3 Ways to Build Your Character(s)

If you’re a writer, creating lovable characters is a key element to helping your audience enter into your story. If you’re not a writer, but you’re a reader, you know the pleasure and delight of characters who come alive to you and become friends. If you’re neither a writer nor a reader, I’m so sorry.

So how do you create real-seeming people out of thin air?

One option is to write an exact, precise character description of someone you know and change the name: Rob to Bob, Larry to Harry, Holly to Molly. Writing about a person you have a relationship with is an excellent way to capture personality—but if you’re writing about people who read your stuff, either be careful what you say, or be very clever with your renaming (grumpy old next door neighbor becomes 17-year-old bagger at the local supermarket).

Another frequently used method is to sketch a few attributes into a character, and let them finish the development themselves. As the story develops and you throw your heroine into disastrous situations, see . . .

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Less Words—Greater Impact

I occasionally have the privilege to sit in classes taught by people who have decades more experience at writing and marketing than I do—and it’s always a privilege to learn from them. Today’s course was given by a man who works for a radio station in New Jersey. Here are a few of his key lessons:

  1. Good writing begins in the heart, and reaches the heart.

  2. Noble themes lead to noble words.

  3. To be a better writer, be a better reader.

  4. Be less boring—leave out filler words, predictable phrases, and unsubstantiated claims.

  5. Write to help your reader grow.

  6. People’s brains are fast. Let them fill in their own details.

  7. Cut your adjectives, double your verbs.

  8. Less words equal greater impact.

  9. Don’t mistake style for substance.

  10. Write to your audience like you’re sitting at a table in Starbucks over a latte.

  11. Build word pictures—don’t just spew a bunch of details.

Tripping on a Pothole

Occasionally, utter humiliation is probably healthy.

Today, I was crossing a busy Chicago street in front of a silver Mercedes. While checking the bike lane, I stepped deep into a pothole. Catapulting forward, I did that thing where you’re scrambling on your palms, trying not to completely fall over. My water bottle flew out of my hand and my heels went flying up.

The Mercedes pulled up as I skulked over to the sidewalk, and the driver leaned over and asked,

“Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” brief pause. “I’m fine. Just hurt my pride.”

He grinned.

“I thought you were going down hard!”

I tried to say something pseudo-coherent, but probably failed. He drove off, and another guy crossed the street to ask if I was alright.

Guess maybe I’m not all that and a bag of muffins. Just another Tuesday.

See that crater-sized pothole? My dignity is somewhere in that pit.

See that crater-sized pothole? My dignity is somewhere in that pit.

A Failed Blog Post

I spent a long time (long time = several nights in a row) fighting with three or four paragraphs about writing. Having an idea that you can’t fully communicate is, as every two-year-old knows, grippingly frustrating. It’s annoying. It’s tiring. And it seems to get more complicated, the longer you try to simplify it. Or maybe that’s just me.

Since simpler is often better, I’ll lose the clunky phrases like, “Beyond the dictates of pragmatism and pedantry,” and cut to the main point:

Good writing isn’t just about grammar—it’s about rhythm.

Maybe if I can figure out how to say everything I want to say, I’ll write a P.2. Until then, you can fill in the blanks in your own mind.

How Cookies Relate to Writing*

Every author writes for a different reason.

Some of them want to be rich and famous. Others want to entertain. Many have powerful stories, both made up and real. A few have a message to help their reader. Millions write as a form of self-revelation—they want other people to know about them. Victims write for catharsis, heroes write for fame, zealots write to further their cause . . . Every person with an experience (so everyone in the world) uses writing a little differently.

Categorizing forms of writing could leave us with a multi-paged chart with lots of color coding and asterisks. In the interest of your time and mine, I’ll posit that there are two main reasons that people write.

To help myself: A lot of people write because they’re meeting their own internal need to be heard (maybe this is all of us, to a certain extent). Writing is a form of processing that helps brings thoughts full-circle and engages different parts of the brain. When you’re struggling through something, putting it on paper not only provides an audience—one that always listens and never talks back—but it also lets you see the whole picture. Many books exist that were written purely to help the author process through their own pain, thoughts, and experiences.

To help others: If you knew that the road behind your house took a sharp blind turn and led straight off a cliff, wouldn’t you consider at least putting up a sign? Writing to help others fits into this category. It’s like sharing a secret recipe or a beauty tip. The gain to yourself is minimal, but you’re giving a gift that could change another person’s life. You believe that good news merits spreading, so you spread it.

Often, this kind of writing comes from a deep well of

experience (you’ve made the cookies yourself, lots of times),
observation (you’ve watched other people mess up cookies and you know they could use a better recipe),
and maturity (you’re willing to let someone else at the party bring the very best cookies).

There’s massive end gain in both types of writing—one is personal, one is communal, and both are highly valuable. Take a brief pause today and try doing a little of each one. It’s like doing pushups: hard at first, lots of long-term rewards.

* besides that you should always write with cookies in hand.

The Two Types of Writing

Everyone wants to read for two reasons: either they’re interested in the topic—cars, sports, or real estate—or they feel like the writer understands them and can offer them insight on their feelings (loneliness, marriage, or pain).

Writing for the first group of people is comparatively easy. You become an expert on something. You pour time and energy into studying and developing your knowledge on a subject, so you can constantly mine the wealth of information to teach valuable information. It’s a lot of mental exercise and it takes great determination, but it doesn’t require much heart.

It’s much harder to reach people through their feelings and relational experiences. To write about pain really, really well, you must live through pain. To understand how it feels to be lonely, you must have no friends.

