Something Strange & Deadly

How to Craft Characters: Desperate Needs

Character2This is the second post in this series (find the first post on voice and opening lines here).

To recap, here are the components I consider most important when crafting my characters (note: this might be VERY different from what you do, and that’s 100% okay):

  • Voice
  • Desperate need
  • Backstory/history
  • Behavioral/speaking quirks
  • Looks/physical quirks

Today we’re talking about desperate needs–or what your character wants so desperately that he/she will do anything to get it. Some people think of this as the “goal.”

There are two kinds of desperate needs/goals: external need and internal need.

The external need is a thing that the character wants. That thing–be it saving someone, stopping someone, finding something, delivering something, etc.–drives your external plot. There are tangible stakes linked to the external need.

So for example, Eleanor (in Something Strange & Deadly) wants to find her brother and stop the evil necromancer. Those are her external needs, and if she fails, then lots of people will die (our stakes!).

The internal need is what the character wants on a personal, spiritual level. Oftentimes, he/she isn’t even aware that he/she wants this, and the stakes are much more emotional in nature.

Eleanor’s internal need is to learn how to think for herself. If she doesn’t solve this, she’ll be forever unhappy and bossed around by her family/society.

Now, oftentimes, the external need cannot be achieved until the internal need is. In other words, our hero can’t save the day without first becoming a better person–Eleanor isn’t equipped to face the necromancer until she has learned to think for herself.

But the tricky thing about internal needs is that they’re directly related to a character’s deepest fear. In other words: the internal need comes from the character’s deepest internal fear.

Now, I’m not talking Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes here. I mean something emotional. Something the character probably doesn’t even know he/she is afraid of.

Take Eleanor again: she’s afraid that the people she loves will leave her (or stop loving her) if she doesn’t do what they ask. This fear leads her to a sort of chain:

Deepest Fears → Internal Need → External Need

Eleanor’s fear of being alone and unloved leads to her always doing what her mother and other people want. This in turn makes her internally need to learn be happy with autonomy and make her own choices. Until she learns how to decide for herself and give up “people pleasing,” she can’t meet her external need of stopping the evil necromancer that’s threatening Philadelphia.

It’s because these needs and fears are so deeply entwined in the story’s outcome and in the progression of story events that I consider them to be the second most important component of character development.

So…how do I figure out what the needs and fears are?


Finding the Needs & the Fears

To start, I write the book.

Helpful advice, I know. 😉 But it’s true. Oftentimes, I’ll only have the voice, the opening line, and a vague idea of the story I want to write. And that’s enough.

Why? Because knowing the general plot gives me my character’s external need. When I started writing Something Strange & Deadly, I knew Eleanor was searching for her missing brother. Which means she NEEDS to find her brother! External need, check!

As I wrote on and sank more deeply into Eleanor’s voice and emotions, I realized she was bossed around by her mother and society. She wasn’t very happy about it, either. Seeing these scenes unfold and feeling Eleanor’s emotions in them gave me her internal need.

And of course, as I wrote on, I uncovered snippets of her backstory. Her father had died when she was young, her brother had run off to tour the world (and left his family penniless), and her mother had gone off the deep end from grief. To add to it all, Eleanor’s friends and the high society she’d grown up with had abandoned her. What few people she still had left in her life, she clung to out of fear that they’d leave her too.

So from that backstory, I now knew Eleanor’s deepest fear.

Basically I discover my character in the reverse of the cause/effect list above:

External Need → Internal Need → Deepest Fears


How This Can Work for You

I realize that not all of you are plantsers (a.k.a. headlights outliners), and I also realize not all of you are starting a new project. You might be halfway through or revising even. You might be sticking like glue to an outline or you might be totally winging it.

Either way, you can apply needs and fears to your writing.

If you’re an outliner and just starting a first draft: Sort out your character’s desperate needs (internal and external) as well as your character’s deepest fears while you’re outlining (or before, even). Then make sure that your character’s needs and fears jive with the events you’ve planned. Remember that characters take action based on who they are, and who they are is a combination of needs and fears.

If you’re a pantser or already finished with a draft: Discover the needs/fears as you write, or–if that’s too “structured for you”–figure it out after you’re finished. You can always revise the story to fit the needs and fears you’ve uncovered during the course of writing (I almost always have to do this), and you can make sure the emotional dominoes all line up.

And that concludes part 2 in this How to Craft Characters series.

