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3 Fiction Writing Tips For Beginners: Build Your Characters

3 Fiction Writing Tips For Beginners: Build Your Characters

In fiction writing, there’s an old argument among authors. Some authors believe that the plot is everything; while others believe that the plot is immaterial — fiction begins and ends with fictional characters.

If you’re unhappy with your fiction — your characters haven’t “come alive” — chances are that you’ve been pushing them around. You’re too focused on your plot.

Let’s look at some fiction writing tips which will help you to build great characters, and a wonderful plot.

Characters in fiction writing: two essentials for each character

New authors imagine that to create a character, you need to know everything about him: his shoe size, for example. Or whether or not he likes anchovies on his pizza.

To create a character who has the potential to be wonderful, you only need to know two things:

  • What he wants. What’s his heart’s desire — what will he sacrifice for?
  • What internal obstacle stops him getting what he wants?

Now let’s look at three tips to help you to build great characters who will grow your plot for you.

1. To create a character, start with an attribute to create an internal obstacle

In Craft Fictional Characters For NaNoWriMo: 3 Tips, we said:

I know some authors like to create page upon page of character bios, and that’s fine — although it’s never worked for me. I like to start with the basics, a fictional character’s name, his age, his profession, and his primary attribute.

Let’s say that we’re writing a cozy mystery, and we want to create a quirky sleuth. Without bending our brain, we decide on:

* Name: Mara Mason, age 26

* Profession: widow, who works from home, as a virtual assistant;

* Primary attribute: intense curiosity.

You can create a character within moments, as you can see. Mara’s primary attribute is curiosity, an essential for a sleuth. It’s also a double-edged sword, and this attribute helps you to create external obstacles for Mara.

Recall however that we also need Mara’s heart’s desire, and an internal obstacle which stops her getting what she wants.

Let’s say that Mara’s heart’s desire is a family of her own. Her parents died when she was young, and she lived in a long succession of foster homes. She wants what she never had. What’s the internal obstacle? It’s a lack of trust. Mara can’t trust anyone enough to reveal herself and build close relationships.

Vital: your character will usually be totally unaware that he has an internal obstacle which stops him getting what he wants. He may also be unaware of what he mostly deeply desires.

Although Mara may be unaware that she has problems with trust, and unaware that she longs for a family, you as the author are completely aware. You use this knowledge to build your plot.

Similarly with other major characters in your novel. You need to know what they most want, and what stops them getting that.

2. Once you know the internal obstacle, build your character’s backstory to explain it

Our backstory explanation of Mara’s trust issues is: orphan, foster homes.

However, if you want to write a novel which is a page-turner, keep 95% of the backstory out of your novel.

As we said in: Fiction Tips: Kill Your Backstory,

Your explanations are backstory. You need to know the backstory, but your reader doesn’t. You may have heard that you should start slotting backstory into your novel after the setup, somewhere after the first few chapters. This can work, but honestly? It still bogs down the story. You want readers to keep reading, so only tell them what they need to know, when they need to know it.

Backstory is a killer, especially for new novelists. I’m currently reading The Night Manager, by John Le Carré. He’s amazing. I love the way he handles backstory, but he’s an expert. Until you have Le Carré’s skill, avoid dumping backstory into your novel.

Instead, hint at the backstory. For example, perhaps Mara has a garden rock on her desk. She took the rock from the garden of the one foster home in which she was completely happy.

You can keep readers wondering: why is that simple rock so important to Mara? Keep them wondering, until you reveal its importance to Mara.

When you limit your revelations of backstory like this, you’ll write a more exciting novel, because you’re involving readers.

3. Develop your plot: your plot is the resolution of your main characters’ internal and external obstacles, in SCENES

You need to know the heart’s desire of all your main characters, as well as their internal obstacles. You SHOW the desires, and the external and internal obstacles in scenes.

We covered how to set a scene in Write Hot Scenes For Bestselling Fiction: 5 Magical Tips:

Character goals lead to: action, conflict, suspense… DRAMA

It’s often easier to study scenes while watching a movie. There’s less chance you’ll get lost in the words. So watch a movie, with a pen and paper. Pause the action when a scene ends, and replay the scene. Analyze it.

When you focus on your characters’ internal and external obstacles, you’ll automatically build a good plot, scene by scene, because you’re focused on your characters.

