No More Paper Dolls: Pointers for Writing 3-Dimensional Fictional Characters

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about building 3-dimensional fictional characters.

QUESTION: How do I make my characters 3-dimensional human beings instead of 2-dimensional paper dolls?

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 Characters are the basis of your stories, the driving force that grasps the attention, the reason why certain plot lines unfold the way they do. Readers want complex characters they can engage with, relate to, and try to unravel through the pages. As Hemingway said, readers want to read about living people, not a “character.” If a character is particularly unattractive (emotionally and mentally, not physically), readers don’t invest their time and energy into them, and the story is already over in essence.

 With some careful thought and extra time, your story can bring to life our next favorite complex character who is unique and fascinating in their own right. In order to do this, you need to steer clear of the overdone tropes and avoid generalizations that make your characters blend in with the vast sea of literary characters that already exist. To help you achieve this, consider these four pointers that will help bring your characters to life.   

  • Know the basics...of plot lines, genre tropes, and character stereotypes. If you know what’s overdone, you can actively shape your writing to avoid clichés, add an original twist to them, or combine them to create a new challenge. Creating a fresh plot line will help you create a three-dimensional character who can meet and overcome (or get defeated by) that challenge. Some examples of cliché character tropes include the Chosen One, the damsel in distress, the brooding rebel, the high school hunk, and the Plain Jane. Unless you have a particularly unique approach to subverting these tropes, you’re better off avoiding them altogether. And even if you feel that your approach to a cliché character will be fresh, you should think hard on whether it’s what best serves your story.

  • Give your character a goal…or better yet, an obsession. What do your characters want in the big picture? What drives their behavior or actions? What do they wish to achieve in a certain moment, and how does that get them closer or farther from their goal? Everything we do is driven by a motive, even if it isn’t explicitly clear. If someone desperately wants money, is it because they want to live comfortably or because they want to show off? This minor distinction is important in creating a well-rounded character and can affect how they would react when their goal is obstructed by different obstacles. Just as we need something to strive for, your characters should always have a goal in the back of their minds. The more intense the goal, the more gripping the story will be, which is why giving your character a single-minded obsession can be a great trick to kick the manuscript into high gear.

  • Complexity is key. Establish everyone’s skills and flaws, and then build on them throughout the story. Nobody’s perfect, not even fictional characters — they’re clumsy or impatient or self-conscious, among other things. On the other hand, everyone has something they’re good at, including the most incompetent character. But you don’t want to rely on just one trait to define your character, since that will lead to predictability in the plot. Give your characters distinct personalities that are challenged to grow, and don’t be afraid to give them a surprising evolution.

  • Create contradictions. Now that your characters have a solid personality and their goals in mind, have them contradict themselves. This interesting feature of the human condition is what makes people so frustrating and hard to understand, yet it’s also what makes them relatable. Contradictions are an unavoidable essence of being human, no matter how assured your character may seem. Perhaps your die-hard feminist character has always secretly dreamed of her father walking her down the aisle at her wedding. Or perhaps your philanthropist character can’t bring himself to actually give money to homeless people on the street. Draw from their flaws when adding this extra flavor into their personality. Their behaviors might go against their most valued beliefs or even their goals. This complexity in behavior may not change the plot immensely (though it can), but it draws us in to their psychology while creating some potential tension, either internally or interpersonally.

Though it may seem difficult, and even at times impossible, you can create a character unparalleled in complexity, precisely because that character exists somewhere in your imagination and only you have the power to bring that unique character, with all their quirks and attitudes and problems, into the real world. Just as your characters can transcend the tropes laid out for them, you also have the ability to defy the classic writer stereotype by writing and pouring life into your characters with the words and imagination only you possess.

Take Your Writing to a New World: Tips for World-Building in Fiction

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about world-building for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Dystopian, and even Historical Fiction novels.

QUESTION: What are some pointers for writers who are working on a story that takes place in another time, place, or fantasy setting?

