Etrix (etrix) wrote,

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Beyond the commas...


There are many sites and courses devoted to the technical bits of writing: punctuation, point of view, picking a tense and sticking to it, passive voice, etc., but what about the other ‘creative’ part of writing, which is building your characters and your locations. How do you control something that has no rules?

Sometimes, leaving people and places undefined is a deliberate stylistic choice. When things are (deliberately) left ill-defined then anything can jump out of the shadows at you. As a reader, you have no idea what to expect, or if it’s even real. I like stories like this when they’re done well, but I can’t do this. I may start to write things nebulously, but I always tighten them up and define them when I go back and edit.

There’s the old “write what you know” but I’m sorry, I’ve never killed a ghoul or faced down an evil clown. Nor can I fight with a sword, shoot a gun with any accuracy, or beam magic lasers from my eyes. I am a normal human being, well into middle age (waaaah!) who has a normal amount of experience at being alive. That is what “I know”. However, I can imagine characters who can do all those things. I can imagine places where those things are possible. Unfortunately, my readers can’t reach into my brain to see my imagination first hand, so how can I make them see and feel the characters and their world the way I see them?

How do I make you care?

The trick (we are told) is to make the characters seem real.

Great. Can we get some more info on exactly how to do that?

The answer is: not really.

The sites I found talk about either having the plot serve the character or the characters serve the plot depending on if the story is character or plot driven. That’s a very good point, but not really what I was looking for. Even if my story is plot-driven, I still want my characters to seem real. Stephen King’s semi-biographical book On Writing had some useful, if general, stuff. He said "You don't write the story; the characters do," which is true in a way. You put your characters in a place or situation and then write down how they react.

However, what if your characters don’t know how to describe to you what they’re experiencing? What if they’re shallow, 2D, shadow puppets because you don’t know how to make them any different? What if your ill-defined characters move through an ill-defined world? (The story becomes ill-defined and hard for readers to hold on to for the duration, but that’s another issue.)

I’ve been told I do make half-way decent characters in well-envisioned places doing things that are easily followed. Recently, I’ve been wondering why I can do this and other writers can’t. Aside from having been an avaricious reader all my life, which helps no one, this is what I’ve come up with.


There’s an older novel by Suzanne Brockmann called Heartthrob that’s set during the making of an American Civil War movie. In it, there’s a scene where the almost-a-has-been-but-still-really-talented actor is giving advice to the young-rising-star. They talk about the underlying motivation of the young actor’s character during a scene where he (a black man) is discussing escape plans with a (white) sharecropper’s daughter. Although the dialogue concerns getting him out of the South, his unspoken motivation is that he wants to kiss her. When they talk about what his owner will do, he wants to kiss her. When they talk about the risks she’ll be taking, he wants to kiss her. It’s not something the character even has to admit to himself, but it is something the actor has to know.

Writing believable characters is a lot like that.

If I have a character who’s a bubbly optimistic on the surface but a seething mass of insecurities underneath, I keep that characterization in my mind every time he speaks, thinks, or processes input, because it will affect how he does all those things. If I have a character who’s tired, just tired, of everything, then that’s what I keep in my mind.

For minor characters, I try to figure out some of their backgrounds, their personalities, their quirks, etc. I won’t necessarily write those into the story (unless it comes up naturally), but that knowledge is always there in my mind, which means it’s always there when they speak or move, which means it’s always there when I write. The bubbly optimist ‘bounces’ or ‘skips’ instead of merely walking, and I don’t have to say “He had a bubbly optimistic personality”. The melancholy dude doesn’t raise his head, or his voice, doesn’t care enough to.

It’s almost like authors aren’t just writing, but are also acting out every character. And it’s worth it.

At least I think it’s worth it. Doing this helps me define my characters’ inner and outer landscapes. It helps them all become believable, 3D human beings that populate a real world.

To help build these inner images, I ask a lot of questions—as I think about what I want to write, as I’m writing it, and then again as I’m editing. These are mostly ‘why’ questions (why does he think, feel, believe, say this?), but also how, where, what, and when. I don’t have to write the answers into the story (unless I think it helps) but they are things I believe I should be able to answer so that my characters (react, act, think, feel) in a manner that is true to who and what they are in their current situation. As my characters change, so should the answers to the questions.