In fiction writing, you build characters: remember the desire, and the internal obstacle

If you remember these things, you’ll write good fiction. Not only will your readers enjoy it, you’ll enjoy writing it too. Have fun with it. 🙂

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Plot Hot-Selling Fiction The Easy Way

Plot Hot-Selling Fiction The Easy Way

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Series: Selling Writer Strategies, Book 3
Genre: Writing
How To Write Novels And Short Stories Readers Love: You're about to discover the easiest, fastest, and most fun plotting method ever. You can use it for all your fiction, whether you're writing short stories, novellas or novels. Take control of your fiction now, and publish more, more easily. More info →
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Plot Fiction: Fill-In-The-Blanks Plotting For Pantsers

Plot Fiction: Fill-In-The-Blanks Plotting For Pantsers

“I can’t plot fiction,” a student told me. “My mind doesn’t work that way.”

She’s a fellow pantser. We pantsers can plot, if we have to, but plotting kills our inspiration for our novel.

In our Hot Plots program, I teach an organic method of plotting which convinces pantsers that they can plot. However, all you need to do to become comfortable writing your novels is a basic structure for a novel which stops you getting hopelessly stuck.

Think of it as “fill-in-the-blanks” plotting.

Let’s look at that now.

Fill-in-the-blanks: a way to plot fiction for people who hate to plot

Here’s all you need to know for fill-in-the-blanks plotting from Writing Fiction: Show It, Don’t Blow It:

* The setup (approximately a quarter of your novel, in which you set up your story.) After you’ve set things up, you’re moving to…

* The midpoint — what it says. This is the first big turning point of your story, where everything changes. Your story goes in a new direction. Next you head for…

* Story twist number 2. Another turning point. Your main character has tried to change. It’s not working. Things look black, and you’re heading for…

* The showdown. The make or break. The big fight your character needs to win. The story winds down, with…

* The resolution. The killer’s identified in a mystery. The world’s saved in a thriller, and it’s hearts and flowers in a romance.

Story Twist 2 happens at around the 80% point of your novel.

How to get started with fill-in-the-blanks plotting

Yesterday I finished the first draft of a novel, so this morning I started a new novel, with very little preparation. The novel is in a sub-genre (actually a sub-sub genre of romance.) I’ve never written a novel in this category before, so it will be fun, albeit challenging.

Last night I jotted a few ideas on a pad. This morning, I roughed out a couple of ideas for the main character, using an easy character-creation method. All you need to create a basic character is an adjective, combined with a noun. The noun is usually the character’s job. Some examples:

  • Naive model;
  • Bedazzled lottery winner;
  • Hardworking hairdresser;
  • Jealous chef.

You can come up with any number of these thumbnail “characters” in a minute or two.

Once I had my main character, I wrote a couple of paragraphs of background, and I was good to start writing. I always like to keep very loose during a novel’s setup. I find the best character and plot ideas come to me while I’m writing. If I plot without writing, all I get are cliched characters and obvious plots.

After an hour, I had 1200 words, which was a good start.

By the time I’ve reached the 30% point of the novel, I’ll have the first plot twist, which kicks the main character into action, as well as the midpoint twist. And by the time I reach the novel’s midpoint, I’ll know what the novel’s climax will be so I tend to write that next.

Make fill-in-the-blanks plotting your own: it’s a freeform way to “plot”

When you’re using the fill-in-the-blanks method, you have way-markers you need to reach. In between those markers, you can write any scenes you please. There are no rules, but do remember that you essentially have two plots, as I explained in The Big Secret To Plotting Fiction:

* The external plot is what happens.

* The internal plot is what your main character, or characters, think(s) about what happens.

Just keep asking your characters WHY. I’ll need to ask my main character of my new novel exactly that shortly, because this morning I had no idea of her motivation for what she did. 🙂

Try fill-in-the-blanks plotting. It’s plotting for pantsers. 🙂

Resources to build your writing career

Get daily writing news and tips on the blog’s Facebook page.

Need help with your writing? Visit our online store, or check our our ebooks for writers.

