You Gotta Get Behind Your Character


Illustration by Robin Follet. Minerda.

There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)

I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).

I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.

Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.

Me and Minerva Mae

Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.

You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.

As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul.  The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls.  I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.paper-pen2

When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?

Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.

Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.

Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.

I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.

There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.

Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.

The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.




You’re So Pathetic…Let Me Kick Start You!

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Albert Einstein

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein 

Image found here

Ever looked pityingly upon a fellow human and thought, “Oh, you’re so pathetic”? This person might be one who plays the victim; one who willingly lies down like a doormat; a person who runs his car into the same ditch again and again and when stuck in a rut, cries up to you for help, saying, “Why me?”

The problems and the response of these individuals forever remain the same. The complaints always strike the same chord. The response you have is also the same: you wanna shake ’em.

(Of course I would never behave that way, we think. The mote in someone else’s eye is so much more compelling to spot.)

But the pathetic behavior of human beings–our tendency to keep knocking our heads against the same door–is a lesson about what we ought NOT to write and why we drop certain books. As my agent has coached me, we don’t want to hear about Wendy’s woes for too much of the book before we see her take action. Having just seen Lisbeth Salander kick a– and take names in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I’ve taken a few notes about powerful characters and why we need catalyst behavior in our stories.

Here are some tips for kick-starting your characters into New Year’s resolutions of new behavior. Get them off their I’m-such-a-sorry-soul track and into action that forces them out of their consistency, their comfort zone:

  • Write a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger and forces your character to choose Door A or Door B. Originally, I thought HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT would be a wovel (web novel) where I’d enlist readers help, giving the readers the vote of Door A or Door B? at the end of every chapter. That forced me to write a compelling first 50 pages, where each chapter ended at a crucial point in the action–either a defining moment, where the reader must digest something big, or a cliffhanger, a moment where the reader says, “Hmm, just a few pages more.”
  • Have your character encounter a person who is a foil–opposite in thought, action, family background, speech–and makes your character highly uncomfortable. In my novel, Wendy runs into two foils within the first 20 pages: her sworn enemy since seventh grade, the local Paris Hilton popular girl, and an evangelical Christian/BMOC, the school’s quarterback. The differences between Wendy and these two are great enough that sparks automatically fly.
  • Make a list of your characters’ intellectual and emotional traits and color code them by theme. For me, I could list the following characteristics for Wendy: gifted, highly verbal, analytical, argumentative, and all of those I might color blue. Another set of her characteristics are shy, defensive, suspicious–color those yellow. Then there is her angry and rageful side; there’s the sad and suicidal; there are the traits of creativity and her passion for research and writing. Red, green. I now have a rainbow. Does the plot of your story test every color in your characters’ rainbow?
  • Make a list of heart-clutching moments that can turn your character’s comfort zone upside down. In “How to Make Your Novel a Page-Turner,” Writer’s Digest author Elizabeth Sims gives some fantastic advice to keep the reader engaged, awake, and caring. She advises that your protagonist must survive tests of heart-clutching trials. You might want to print her list and keep it near your computer).

I’m not saying great art can’t be about the pathetic, dithering, wondering, worried, and paralyzed folk. Doesn’t Holden whine and wander for much of Catcher? Doesn’t Emma pound her head against a wall with well-intentioned but mistaken match-making in Jane Austen’s tale? Doesn’t Hamlet have a bit of trouble taking action? Doesn’t Lily Bart fall from grace for the entirety of The House of Mirth (and so very gracefully)? But what’s interesting about these stories is that we a) like the characters, b) believe the characters are doing the best they can, and c) enjoy watching them get into all kinds of scrapes avoiding the truth they refuse to see. It also helps that these authors (Salinger, Austen, Shakespeare, Wharton) were masters of scene and summary, style and image. If we can bring all that to the page, by all means, let your characters sit tight in the same spot for a few more scenes!

There’s also a distinct artistic choice to catalog the repetitive trials a pathetic, dis-likeable soul for many pages for the sheer art of all of the above–but frankly, I can only handle it with Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A poem can contain just the right dose of pathetic, and then my tastes lean toward active heroes for the long haul of a novel.

In everyday life, pathetic behavior is understandable. After all, society often demands conformity. The road not taken is not what the neighbors and in-laws and family advise. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t alarm the neighbors. Color inside the lines!

But that’s everyday life and many of us don’t want to read about that. Gimme a break; gimme a hero, dark or otherwise. Iago and Lady Macbeth and Ewell might leave rack and ruin behind them, but by God, they did something before they died. Meanwhile, the Othellos and Macduffs and Atticuses left the world better than they found it. And it was fascinating to watch.

