Today’s Writing Tip

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Next up on the list of reader gripes is when the characters are all the same. This occurs primarily with inexperienced writers who don’t know how to develop a character properly and just plug a name into the action without bringing him, her, or even it, to life.

Characters should be as distinctive as possible. They shouldn’t look alive, talk alive, or behave alike. The more contrast, the better. Best case, the reader should be able to tell them apart from their dialog alone. Give them speech patterns and mannerisms that make them into a unique person. Interesting characters are what draw readers into the story as much as the plot line. If you don’t care about the people in the story, it has little impact. Building memorable characters is a skill every author should develop.

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Today’s Writing Tip

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If your characters have a specific ethnicity, be sure to name them accordingly. For example, if your heroine is from Sweden, naming her Inge contributes more to her persona than naming her Yolanda. This reinforces the reader’s image of the character as well, providing a subtle, subconscious contribution to imagery.

Along similar lines, if your character is unique, an unusual name can likewise reinforce that; conversely, naming a character you want to be seen as “normal” and one your reader can relate to calls for a more common name.

All that “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” business doesn’t necessarily apply to fiction writing.

 

Today’s Writing Tip

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Giving characters a distinguishing feature or mannerism increases your story’s imagery and provides a handy mechanism to remind readers what they look like. This can be something like their hair color or style; other distinguishing physical features such as eyes or nose; or certain gestures.

The more characters your story has, the more important it is to give them each some sort of “tag” so readers can keep them straight. With the possible exception of red herrings in mysteries, everyone in a story needs to serve a purpose and move the plot along. If they don’t, zap ’em, and if they do, make them memorable.

 

Today’s Writing Tip

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Remember your main character needs to have a fatal flaw. It doesn’t have to be evil; it could be something like being too honest or outspoken. No one is perfect and to be convincing, your characters shouldn’t be, either. It’s their weaknesses that make them more endearing and real. They also build suspense, an essential ingredient for any story.

If you’re not sure what a character’s fatal flaw might be, take a close look at his or her strengths. Any trait that can be a strength can also be a weakness, if taken to the extreme. Obsessions, for example, can go either way, to a person’s advantage or detriment, depending on the situation. For example, being determined and not giving up can also result in beating the proverbial dead horse.

Today’s Writing Tip

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“Cardboard characters” are those that have no personality. Make sure yours have likes, dislikes, and opinions so they act like real people. If necessary, keep a list of each character’s physical and personality traits on file if they’re not vivid enough in your mind without it. Readers notice if your hero’s eyes are blue on one page and green on another. Same goes for that couch or car! Never underestimate how astute your readers may be! Otherwise you’re likely to find out when they give you a lousy review.

 

Today’s Writing Tip

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Using astrology for character development is helpful and fun. If you’re not familiar with the characteristics of the various zodiac signs, a book like my “Whobeda’s Guide to Basic Astrology” can help. Get your copy here. 

If you already have an idea what your character is like, it’s usually not too difficult to fit him or her with a Sun sign. You can find some basics here. This will be their core being and provide considerable help regarding how they’ll react to certain situations. If you define a birth date for him, it’s fun to get a natal chart reading from an astrology site like mine, ValkyrieAstrology.com, which will give you even more in-depth information about your character, perhaps even hinting at events in your story.

Actually, it was writing a novel that first introduced me to astrology. One of my characters was into it, forcing me to do some research. I discovered it worked as well as how handy it was for defining characters. It’s quite eerie how well it works, which you can read above in a previous blog.

Today’s Writing Tip

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Fully developing your backstories always pays off. Not only do they contribute to the quality of your characters and plot; you can always offer them as freebies to potential readers. Some background information can be referred to in your main story, but including too much can bog it down. Some can be dropped in here and there as flashbacks. However, lengthy explanations of past experiences that influenced the character aren’t always relevant to the story at hand. Nonetheless, if they’re interesting you can use them as a short story/teaser to readers who visit your website or sign up for your newsletter.

 

Today’s Writing Tip

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One of the most important things you must do as an author to make your work stand out is to create vivid characters readers will remember. One way to add color to your characters is by giving them a regional accent. Capture it in writing by deliberately misspelling their dialog to reflect how it sounds phonetically. Just make sure you’re familiar with what that particular accent really sounds like or anyone from that region will recognize it’s not authentic, which could do you more harm than good. Accuracy is always important.

