Character Creation Secrets: exaggerate, investigate, twist

Character Creation Secrets: exaggerate, investigate, twist

A friend of mine came to me the other day and said, “I really enjoy writing fiction, but my only real problem has to do with character creation. How do you name characters? How do you make them unique, interesting, and memorable? How do you make the reader care?”

These are the questions I’m going to cover in this blog.

Giving credit where it’s due: I did not invent this knowledge, but I do employ it. Some of the original ideas for these concepts come from Brandon Sanderson, and Orson Scott Card.

Naming

A name should be interesting and unique. This is especially true for main characters.

Quick Tips:

Choose a unique name that fits, and change/add one or two letters.
Example: Steven could become Stavane, or Stav for short)
Make all the main characters names different from each other, and make them start with different letters.
Example: avoid using names like William and Winston together
Chooses names based on the phonetic sound they make.
Example: The name “Dumbledore” from Harry Potter sounds similar to “bumblebee”. J.K. Rowling chose the name because she imagined him the type of wizard to walk around humming to himself.
Help avoid reader confusion by using names with different syllable counts.
Example: Crato (2) would pair better with Hephaestus (3) than Jemma (2)
Depending on the theme/setting of your book, you can look at foreign names, and their meanings for inspiration (a quick google search for names + the nationality you want will do it).
Example: Khalil from Recreance is Arabic for “Friend” – a translation that works phonetically and in character personality.

Exaggerate, Investigate, Twist

 Exaggerate

Whether your inspiration for characters comes from distant relatives, old friends, or just people you witnessed briefly in the grocery store, they often become more interesting with some personality exaggeration.

I was in the grocery store last week when I noticed a frail man approach the service desk. He purchased a scratch-and-win, and soon after began shouting and waving his arms in the air, gesticulating wildly. Wisps of white hair danced above his liver-spotted head as he shook his fist. The young clerk gasped, holding a hand over her mouth. She was frozen on the spot, too shocked to react. The man tried to climb up onto the counter, but an overweight security guard trundled over and grasped the assailant by the shoulders.

This story is an exaggeration. Yes, I was in the grocery store, and yes I saw a man buying a scratch-and-win, but I exaggerated his frustration, and the result.

Take your characters and exaggerate them a little – just not too much, or they’ll begin to resemble a caricature.

Investigate

Ask your characters questions about their motivations, and don’t immediately accept the first answer you get.

Why was the old man so upset?
Maybe he’s someone’s grandfather with Alzheimer’s that slipped out and walked to the grocery store…or perhaps he spent his last dollar on the scratch-and-win, hoping desperately to win grocery money. The clerk handed him a losing game card, and he blamed her for the loss.

These answers are plausible, but they are also easy, and somewhat shallow. Let’s keep asking…

Perhaps the old man is not senile, and the young clerk swiped his winning scratch-and-win, assuming everyone would believe her over the crazy old man.

Okay, a little more interesting, now let’s twist it.

Twist

The cantankerous old man is not senile, nor did the clerk steal his scratch-and-win. The man became agitated once he recognized the clerk’s face. It belonged to the driver of a light blue Pontiac; the same light blue Pontiac that struck and killed his wife of sixty-two years. It had been less than three weeks since he watched helplessly as her blood spilled onto the gray cement sidewalk. The car sped off, and the police had little success finding the driver.

The twist is a fantastic way to add some depth and interesting backgrounds to your characters. As with the investigation, you should not immediately go with the first twist you think of. Come up with a few and pick the best one.

Character Traits (Pick 2)

There is a lot of information out there when it comes personality traits of your characters (see end of this post for some resources). One strategy for choosing character traits comes from looking at three main characteristics:

  1. Active
  2. Likable
  3. Competent

As you may have guessed from the title of this section, take two of these, and deprive your character of the third. Imperfection makes a character more interesting. It gives them depth, and gives you somewhere to go with their development. Is your character Likable and Competent? Then make them hopelessly unmotivated. Some of the most famous characters ever written possess these traits (looking at you, Bilbo).

**If you’d like to check out some resources around character development, I recommend Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Sanderson’s writer advice video series.

 

Cover Design for Self Published Authors

Cover Design for Self Published Authors

Coming up with a good cover for your book is not easy. There are so many considerations, and they can vary greatly depending on genre. Once you actually have an idea, finding the right artist can also be tricky and expensive. Having just recently gone through this process myself, I thought I’d offer up a few tips based on what I’ve learned. Note that many of these tips may be broadly applicable, but my focus was on fantasy and sci-fi.

