Posted in books, characters, creative writing, reading, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing strong females characters: behaviors vs. personality traits

Strong female characters have not only been a topic of discussion quite frequently over the last few years, they’ve been steadily becoming better as readers and writers both recognize what that phrase means to them and why it’s being talked about.

Beautiful bright makeup woman with long curly hair looking sexyOne of the key elements in writing strong female characters (and this applies to writing strong characters of any gender), is understanding the difference between behaviors and personality traits. Behaviors are things a character does (what we do), while a personality trait is how a character behaves, thinks, and feels (what we are). Personality traits are difficult or impossible to alter, while behaviors can be changed.

For too long, “strong female characters” were based on behaviors such as fighting, sarcasm, sexual activity, shunning femininity, using her body for manipulation of others, etc. The personality traits behind these behaviors are much different than the behaviors themselves and are what readers will connect with on a deeper level when they are fully brought into the story.

Consider the list of behaviors above and what personality traits caused or impact the behaviors, and what the sources of the behaviors might be:

MMA Fighter PunchFighting: perhaps the character grew up in a rough home life and had to defend herself from a family member, bully, gangs, etc. Perhaps she was a victim and learned to fight for protection.

Sarcasm: sarcasm may come from insecurities about self, status, a pessimistic worldview, or a sense of humor. It may limit their ability to make friends or have deep relationships.

Sexual activity: This may come from a place of confidence and freedom or a need to please and fill emotional holes. Is it self-destructive or empowering? Does this this affect relationships or self-image?

Shunning femininity: Consider what caused this shunning. It my come from sexual orientation or gender issues, having been victimized and made to feel vulnerable, growing up with masculine role models, insecurity about being seen as feminine or weak, or a genuine dislike for typically feminine activities or looks.

Using the body to manipulate: This may speak to the time/setting and the character’s status in her community or social structure. I may be a learned behavior from a role model, or developed out of survival instinct. A woman could also see this type of a manipulation as a useful tool she sees no problem in utilizing, and possibly even see it as a equalizer with men.

These are only a few considerations, examples, and questions brought up by these behaviors, but they highlight how much more interesting and engaging the personality trait is than the behavior. Readers want to uncover why a character says, does, and thinks the way they do. Developing personality traits rather than only behaviors leads to opportunities for deep backstories and character growth and development.

Any time a character does something, ask why, and integrate the answer into the story and character arc.

Posted in creative writing, reading, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Foreshadowing vs. Foretelling

Foreshadowing is a great way to create anticipation in the reader, but it can easily be confused for foretelling.

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Foretelling is to predict or tell the future before it occurs (a prophecy), while foreshadowing is to presage or suggest something in advance. It’s a subtle difference, but it makes a big difference in a story.

Foretelling is direct and explicitly tells the reader what will occur. While this is more common in young children’s literature, it’s usually not the best choice for other fiction forms. Foretelling takes the discovery away from the reader. It doesn’t make them work to understand the hint and can spoil the mystery or anticipation.

Foreshadowing involves the reader more full yin the story by asking them to put in the effort to not only pick up on the hints given, but remember them and fit them into the rest of the information and events. Readers feel more invested in the story when they feel like they are participating in it.

What do these two look like in fiction? Here are a few examples:

detective-152085_1280Foretelling: Had I known the darkness forming in my mind weren’t my own thoughts, I would have attempted to defend myself.

Foreshadowing: These thoughts feel so foreign, but I can’t deny they’re in my mind, constantly nudging and pushing me to see Alex’s words and actions more clearly.

In the first example, the reader is told the dark thoughts come from an external source and the character has lost control of their own mind. This asks the reader to do no work and requires them to simply wait for the character to realize the manipulation or see how it all shakes out. Reader investment and participation is very low.

In the second example, there is a hint that the dark thoughts aren’t usual for the character, but is contrasted by the hint that the change might be needed…if Alex’s words and actions truly are harmful. This creates anticipation because the reader doesn’t know for sure whether the character is being manipulated or is starting to see things more clearly. This creates a sense of wariness and anticipation to figure out the truth. Readers will pay more attention to find more clues and figure out the mystery. Reader engagement and investment is high.