Writing Prompts

  • When are you most pathetic? Why? Write the stream-of-consciousness of your pathetic thoughts and paralyzed behaviors, letting someone enter inside your head in these moments.
  • Look at Elizabeth Sims’ list of heart-clutching moments for characters. In what situation have you found yourself in your life? Write that scene from memory with all the sensory detail you can muster.
  • Now rewrite that scene with a different beginning, middle, or end. Write it the way you wish things had gone; write it with you having different character traits or responses in the moment.
  • Write about someone who is your foil and how this person brings out the best or worst in you.
  • What are your least desirable traits of character? Your most admirable? In what situations have you seen both emerge? Write parallel scenes from your life where different sides of your character have been most evident. 
  • Can your protagonist be accused of being pathetic? When? Why? If you can’t see it, ask yourself where your character takes a new, significant action in the novel that he or she normally would not take. Now count the number of pages from page 1 where this action occurs. If you’re over 50 pages, go back and write a catalyst scene where your character is forced to do something seemingly “out of character” but required by the heart-clutching moment.
  • Find your favorite novel and pinpoint chapter ends that insist on page turns. See Sims’ list (the section titled, End Chapters with a Bang), and categorize the craft at work at the end of these scenes. Now turn to an end of one of your chapters–or all chapters in the first 50 pages of your novel–and see if your chapters accomplish the same thing.
  • What is the most appealing and least desirable characteristic your protagonist has? Have you let your protagonist show both those characteristics? Where? How? If not, write a scene where both traits emerge.

How Distance Kills a Darling

Alysse Finkel sees me do it but doesn’t say a word. She’s thin, pointy, and gray like a mouse, but she ripples all over like a cat resisting a rub. I think it’s a giggle. 
This one might be Good People.

— Wendy in draft #7 of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought

I thought I’d never give Alysse up. Never. But now she’s dead.

Don’t worry: she’s only a figment, a former character in my novel who’s now a killed darling. She was a weirdo and I loved her, a lot.

Through conversations with my agent, I’ve realized that I need to streamline. Fewer characters allowed to develop fully leads to clarity of structure and robustness of storyline, never mind better momentum.

What’s hard is when one of those characters was “there at the creation.” Alysse did kick the whole show off, rescuing Wendy at a key moment.

“This act will cost you your soul,” says a voice.Everyone turns. It’s Alysse, steps away to my right.Koyt says, “What the hell?”Deanna says to her girls, “Who the hell’s that?” like they’re Wiki Wenches on demand. They shrug, like, We didn’t authorize her existence.Alysse Finkel’s eyes burn like hot coals. You can’t call her pretty, but she’s incandescent, she’s about to burst into flame. I swear Deanna backs up a step. 

But that’s my illusion. I was there at the creation, as was the heroine, Wendy. Wendy is the catalyst for her triumphs and total fails. When I look back to see whodunnit in the first 10 pages, Wendy is the star. And that’s how it should be.

Which is one reason why Alysse needs to go. If she’s there at the creation but not there for the clean-up, but not part of the crew who brings things home–then sorry, she just needs to go. She can’t light up things like a torch and then fade away with weak flickers halfway through. That’s what I allowed when I couldn’t quite cut her from the beginning. But then I figured out who might take her place.

The frame of your story–first and last pages–tell you who matters in your story. If my ending got rewritten to remove Alysse, then the beginning must also be rewritten without her. That’s the demand of this particular story. I can’t sew things together like a crazy quilt, hoping that the mix with her still in it is going to match the rest of the changed manuscript.

Once I got brave enough to let go, a road opened up. All of sudden, the way got wide and I began to see new scenes. That solution to the problem is worth its own blog. In this one, I just have to bemoan the emotional impact, the wrestling I had with it. My agent advised, Take her out, but I couldn’t listen. I had to go through with one draft with Alysse still stuck there until the next round of comments showed me it really was time for her to move along.

Have you had to be similarly brave, or have fictional deaths and disappearances gone easier for you?

Writing Prompts

  1. What’s the harshest cut you’ve ever made to your manuscript? The kindest cut?
  2. What is the hardest thing you’ve wrestled with during revision?
  3. Create a character. Give this person a full profile–personality replete with quirks, enough reality to walk this earth, a family and history, total physicality. Write 10 scenes with this person. Have him or her make friends, lose friends, fall in love, triumph with a dream, and fail miserably.
  4. Now kill this character. Design his or her demise or make him or her a missing person. 
  5. Just kidding. Don’t do #3 or #4 unless you absolutely have to.
  6. What novel or story have you read where a character might have been “streamlined out,” thus improving the story? Why?
  7. Rank your top three favorite characters in a beloved novel or story and argue why an author could never remove them from the tale.
  8. Now do the same for one of your stories. Look at the top three and ask yourself about numbers 4, 5, and 6. Why might they be able to leave the tale and no one’s really worse for wear?

