again and the previous roll is lost forever.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Lore Forge Creator Resources by Total Danarchy

There are lots of idea generators out there. What sets Lore Forge apart is the kinds of ideas it generates. It’s the only idea generator I’ve ever come across, for instance, which generates character motives and conflicts (complete with a detailed explanation of each motive/conflict). For me, these are easily its best feature, but it also includes some more traditional generators (character names, city names, plots, etc) and an inspiring quote generator.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Story Plot Generator Pro (a.k.a Plot Gen Pro) by ARC Apps

A lot of plot generators often produce ideas so bizarre that they’re completely useless (e.g.: ‘a pole dancer and an Eskimo must travel back in time to stop the moon being eaten by sharks. Someone loses a credit card. It’s a story about marital fidelity’).

Not so with Plot Gen Pro! This app allows you to choose from a variety of genres and then throws up several random elements of a plot (characters, settings, etc), suitable to that genre. If you don’t like any of the elements it generates, you can ask it to produce another, without removing the ones you do like. The resulting ‘plot’ can then be e-mailed back to yourself so you don’t lose it.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

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Figuring Out Foil Characters

Originally published 29/04/2018

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.
robin
No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.

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Spotlight: Chino & The Boy Scouts by Nancet Marques

Chino and the Boy Scouts introduces the mysterious world of Summerhill, a western island state with high immigration from the world over and a mysterious connection to India, the most outstanding feature of which, being its unusual schooling system, taught through the medium of Scouting. Chino is talented, ambitious and eager to prove his excellence to his father. It’s the final year of school and Chino learns of the existence of a map, through which he might unfold the legend of the G.W., an item long speculated to be a myth and highly coveted at Eden Gardens Grammar School. On their way to the school’s annual camp, they set off on what they think is a suitable adventure, to find their treasure and gain acclaim. Little does he know, he is not the only one bold enough to embark on this quest. What at first seems like a fun, if academically hazardous venture, spirals more and more into a world of danger and magic, as the school’s hidden past and depths reveal themselves to the ironically unprepared scouts.


Have you read Chino & The Boy Scouts? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

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Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Christmas Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Originally published 23/12/2018

Well it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a good Christmas movie/Christmas special of your favourite TV show; and so, since I’ve just come to the end of my series on genre clichés and how to avoid them, I thought: what better thing to post about this Christmas than Christmas movie clichés?

So here we go ho ho! (Sorry).

Film Ends; Snow Begins

Question: how do you know when a Christmas story is nearly finished?

Answer: it starts snowing and everybody’s amazed. It seems to be the only ending anyone has has been able to come up with for a Christmas flick.

There’s a really clever trick to avoiding this particular cliché. Basically, you just end it any other way you like! Kissy endings are fine, violent deaths are fine, I’ll even put up with riding off into the sunset but please, if you have any sense of compassion, don’t make me sit through another inevitable snow ending!

Christmas Miracles

These little deus ex machinas appear in an alarming number of Christmas films. They don’t tend to solve the main conflict of the story (though they sometimes do, and should be doubly ashamed of themselves) but usually involve small miracles at the very end of the story to instantly undo any lingering sadness that might remain from the struggle that has gone before. For instance, just after the main conflict of the story has been resolved and the film appears to be over, the boy’s puppy who got flattened by a monster truck in the in the first half hour of the film comes running down the road to meet him. Then the snow starts. The end.

The rules about how to write a good ending don’t just change because it’s Christmas. Your protagonists have struggled throughout the story; even if they haven’t lost anything substantial, they’ve had a rough time. There was a bad guy who wanted to hurt them. There was a real danger that Christmas might be cancelled. Your characters have developed and learned things from their strife as much as from their victory; don’t rob them of that by making everything magically fall into place for them in the last few minutes.

The Conversion of Scrooge

Yeah, Dickens I’m blaming you for this one. In this trope, there’s always a bitter and miserable old git who hates Christmas and wants to spoil it for everyone but in the climax of the story they learn the true meaning of Christmas (note: it’s seldom the true, true meaning of Christmas but usually some woolly notion about love and fuzziness) and become a nice person who decides to join the Christmas party, give all their money to the poor and generally become a real life Santa Claus (double cliché points if the real life Santa Claus is the one who teaches your miser the true meaning of Christmas). 

I mean… depending on exactly what your bad guy did, I’m inclined to give you a bit of leeway on this one. After all, it is Christmas: good will to men and all that jazz. But if your antagonist has deliberately tried to ruin Christmas for everyone (especially if it involved committing a serious atrocity), a little bit of comeuppance wouldn’t go amiss… would it? 