You tell me: Do you work with desperate needs/goals or deep fears when creating characters? And if you’re in the midst of drafting a story now, can you pinpoint the needs/fears?

Speak up:



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How to Craft Characters: From Opening Lines Spring Voice

CharacterRecently, I received this question in my inbox:

How do you get to know your characters? Do you work on getting to know them well before drafting, or do you get to know them as you work?

Honestly, at first I was like, “I HAVE NO IDEA HOW I DO THIS.” I’m such a free-writer and character is one of those things I really, really don’t plan well (I scribble things in my notebook, but it always changes as I draft).

So clearly I can answer part 2 of the question with great confidence: No, I don’t work on getting to know my characters before I draft. I get to know them AS I draft, and then I make sure voice/backstory/etc. all line up in revisions.

But, seriously, how DO I get to know my characters while I’m drafting? This isn’t something I’ve never thought too hard about. The voice is just there…or it isn’t. So as I always so when I get a tough question, I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and tried to break down what I do. What I ended up writing down are what I consider the components of character (and these are in order of importance):

  • Voice
  • Desperate need
  • Backstory/history
  • Behavioral/speaking quirks
  • Looks/physical quirks

I thought I’d spend the next few posts breaking each of those character components down a bit more. This week, we’ll address voice.

From Opening Lines Spring Voice

Now I just did two posts in the Misfits & Daydreamers on voice–here’s one on what voice is and here’s one with tips to find your voice. I also have this post on troubleshooting POV and voice (the key is in the filtering!).

The thing about voice is that it reflects who your character is. We can understand EVERYTHING we need to about a character (without backstory) so long as the voice is strong. We can even be entertained and put up with slow pacing (or a lack of a desperate need) for a while so long as the voice is killer.

As I was trying to break apart how I find character, I realized that there was ONE MORE STEP in my voice-finding toolbox that I forgot to mention in the newsletter: opening lines.

But let’s back this up just a bit.

I’ve mentioned before that I write stories based on character. My heroes, heroines, villains, and love interests–they dictate the plot and I just hang on for the ride. IF I don’t have a character, then I don’t have a story. Period.

In fact, the two times I tried to write novellas based on characters I didn’t know (and therefore didn’t have any connection to or inspiration for), I struggled months and months and MONTHS to find character–ALL because I didn’t know have some inner connection or inner need to write this character.

Yet in both of those head-desk-just-kill-me-now instances, when I finally stumbled upon the Right Story, I found it because I discovered the Right Voice.

And I found the Right Voice because I found the Right Opening Line.

So actually, the title of this post would more accurately be:

From Opening Lines Springs Voice (From Which Springs Character)

But that’s a mouthful. 😉

Basically, something magical happens when I’m ready to write the Right Story. An opening line will just appear in my mind. Poof!

I wish I could tell you HOW these opening lines (and subsequent voice) appear…But I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that it’s a culmination of all those scribblings in the notebook and my character playlists and the feel/promises I’m trying to create within the story. They knock around in the back of my skull for so long that eventually they swirl into something cohesive.

Now, since I can’t really explain/teach the pre-opening line magic, I want to at least show you how this process works for me AFTER I have an opening line. Below, I’ve got a smörgåsbord of opening lines to expound upon (some published, some shelved, some forever works in progress).

Something Strange & Deadly

“I scowled at the incoming train from New York–the one my brother was supposed to be on.”

This was originally what I wrote as the opening line to SS&D. It came to me after a month of researching and outlining (back when I still tried to force myself to be an outliner). Poof! Here was this line, and it immediately set the stage for Eleanor’s feisty attitude and her complete lack of patience. Like, I could just imagine her face, her bubbling frustration, and her need to do something already!

If you’ve read the book, though, then you know this is NOT the opening line in its published form. I took some external feedback that suggested cutting my first 2 pages and starting in media res. Yet, to this day I wish I had kept that opening line. But ah, c’est la vie.

A Dawn Most Wicked

“This was not how best friends hugged.”

I was having a LOT of trouble finding Daniel’s voice in ADMW. Essentially, I had agreed to write this novella thinking it would be easy to connect with Daniel…and the opposite turned out to be true. I only ever knew him through Eleanor’s eyes. I had NO IDEA what was going on in his head, and everything I tried felt forced. Wrong.

So I skimmed back through some of my shelved projects (one of my tips for finding voice!) and I came across one of my most favorite romances I’d ever written–a romance between best friends. The tension was so great, and suddenly I realized this was where I’d gone wrong with Daniel! He hadn’t been jilted by Cassidy (as I was originally imagining), but rather he was her BFF and madly (silently) in love with her. Once I knew that, his character literally just poured out of me.

