Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Letters

As people grow and change, sometimes they wish they could be more like their younger self–be that because they miss the wonder they had in the world, or because they’ve lost their faith in people. Other times we wish we could get word from the future that things turn out all right. A popular way of expressing those wishes is in writing a letter to yourself–either past or future.

As an exercise: do just that. Write a letter to your character. Either to tell them about the things coming up in the future, or to remind them of the good stuff they came from. Perhaps you want to apologize to them for all the things they go through in the course of the story, or explain how you really feel about them.

Alternately, you can have your character complete the exercise. Think about things like if they’d want to write to their younger self, or to their future one. When writing to their younger self, consider the things they struggled to get through. When writing to the future version, what qualities do they admire in themselves currently?

Posted in General

Romance and Subplots

It’s Valentine’s Day, a celebration of all things love and romantic. Which is why I’m taking the opportunity to touch on a topic that we all know: Romance as a plot. More specifically, romance as a subplot.

Romance itself is a fantastic plot and it’s a popular one. That’s largely because it follows a fairly simple path. Couple meets. Couple’s relationship is threatened. Couple gets a happy ending. The exact how, and why and where varies from story to story. That however, makes it a beautiful subplot, especially for character development. Why? Because the biggest part of a romance plot is character development.

So what makes a successful romance?

Balance is a huge thing. Whether it’s your main plot or a subplot, romance is based on the characters and how they work together. That means they both have to bring something to the relationship–maybe he’s calm where she’s hot-headed. Maybe she’s cheerful where her girlfriend is gloomy. They both bring something that the other one needs to the table.

They also, however, need something in common. Maybe their family values are the same, maybe they both want the same things in life. Commonality makes it easier for your couple to start looking at each other with any sort of affection.

Obstacles can make or break the romance. There has to be some reason why your characters don’t just get together right from the first meeting. If there wasn’t something in the way, there wouldn’t be a story there. They’d just be together. The reason they’re not getting together can be varied. Anything from forbidden love, to emotional trauma to prior circumstances is fair game.

A notation here: your obstacle needs to make sense. If it’s simply a case of misunderstanding that could be resolved in two lines of dialogue, it’s not making sense, it’s a poor plot device. If however, your misunderstanding is caused by one or both deliberately being lied to and kept from one another by outside parties, that makes sense. It might be painfully obvious that they deserve and belong together, but until that obstacle is resolved, they’re barred from each other, thus it needs to be able to hold weight on its own.

Change is the final element here. I mentioned that the biggest part of a romance plot is the character development, and this is where that comes in. Your obstacle should keep them from getting together right away, but it should also force them to change, and more importantly, to change in a way that makes the obstacle null and void. That often means one or both characters is willing to make a sacrifice to be with the other: Romeo and Juliet is an extreme example, but it is one: both of them were willing to run away from their families to be together.

Together, the balance, the obstacles and the change make a romance plot engaging, and because the core element of it is the change they make, it makes a fantastic subplot because it plays into character arcs. Because that obstacle keeps them apart initially, you can also use that obstacle as a complication for your main plot goal–or, alternatively, make the main goal part of the obstacle keeping them apart.

That doesn’t, however, mean your heroine automatically fits with the antagonist’s daughter just because they both have the same goal of taking down the antagonist and the antagonist will do anything to keep his daughter away from the heroine. It could very easily mean that your heroine’s plucky sidekick who gets both the antagonist’s daughter and the heroine to work together is the one that belongs with the antagonist’s daughter because she’s come from a similar background with a super-villain for a parent.

As a subplot, it helps to remember that the external conflicts your couple faces together will force them together. That might mean some of the complications they face in resolving the main plot are only properly resolved when the two of them have spent some time together on the solution.

Posted in Exercises

Characterization

There are three fundamental aspects that every single story has, regardless of good, bad, popular or unknown. Without those three pieces, you don’t have a story. They include plot, setting and characters. Those three elements are impossible to escape. Your characters are who the story is about, your plot is what happens during the story and your setting is where the story happens.

While I could delve into why it’s impossible to write a story without all three of those present, today I want to focus on characters. They’re often the main and central focus of the story for your readers. Making characters distinct for one another relies heavily on characterization.

Characterization itself is the distinct features each character has. This goes beyond just physical features and into personality traits and habitual quirks. These are your defining features that help your characters stand out from one another.

Speech is a huge place for characterization to come through. The way people talk often reflects the environment they’re most often surrounded by and were raised in. As an exercise, you can write down a list of common words with multiple synonyms (think car, soda, mother, etc) and determine which ones your characters would use. Would one of them use Mom while another uses Momma, or even Mother? Is it a vehicle or an auto?