I know you want to be nice to your bad guys but come on… if you think he deserves it, then just be brave and do what my favourite Christmas movie hero always does: blow him up and say ‘yippee ki yay’. Your audience will respect you for it. They probably hate your bad guy’s guts too.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

PENSTRICKEN: COLLECTED STORIES – OUT NOW!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own, making it a nice little stocking filler and easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

What’s Your Story About?

Originally published 06/03/2016

Some would have you believe that there are two kinds of writers in this world: those who plan their whole story out in advance and those who make it up as they go along. To some extent that’s undoubtedly true. In fact, I personally identify far more with the latter. In fact, I haven’t planned this very post out in too much detail at all. But there is one thing I am sure of: what this post is actually about.

There’s a particular quotation we non-planning writers like to throw around to justify ourselves sometimes:

E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

Personally, I think this needs a little refining (I will admit I have taken it slightly out of context but I suspect a lot of non-planning writers have done the same!). Here’s my version:

‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way if you know where it is you hope to end up!’

Think about it: suppose you’re a successful author who lives in Glasgow and you want to go to a book shop in York to autograph copies of your book (dream big, guys!). You might well be able to successfully get there using only your wits and following the road signs. Even if you get lost, you could probably still find your way again if you keep your head. But what if all you knew was that you were attending a book shop somewhere in the British Isles, with a vague notion that it might possibly be somewhere in the north of England? You’d be driving forever, that’s what! It doesn’t how many people you ask for directions, how many maps you buy or what you punch into your sat-nav; you will never find the place you’re looking for in a month of Sundays.

One of the biggest dangers we non-planning writers face is that you can easily end up writing screeds and screeds of excellent work, only to realise you can’t finish because you don’t know what it is you’re actually hoping to accomplish by writing. This is a recipe for another unfinished manuscript. So, before you write forty odd chapters and suddenly hit an insurmountable wall, ask yourself this question: What is my story about?

You can probably get away without drawing up a detailed plan of what is going to happen in each chapter and all of the other stuff we non-planning writers like to do to convince ourselves we’re writing when we’re really just wasting time but if you can’t answer that simple question, I doubt very much that you will ever finish your story.

My advice would be to refine your answer to that question to make it as simple as possible. Albert Einstein once said, ‘if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. Granted, he wasn’t talking about writing a story but I think the basic principle can still be applied here. If you can’t come up with a simple answer straight away, then it’s probably a good idea to start off with a working synopsis (it doesn’t matter if you need to change it later; that’s just how we non-planning types roll) but ideally, you should be able to whittle this down to one or two short sentences which form the backbone of your story. If you’re struggling to do this, ask yourself a few key questions like these:

  • What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?
  • Why is s/he trying to do this?
  • What’s stopping him/her?
  • You might also find it useful at this stage to ask who the protagonist is, but if you’re a hardcore non-planner you might prefer to just see who pops up when you start writing.

Once you have the answers, you should find it a fairly simple task to summarise what you are trying to write about in a single sentence, or  two at the most. For example, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy (which is a very lengthy and involved narrative, I’m sure you’ll agree!) can be reduced to something like: ‘A young hobbit must make the dangerous journey to Mordor to destroy a magical ring’.

I think you’ll agree that this little micro-synopsis (as I hereby define it) gives only the meanest description of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is the backbone of the plot and nothing more. That’s a good thing! It allows the non-planning writer to have a clear idea of what s/he is trying to accomplish without having to restrict their inner artistic flare. If you were trying to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which would be plagiarism by the way, so don’t do it!) using this as your only “plan”, you would probably produce something very different from the original Tolkien narrative. If we continue our driving metaphor, your micro-synopsis ideally should not be a map or even a list of directions; it should be an old scrap of paper with the address of the place you’re trying to get to written on it. But how you get there is entirely up to you. The more simple it is, the less restrictive your Muse will find it when you’re writing.

Once you’ve got your micro-synopsis, write it down and keep it close at hand while you’re writing. If you find yourself getting lost as you make your treacherous midnight journey towards Completed Manuscript Land, refer back to your micro-synopsis and ask yourself if you’re still going in the right direction. Like I said, we non-planning types frequently get lost. That’s okay. If you keep in mind where you’re trying to end up, you’ll soon find your way again.

So… what’s your story about?