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Tips for writing a great hook

Writing a great hook takes headaches, crying, and endless rewrites.

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Below are a few things to keep in mind while crafting a stand-out hook

A great hook catches readers’ attention

• Write something that startles the reader: “Shaye Archer’s life effectively began the night police found her in an alley, beaten and abused and with no memory of the previous fifteen years, not even her name.” Malevolent by Jana DeLeon
• Open with the inciting incident: “When Willow is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, her parents are devastated—she will suffer hundreds of broken bones as she grows, a lifetime of pain.” Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
• Create intrigue: “Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author’s hometown, a heart-pounding novel of suspense about a small Minnesota community where nothing is as quiet—or as safe—as it seems.” Unspeakable Things by Jeffrey Eugenides

A great hook catches readers’ attention

• Introduce something ominous: “A bloodthirsty sheriff is terrorizing a small Texas town where justice has been buried with his victims.” In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz
• Make the characters sympathetic and relatable: “What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be…well…a lot less than the man of her dreams?” The Princess Bride by William Goldman
• Capture the reader’s heart “Every so often a love story so captures our hearts that it becomes more than a story—it becomes an experience to remember forever.” The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

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Posted in characters, contemporary romance, creative writing, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

HEA, HFN, and Realism

In most romance subgenres, happily ever after endings are a requirement. What exactly is an HEA ending, and how does it differ from an HFN or happy for now ending?

HEA and HFN both end happily. The main differences between them are for how long and on what terms will the characters be or remain happy?

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HEA’s simplest definition is that everything turns out for the best for the protagonists and any side characters. If there is an antagonist, they get what they deserved. HEA leaves the reader confident the happiness will continue long term with no major roadblocks or disasters.

HFN is often consider a more realistic type of ending. Not everything is perfect, but it’s pretty good for the moment and the circumstances. The protagonists’ lives have improved to a satisfying level, even if it isn’t the end goal and may not be permanent.

Now, let’s discuss making HEAs a little less predictable and, let’s admit it, less cheesy.

Make the characters work HARD for their HEA.

No quick resolutions or easy forgiveness. Leave the reader doubting it will happen right up to the last second. The “work” may be external or internal.

External work might be distance, others who keep them apart, lies or mistrust, etc. Internal work is a character overcoming internal issues, such as past hurts, commitment phobias, or held secrets.

Whatever type of work a character must do to reach their HEA, give them roadblocks and roller coaster ups and downs. Any time it starts to feel like things are getting to easy for them, hit them with another one that pushes them back a few steps.

Put a twist on a trope.

Romance has plenty of tropes to chose from. The difficulty is often making them unique and not just another Disney ending. HEA doesn’t always have to end with a kiss, sex, or a proposal.

What else signifies commitment? Exchanging house/apartment keys, adopting a pet, meeting family, etc.

The important thing to remember here is that the twist has to make sense and be relevant to the character’s arc. If a character is open and welcoming by nature, introducing her new love to her family at the end isn’t much of a twist, or very exciting. However, for a character who’s had to work through major issues with her domineering mother and has trouble opening her private life to people, introducing a new love to her mother would be a big step that showed trust and commitment.

Try unique situation and settings.

Very few real relationships reach the HEA moment over a candle-lit dinner or during a grand romantic gesture. Take a page out of reality and spice up a conversation over pizza or taking a walk and falling in love with a house listed for sale. Look for everyday moments that can be made special.

I love the scene from The Office when Jim proposes to Pam at a gas station. It’s a powerful moment, not only because it’s unexpected, but because his previous attempts at a grand gesture kept getting messed up and he simply couldn’t wait to start his life with her any longer.

Make the reader wait.

Whether this is a planned meeting that gets held up and makes a character doubt, a tough decision that is held off until the last moment, a sacrifice the reader isn’t sure a character will make, or something else, a pause before the HEA can up the reader’s anticipation.