When writing action (i.e. fight) sequences, character motivation has to be a factor. Is your protagonist (the Hero) angry when s/he enters the fight? Then s/he might make stupid decisions, take chances that s/he wouldn’t normally. Is s/he coldly professional? Protecting someone?

Other things to consider: is my Hero tall or short? Trained? Drunk or sober? Is my hero facing off against someone who is taller or shorter? Trained? Armed? Drunk or sober? Alone or in a pack?

Are they fighting indoors or outdoors? This one is important to remember because it affects how much space they will have to move, what impromptu weapons they can find and therefore use, and even whether their fight will attract an audience. (More on this later.)

To keep with the author/actor idea, when I put my characters into an action scene I do actually create a storyboard in my head. Hero punches with his right and that forces his body to move this way. Goon side-steps to the left. This means either A) Hero will still hit, but it will be at half power, or B) Hero will stumble past Goon, completely missing everything, or C) one or both of them will stumble into a piece of furniture that is in their way.

If I choose, A) then I try to imagine what movements are possible based on their new positions. Can Hero reach out and grab Goon and tumble them both to the floor, or is Goon going to grab Hero’s arm and drag him in? I will also do the same thing for the other options. My decision on which one to use depends on a couple things: which one is clearest and therefore easiest to describe, and which one serves my needs the best.

I do this because I really dislike when creators have heroes use weapons they left behind in previous scenes, or get thrown into tables when they’re outside, or have them punch with their right when you just said the right hand had been grabbed. Small things, but they can be jarring. Besides, once I’ve storyboarded the fight, it’s a lot easier to write it down.

A crucial part of storyboarding is to remember what I want to happen.

If the hero is going to beat down the Goon(s) so he can rescue the damsel-in-distress, then I have to make that plausible without expanding the Hero’s powers beyond what I’ve already established for him or her. If the hero is supposed to be captured, I can’t make it so that s/he’s so bad ass nobody would believe s/he could be beaten.

In other words, I need to remember what my motivation for the scene is. Gratuitous violence works on TV and in movies, I suppose, but it’s too much work to write (or to read), for me to spend my time on it.


Any place that’s going to be important to the main characters or the story should be completely visualized. Is it old or new? Dark toned or light? Is it open and echoing, or closed in and secretive? Does it creak? Is it drafty? What does it smell like?

These are all things my characters will notice, and it will affect how they interact with that place.

If my main character works in a hotel, the first thing I need to decide is what kind of hotel will help me move my character through the plot I have devised.

Is it a hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast? If my story is set in a large city, a bed-and-breakfast would likely be exclusive and quirky because it’s not normal to find them in urban centres. If I put my character in a discreet and exclusive hotel (like $1500 per night exclusive) then it’s either a resort or in a big city. This is not the kind of establishment that exists in Nowheresville.

I have chosen a hotel for my hero’s place of employment. Now I have to decide whether is a , luxurious/expensive chain (Hyatt or Fairmont), moderate business quality (Sheraton and Holiday Inn), family/economy (Embassy or Days Inn). It could also be an independent hotel. If it’s expensive hotel, it’s called a ‘boutique’ hotel. Or it could be clean but plain, no frills. Or it could be STDs R Us that rents by the hour.

Once I’ve decided what type of establishment, then I can decide whether it’s old or new (Old=trouble with the wiring; new=haven’t worked out all the kinks yet.) Is it big or small (Big=lots of anonymous clients and staff we never meet; small=fewer staff, family atmosphere?) Big also means having an HR department and logging onto a website to book time off, whereas small means going down the hall to talk to the manager.

Where does my hero work within the building? Is s/he at reception? A bus boy? Is s/he wait staff working out of the kitchen? Does s/he have to do pretty much everything because there’s only three other people to work the front area? How big is its lobby? Does it have an elevator? Are the floors uneven so that the staff is always tripping on it? Is it always cold?

Once I’ve decided on these details, then I have to remember them. (If I’ve said it has no elevator in chapter 1, then I can’t have the Hero using the elevator in chapter 7.) I make notes. I add them to the last page of my document so that I can easily refer to them, and I’ll add to them as more details get mentioned. I do this for character details as well. Middle names, ages, familial relationships—whatever I think might come up later. This way I can hopefully head off comments such as “But I thought you killed her off two chapters back?”