What should the book cover do?

  • Convey the genre of your book at a glance
  • Engage your intended audience
  • Remain consistent with the feeling of your story
  • Clearly present the Title and Author names (not too busy)
  • Look good as a thumbnail (relevant to eBooks only)
  • Remain consistent with other books in the series

Steps for creating a cover for your book

1. Look at relevant examples

Head over to the kindle website and search for best selling books in your genre. Save the images of the ones you like and keep them in a folder for reference. Remember, you’re going for a “feeling” here. You don’t want to copy the exact format of another book, or yours won’t stand out.

2. Get something down on paper

So maybe you have some ideas of what your cover may consist of, but like me, you have very little skill as an illustrator. Even if your best artwork consists of stick figures, crooked lines and uneven shapes, do your best to get your ideas down. Don’t take too much time here, just something. Here’s a rather embarrassing example of my early efforts.

 

3. Shopping for an artist

This can be an incredibly time consuming process…but it can also be lots of fun! Here are some resources for finding an artist for the cover of your book:

Deviant Art
A fantastic website for finding illustrators. Just search for what you’re looking for (i.e. desert fantasy illustration). Once you find artwork you like, send the artist a message and ask them if they do commissions. I’ve contacted many, and found the range to be anywhere from $200 – $1,000. Make sure you ask about typography as well, as some require you to do this yourself or have someone else do it.

Fiverr
This resource can be hit or miss. You will definitely find cheaper artists, but you get what you pay for. There are lots of talented artists, but be prepared to hit language barriers, deal with the occasional fraudulent seller, and sift through a lot of not so great stuff. The most important thing for this site is to LOOK AT THE ARTIST REVIEWS. Don’t hire anyone without reviews.

Sometimes it’s easiest to just go with an artist who focuses specifically on book covers. If you’re lucky, you may find a pre-designed book cover that fits your story.

Here are some book cover specific artists:
https://humblenations.com/
http://www.tomedwardsdesign.com/
https://ebooklaunch.com/

4. Working with the artist

Now that you’ve finally found your DaVinci, it’s time to share with them your vision. Some artists like a lot of direction, some prefer to take the ball and run with it. Either way, make sure you are as clear as possible on your ideas. This includes explaining what parts you’re flexible on, and what elements must be included.

If the artist is experienced, I’d recommend giving them the leeway they need to bring your vision to life. If you have a disagreement, remember, they are the professional illustrator, and probably know more about things like composition, light, colour, etc. than you or I do.

If the artist is green, they may require more direction. Some will ask you to be as explicit as possible.

Important: Make sure you are involved throughout the process! Ask them to provide a rough sketch (or multiple for you to choose from), give feedback and make changes in this early stage. It will save you and the artist a lot of time/trouble.

Ultimately, your success is the artist’s success. Remember, these people work for money – don’t expect them to make huge changes late in the game, or start over from scratch without charging to do so.

5. Give credit

This may not seem like a big deal, but I can assure you artists really appreciate it when you credit them for their work in your book. It’s also incentive for them to do a good job – would you want to put your name on something you’re not proud of? Didn’t think so!

Bonus

I’m in the final stages of cover design for Recreance. Here are some rough sketch ideas for the project so far. The artist I’ve been working with is Rob Joseph (found on deviant art). Below are some concept sketches he came up with. Check back soon to see the final cover design!

 

Overcoming Blank Page Syndrome

Overcoming Blank Page Syndrome

Finally! You’ve got some time set aside to write. Comfy chair, cup of coffee (or tea), beautiful silence, and a blank white page, staring you in the face. A big, empty rectangle, waiting for you to fill it with literary brilliance. Yep, just you and the page, little blinking cursor at the ready. You place your hands on the keyboard, and…nothing. Hmmm…I wonder if I have any facebook notifications…

Sound familiar?

I haven’t met an author who hasn’t experienced some form of this. I call it blank page syndrome, or BPS for short. Do you suffer from BPS? If so, don’t despair – you’re not alone. Below are a list of writer-approved strategies** that will help you combat this debilitating condition.