In most romances, the reader knows there will be an HEA, but they don’t know how it will happen. If you’ve developed a strong story arc, every time the MCs get close, they’re pushed back apart, making the reader doubt their ideas of how it will all play out. Keep this up until the big moment. Then you can follow it up with a glimpse of what their HEA looks like long term.

One last note…

Make sure each character has their OWN happy ending before their relationship gets a happy ending. HEAs are even more unrealistic when the characters haven’t shown enough development for a reader to believe “true love” will last forever.

This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, but they DO have to be capable of sustaining a long-term, committed relationship. Each character should have their own development arc and need to reach the climax of that arc before the story/relationship arc can reach it’s own climax.

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Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Writing a well-crafted ending readers will love

One of the worst endings to a TV series, for me, is still “Lost,” but it provides some good lessons in what not to do when crafting the ending of a story or series.

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Every subplot has to be relevant and tied up at the end. Readers hate being left with unanswered questions. When dealing with a series, of course some subplots span multiple books, but they still need to be resolved by the end of the series. Don’t introduce a subplot simply because you feel a chapter is lacking and you need to add something interesting. First, make sure it’s relevant to the main storyline and then follow the subplot to its conclusion to see if it is worth incorporating. Every subplot should have its own complete arc.

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Keep your subplots manageable. Every story has subplots to provide characters with a fuller life and help them grow and move toward their ultimate goal in stages. However, this can easily get out of hand if you try to develop subplots for every little aspect of the story. How many subplots is too many often depends on the length of the story. Novellas or short stories really can’t handle more than one. An average length book of 60-80k words can usually handle 2-3 subplots. 80k and up can handle 4-5 when the story is complex. Anything more than that runs the risk of leaving unanswered questions and upset readers, unless you’re Robert Jordan.

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Don’t forget what your characters wanted or needed to learn at the beginning. No matter what the story is about, it’s really about the characters. A plotline can’t exist independent of the characters. Maybe the MC needs to solve a mystery, and it’s a plot-driven story, but readers still have to get invested in the character moving through that story, which means the character’s arc has to be tied up as neatly as the story arc. Look back at who the character was at the beginning. Have they changed? Have their achieved their goals? Have they learned something important? If the answer is no to any of these questions, the character hasn’t arrived at the ending along with the plot.

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The ending has to make sense! This doesn’t just apply to avoiding Dues Ex Machina endings where something completely outside the story swoops in and fixes everything at the last second. It also applies to endings that don’t match the characters’ stories or personalities, defy logic, or seem completely unreasonable. Sometimes, you start out with an ending in mind, but the characters and plot elements change while writing. The ending needs to adapt to those changes as well.

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Understanding and choosing the right point of view

When we talk about point of view, what we’re really discussing is the narrative point of view, or how and by whom the story is being told. Let’s review the basics before diving deeper.

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First Person POV has two variations:

First person protagonist where the character narrates his or her own story.

First person observer where a secondary character tells the main character’s story (i.e. Watson narrating Sherlock’s Holmes cases.)

Third Person POV is not told by a character but by an invisible author and has four variations:

Third person omniscient is where an all-knowing narrator tells the story.

Third person dramatic/objective is where the narrator only tells the reader things which could be recorded by a camera or microphone (i.e. no thoughts).

Third person limited is where a narrator tells the story from the perspective of a single character at a time.

Third person deep is where the story is told in the hero’s voice, rather than the author’s voice.

Second person POV is written in present tense and addresses the reader directly:

Second person POV makes the reader the protagonist. The narrator often uses detailed description, shares psychological insights, and tries to anticipate reader reactions.

This in uncommon in teen or adult fiction and is mainly used for young children’s literature.

It’s important to understand why some POVs work better for certain genres or storylines and make changes when something isn’t working. Let’s review points to consider when choosing POV.

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First Person

There are several advantages of writing in first person. It feels natural to many writers, because it’s how we speak about our world and experiences. Dealing with only one narrator’s mind can be easier than writing multiple narrators. It’s an opportunity to create a unique and distinctive internal voice. Because you’re only in one character’s mind at a time, it’s easier to “stay in character.” Readers also get to experience the story vicariously through the character more easily. There is also an opportunity to create an unreliable narrator. First person is also much more intimate than other POVs and can fully immerse a reader in a story.

