Writing 3-Dimensional Characters

Character3DRecently, I received this question from Kaila in my inbox:

I was wondering, could you please do a post on your “For Writer’s” page about creating 3-dimensional characters?

At first, I was totally afraid to even TRY to tackle this question. I mean…gosh, are my characters 3D? Am I even talented enough or aware enough to talk about something so important?

But then I wrote in my newsletter last week about motivations and consequences, and I realized that–at least for ME–there are 3 things that make a character feel REAL when I’m reading.

#1: Motivation

Character motivation is the WHY of a character’s actions. It’s the WHY behind her goal, the WHY behind her inner and outer needs, and it’s even the WHY behind her short temper and her inability to commit.

But no, you say, that’s backstory! Backstory and history explain her short temper and inability to commit.

Ah, but not entirely. Yes, she’s been burned by men before, so it’s left her wary. But WHY does she  use sarcasm and shouts to make her point? She could just as easily be closed-off and cold. What motivates her to behave the way she does? What does she subconsciously (or in full awareness) hope to achieve by behaving the way that she does?

If you don’t understand these WHYS, then you’ll have characters do things for the sake of the plot…Which means characters will act out of character–and readers will spot that stuff. I promise.

An example: In Truthwitch (which comes out next fall from Tor), I had one of my heroines keep a giant secret from her best friend. I mean, for the plot’s sake, it worked to have her stay quiet, but on a motivation level, it just didn’t make sense. These girls are the CLOSEST FRIENDS you can ever imagine–why would Noelle EVER keep a secret from Safi? Well, a few savvy critique partners asked that very question, and so I finally examined Noe’s motivation for silence…

And it turned out she didn’t have one. I was making Noe stay silent for the sake of the plot. And although changing the story so that there was no secret would require major revisions, I realized that it had to be done. Otherwise, there would always be that lingering question in the reader’s mind of why Noelle did what she did. There would always be the nagging awareness that the character wasn’t behaving quite right.

#2: Emotional Dominoes

In order for me to revise the book with this new awareness–the awareness that Noe wasn’t motivated to keep secrets from Safi–I had to go back to the book’s very first scene and work through every emotional beat in the book. All over again.

Now, I’ve talked about emotional dominoes before, and I will often write in my notes, What are my emotional dominoes?, and then go through each emotion scene by scene. I find this method is incredibly helpful for unsticking my plot, and I also find it INVALUABLE for revising my characters and building real people.

In the Truthwitch example, I had to look at what it meant for Noelle to have told Safi her secret. If Safi knows this bit of history about Noelle, how does it change their interactions? How does it change how they view each other? How they behave in each scene?

And, once I had adjusted one scene to reflect this “new normal”, how did that effect the emotions in the next scene…and the next and the next?

Remember: every scene is linked. What happened before affects what’s happening now, and it will also dictate what happens next. If you try to force emotions to fit a plot, well…You end up with a book that feels forced! And as I mentioned above: readers WILL notice!

#3: Consequences

Consequences are hard. These are very much linked to emotional dominoes–in fact, you could say that “consequences” are just a form of emotional domino. Cause and effect, right?

But what I mean when I say “consequences” is going all the way. I mean digging deep into emotions that scare you and writing raw, honest stuff.

There is nothing I hate more than a character dying and then everyone just sort of moving on! Or a character who commits a truly horrible act (perhaps the heroine keeps a secret which thereby causes the death of her love interest’s family) and everyone just glosses over it–or worse, forgives her right away!

If an act is irredeemable in real life, it will also be irredeemable in fiction.

And if an act causes deep emotional response in real life, then it needs to cause deep emotional response in fiction.

So, as frightening as it may be to face the dark stuff in your heart, you’ve got to if you want your consequences to feel REAL.

If I return once more to the Truthwitch example, I realized as I was revising the book to incorporate Noe’s secret that the reason I’d failed to have it in the first place was because I’d been scared of facing the consequences. I hadn’t wanted to “go there” because “there” was a very scary place, and now that I had Noe’s traumatic childhood secret out in the open, I was going to have to build those consequences and emotions into every single scene.

It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not sure I got it right (thank goodness for multiple rounds of revision!). But I now understand Noelle’s–and Safi’s–characters so much better. I feel way more connected to them as people, and that in turn makes me care about and love the story even more.

Now, obviously we aren’t ALL writing dark characters with twisted backstories. But even books that are funny and “fluffy” have loads of heart and can hit us right in the gut. I remember reading Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married as a teenager and suddenly bursting into tears at the airport. I felt what Lucy felt (oh, Gus! You bastard!), and she was as real to me as if she were sitting next to me, waiting for her flight too.

The reason I connected to Lucy–the reason she felt 3-dimensional–was because I understood WHY she wanted love in her life. I understood why she made the often hilarious and often DUMB choices that she did. I totally understood why her failures brought her low, and every scene toppled neatly into the next. And, above all, when Lucy was faced with the final, really tough decisions, I FELT all the emotional weight that those decisions were due. (If you haven’t read that book, I highly recommend it!! Romantic comedy at its finest!)

So there you have it: motivation, emotional dominoes, and consequences. Those are the 3 dimensions that make a real character for me.

What about you? How do you write 3-D characters?

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Writing is hard…

…so don’t give up. I don’t really have anything else to say today other than that. I’m in the middle of book 3 revisions, renovating my house, preparing lesson plans for the YAGB tour, and revising other books that have not yet sold. It all seems pretty overwhelming and insurmountable.