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As exciting as Earth is in the 21st century, sometimes the best setting for a story is another world altogether. Many great stories take place in different timelines and dimensions, places where there are different rules and creatures, where the impossible becomes possible. Why limit your stories to the laws of physics and the history that’s already been written when you can make up your own laws and history?

High fantasy fiction takes place in secondary or parallel worlds, which can take an endless variety of forms. One of the best examples of a richly detailed world is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a diverse world filled with many creatures, lands, and languages that makes it the perfect setting for adventures. It’s a world containing different villages, kingdoms, and landscapes, from the peaceful Shire to the declining kingdom of Gondor to the desolate volcanoes of Mordor. There are elves and dwarves and hobbits and goblins and many more peoples and races that have their own history and personality. This world takes on a life of its own, and it’s an exemplary model of how you want to build your fictional world.

If you’re writing a story in another time or place, you have the power to develop everything from scratch. Creating these immersive and complex worlds can be a complicated process, but by following these steps when building your world, you can ensure your new fantasy setting becomes a believable and engaging place that your readers will never want to leave.

  • Read other works. Learn from the best works of fiction already written. See how other authors show the elements of their world. As mentioned above, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are critical works to study. Examine how Tolkien develops the setting, characters, and the logic of Middle-earth, granting everything in his made-up world a believable explanation and a consistent history. Other classic fictional worlds include the universe of George Lucas’ Star Wars (and the Extended Universe that sprang up in other media over the years) and “The Known World” in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Find your favorite fantasies and note how they make the world work.

  • Plan ahead. Writing about this world is difficult as it is. Creating a whole new world requires elaborate histories and backstories that involve thorough planning. You want to have a general idea, as well as specific details, of this world ready to go before you write a single word. Be able to rationalize why things work the way they do in your world. You need to have a complete grasp of the inner workings yourself before you can hope to depict this world for others. The more intimately you know your world, the more intricate your writing can be. Here is a quick list of things you should have fully considered before you start writing.

    • The people: What are their language, practices, and customs? What do they value?

    • The geographical layout of the world: How big or small is your world? Are there different regions, and if so, what are their defining characteristics?

    • The history of the world: How did the present day reach its current state? Are there any historical conflicts that affect the present? What was the most recent event that happened before your story begins? How technically advanced is the world?

  • Make the world a character. Just as your characters grow throughout the story, so can the characters’ environment. Think of this new world as a character of its own. It should have its own feel, look, sound, and smell. The setting is your own creation that serves an integral role for your story, and it can grow as stories evolve. However, the world shouldn’t be the central character. Each detail you insert about the setting should serve a purpose, whether it’s building imagery or advancing the plot, so it’s best to avoid including superfluous details that don’t enhance the story in the long run.

  • Use dialogue appropriately. It can be tempting to divulge all the details and histories about your new world in a character’s monologue, but dumping this information all at once is boring and unnecessary. When used sparingly and smartly, dialogue and diction can reveal much about a character’s nature, as well as the society and world in which they live. Aim for a healthy balance that equally favors descriptions, dialogue, and action.

  • Double check the logic. If you’re writing a story set in an alternate timeline or a brand new world, that naturally means there are more loopholes that your story could fall through, especially as you find yourself taking your story in new directions you didn’t anticipate when you first started writing it. An event may be out place or a fact may contradict something you previously mentioned. Just as you should take the precious time before your writing to map out the details, take some extra time at the end to review what you’ve actually written. It’s important your details line up logically or else the invalidity of your world will undermine your writing.

Just as these tips advise what you should do, here is a quick list of things you shouldn’t do: Don’t write excessive descriptions. Don’t rely on high fantasy clichés. Don’t create stock characters. And don’t stress!

World building is not an easy task, but if planned thoroughly and executed carefully, you’ll enlighten your readers and bring them to a whole new world only you are capable of creating.

Show AND Tell: Navigating the Nuances of Showing vs. Telling

Hi writers! We thought we’d kick off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we will be tackling 4 real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about the nuances of showing vs. telling.

QUESTION: The classic writing advice is, "show, don't tell." But is that always good advice? Don't the best novels show AND tell? How do you know if you're "telling" too much, and what counts as telling?