Connecting on an emotional level requires experiencing emotions and learning how to communicate them. You have to engage your heart.

It’s hard. It’s draining. It’s scary to be vulnerable. The emotional labor of empathy is enduring and processing your own pain, then feeling it again for someone else. And that is not easy.

Sharing joy is wonderful—but sharing struggles is what brings people together and helps them grow.

If we can share struggles and together bring them to the One who experienced all pain for us, hard stuff still might not be any easier. Life might not get better overnight. But there is One who sees, Who has given His life for us—and He’s given us each other, to learn from and experience with.

And that is worthwhile.

How to Write an Inflammatory Post

They—who they, you ask? The writer people who know stuff—always say that it’s best to write as if you’re writing to a person you know. Your writing takes on a more personal tone, and you can delve into topics with some expertise.

Naturally, this can be a tricky style. There is plenty of fodder for discussion: Dear Roommate Who Keeps Stealing My Nail Polish or Three Tips for Dealing with Coworkers Who Smoke on Lunch Break, for instance. But maybe you don’t want your coworkers to be angry that you’ve had enough of their aroma. Perhaps your shaky relationship with your roommate started because she sleeps with a big knife by her bed and sometimes she sleepwalks with it (at which point you have bigger problems than the nail polish anyways).

But if you’re burning with a story that you must write, there are five ways to do so discreetly.

Change up the story based on the personality trait. A friend ignores her problems and avoids them by becoming busier and busier till she’s numb to the good and the bad. She could become your bachelor next-door neighbor who never confronts his fears of dying alone by keeping a to-do list longer than his arm, which means he never allows you to set him up on a blind date. The scenarios are different, but the basic principle remains the same: burying your problems in a full schedule doesn’t actually solve anything.

Always be gracious. If you’re telling a story about your know-it-all coworker, use terms like, “well-integrated information” and “clever synthesis of knowledge.” Be sincere rather than sarcastic. Tell the story in a way that honors your coworker, and doesn’t speak ill of them. Writing is cathartic and gracious writing helps develop a gracious perspective.

Ask the person if you can write about them. There’s no better way to diffuse a possibly explosive situation than by getting permission. Don’t ask, “I’d like to write about how you made a fool of yourself in that meeting, can I?” Remember the gracious principle—“How you handled that situation brought up some interesting talking points. May I refer to it in my writing?” If they say yes, cool. Be kind. If they say no, refer to the following.

Write about it for yourself and save it for later. Chances are that in 25 years, you won’t be working and interacting with the exact same people as you are now. An inflammatory article now is an interesting, amusing, and instructive piece when you won’t lose your job because of it (still, 25 years out, remember that gracious thing).

Go anonymous and move to an island in the pacific. And if your words are burning in your heart like a ticking time bomb, take up a pseudonym and house shop off the coast of California.

Why That Project is Taking So Long

Have a big project you haven’t finished? Garrison Keillor has crafted a perfect, absolutely watertight excuse for why it’s not done yet (disclaimer, this rings especially true for us writer-types).

Roman and Leon are brothers growing old together on their farm in Minnesota.

Roman worked, Leon said, as if he could by sheer effort pull the corn up out of the ground and make it grow. Leon said that he worked, too. On a book, though he wasn’t ready to show it to anyone, which would distill the wisdom of the ages into a single volume. This book, when finished, would change people’s minds about him, but he was in no hurry to finish it, knowing that work that lasts comes slow.

Cooking, Poetry, and Losing Friends?

I wanted to write about cooking as poetry, structured on a quote from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, but my copy of the book (and therefore the exact quote) was nowhere to be found. In an apartment that’s circa 500 square feet, that’s a feat.

This derailed my cooking thoughts and prompted me to write about how losing a book is like losing a friend. Then I remembered Dandelion Wine is missing because I loaned it to someone: (verb) what you do when you never want to see your book again.

Now I’m stuck in the middle.

Is this a commentary on cooking as poetry, incomplete without one of my main sources?

Or is it a false disjointed narrative on losing books as losing friends—because my scenario is losing books to friends?

Perhaps I could do a bit of each, but one is like lasagna without the ricotta cheese (a sad, sad entreé) and the other evades any good analogy because it’s talking about A when B is what happened but A’s a good story but it’s not quite the truth (if you can figure out the perfect eight word picture for that, please let me know).

If you’re thoroughly confused about the whole thing, I am too. Maybe it’s just time for pie (poetry and friendship in one).

The Professor's House Back Cover Copy

Based on the back cover copy of The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather, I expected a story about a man who was sad his family moved. The back cover reads,

Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties, who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family’s wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. Combining profound introspection with a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town, The Professor’s House is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal.

After reading the book, this isn’t the back cover copy I would have written (granted, perhaps it was written by a psychologist who’s made a study of the fictional man). From a narrative perspective, although St. Peter is troubled by his family’s move, it’s not the focal point of his concern. I’d write that back cover copy . . .

Teaching at a university and writing books for the last thirty years has worn out Professor Godfrey St. Peter—but so has being married to an intense woman, raising two daughters who hate each other, and watching his future son-in-law die. St. Peter’s uneasiness increases as his wife dictates their move to a larger, more comfortable home, and his daughter and her husband grow wealthy off her deceased fiancé’s discovery. Travel this wearying emotional journey with a lonely man who’s unwilling to leave the house that’s become closer to him than his family. You’ll learn a deeper understanding for the heart of a father, the complexities of friendship, and the soul of a man who gradually loses his will to live.