Master Fiction Writing: Craft A Novel in 31 Days

Master Fiction Writing: Craft A Novel in 31 Days

$4.99
Author:
Series: Selling Writer Strategies, Book 4
Genre: Writing
Tag: writing fiction
You want to write a novel. Perhaps you can't get started. Or maybe you got started, and then you stopped.You need a plan, broken down into easy steps. This program began as a 30-day challenge which I organized for readers in 2010. Hundreds of writers joined the challenge and completed it. They wrote novels. More info →

Craft Fictional Characters For NaNoWriMo: 3 Tips

Craft Fictional Characters For NaNoWriMo: 3 Tips

Ready for NaNoWriMo? With just over a week to go, I hope that your preparation is proceeding steadily. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book in a month is creating appealing fictional characters. Since your characters create your plot, it’s worth thinking about your characters: primary characters as well as secondary.

To get a handle on your characters, start with the basics.

Vital: your fictional character’s basics: name, age, profession and primary attribute

I know some authors like to create page upon page of character bios, and that’s fine — although it’s never worked for me. I like to start with the basics, a fictional character’s name, his age, his profession, and his primary attribute.

Let’s say that we’re writing a cozy mystery, and we want to create a quirky sleuth. Without bending our brain, we decide on:

  • Name: Mara Mason, age 26
  • Profession: widow, who works from home, as a virtual assistant;
  • Primary attribute: intense curiosity.

These kinds of mini character bios take less than a minute to set up, and they give us a head start on our plot. Since her primary attribute is curiosity, we know that we need to show Mara’s curiosity several times in the Setup of our novel’s structure (the first few chapters.) We also know that her curiosity will create problems for Mara in the lead up to our novel’s climax — the final three chapters.

Once you’ve created several of these itty bitty bios for the main players in your novel, your plot starts to take shape. Your task now is to challenge your characters, so they reveal themselves, and kick along the plot.

Let’s look at three tips which will help.

1. Give a character the skill he needs: show how he acquired his skills

As you build your characters and your plot keep watching for things you need to foreshadow, and plant. By the time we’ve created another three or four characters for our cozy mystery for example, we’ve decided on the crime which Mara will investigate: it’s the murder of a prominent man in town. We also know that Mara will break into the house of the victim, and into the home of his mistress too. Mara believes that the police have arrested the wrong man.

House-breaking isn’t a common skill. We need to show how Mara acquired that skill, before she needs it. So we’ll set that up in an early chapter.

2. Show your hero’s dark side: everyone has a shadow

Are you a new author? New authors, and some established authors too, tend to create impossibly perfect main characters. No one is perfect. Give your characters faults. Not little faults, either. No one cares if your heroine is chronically late.

You need to create a major fault for each of your main characters if you want readers to remember the character. Consider Lizzie Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice. She falls for Wickham’s tale, and reads too much into the character of Mr Darcy from her cursory observations of him. Everyone loves Lizzie of course, so her prejudice — judging Darcy on little information — is forgiven and understood.

With our cozy mystery, we could turn Mara’s “curiosity” attribute into a major fault. Everyone has a shadow side, so perhaps Mara’s curiosity could be so strong that it’s almost pathological. The murderer recognizes this, and creates a trap for her.

You can turn almost any attribute into a flaw; just focus on the shadow side of the attribute.

Focusing on the shadow sides of your characters will help you to build your plot too, painlessly.

3. Get to know your character: write his journal

Building characters by playing around with descriptions, character attributes and flaws rarely makes your characters real to you. They’re paper dolls.

To make a character REAL to you, write a character’s journal, in the voice of that character. Writing character journals will not only make your characters much more real to you, it will grow your plot, too.

One point… be aware that you’re doing NaNoWriMo prep. 🙂 You can’t start writing your novel until November 1. I always find that when I’m writing character journals, it’s inspiring, and I want to work on my novel.

When you’ve got great fictional characters, you’ve got a readable novel

Readers read to experience. They want to meet interesting people, with whom they can identify, or not. When you follow our three tips, you’ll create characters readers will enjoy.

Resources to build your writing career

Watch for free contests, writing news and tips on the blog’s Facebook page.

Need help with your writing? Visit our online store, or check our our ebooks for writers.

Master Fiction Writing: Craft A Novel in 31 Days

Master Fiction Writing: Craft A Novel in 31 Days

$4.99
Author:
Series: Selling Writer Strategies, Book 4
Genre: Writing
Tag: writing fiction
You want to write a novel. Perhaps you can't get started. Or maybe you got started, and then you stopped.You need a plan, broken down into easy steps. This program began as a 30-day challenge which I organized for readers in 2010. Hundreds of writers joined the challenge and completed it. They wrote novels. More info →