Note: I went back and added a prologue (so the line above is now the opener to Chpt. 1), but it was the line that set off the rest of the story/character.


“Everything had gone horribly wrong.
None of Safiya fon Hasstrel’s carefully laid plans for this hold-up were unfolding as they ought.”

When I originally sat down to start drafting this idea swimming in my head, I’d planned to write my from my Threadwitch character’s POV. But after a few false starts with her, I realized I wasn’t connecting. Then, after several days away (one of my tips for finding voice!), this line just HIT me. And I knew–deeeeep in my gut knew–that I needed to open the book from the Truthwitch’s POV instead.

Once I had Safi’s voice on the page, the story just exploded out of me.

Note: I ended up going back and adding a prologue…which then ultimately got cut again. But you can read that prologue here, if you’re curious. 🙂

The Mouse Queen

“If you were to ask Clara when it all began, she would say, without hesitation, on May fourteenth of her fourteenth year. It was in the afternoon.”

This work-in-progress came to me in one of those I-wasn’t-planning-on-this-but-I-have-an-idea-and-must-write-it-now moments. Like magic. So I shot to my keyboard and just started typing.

Of course, I realized pretty quickly that it was different from anything else I’d written. I had an almost omniscient, almost tongue-in-cheek sort of narrator, and soon enough, I realized this meant the project was middle grade. (And, if you’re curious, because I knew it had a great MG vibe, I changed the age to be 12 instead of 14.)

So that concludes Part 1 in this How to Craft Characters series. I’ll be back next week to talk about desperate needs (i.e. goals and motivation!). You tell me: do you find voice or character spring from some magical place? How do YOU get to know your characters?

Speak up:



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Simple Tricks to Unstick Your Plot: Where Is Everyone?

Last Friday, I talked about my first go-to method when I inevitably get stuck in a draft. I lay out my character’s emotional dominoes and see where they ought to fall (which is often not where I’ve made them fall)…

But that trick doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s not an emotional/goal issue that’s halted my story. Sometimes it’s plot-related, and I really have no idea what external event should be happening next.

This problem tends to hit to me during the first 40-50K words of the novel (i.e., the first half). Why? Because up until the midpoint, the characters in a story tend to be reacting more than they are acting.

Note: I am NOT saying that your characters are passive but rather that they are still acquiring the necessary skills and information to fully face the antagonist. The antagonist is throwing stones at your protagonist, and your protagonist is really just trying to get out of each scrape alive enough to keep fighting and honing his/her skills. (Obviously, if you’re writing something less action-focused, there will be less fighting for one’s life and more fighting for one’s sanity and/or beliefs.)

Up until the midpoint, a lot of the events are dictated by the world in which the protagonists lives and by what the antagonist is doing.

For example (and I warn you, there might be a few spoilers about to follow!), in Something Strange and Deadly, much of where Eleanor goes and the events in which she finds herself are dictated by external forces. Her mother makes her go on a carriage ride with a suitor or attend operas, while the antagonist keeps popping up with an army of walking dead. Not until the midpoint (when Eleanor gets a critical piece of information and faces off with a creepy spirit) does she finally see how to shift the odds in her favor. After that, when the antagonist throws stones, Eleanor throws them right back. She’s on the offensive.

And once my characters are on the offensive, I can usually ride my domino effect smoothly to the end of the book…One event clearly causes the next.

But getting to that midpoint can sometimes be tricky for me. I usually have to slowly reveal information as my character uncovers it (and information can be so hard to reveal in a compelling manner), and I need to let my character’s grow–their flaws and emotional well-being needs to be constantly challenged as well. So coming up with events that both allow my protagonist to be active and still be learning/growing can be hard.

Which is why I rely on my next trick:

Where the heck is everyone?

I don’t mean my protagonist–I mean everyone else.

When I’m stuck and don’t know what event and/or setting should next arrive, I turn to my secondary characters and my antagonists. Where are they right now? Where have they been since the last time I saw them? And what were all their emotional/goal dominoes throughout the previous scenes?

Here’s an example that I wrote a few weeks ago. Simon is the love interest, and since one of my magical cookies in this story is the romance, I knew that I wanted to get Simon on the page with my protagonist…But for the life of me, I could not figure out how.