Foiled at Every Turn

“We are what we are.” Felix Ungar to Oscar Madison, The Odd Couple

Sick with stuffy nose and post-Thanksgiving collapse, I flipped the channel to Turner Classic Movies so I could zone out with some soft lighting, calm music, and old-school story. I got that plus a great lesson in characterization. If you aspire to write great characters, see the 1968 film or read the frequently reprised play, The Odd Couple by Neil Simon.

Watch Felix move through a scene without saying more than twenty words–how he throws out his back in the midst of a suicide attempt or clears his sinuses with OCD flair in the middle of a diner. You’ll see how Simon paints character through wonderfully excessive physicality.

Observe the poker game in Oscar Madison’s disgusting home full of ancient pizza slices and dust bunnies the size of cats, and see how a group of secondary characters (at first just sweaty, surly, unimpressive men) become a gaggle of high-drama hysterics at the prospect of Felix being suicidal. Simon understands how to sweep broad strokes with his brush, then come back and fill in the shadows, the light, the muscles, the heart and soul. Each man is unique with every word, twitch, grunt. We end up caring about all of them. Not one character is needless background, merely warming a seat. Everyone matters.

But the main reason The Odd Couple should be subject of study for all writers is how it serves metaphorically for a golden rule of characterization, every time a conversation erupts in your story. Oscar and Felix are drawn together, magnetically, for a reason, so this story can be told: they push and pull upon each other, yanking the blinders off, hot lamping and shadowing, lifting up and squashing down. These guys go from friendship to enemies in the course of a conflict that peaks in silent stand-off (yet another instance of Simon’s slapstick, purely physical comedy that says more than any words). These guys foil one another in mere movement–even in every breath Felix takes. Who can’t relate to that? There has been at least one person in our lives whose neck we wanted to wring.

Watch Oscar and Felix at work. They are what they are in perfect contrast to each other, and in their short stint as each other’s “wives” they learn how they each need to grow a little bit more each other’s direction. Then go write your next dialogue between any two characters. What’s at stake? Who’s wanting what, and how are each in the way of these wants?

Foil, foil, foil each other, all you characters in our fiction. Let that fresh conflict ensue in every scene. Even two best friends in a story should enhance each other’s differences; how?

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is another fantastic read for studying just this skill. Beneatha, Ruth, Walter, and Mama are masters of foiling another, and like Oscar and Felix, their entrapment in a small space escalates the conflicts. Even if you’re not much into writing dialogue, remember that when your characters do speak and when scenes do unfold, foil is the operative word. Someone must be stopped in the achievement of his goal; someone must be prevented from getting exactly what she wants. Otherwise, we won’t stick around till the end.

If you just can’t pick up another book this holiday rush, make a New Year’s resolution to support your local community theater. Consider seeing a play like taking a class in characterization. Playwrights get the complete urgency of foiled characters with the restless audience waiting to be entertained. I personally can’t wait to see Amadeus from PlayMakers along with the NC Symphony this weekend. I know I won’t only get fabulous theater and incredible music; I’ll get another example of character foiled again: Mozart, full of mania and graceless humor, but so genius the world itself could not bear him. Talk about obstacles. Man versus self, man versus world. Foils everywhere you look.

Watch a play, see a film, and take note. See what these characters are and make that black and white in the places where you can. You are already doing this in your writing, or you wouldn’t feel the momentum, and no doubt, you need to do it more.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who is interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

1. Who or what in your life is your biggest foil? Why? How?
2. Think of a favorite character in your book and write about who foils him or her the most. Write a letter to the character about how to handle this foil, or, write a letter of complaint ot the foil.
3. Start a story with this line, “Curses! (Insert your own expletive) Foiled again!”
4. Make a list of how your protagonist is a hero to some and a villain to others. Every character has a beef with someone. Then make a list of how your protagonist is a foil to every person s/he meets. Write a scene exploring at least of these items on the list.
5. The Day from Hell happens to everyone. What’s one day where you were foiled at every turn? Write that story.
6. Write an acrostic poem using FOILED AGAIN as the phrase to generate one sentence about every character in your story (as many characters as you can address). Each sentence must address how the character foils or is foiled.

Filed Under: characters, conflict, contrast, dialogue, foils  

Pallid Characters That Leap Off the Page

Alice Munro has a gift for making a wallflower leap off a page.