Phrasing is important in speech as well. If you have someone who’s learned a second language, how they learned it will impact how they speak it. Someone who learned organically through immersion would have picked up more slang words and may still have some chunks missing from their vocabulary. Someone who learned through traditional schooling may have a more formal structure, but struggle with idioms and expressions.

As an exercise for phrasing, think about any idioms, expressions or sayings that might crop up. Think about how each character might use a variation of that central expression.

Habits are often linked to subconscious things that can tell us a lot about personalities. Someone who chews their nails might be very nervous or they can be bored. Similarly, someone who shuffles their feet a when walking might be less inclined to rush about to do things.

Even in the foods we dislike, some characters will try to mask the taste by mixing that food in, while others prefer to eat it first and get the worst over with. Still other characters will separate it from the other foods and try to avoid more than a few bites of it at all.

As an exercise, consider three subconscious habits your character might have. These are things they probably do without thinking. Does he wipe his feet before coming through a door? Does she do certain chores or tasks in a specific order? Do they have a specific reaction to being reprimanded? Will they only do certain things when they’re tired/hungry/scared?

Self-Expression covers how characters portray themselves. Someone who takes pride in their appearance might be vain, or they could be masking self-esteem problems. Similarly, someone who speaks their mind freely might be confident, or they may feel as if they have to constantly explain their thoughts and actions to avoid being judged.

Because self-expression is so easily varied, it might help for you to consider how your characters express themselves and why they do in a particular way. Examine things like how they dress, how much work they put into keeping their spaces (include housing, vehicles and work areas) tidy, how often they speak up and what sort of hobbies they enjoy outside of their work or job.

Posted in writing

Using Myers Briggs for Characters

One of the hardest parts about building a character is sometimes getting their personality down. Although you could sit down and hammer out every single trait–loyalty versus selfishness, naivete versus worldly experience, et cetera–there are a lot of different traits that go into a human personality.

The other way way might be to look at their Myers Briggs personality type. As simple as it sounds, the sixteen types of personalities identifed by the Myers Brigs system provides a detailed base to work off for characters who need a little more fleshing out. It’s important to note that no one type of personality is superior to any other, nor does having a particular personality type make a character or person immediately qualified for a particular roles. People with ENTJ and INTJ personalities might have qualities that make them drawn towards leadership roles, but leadership requires development of skills outside of the personality itself.

The Myers Briggs system works based on four categories: Extraversion versus Introversion, Sensing versus Intiution, Thinking versus Feeling and Judging versus Perceiving. Each of these correlates to how you think and where your energies are focused.

Extraversion vs. Introversion: Extroverts are the people who gain energy from being around and interacting with others. Introverts however, gain energy from quiet reflection and quiet activities. These are different ways of expression energy and both discharging it and renewing it. Extroverts lose energy when alone and need socialization to recharge. Introverts lose energy by socializing and need time for reflection and processing. Within the Myers Briggs, this first category is marked by an E for the extrovert, and an I for the introvert.

Sensing vs. Intuition: Collecting information is something we do every day. Sensors however, focus on the details of the information and gather information directly from the external world. Intuitives look for patterns and context, relying on internal judgement to fill in missing information. Neither way is wrong, merely different from the other. Sensors are represented by an S while intuitives use N to prevent confusion with the above introverts.

Thinking vs. Feeling: Everyday situations need choices, regardless of  what the situation is. Thinkers respond to choices based on logic and reasoning. Feelers make those same choices based on their emotions. This can also apply to reactions: does your character spring for the immediately logical and deal with the emotional fall out later, or does your character’s emotional state rule how they react at any given moment? Thinkers are denoted by a T while feelers use F.

Judging vs. Perceiving: Judging and perceiving deal with organizing information. Judges organize things by rules and repeated patterns. Perceivers however, are open to improvisation and flexibility. Judges may be more reliant on experience to help sort their thoughts while perceivers may go on a base-by-case basis. As with the others, judges recieve a J while percievers have a P.

Each of the sixteen types recognized by the Myers Briggs system is denoted by a four letter notation: INTJ, ENFP, ESTP, ISFJ and so on and so fourth. Often these correlate to profiles, which, for building and developing a character, can give you a good sense of what’s happening in their head. If you need to, take a Myers Briggs personality test based on how your character would respond to the questions. Don’t be surprised if there’s some variation either: these categories aren’t polar opposites, but a spectrum.

Posted in Exercises

Excercise: The Main Character’s Reasoning

There’s a reason why your Main Character is the Main Character. This might be because they have a particular skill or an emotionally compelling reason to be involved in the main conflict.

As an exercise freewrite for ten minutes on why your Main Character is the main character of this story. Consider what about the conflict is important to them, and why. Also consider how they feel about the conflict. What skills do they have to help them?

As a bonus, do this with your supporting characters about why they aren’t the Main Characters.