One of the most beautiful things about being a writer is the ability—well, for me, at least, the need—to create story, to design and get to know characters, to watch and manage how they interact within their environments and their circumstances. The process is surprising, incredible, and depressing in turns, but it’s never boring. Continue reading
My NaNoWriMo novels are full of clever characters, which has baldly reminded me just how difficult it is to write crafty people. I can just see my character acting like Tom Sawyer, but I sometimes struggle to envision the actual behaviors that he or she would use to pull off his or her wiles. It’s great to think my character is tricky, but the number one rule in writing is to show, not to tell. I have to give examples of my character being cunning, not just tell the reader he or she is.
As a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to devilishly shrewd characters. There is something compelling about a brain that works two steps, five steps, or even ten steps ahead of its opponents, and you can find such brilliance represented in all sorts of stories: Coyote and Loki the trickster gods; Sherlock Holmes the master of disguise (and his devious, master-of-the-web archnemesis, Moriarty); Nancy Drew, sleuth extraordinaire; Locke Lamora the penultimate thief.
But how does one write such a clever person?
If you’re anything like me, you have an idea of what you want your mischievous character to be like. You can imagine him one-upping his adversaries, laughing at their stupidity in juxtaposition to his or her intelligence—or respecting an evil but equally sharp counterpart. You can even feel the surprise the reader will feel when he or she reads about the trick. But, if you’re anything like me, you have trouble figuring out ways to pull that off.
My struggles have led me to outline eleven different ideas you can use to brainstorm ways to make your character cunning.
1. Give your character the element of disguise. This can mean anything from a change of clothes to a change of personality to actual shapeshifting. Deception can be in the way a character looks or in the way he acts, and takes a certain talent and confidence to pull off.
2. Let your character use reverse psychology. Tricking another character into doing something doesn’t have to be obvious. It’s clear to us in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that Tom is baiting the others into whitewashing the fence for him, but your character doesn’t have to be that transparent. Consider a character who whispers suggestions in a way that comes across as concerned for another character in order to inspire that character to act in a way the trickster can use to his own advantage, eventually revealing his true, deceptive colors at a moment most pivotal for the unsuspecting victim.
3. Make your character a chess master: the eternal planner. Who says a clever character’s strengths have to rest in spontaneous ingenuity? The mastermind is deliberate and future-thinking—that is, he might not have the wittiest lines, but he’s got his opponents right where he wants them, because he has a plan for any action they take and any position they’re in.
4. Make your character unreliable. Characters don’t have to come across as honest or dependable (think of unreliable narrators). And they can be the types of people who “didn’t lie, just omitted the truth.” Work a character’s mystery or secretive nature to full effect. Let your character be untrustworthy, for good or bad, by letting them misguide or misdirect other characters.
5. Make your character resourceful. Some of the cleverest people are those who know how to use what is around them to their advantage. Surround your character with props and environments he can use to his advantage. When you’re writing, don’t just mention the vase for the sake of filling up space or imagery. Have your character seriously consider smashing it to create a diversion, or for the usefulness of its shards in an escape attempt, or to elicit a particular reaction from another character. Give your character the ability to get out of tight spaces. Use even bad or neutral situations to the character’s advantage. Hamlet hired the services of visiting players to generate a guilty response in his uncle. After all, “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” And it worked.
6. Make your character an expert at reading people. This can come in handy in a lot of ways. When your character understands another very well, he might know how that character will act. That means your character can be good at predicting a person’s actions well, prepare for them, and appear to all others that he is omniscient or prophetic. Furthermore, it gives your character the know-how to play other characters off of each other for the purpose of securing a result beneficial to the trickster.
7. Give your character connections. Dimensional characters have different reputations among different groups. They may have secrets known by certain people, which influences how those other characters relate to them. Think of how Tom Sawyer is able to trade his whitewashing “earnings” for all the Bible tickets to amass enough to earn a Bible, much to Mr. Walters’s shock. In another way, Sherlock Holmes is well-reputed and respected among the elite branch of London, but he engages with a personal network of London’s homeless for reconnaissance missions, which gives him a powerful resource.
8. Make your character sneaky. Being able to travel from point A to point B without being noticed or caught is a great skill. Setting up an alibi for himself in the event that he may be linked to an unfavorable situation is also pretty crafty, especially if he ties up all possible loose ends. And being sneaky isn’t restricted to the physical realm; if your character works at an office, he can be sneaky in thoughts, plans, and social situations.