“Red Dress–1946” is a short story from Munro’s collection Dance of the Happy Shades that sings a siren song to a reader, even though the protagonist is somewhat feeble and fumbling, as thirteen year-olds often are.

Why would we follow a shade of a girl who isn’t aggressive, angry, or mischievous like, say, Scout Finch? Scout throws punches, says the unmentionable, and leaves us wanting more. Meanwhile, Munro’s character doesn’t even have a name. So how does Munro make us care about Pallid Polly (what we’ll have to call her going forward)?

1. The secondary characters surrounding the protagonist yearn hard after something. There is the mother, who dolls her daughter up in costumes of Victorian lace, Scottish plaid, or embroidered peasant blouses with black-lace bodices. There are boy-crazy girls infesting the high school dance, too, ones the angry Mary Fortune slams, an upperclassman who gives PP a cigarette. Her motto: “Live dangerously.” She invites PP on what might be more date than outing. Everywhere in PP’s world swirls hot, angry, and sad desire, and some is projected straight onto her limp, acquiescing body. She almost leaves the dance with Mary but is stopped by Raymond Bolting, a boy in her class: “He was in my way…He thought I meant yes. He put his hand on my waist and almost without meaning to, I began to dance.”

2. The protagonist finds her desire in counterpoint to everyone else’s, and that tension is interesting. PP wants only to miss this first dance, moving inexorably toward her. Because she is a nervous wreck in high school, unable to keep from trembling at the board, at being called on, in any instance, the dance looms like a horror. She invents a desperate measure to thwart it:

I started getting out of bed at night and opening my window a little. I knelt down and let the wind, sometimes stinging with snow, rush in around my bared throat. I took off my pajama top. I said to myself the words “blue with cold” and as I knelt there, my eyes shut, I pictured my chest and throat turning blue, the cold, greyed blue of veins under the skin.

It’s this sick desire for illness that resonates with everyone who has ever taken the path most twisted when they don’t dare buck the system.

3. The setting vibrates with anxiety and lust. Most readers are ready to sign up for this ride, just to rubberneck and snap a photo. After describing a humiliating moment where her male classmates reduce their young English teacher to tears, PP explains the school in deft exposition of teen angst:

But what was really going on in the school was not Business Practice and Science and English, there was something else that gave life its urgency and brightness. That old building, with its rock-walled clammy basements and black cloakrooms with pictures of dead royalties and lost explorers, was full of the tension and excitement of sexual competition, and in this, in spite of daydreams of vast successes, I had premonitions of total defeat.

The photo we snap is one of ourselves. Who hasn’t walked into a situation with total dread of failure?

4. The angst feels epic because PP carries someone else’s happiness in her hands. No spoilers here: Just read the whole story, and then embrace those final lines. You’ll feel sad and yet fulfilled.

I wish I could say, Here’s the straight formula–here’s the step-by-step science of it all, but it’s not as simple as my four points. They are a start for those of us who would make our writing great. And if we must have a Dull Dina, a Wimpy Wanda, or a Pallid Polly serving as protagonist, then something must happen, something must matter. Munro shows us one way to make it so.

Filed Under: characters  

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? Avoiding Literary Chateaus

The other day when Facebook tested me to see if I was real and not a robot before I posted a link, I received this challenge: type

literary chateaus.

Hmm, I thought. That sounds possible (as opposed to “morph zeitgeist” or “flared hemlock”). In fact, it sounds a lot like the castles of fancy-schmancy phrases I build in the air of my prose, just because I love the sound of ’em.

Note to self: whether in draft 8, 9, or 2000 of a story, listen up for those literary chateaus. Then sweep away those castles that don’t fit your character’s point of view.

This is particularly challenging when writing third-person limited. We forget that everything is through the lens of that one character we’ve decided to follow. We can’t let stray narration creep in that sounds like us or worse, the thesaurus.

Here’s an outtake from my writing: Andy, the protagonist of my story “Facing It,” is riding with his wife in the car. A song comes on the radio. I, not Andy, write: “‘Tainted Love’ warbled its mournful anthem about obsessive pain.”

Andy, due to Asperger syndrome*, has trouble distinguishing gradations of emotion (“mournful” and “sad” are to him, essentially, the same thing). He has difficulty reading social cues. He also doesn’t like music a whole lot unless his wife says she likes something, and then he’ll listen. All these character details I’d established prior to this moment.

So all of a sudden, the guy calls a song “mournful”? He can’t bond with Soft Cell’s lead singer as he “warbles.”

Andy is also a science teacher whose idol is objectivity.


New line: “‘Tainted Love’ blasted the car.”