So I started from Simon’s very first scene in the book and mapped out exactly where he was during my heroine’s scenes.

<insert picture>

And as I wrote out this stuff, I uncovered some REALLY cool and really unexpected things about Simon’s character–about his emotional growth and backstory. Once I reached the spot in which I was stuck, I could feel how Simon’s emotional dominoes would dictate what needed to come next for my protagonist.

It’s not just the love interest that I do this trick with, though. I’ve also mapped my antagonist’s whereabouts/shenanigans and emotional dominoes in order to see what might come next in the plot. I might learn that my antagonist has been gearing up this whole time, and is now ready for an attack–so my next scene for my protagonist would become a run-in with the bad guy.

Other times, I’ll move to other important secondary characters and see where they were and what they were doing. Almost always, I’ll eventually reach an “aha!” point and see exactly what event needs to come next.

And sometimes, I’ll find that my emotional dominoes for other characters aren’t falling properly–that, like I mentioned last week, I’ve gone astray at some earlier point in the manuscript. For example:

Wait, the love interest wouldn’t be willing to forgive my heroine so quickly! He’d probably still be furious and refuse to join her at the park in that last scene…which would mean her best friend would have gone with her instead–and oh! If her best friend is there, then I can introduce this important piece of information earlier which lets me use this next scene as a turning point…

You get the idea. 🙂

You tell me: Have you ever done something like this–looked at where your characters are behind the scenes? Or are you, perhaps wise, and do all this before/while drafting?

Speak up:



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Book Club Recap & Final Winner!

I am at Dragon*Con right now–probably wondering the booths for a new Star Wars t-shirt–so I’ll keep this brief.

Thank you again to everyone who participated in the Something Strange & Deadly book club, both here and on Epic Reads.

You all are truly quite amazing and I love you for it.

On that note, the winner of last week’s giveaway (for a SIGNED copy of Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass + signed copies of SS&D or ADS&L) is…

Sara of the Page Sage!

Thank you so much, Sara! And everyone else who joined in and was generally AWESOME throughout August. There are not enough ♥s to express how much I appreciate your interactions.

To everyone who signed up for the participation prize: Because I am out of town for the next two weeks, it will probably take me a bit of time to get you your prizes (A Dawn Most Wicked or an extra scene from A Darkness Strange & Lovely). Please bear with me–I haven’t forgotten you!!

If you still need to sign up for a participation prize, you can do that here. 🙂

And, in case you signed up but didn’t have a chance to participate, here’s a recap of all the month’s posts, discussions, and extra content.

Week 1

Discussion questions + historical extras

Listen/watch me read chapter in Something Strange & Deadly

List of discussions across the web

Week 2

Discussion questions + historical extras

Musical playlist that goes along with chapter 19 from Something Strange & Deadly

List of discussions across the web

Week 3

Discussion questions + fun extras

My dream cast for Something Strange & Deadly: the movie (that does not exist…yet)

List of discussions across the web

Week 4

Discussion questions + fun extras

Musical playlist that goes along with the opening scenes in A Darkness Strange & Lovely

List of final discussions across the web

Enjoy! And again, thank you. I’ll be back to the blogosphere in 2 weeks. À bientôt!

Speak up:



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How to Get Traditionally Published, Part 3

Read Part 1 in this series.

Read Part 2 in this series.

ALL RIGHT. This is the last post on this–I swear.

My usual disclaimer applies here–this is the journey to traditional publication as I know it. I’m basing this on my personal experience and the experience of other published authors I know. 🙂

Also, FYI, the usual time between getting a book deal and your book hitting shelves (at least in traditional YA publishing) is 18 months to 2 years. There’s a LOT that has to happen, and your publisher needs every second.

Now, let’s finally wrap up this multi-year journey. We left off last week with getting our contract from the publisher… (Read more…)

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How to Get Traditionally Published, Part 2

Read Part 1 in this series.

Read Part 3 in this series.

So, in case you missed Part 1, I am trying to lay out the very SIMPLE BASICS to getting published…

I emphasize “simple” and “basics” here because every author’s journey is different and because, although things seem clear-cut on the surface, they are actually kinda complicated underneath.

Overall, though, the moral of last Friday’s post was that getting an agent requires four main things:

a polished manuscript + a stellar query letter + tons of industry research + perfect timing

And sadly, today’s moral ain’t gonna be that different. That “perfect timing” component is such a bi***–and pretty much makes or breaks absolutely every author out there. (Read more…)

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