9. Make your character undermine others’ confidence in themselves/their situation. The most dangerous battles are in the mind, and a cunning character would know this. This can mean showing the trickster having no trouble at all with a situation or thing (or several), while the character whose confidence he’s trying to undermine is shown to struggle with these “simple things.” The trickster himself might have set a task set up to be or look easy for him but especially hard for his adversary. Your cunning character can also say something discouraging or misleading when he knows his adversary can hear him.
10. Use a problem as a solution. That’s right; turn something on its head. The problem in “The Final Problem” for Sherlock Holmes was that he was set up to be alone with Moriarty at the waterfall. So he used the problem to solve itself: by throwing himself over the cliff with Moriarty. Another of my favorite instances of this is the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Three Spinners.” The girl can’t spin, but three spinners help her to win the prince by passing their work off as her own. Once married (due to her supposed industry), the three spinners explain that their physical deformities are due to spinning, which scares the prince into swearing his wife will never spin. Problem solved.
11. Make your character witty, sarcastic, quick, and sharp. Record witty comebacks you hear or say in everyday life and give them to your character. Fill your mind with fiery ripostes when you write, and you might be surprised by how clever your character speaks.
And remember, you’re not under any obligation to write a genius. Not all geniuses are clever, and not all clever people are geniuses.
What techniques do you employ to make your characters clever?
Happy Memorial Day, and God bless all those who have served in the American Armed Forces. May we remember with respect and gratitude all that they sacrificed for our freedoms.
I grew up in a city famous for its ties to the circus, and lately I feel like I might actually be a part of a three-ring shebang. Between juggling about a thousand interests, tasks, and obligations and trying to balance on the great tightrope between work life and home life, I could probably at least qualify to be a clown. Continue reading
I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’m a plotter. When it comes to stories, the bulk of my brainstorming is devoted not just to “what happens” but the minutia of plot twists, the evolution of cause and effect, and ensuring that the plot is tight without being too predictable (disclaimer: I make no claim that I succeed in these endeavors).
When I was first starting to write serious, novel-length stories (or, at least, stories that were intended to be novel-length) in middle school, the way to accomplish this kind of plot-heavy story was by slapping stereotypical personalities on my characters. My stereotype of choice for the main character was almost always a kick-butt heroine. She would inevitably become the puppet operating within the context of my author-manipulated plots (what can you expect from a twelve-year-old?), a vehicle through which I could vicariously live to experience adventure. She was bland just for this reason. Continue reading
Happy Presidents Day! I’ve been a bit quieter the last couple of weeks as I work out a better schedule. So far, I’ve been improving when it comes to writing earlier in the evening and not having to stay up late, but I have been slacking off on a few of my other obligations!
As I edit my story, working title Cursed, it is very easy to overthink things. I had written up and considered publishing a blog post about how I had spent so much time considering whether or not I should gear the story more toward mid-grade or YA, how the direction that the story is taking is much better now that it fits with the thematic darkness of YA literature, or how modeling my stories after what is popular in teen fantasy might be a worthy exercise. Then I realized how silly that sounded. Continue reading
I’ve read a lot of blogs and articles that lament the process of editing. The complaint may touch on the amount of work involved, or the inherent difficulty of the technical compared to the creativity of writing, or the author’s accrued frustration with his or her project, which makes the prospect of spending even more time on it in close quarters, noticing and pointing out all the errors and imperfections, unappealing.
You know, I’ve been there. There are some days when the thought of reviewing everything I’ve written and somehow making sense of the drivel is daunting at best, and other days I despair, fearing nothing of real quality lies beneath those half-formed thoughts scribbled on the screen. Continue reading
As I review my manuscript and the edits that I’ve already made to it, I am encountering a major issue.
I am not writing to my audience.
For background, my WIP, temporarily titled Cursed, is geared more towards mid-grade readers. When I wrote the story, however, I wrote it for me. That’s fine, and that’s the way I wanted it to be (after all, as the author, I need to enjoy my story before anyone else can). There are several aspects of my “writing for me” writing voice, however, that do not translate well into the mid-grade reading level.
It’s important to make sure that your readers can understand what you’re saying without having to dart to the dictionary (or Google, nowadays) to figure it out. A few words here and there that might throw a reader can be healthy, couched in sufficient context, but a string of them can cause confusion. An example from my current edit in progress:
A few people glanced at me; some celebrants shook their heads, and I heard a bookie quip to a bettor, “That one’s a sure loss.”
At face value, this is not a bad line (even in spite of the semicolon). But how many ten year olds are going to know what a bookie is? Quip might get by, as well as bettor, but it depends on how advanced the reader is, and I don’t think my eleven-year-old niece would be able to tell me what either of them meant (well, she knows what quip means because it’s my dog’s name). Other dubitable words in my first chapter include verdant, accoutered, and demure.