Now that sounds more like Andy. It’s his voice, not mine, that needs to drive this story. Of course, all of it comes through my lens, but writers want the reader to disappear into the work, forget the storyteller, and not ask, “Who’s talking now?”

There are so many levels to revision, and the “sound check” is just one of them.

By the way, note to Facebook: it’s “chateaux,” not “chateaus.” If you’re going to demand proof of humanness, then spell it the way French humans do.

*I am still learning much about Asperger’s and welcome any corrections if I need to consider other characterizations. My understanding is that the syndrome can have a lot of diverse manifestations. The love or lack of love of music may be one of them and isn’t necessarily related to the syndrome.

Filed Under: characters, point of view, voice  

Getting to Know Them: How to Birth a Character

“He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up their privacy. And they refused–without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth. Then, they seemed to be complaining, they would give him all he wished for and much more than he was now willing to imagine.”

–James Baldwin, Another Country

I’m about to submit a short story that in draft eight finally tells some truth.

When I first began, I didn’t know what Andy Swindon’s deal was. My main character moved like those horrible wind-up toys in the Pristiq commercial for antidepressants. Draft one Andy, robotic and distant, awaited the day when I’d figure out what nerve to press.

I found that nerve in his mother: her torturous methods of upbringing and her chastising Andy for being too affectionate as a boy. I found that nerve in his karaoke days with his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife–the woman whose opinion he values above his own. Back story exposed the network of feeling and began to melt his plastic surface. Desire put the gleam in his eye.

I also found it in his diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome. Never in the story do I label him, because it’s likely that no one–parent, teacher, wife–ever had a name for Andy’s ways and means. He’s made it through life quite successfully sans diagnosis.

Andy’s character is also not his syndrome, just as that label doesn’t suit a real human, though it may inform most every move and thought. Maybe I’ll write a story someday where a diagnosis is stated outright. But here, his syndrome manifests the same way the heaviest weight of the iceberg creaks beneath the surface, a shadow with hints darkening the depths.

None of this about Andy I knew when I started. First I had to hear questions from colleagues who read the early drafts and didn’t get Andy’s deal. Second, I kept those questions right in front of me as I drove and revised and did dishes and revised and showered and revised. That’s the best kind of multi-tasking–a repetitive task that frees up one’s mind to strategize. Third, I forced myself to print out a new draft and read it very carefully, at least three different times. Then months later, draft 8 evolved. And I may not be quite done yet; we’ll see how these hard-copy edits go.

Yet I am very proud of Andy, v8. My little Frankenboy, my Pinocchio, he’s alive, he’s alive!

James Baldwin’s quotation describes the agony of a writer, Vivaldo, trying to birth his novel. The characters are Vivaldo’s children. He can’t, much as he wants, place them in foster care. They will cling to him till he finds a way to tell their truth. This process will take at a minimum months but better yet, years.

It’s a marathon, and in this way, a bit like parenting.

Filed Under: characters, writing process  

Why Follow?

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
– Ray Bradbury

If you love a character enough, you’ll follow her anywhere.

Mad Men’s final episode summed up this truth: my favorites will all be back next Sunday, to form a rogue offshoot of Sterling Cooper ad agency. And you can bet I’ll be there, ready for the live event despite the plenitude of DVR options. I want to hang out with these people in my so-called real time.

Quick sidebar: what is it with sociopathic yet empathetic antiheroes? Tony Soprano, then Don Draper. I love to hate their flaws and yet I don’t want to see them hurt. How is that?

I’ve fallen in love with several other crazies and quirkies on various TV crime shows. How can I not follow the brusque, hard-shelled Mary of In Plain Sight who spits out one-liners to keep the ever-devoted, ever-philosophical Marshall Mann close yet at bay? Then there’s her dynamic with her endearing family of dysfunctional addicts. I love the exchanges between hipster-hacker-nerd Garcia and superhero, brooding protector Morgan on Criminal Minds. Oh, and what about forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth? The Mentalist? My goodness, I have so many friends to track…

So as I trail my TV loves, I have to ask, Why should someone fall in love with my novel’s character?

Revision forces this question. Here are four strategies that work in getting my answer.

1) I ask, What back story fuels this present moment? While driving, while cleaning, I invent Wendy, the protagonist of my novel, at ages five, seven, and 15. (It helps she’s only 16.) Characters with back story—especially serious scars—have that other kind of character you want to track.

I also keep in mind that not all back stories are equal. In the first drafts, one is tempted to tell it all, but I have an easy solution for my long-windedness: the Out-Takes File. Dump each body there, every single darling. Don’t how care how good it is if it’s just a tangent. I often don’t know that till draft four or five.