Today’s Writing Tip

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Every occupation has its own jargon. Use enough in character dialog to sound authentic, but don’t boggle the reader’s mind with too much technical terminology or acronyms, which should always be defined the first time they’re used. If several pages or chapters separate their next use, remind the reader. This can be easily done via dialog. For example:

“The ARU went out again,” John said.

“That’s the second time this month the auxiliary refrigeration unit has gone on the fritz,” Bill grumbled in reply.

Some Benefits of Backstories

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As an author you’re probably already familiar with backstories.  These may reside nowhere but inside your head, but in order to develop authentic characters and plots, they need to exist.  Even if a character has amnesia, such as Jane Doe in the popular TV program Blindspot, he or she needs to have a past.  Life experiences, even for fictitious characters, are what make people interesting, provide motivation and bring out their personality.  As an author, if you don’t know this about your character, it’s going to make it more difficult to tell his story.  Dialog and action may be stilted or artificial without knowing what makes him tick.

If you’re having difficulty getting into a character, talk to him or her to find out more about their background.  You might be surprised what you’ll discover.  Character interviews are common these days in blogs, which further demonstrate this principle.  Talking about a character with other writers or your beta readers can bring out all sorts of great ideas as well.  If you get stuck, try this out.  I can have as much fun brainstorming with other writers about their current WIP as I can with my own, whether it involves character motivation or plot development.  Backstories are also great practice for new authors not only to develop their cast but their writing style as well.

It’s worth noting, however, that you shouldn’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant characters a name.  If you do, they’ll wonder later what happened to so and so.  The general rule is that any character who doesn’t contribute to the plot doesn’t need to be there, anyway, except in the case of certain group situations, like extras in a movie.  If they’re important enough to deserve a name, then they should have a backstory, no matter how simple.

For main characters, these backstories tend to come out in the course of the story to a greater or lesser degree, but not always so much for minor characters.  However, if you find a detailed backstory developing for a minor character, chances are he/she/it has something interesting to say.  You’ve undoubtedly noticed how various sit-coms have had spinoffs over the years, typically when a minor character becomes interesting enough to have his or her own program.  One that comes to mind is Frasier, which evolved from Cheers.  Another example would be the ewok stories that evolved from Star Wars.

It used to be that backstories were useful to the writer, but often sat in a file that never saw the light of day.  Now that ebooks are so popular and relatively easy to produce, they can serve a useful purpose for keeping readers and fans engaged, either as your full-length novel develops, between books in a series or even to add additional depth to a story that’s already out there.  Who knows?  It could evolve into another full-length story as you dive into what makes a character tick.  This is often how series and trilogies are born, when there’s a lot more to tell.  Fans who become attached to a character love to hear more about them.  And these are not always limited to the main ones.  How many movies have you seen where one of the supporting actors grabs your attention?  You never know who another person will connect with or for what reason.

Since this background information is often already written up, or could be relatively easily if it’s parked in your brain, it’s worth it to do some editing and get it into ebook form.  Print form works, too, since these books are usually short and make great giveaways or ultra-inexpensive samples.  As expected, the cover is the most expensive element of a book, so they might not be as cheap as you’d expect, but usually your cost will be around $2.  For example, my Star Trails Compendium, which is 135 pages long, costs me $2.48 while The Sapphiran Agenda is only 29 pages but $2.15.

Backstories work well for giveaways and teasers, both before and after a book is released.  My Star Trails Tetralogy series has two, which are free on Smashwords and its outlets and 99c on Amazon.  The Star Trails Compendium comprises all the terms, definitions and cultural background information for the series while The Sapphiran Agenda is a true backstory for a minor character, Thyron, who’s a flora peda telepathis, i.e. telepathic walking plant.  Many readers noted he was their favorite, though at least one found him annoying, demonstrating how you never know how they’ll be accepted.  Thyron has at least one more story to tell which I hope to have out soon.

Put backstories to work for you to gain new fans, retain old ones, and provide short samples of your writing style.  Short reads are popular these days as well, even having their own category on Amazon, which further increases their appeal and potential for finding new readers.  Whether you’re in the middle of a lengthy novel, between books or perhaps stuck with a case of writer’s block, these gems can be fun and easy to write and provide a means to maintain contact with your existing fan base.  If you need ideas or examples, feel free (literally and figuratively) to check mine out at the links below.

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The Star Trails Compendium

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The Sapphiran Agenda

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