Another aspect of my writing that I have encountered as a potential problem is the relative maturity of the main character. Because I am introspective, my characters tend to be as well, but so far the main character of this particular project has an almost disillusioned sense of the world. That does not fly for someone of her age (15) and with her experience, and especially not for a mid-grade reader.
How does one get around this? I’ve been waffling on the ages for both the main character and my target audience. When I was editing the manuscript without regard for target audience, I was lost. Now that I’ve decided to fix it firmly at a mid-grade level, I know what it is for which I must watch.
Have you struggled with aligning your writing and content to your audience? How did you reconcile them?
Two nights ago, I took my mom to the local botanical conservatory as a birthday gift to view the “Lights in Bloom” festival offered there for the holidays. The gardens, which are no small patch, were lit with Christmas lights in creative interpretations of flora, draped over actual plants (monstrous banyan trees, extensive succulents, lush orchids). The evening was balmy, boasting little breeze, the slight tang of sea salt, and the waft of cinnamon from a snack stand.
In the extreme corner of the property stands a ficus religiosa tree, called the Bo tree (short for Bodhi, which means enlightenment, as it was supposedly under this type of tree that Siddhartha Gautama, known better as Buddha, attained his enlightenment). For the event, the gardens called it the “Wishing Tree.” Visitors could write wishes on provided ribbons and tie them to the tree amid the strands of circling lights.
Because we went to the event on the last day it was open, the tree was covered in hundreds of wishes. There were the funny ones (“I wish I had a magical unicorn,” “I wish I had a Girl Scout Cookie Maker”—it is my opinion that this second wish is perfection). Close to seventy or eighty percent of them, however, had to do with health and happiness, and about forty or fifty concerned prosperity. Children wrote for their families to be happy, people wished for lasting relationships and marriages, the unemployed desired steady work.
This is, in itself, telling of the universality of our dreams, but more powerful were the individual, vulnerable, and sometimes heartrending wishes: “I wish Danny would love us again,” “I wish Kate’s cancer would disappear,” “I wish I could love my parents.”
Why am I writing about this? Because stories are everywhere. They are in every life, in every hope, in every experience. Behind each of the wishes on that tree, from generic to specific, are stories of people’s lives, hopes, dreams, fears, sins, desires, values, and souls. We live and breathe stories. Some of us feel like we have comparatively little to tell, and some of us feel like our stories aren’t worthwhile, that they mean nothing.
They mean everything. Stories are accounts of the human condition; any human can consider his or her life a compelling story precisely because it is his or her story to tell, and no one else’s. Many times, authors (including myself!) get caught up in writing about the plot and tend to neglect the characters, but more often than not, it is the characters—the people—who make the story come alive.
Next time you have encountered writer’s block, whether it concerns a new novel idea or a development in your story, look around you. Talk to who you can, learn what you can, and draw inspiration from the stories that are playing out around you, including in your own life.
As I’m working voraciously down my reading list (there will be no reading time in November!), one of the things I’m noting in many of the books has been the character development—or, in particular, the lack thereof.
Character growth is one of the most important aspects of a story. I would almost argue that it’s the crux of the story itself. Without it, stories read like news articles or encyclopedic entries. They tell what happened, how it happened, and who was involved, but we never fully connect with the featured people. It’s the same in a story. Our interest in what is happening is directly related to our investment in the characters.
There is, however, a serious lack of payoff when the characters in question don’t grow by the end of the book, at least not in a profound or semi-profound way (I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave those terms open to interpretation). The main characters (MCs) will endure the most change, while those in the background, due to their general lack of text time, won’t necessarily have as impactful an internal journey—at least that we as readers can see.
This is where I’ve noticed a few of the authors I’ve recently read go wrong. The secondary characters that are integral to the plot sometimes lack personal story arcs. That’s not to say that the author has to know what Erwin Miller, vermin killer’s middle name is, or whether he learned to play Chopin on the piano, or how many cousins he has. The author might need to know these details about the MCs. But if we’re going to see a character at one juncture of the novel and again near the end, affecting the plot, we’ll want to see some measure of change in that character.
For MCs, this is even more important, but one thing I noticed in my reading list is that a lot of established authors writing in the midst of their popular series have left the secondary characters to do most of the “growing.” The main character had his or her full growth arc in book one (and sometimes it carries into book two or three), but then in later books we’re riding on just the plot and the growth of a few new/less central characters.
Overall, character growth is paramount in every reappearing character, and should expand in a parallel ratio with the importance of the character.