2) I demand at each plot twist, WWWD? (What Would Wendy Do?) Not, what do my readers want, what do critics want, what do friends want, but what would this character do now, by her own internal logic and particular brand of crazy? That makes her magnetic rather than dull; intriguing, rather than rote.

3) I listen for her voice in counterpoint to others during dialogue. How does Wendy speak around her mother? Her love interest? Her nemesis? Her new best friend? How elevated is her diction? How long are her sentences? Crafting this down to the very word makes readers’ ears perk up.

4) I force her to face a fork in the road as often as I can. This is new for me, who’s more of a character author than a plot author. In my past efforts, I’d a series of character anecdotes, string ’em together, and call it a novel. Fortunately, when I conceived of the novel, I had intentions to make it a wovel — a web novel where each installment ended in a decision point and readers would have to choose plot direction A versus B. Though the novel hasn’t been uploaded, I wrote the first half with this driving energy, and it paid off. I had to follow her through each adventure, even at 5:00 AM.

Sidebar #2: It helps my writing immensely to watch crime shows because they never can afford a weak plot. Meanwhile, I read quite differently: I’m a huge fan of Jane Austen, a new fan of Richard Russo, and Elizabeth Strout.

Finally, a clarification: the question — Why should someone fall in love with my character?– does not precede the act of creation. First, I hear a voice, and I start to write. I heard Wendy’s voice with its clinical, sarcastic edge, hiding her alienation, and I had to follow. I saw the freak front, the mask and the glove of her Michael Jackson obsession, and I had to get it down. Then soon I saw all her reasons why.

Which characters will you follow to the ends of the TV and literary earth, and why?

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts

• If you could pick any book or movie character to be your best friend, who would it be? If you could pick any book or movie character to be your worst enemy, who would it be? Now write a scene where you two get into some kind of trouble or end up helping someone. What happens?
• What person do you most admire? Why? What has this person done that you would like to do?
• Create a character for your own book. List all the qualities he or she has that you believe other kids would really like. Write the first chapter of your book.
• Finish this sentence by adding 50 words: I would love to follow…Or…I would never follow

Secondary & Adult Prompts

• Which fictional character could you easily consider a friend or enemy? Imagine a scene where you can talk to this person in real life. Where would you be, and what would you discuss? What would you do?
• Examine a piece of writing where you have described a fictional character or a real person. Highlight in one all the places where you show the admirable parts of the person; then highlight in another color the flaws of the person. Write a short analysis of why your reader would be interested in reading about this person, for both the positive and negative traits.
• What person, living or dead, do you most admire? Why? What has this person done that you would be willing to follow or imitate?
• Create a character who is a satirical portrait of any trends and fads you see as superficial. Make your character a social commentary of what NOT to follow.
• Finish this sentence by adding 100 words: I would love to follow…Or…I would never follow
• Have you ever written a character you just had to follow? Why do you think you enjoyed describing and tracking this character so much?

Filed Under: characters  

Surviving the Crytique

“It may be unfair to celebrate a writer for being so publicly rejected and railed against, but 40 years’ perspective should allow us to credit Styron for taking the risk of writing “The Confessions” and to appreciate the courage of the 10 writers who dissected it in searing detail. Their confrontation helped shatter the idea that there can or should be one version of “how slavery was”; now we have a hundred different versions — some omnipresent, some long silenced, some real, some fictional — telling a messier, trickier, less comforting story. This may not be the “common history” James Baldwin spoke of, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”

Jess Row, “Styron’s Choice” (thanks to my colleague Bob Mustin, writer and blogger, who shared this article with me)

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 264, 264. 3099 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 938

Critics and critiques. William Styron could speak to them. We need critics in a civil, democratic society that values dialogue and progress. Writers need to hear what works and what doesn’t when they make art. All of us need to dialogue about what’s Good, what’s Bad, what Matters. But what happens when critiques are “cry-tiques,” as my dad calls them – lists of all the wrongs the artist has committed with no celebration, recognition, or suggestions for growth? Why is it that so often the outcome of critique is tears?

We need to pause briefly for station identification: this writer is what you call a Quick Crier. I tear up at commercials. (I am impervious to Lifetime movie plotlines, if that gives me any credibility.) Knowing my high sensitivity may negate the import of my comments for some, but I’d like to argue that my susceptible antennae add weight to this dialogue. Sensitivity, as long as it works both ways, helps a critic anticipate how criticisms will be received. I’ve met critics who lack this gift and this habit of mind. Yet it can be taught. So listen up, critics, the Teach is talking. She’s talking about a certain type of critic — the editor or the professor — who needs to think more with the soul.