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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Stories Are Read (Clichés Are Too)

Originally published 14/02/2016

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought today was as good a day as any to write a post about the tricky business of creating a half-decent love interest for your story. Even if you’re not writing a full-blown ‘romance’, there’s still a good chance you’ll want to include one. Oxford Dictionaries defines love interest this way:

An actor whose main role in a story or film is that of a lover of the central character.
1.1 [MASS NOUN] A theme or subsidiary plot in a story or film in which the main element is the affection of lovers.

For the purposes of this post, by ‘love interest’, I am referring mainly to the first definition given above; that is, a character whose main role is to be the lover (or would-be lover) of the protagonist.

The biggest danger in creating your romantic (sub-)plot is clichés . Clichés are something all good writers should strive to avoid (though rules are made to be broken, as one cliché clearly states) and in my opinion, there is no time in the story writing process where you are more in danger of creating a cliché than when you come to create your romantic sub-plot. Naturally, this also means that writing a full blown romance story is a minefield of cliché (you never wondered why rom-coms are so often lame?). Perhaps the most important thing to remember when creating your love interest is this:

YOUR LOVE INTEREST MUST BE A FULLY-FLEDGED CHARACTER IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.

If his or her sole purpose in the story is to be a love interest, then you have just created a shallow and worthless character. Being a love interest should only be a part of their role in your story, but it should not be their whole reason for being.

Have you ever seen the original Spider-Man movies? Mary-Jane served absolutely no purpose in those stories whatsoever except to be someone that would reject Spider-Man’s initial advances then swoon when he rescued her from whatever tall building she was about to be thrown off.

Real life ain’t like that. Real people are individuals; the protagonist of their own story. Simply giving them a back-story isn’t sufficient either, though it is important. They must have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (in this case, directly related to your story) besides being involved with your protagonist. I find the best way to construct a good love interest is to first develop a full cast of characters without creating any kind of romantic sub-plot at all. Make sure all your characters have both substance and independent roles within the story and then, and only then, if you believe your plot would really benefit from a romantic sub-plot, you can start to add this dimension to your characters.

Ask yourself: what is the purpose in creating this love interest? Does it fit with the overall theme or plot of your story, or are you just putting it there as a cheap way to end on a ‘happily ever after’ note? I would be cautious about doing this because it is simply not true to life, even in the most successful of relationships. In The Count of Monte Christo, by contrast, the love interest was essential because it formed the catalyst for the whole story. The protagonist, Dantès, is falsely accused of being a Bonapartist traitor. Why? Because his accuser is also in love with Dantès’ fiancée. There you have it: a plot, a theme and a love interest all working together in perfect harmony to create one of the finest novels I have ever read.

Another thing to avoid is making your love interest the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, not least of all because it’s not terribly realistic. If you’re wanting to write a story with any substance, your narrative really should reflect the fact that beauty is (to use another cliché) in the eye of the beholder. Rightly or wrongly, in every generation there is always a certain ‘type’ of man and a certain ‘type’ of woman which is deemed to be more attractive than others. Certain body shapes, hairstyles, clothing and so on are deemed to be attractive, while others are not. If you make your love interest read like something you saw on the cover of a magazine, it cheapens the whole plot because we all know that real people just aren’t that polished and makes your protagonist’s affections seem a little shallow.

If, however, you do decide to make your love interest fit whatever your society tells you is physical perfection (and even if you don’t!) you absolutely must not break the golden rule of writing: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Words like ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ are all very subjective terms. It’s okay to tell us that John thought Jane was beautiful, but that’s his opinion. Instead, describe all your characters using objective terms: tall, short, fat, skinny, blonde, brunette and so forth. In particular, tell us what is is about the love interest that your protagonist finds attractive. Maybe John is attracted to Jane because, despite of her plain features and dour countenance, she paints every one of her nails a different colour and he finds that indicative of a well concealed vibrant and eccentric personality. Often it is the distinguishing features which make a person stand out so try to focus your protagonist’s affections on these, rather than nice eyes (a subjective term, by the way!) and a dazzling smile.

This is, of course, all just food for thought (with a candle on the table!). It’s a notoriously difficult thing to get right and it depends very much on what you’re writing. I mentioned earlier, for example, that you should be wary of creating a ‘happily ever after’ style of ending, but if you’ve been commissioned to write a film by Disney, you might want to think twice about that. The two main things to remember is that while each character in the story has their own role to play, no character should be fully defined by their relationship to another and that your love interest must exist for a purpose. The best stories all reflect the fact that life is full of millions of different people who are compatible in some ways and who chaff in others. If you can work that into your narrative in a way which compliments the main plot and theme, you probably won’t go too far wrong.

 

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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