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As kids, we loved show and tell day at school. Proudly brandishing a souvenir from a trip or a prized family heirloom, we would capture the attention of our peers and then describe the object’s elaborate origin. Our description of its significance and why it’s special provided a glimpse into who we are and what’s important to us.

This simple presentation uses storytelling and visual aids to stir an interest in an object people would otherwise find insignificant. Show and tell relies on effective storytelling to take us into someone else’s world. Can we learn something from this grade school tradition in our writing techniques?

Writes always hear the mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Descriptions of scenes and dramatization of actions take precedence over the exposition and summary that simply take up space without accomplishing anything in an engaging fashion. Readers love to vividly imagine the characters’ expressions, feelings, and actions that remain unwritten in ink. This ability to stir a reader’s imagination is powerful, letting the story unfold with minimal hand-holding.

A story that simply tells its readers what is happening loses their attention fast. But that’s not to say telling is an inefficient technique that is completely forbidden. Rather, it is just one tool in a writer’s toolkit that can, and should, be used. Just like any craft, the best stories use a variety of tools.

The classic advice should be modified to say “show more than tell.”

Achieving this balance between showing and telling can be difficult. Learning exactly how to “show” a scene requires a lot of practice to begin with, but with practice makes perfect, so keep writing and rewriting to hone these skills. As you master the art of storytelling, keep these guidelines in mind.

  • Avoid detail-dumping. When you are giving background information, make sure the details are necessary. Don’t overwhelm readers by dumping the entire backstory of a character or society in the first few pages. Weave these details in throughout the story when it is necessary to develop characterization or advance the plot. Write every word with a purpose, and make every sentence worth something to the reader.

  • Make your writing cinematic. Evoke emotion with your writing and give your characters enough movement so you don’t have to explicitly list personality traits; instead, your readers can just tell who the character is from his or her diction and action, or lack thereof. Use all five senses in your writing so that your readers feel an emotional response without you telling them how they should be feeling.  

  • Put your readers in the scene. This is a good technique to help minimize unnecessary telling. Prioritize first-hand information over second-hand by letting readers see the action happen with their own eyes (or the mind’s eye). No one likes to hear about a past event because they weren’t there when it occurred. There is no emotional attachment to the event or the character. Instead, if you’re giving important backstory, tell it through a flashback. Let the reader experience the scene in real time rather than read about something that’s already happened.

  • Replace adjectives with actions. If your character goes through a tough breakup or suffers a major loss in the family, they would feel sad. But how sad do they feel, and what do they do with that sadness? Do they completely shut down and withdraw socially? Do they reach out for consolation and company? Do they continue functioning as if nothing happened? Not only do these details convey their sadness, they provide more insight into how the character acts during this sadness than if you simply said they were sad. By replacing adjectives with actions, you achieve the technique of showing, while revealing more about a character than you would otherwise.

  • Believe in your readers’ abilities. By describing something rather than simply telling it, you’re giving your readers some credit to their ability to imagine what is happening. You don’t have to spell out every single detail for them. Instead, let their imagination take hold as you plant the seeds of emotion and action in their brains with your words. Push them in the right direction, but let them form their own conclusions and interpretations. With each word that adds to their mental scene, they’ll feel more invested in the plot and connected to the characters.

  • Write. Write. Write. Revising and reworking scenes is the best way to practice this technique. Your first draft might consist of you simply explaining the scene, and that’s okay. On your second draft, start taking out the mechanics of the scene and adding descriptions. The third draft should involve more rewriting, and the fourth and fifth drafts even more so. Making mistakes is a normal part of writing, and only through trial and error will you be able to learn how to perfect the art of showing.

“Show, don’t tell” is important advice to consider, but don’t let it consume your writing. If telling works in the moment and conveys what you need, do that. Additionally, showing doesn’t mean never telling. Explore the nuances of your writing to discover how you can incorporate both into your story or when you need to utilize one technique over the other.

The best writing finds the perfect balance between showing and telling. Sometimes, as writers, we have to channel our inner child and see how show and tell still has its benefits.