When your calling is to edit, a twofold mission of critique and coach, you can’t abandon the latter task. Some editors and teachers aren’t even aware their second job is coaching. They give their all to scrutinizing the work as if it’s already published and deal only in harshness. They pick up a red megaphone and begin hazing. This type of critic’s cry is so loud as to drown out the original work. So in love with the sound of his own voice, such a critic can’t imagine the purpose of the writer’s work nor the toil it took to get there. She is too busy talking at the artist, uninterested in any sort of exchange.

After my years of teaching tender egos in middle and high school classrooms, I am schooled in one thing: don’t kill the spirit of the future writer. Nurture it. Send the child back to that drawing board to try, try, try again. I don’t care how old you are or how bad you are at your artistic endeavor; if you have the desire to try again and you’re willing to listen, that’s all I need to coach you. If you believe in Edison’s mantra of 99% perspiration to 1% inspiration, full of earnest, well-meaning effort willing to surrender a work to comment, nay, pay for a critique, there is no need for you to go home crying. You should return home pumped to run the next scrimmage, to lift some weights, to spend the years it may take to get things better. No one’s promising you’ll get drafted to years in the pros with million-dollar glory. What I’m promising is that I’ll help you get better, taking you from where you are now to the next level. Coaching is teaching. So you can’t just call the play and pass the ball; you must show someone how to do those things.

When I submitted a manuscript of many pages and many years to a freelance editor, also a published author, my pages were returned with a deep sigh, “It’s sooooo long,” (as if I had done her, a paid professional, a disservice) followed by a long list of my wrongs. I asked and looked for direction but could not find any specific suggestions. For example, I would have really appreciated, “Let’s look at this passage and what I mean by ‘overwritten.’ Here you have a line of dialogue and then here you repeat yourself with five lines of interior monologue, saying the same thing. Cut, cut, cut.” There were no such specifics. I did get a few generalizations of “Revisit the plot and think about what this story’s really about.” Then the critique turned wildly personal. “I can’t stand your main character,” this editor said. Okay, I said. What can’t you stand? “I found her impulsive and rudderless.” (I’m paraphrasing here because I’m pretty sure that one of those words is not in my editor’s vocabulary, and there was my first mistake: not vetting the literary background of this editor. Though a published writer, she has neither professional editing credentials nor a college background that might have schooled her before undertaking an enterprise as serious as editing. Yet her Web site advertises her editing skills. Caveat Emptor.)

If I sound like a snob, stop right there, since I’ve never believed a college degree confers wisdom, empathy, or good sense. But like John Gardner says, college should teach you about academic discussion and Socratic dialogue. It should teach you to keep an open mind when dealing in ideas. Being told in tones of high umbrage, nay, disgust, that your protagonist is impulsive and rudderless and then, with an actual sneer, “If I had children in a public school, I’d never send them to this teacher,” is not objective critique. It’s a fair judgment — for a parent choosing his child’s school. But what does that isolated comment, sans follow-up, sans constructive criticism, have to do with the craft of writing? A flawed character and a badly-crafted character aren’t the same beast. The real questions to explore instead are, Do this characters’ flaws matter to the story? Is the story of this flawed person’s journey inherently interesting or significant, or are the flaws such – or the descriptions such – that they impede the story’s progress?

Here’s what the editor could have told me:

“I found myself repelled by your character’s impulsivity and rudderlessness. I wanted to see her think before she acted at least once. I wanted to have more faith in her. Does it matter to you that her actions of x, y, and z reduce her credibility? Is that your intent, to paint a picture of a character who’s a novice, rudderless teacher? Also, I found plot events, fueled by her choices, lacking a logical connection of cause and effect. I would suggest that you try outlining the plot in a systematic, calculated fashion: ‘A leads to B, which leads to C.’ That may remove some of this sense of the protagonist jumping from one square to another without any clear forward motion or urge, that yearning Robert Olen Butler discusses in From Where You Dream). We as readers must be propelled by that character yearning and motion so that we want to take the journey with your character, no matter how flawed. If she’s a train wreck, that’s fine; we won’t look away unless we have faith that this train wreck has some logic and meaning for its existence. While there can be consciously-constructed plot lines meant to show random motion, that doesn’t seem to be your purpose here. Am I right?

I do see Daria thinking before she makes choice x in Chapter One. That was a particularly nice passage when she pursues Selma and gets slapped back. I would follow that lead.”

Now that kind of comment I can handle.

If said editor wanted to argue she wasn’t getting paid to write such detailed commentary, she could have told me such thoughts in person. Could have pointed to a relevant, starred passage. Hey, I take great notes.