But it isn’t. It never is.

The thing is: you can’t stop working. And you can’t give up.

Writing is really hard. Revising is really hard too. And it doesn’t get easier just because you’re published or agented or have finished X-number of books or sold in 45 territories. More often than not, the writing just gets harder.

But don’t give up. You’ll get where you need to be; we all do.

And now, here’s some music to send you off to work by. It’s my current writing fave, and I hope you find it as uplifting as I do.

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Approaching Your First Novel

Left to right: Mary Lindsey, Brigid Kemmerer, Victoria Scott, Brodi Ashton, Erin Bowman, ME

Sorry for the brief internet absence. I was in Texas for a week (it was AMAZING). Edgefest was a blast and I discovered a few new bands I am now obsessed with (I’ll share next Monday ;)).

Moving on, a reader asked a while ago:

Looking back, knowing what you know now, how would you approach learning the craft for writing your first novel? Would you start with learning how to craft characters, plot or world-build etc.?

Honestly, I think I followed a great path to get to where I am–and I would think there are many authors/people who say that. As the quote from Douglas Adams goes, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.(Read more…)

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When Something Changes Mid-Draft

So, this question came in from Alex last week, and I thought I’d address it in a post today.

I’d really like to read about how you handle it when you’re in the middle of a draft and suddenly you realize that you need to change something BIG. Something which changes the story a lot, a major change you’re already sure will make it into the next draft. (Like e.g. a character that does important stuff in this draft, but you really know you’ll get rid of that character completely anyways. Or switching the narrator. Or changing something big about the whole story set up)

The crappy non-answer is: every book and change is different. 😛

The slightly less crappy non-answer is: gauge the scale of the mid-draft change and proceed from their. Below, I’ve tried to show how to do this and give you examples from my own writing.

Disclaimer: This is MY process. No two people write a book or revise or deal with story issues in the same way. But maybe by reading how I handle issues, you can see what will work best for YOU.

There are, I think, three different options that face you when you make a change mid-draft.

  1. You can power onward, writing as if you have ALREADY made the change and knowing you’ll fix it all in revisions.
  2. You can stop and revise.
  3. You can throw the draft out and start over.

Now, first off, let’s define the sorts of changes (at least the way I see them): major,big, minor, inconsequential. (Read more…)

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Do One Thing Well

I have vanished from the blogosphere…and twitter is all but abandoned as well. Even emails are backed up so badly, it will take days to unknot and answer them all.

That’s alright, though. Why? Because I had an epiphany recently thanks to a little old TV show I adore: Parks and Recreation.

But allow me to back up a bit. Back in July, when the book released, I was spending the little free time I had to write a novella with an October deadline. Most of my daily schedule was focused on promotional stuff–giveaways, interviews, guest posts, setting up events, reaching out to indie book stores, etc. I was also trying to blog. And tweet. And do all these things expected of an author (things I clump under “administrative stuff”).

Needless to say, my blog suffered (sporadic posting, at best) and my novella-drafting really suffered. (Read more…)

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Need help revising? NaNoEdMo starts soon!

Did you write a novel in a month during the hideous (yet exhilarating) NaNoWriMo? Or perhaps you’ve just got a novel lying around that needs some serious TLC.

Are you lost on where to begin? Do you feel overwhelmed by the sheer thought of revising? Am I starting to sound too much like an infomercial?

Then, have I got the solution for you!

National Novel Editing Month!

Okay, yes, I’m partial to it because I think group-working situations are way more productive and motivating than solo-slogging…And yes, I’m partial to it because I think revisions are the MOST important step of the writing-for-publication process. (Read more…)

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Not Having Internet Kinda Sucks…So Does Writing Sequels

I’m back. We won’t even discuss how hard it was to get the internet back. It was an ordeal. An EPIC ordeal.

BUT, I came out with two wonderful things…

Thing #1

Oh, what’s that? Why yes, it IS a book. In fact’s a A FINISHED SEQUEL. Yep, that’s right. A Darkness Strange and Lovely is now complete. It’s with my agent and will hopefully ship off to my wonderful editor soon.

As some of you know, I had an incredibly difficult time writing this book. It was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. (Read more…)

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LTWF: On the Art of REwriting

It’s NaNoWriMo month.

In other words, it is currently hell-on-earth for many writers around the globe. A self-induced hell that anyone who isn’t participating in just CAN’T UNDERSTAND.

Yes, we clearly enjoy torture, but no, we are not insane. (Though, ask again in 3 weeks…)

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to soothe the minds of worried first-drafters. Everyone will tell you this (including Vahini, here on LTWF), and all I can do is reiterate:

It is okay to write crappy first draft.

In fact, we’re all expecting you too…because so will we.

And, if I’m REALLY HONEST with you, then I’ll just go ahead and share a little secret:

I’m a really bad writer.

Like, downright dreadful. (Read more…)

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LTWF: Writing a Saleable Book

Recently, someone asked me:

What is required to make a book saleable?

That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague.  All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.


My super broad response is the:

The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book. (Read more…)

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Sooz’s Guide to Revisions, Lesson 6: Typing in your changes and feeling GOOD.

Wow.  You did it. You finished Lesson 5, and now you’re almost at the end!  Can you FEEL THE EXCITEMENT?

This lesson will be (compared to the others) a piece of cake.  The first part is completely mindless.

Supplies Needed Today:

  • A computer
  • Your revised, scrawled-upon manuscript
  • A comfy chair (Read more…)

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