There are disadvantages as well. You are limited to writing only about what the character can see, know, or hear. The narrator must be in every scene, observing and participating in the story. Minds of other characters are off limits, as is their knowledge about the story unless directly shared with the narrator in some way.

 Second Person

Advantages of this POV are limited. You can create a different feel to a story, and can speak to the reader directly.

The disadvantages are more prevalent, partly because this “uniqueness” often doesn’t sit well with readers and feels too personal. It often gives a juvenile feel to a story.

 Third Person Omniscient

Advantages of this POV include being able write the story as an onlooker watching the full story unfold. You can also add contrasting viewpoints with other characters (NO head hopping, though!). This can give a reprieve to the reader and allow them to see another side of the story. You can expand the scope of the story by moving between settings and viewpoints. You aren’t limited to characters in the story when choosing a narrator, which can provide a unique perspective. This POV also allows the narrator to share his or her own views, but should NEVER slip into second person to do so.

Disadvantages center around the confusion this POV can create when not done with attention to detail. If narrators don’t have a distinct voice, readers may be confused on who is narrating. Switching to other characters can diffuse the tension or excitement when not planned well. It’s also easy to write as the author instead of the narrator. This POV can be more difficult to forge a connection with readers if it comes off as too distant or impersonal.

Third Person Limited

This POV attempts to combine the best of first and third person omniscient. The limited POV allows you to more deeply explore the narrator and forge a stronger connection with the reader without asking them to live out a story with the narrator.

For disadvantages, this POV does limit you to choosing a character as a narrator and limits you to the narrator’s thoughts and experiences.

The distance third person creates between the story and the reader can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the story. Some stories may be too raw or personal and distance is needed to allow the reader to remain at a certain comfort level. However, if in order to fully understand or experience a story, the reader needs to be enveloped in it, the distance of third person may prevent that.

 Third Person Deep

The biggest advantage of the deep perspective is that is attempts to remove distance between narrator and reader. The reader can experience more fully what the narrator is thinking and feeling. It feels more like third person to a reader, but uses third person pronouns, which can be important in following genre conventions.

The main disadvantage is that this is a challenging POV to write and is still gaining traction in some genres.

Consider the last book you read and how it would have changed if written from a different POV.

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Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

The importance of setting in fiction

It’s always good to review the basics before diving deeper, so let’s talk setting. Setting has three major components: social environment, place, and time.

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Social environment will impact the thoughts, actions, and decisions of the characters. A child growing up in an extremely conservative/liberal home will see things differently than someone who was raised more moderately. Place will impact the story by how the characters interact with it and how it shapes their worldview, as well as physical limitations (i.e. an island vs. and mountain town.) Time factors into not only technology, but in self-perception and social rules. A 1950s woman would be much different than a teen in modern time.

There are also two main types of setting: backdrop and integral.

A backdrop setting is not terribly important to the story. The scene could take place anywhere, but happens to be taking place in that spot. This may be a hallway, sidewalk, nondescript café, etc. These settings need minimal description and attention.

An integral setting is one where the time and place influences the theme, character, and action of a story in some way. Animal Farm wouldn’t have been quite the same if it were set in a shoe store. These settings need more in-depth description and development and may even act as an antagonist, such as in survival stories.

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Setting also helps set the mood and atmosphere of a story. The description and the way characters perceive it and interact with it should help develop that tone. The covered bridge in Sleepy Hollow has a very different feel than the Love Lock Bridge in Paris.

When describing setting, Show Don’t Tell becomes very important. Please, please, please don’t spend paragraph after paragraph describing the setting to your reader. Let the reader explore the setting with your character in a way that reveals insights about the character or story.

For example, you can say something about family dynamic by having a teen look through the half-empty kitchen cupboards for cereal that’s on the verge of going stale. It’s a simple detail, but it says a lot about how this teen is living. A character looking in her closet and staring a the only two dresses she owns while getting ready for a job interview informs the reader about her financial situation without having a long discussion about it.

Use setting to help tell readers a story rather than telling the readers where the story is happening.