This writer can do but she can’t teach. Woe betides those students who get the master craftsman who can’t talk shop.

I have one theory about why certain editors want to make you cry. They harbor a secret, even unconscious hope that you’ll go home and abandon the manuscript. These critics believe in The Scarcity Model: that there’s just not enough art and money to go around. There is only enough room in this world for a few to succeed, so you have to scrap and edge out those who might win. Put a novice writer in her place and you narrow the odds in your favor.

Writing is a tough business. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you see someone’s success, or potential success, because you’re busy banging your head against too many walls. But when you edit you must adopt a teacher persona and forget all that work and effort toward self-promotion and submission. You must do what you are paid to do.

When I described the horror of my experience meeting with this editor (I’m leaving out all the other ugly parts not relevant here, like plain meanness and tactlessness), I had a number of friends who said, “You think this writer’s jealous of you?”

“Jealous of what?” I said with a laugh. “I’ve got miles to go before I sleep! I won’t be cutting her out of the market any time soon.”

Those friends seemed to think that jealousy can motivate a certain type of critic.

I won’t tell you what I paid this person but I will tell you what I got for free from my dear friends Chip and Nance.

Chip read every page of an early draft of the whole, convoluted beast that was my manuscript and told me when he was disappointed with a plot turn and delighted by a description. He fed my soul with his authentic reactions and his kind encouragements. He coached me to keep sending him stuff. I was even more motivated to make things good, knowing he’d be looking and vetting.

From my friend Nance, I got two single-sided pages of detailed feedback. Let me stop for some of the highlights, places where she, like Chip, was just the coach I needed:

“Ok, just finished your last chapter. First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!
Wowzers. What an impressive creative endeavor. I really got to know Daria and cared what happened to her.

I think there is a lot of talking and thinking. Totally true to life but not what I want in a novel. Sometimes it feels like events are happening in real time. But I want to be taken on a different kind of journey. I’ve pointed out some specific instances. I think there needs to be more action, less narration of Daria’s inner thoughts and her outer processing convos with various friends. She often picks up the phone to tell other characters about what is happening.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of and I wonder if you can whittle it down. I’m gonna try to list ’em out here real quick, to see what I remember….”

And so it goes. She makes several suggestions about how to resolve a plot line, about her wishes for the ending of the story, about two minor characters and a major who need to go, about an event that has no logical consequence…did I mention how helpful this feedback is?

The tone of the critique helps immensely. Nance wants to coach me, not hinder me. She wants me to make great art, not shoddy art. And she wants me to finish. After reading her detailed suggestions, I rolled up my sleeves. The other critic stopped me cold for about a month.

As Jess Row indicates in his analysis of the critiques of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, it takes courage to be a decent critic. You must not only know your craft but you must study it with discipline. You must study how to communicate that craft to others. You must keep foremost in your mind the heart and spirit of the soul before you, struggling to achieve the Good, able to rise above her own weakness and incompetence to craft Beauty. It also takes courage to be a decent writer, one who can speak truth back to those critics who would destroy.

This Confession of Lyn Hawks is a rusty voice calling for fair and educated critics who believe in Abundance.

Today’s Writing Goal: Cut at least another 1,000 words.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. © Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


What Starts or Stops the Crying?

Have you ever done something and the result was someone cried? Have you ever helped someone stop crying and made them feel better? Tell that story. What happened? Why do you think things happened that way? What choices did you make that you wouldn’t make again?

Then write the answer to this question: What do you know now that you didn’t know then? You might consider questions such as:

What starts someone crying?
What stops crying?

Why We Cry

Does it ever help to cry sometimes? Or does it always hurt? Tell a story about when you or someone else cried and how you feel about it now. Are you glad there was crying? Why or why not? Do you wish it hadn’t happened? Why or why not? What does your family say about crying? Do you know why your family says this?


Option #1: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a mini-meditation on criticism: what works and what doesn’t. Give examples of times when you received constructive or destructive criticism. Let your thoughts meander from one anecdote to another, analyzing the ways you have been told what’s good and not so good about your actions and accomplishments. End you meditation with epiphanies you have about criticism. What kind of criticism works? How important is how it’s said? When is criticism tough love and when is it tough hate? What advice do you have for critics you’ve known? For yourself when you offer criticism?

Option #2: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a letter to this person telling the person how you feel about the criticism. Give your honest reaction. Weigh the person’s words and see if there is truth from which you can learn. This may be a letter you never send, but say what needs to be said.

Or you can write a letter to a person whom you criticized and tell them how you feel now about that choice and experience.