All these things, though possibly not important to the story, will affect how your characters act in that environment. My workplace has heating/AC problems. We’re always cold. 90% of us have sweaters, shawls, mittens with the fingertips cut off, that we keep at our desks. If I was planning a story based on my workplace, I would have to write that in.

That brings me to…


When writing an action sequence, remember where you are. Let’s go back to my workplace. If I was going to write a thriller based on my office I could, even though it’s June, have the Goon grab the Hero by the scarf that she always wears. It would be logical and make perfect sense given the location I have set up.

In a hotel, if the fight takes place in a room, there would be lamps, glasses, hangers, and telephones that could be used as weapons. The Hero and Goon can be thrown into walls, TVs (or armoires), bars, showers, and over beds, couches, and through doors. They are unlikely to encounter rocks, old crates, steel pipes, or large dogs, so I shouldn’t write any of those into the scene.

If I don’t want either my Hero or the Goon to win the fight, I can have it spill into a more populated area—the lobby or the restaurant. Some people will take pictures, but someone is likely to call the police, and voilà! Problem solved in a manner that won’t make my readers scratch their heads and think ‘how did we get here from there’.\


I usually start a story with an idea of where I’m going to start and where I want to end. Sometimes, it’s a full-blown scene, or an image, but most often it is just an idea. As I write, I keep that in mind. I try to write each chapter with an idea of where I want my characters to be, what stage of the journey they have reached. This is easier if I have an idea of what major plot points they need to experience. The Hero’s partner has disappeared. The Hero realizes that the partner has been kidnapped, rather than just walked out the door. The Hero finds the abandoned warehouse the partner was kept at: s/he’s attacked. (Why was s/he attacked? Because the Bad Guys had left behind something that could identify them.) Hero finds the clue…

These will, of course, change as I write because the characters will have some say in how they act and react. (The Hero’s deathly afraid of rats and takes a friend or a big dog to the warehouse. This will certainly affect the fight.)

Sometimes, I’ll include a scene just because I think it’s a great scene. Sometimes I’ll have the characters make their point by using references that are perfectly clear to me. Sometimes I just put down words because I needed to get from Point A to Point B but I had no great inspiration while writing it.

This is where a beta (or two) comes in.

Stephen King talks about the importance of having a First Reader you can trust. Having a regular beta is a lot like that.

I have two semi-permanent betas, and I can’t speak highly enough of them. They don’t see the same things, and different quirks really bother them, but it means that I can trust that just about every flaw or flabby phrase will get noticed and pointed out. I truly appreciate it when they comment on my writing, my characters, my plotting, my pacing (and my punctuation, but that’s not what this article’s about). It makes me rethink that scene that I really enjoyed, but which serves no purpose. That dialogue that I thought was self-explanatory? Not so much it turns out. And why didn’t this character react when that weird thing happened?

When I go back to look at their suggestions/corrections/comments I try to keep all these things in mind. I’ll pick and choose, rewrite and rework, based on all these factors. Plus, I can now consider how my story actually ended up, rather than how I’d planned it. I can add in hints to things or events that turned up at the end of the story, but that I hadn’t envisioned when I started it. I like doing this as I hate deus ex machina stories, where some fairy godmother jumps out at the end, and solves everyone’s problems. (It’s one reason I am not an Agatha Christie fan.)

It seems like a lot to consider, and it is—when you first start writing. All I can say is that it becomes easier.

I will also say that the experts, who state that the only way to become better at writing is to write, are correct. If you want to write then don’t let anyone discourage you. You will develop your own techniques to help you communicate the story you see in your head.

Just remember how to use your commas.

Surprisingly, as I’m not a Stephen King fan, I recommend his book highly. He talks about writing popular fiction when the term was akin to wanting to write erotica today. People read it, but nobody respects those who want to write it professionally. There is still that stigma. I don’t want to write like Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje, or even J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanna write like Dick Francis, Anne Bishop, Lois McMaster-Bujold, or (ooOoo) Sarah Monette!

Tags: no reason really, non-fiction
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