** Ask your editor if these strategies are right for you

1. Take a walk

Charles Dickens

The Dickens judges you for not walking more

After writing from 9 in the morning until 2pm, Charles Dickens would go for a long walk. We’re talking 20 to 30 miles as a matter of course. It was also his go-to activity for sleepless nights. The man was even quoted, saying, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

Not only is walking good for you, but according to this Stanford study, walking actually improves your creativity. It doesn’t even matter where you do the walking – inside or out. It’s not the environment, but the act of walking itself that spurs the imagination into action. This is great news for those of us living on the west coast, where it rains 9 months a year.

Go ahead. Stand up, walk around the room and think about your latest project. You’ll be glad you did.

2. Compartmentalize

Still got nothing? Another trick is to compartmentalize your task. This does wonders for those of us who are overwhelmed at the idea of putting tens of thousands of words together coherently. Think about how it would feel if someone asked you to sit down and write 10,000 words on a subject. Now how would you feel if they asked you to write a paragraph, or even a sentence? The latter is far less intimidating.

Assuming you’re the one putting these demands on yourself, why not start with a sentence, and see where things go? There is even software that can help you do this. yWriter is free software (for PC) that breaks your novel into chapters and scenes, helping you keep track of your work. Scrivener is another more polished main-stream option (MAC or PC), though it comes with a $40 USD price tag.

3. Be Jammin’

Bob Marley

Bob Marley (professional jamma’)

This one’s easy – put on some headphones and listen to music. Everyone has different taste when it comes to this option, and sometimes different bands or styles lend themselves to writing different scenes (find more on music suggestions for different types of scenes in my previous post, Music to Write to).

If you’re unsure of what to go for, there’s always classical. Spotify has some great playlists for this. If you find that music is too distracting when you’re trying to write, it might be because you have the volume is too high. Turn it down and give it another go.

Pro-tip: put on music AND walk around the room to double your creativity boost!

4. Talk to the voices in your head

Voices in HeadNo, seriously, talk to them. Have your characters talk to each other, too. It helps to approach this as a warm-up exercise. Don’t think of it as part of your project, think of it as getting to know your characters, and allowing them to get to know each other. Maybe you use what you wrote, maybe not. Either way, you’ll be better off for it, and you’ll have a better idea of how your characters interact.

Remember…

having voices in your head is normal

5. Don’t get too attached

This is a simple concept, but it’s often easier said than done. The main idea behind it is to remember that you aren’t chiseling words onto a stone tablet. You can and will likely delete big chunks of text, edit, refine, change, and then change again. Nobody, and I mean nobody is brilliant on the first try. When you are willing to write utter crap without judging yourself, the brilliance will eventually shine through. Get the ideas down, the rest will follow.

Try to think of starting a new project like doing a belly flop into a giant vat of warm jell-o. Sure, the splash is going to be messy, and you might feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually you’ll sink right in and learn to appreciate the satisfying feeling of squishing warm jell-o between your toes.

 

In conclusion

Nearly everyone has suffered from blank page syndrome at one time or another. The most important thing is that you aren’t too hard on yourself. Remember, writing is fun and fulfilling, but sometimes, it’s f*cking hard!

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Music to Write to

Music to Write to

For those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m a huge audiophile. Music is my muse, and I often use it for inspiration when I’m in a creative slump. It’s also fantastic tool for getting the brain working in new directions. Some artists and albums are especially good at eliciting this. They take my writer’s block and demolish it with a sledgehammer of sound. They get me excited to hammer out the story.

What makes an album good to write to? First of it should be a playthrough album (or close to it). Stopping your flow to skip a song is a pain. It should also be visually compelling. How can music be visually compelling? Texture, variation, unique style. Below are some of my favorites, and the types of writing I use them for.


The Dear Hunter

Works well for writing: Combat scenes, Romantic interactions, Struggles, Personal Battles

This theatrical band has been in regular rotation for me for the past year and change. There’s so much raw emotion and talent here that it pushes me to want to convey the same in my characters. These are my favorite two albums of theirs.

Muse

Works well for writing: Themes of resistance, overcoming odds, fighting “the man”

One of the best rock bands in existence (in my humble opinion). These three musicians create a wall of sound so powerful it will knock you on your butt. One of my favorite albums, Resistance, is an homage to George Orwell’s 1984. Highly appropriate for times like these, wouldn’t you say?

Radical Face

Works well for writing: Traveling scenes, homecoming, creating beautiful scenery

This band hails from Jacksonville Florida. They have a really great mellow tambre and interesting percussion that lends itself nicely to writing traveling, or homecoming scenes. My favorite track is “Welcome Home, Son”

alt-J

Works well for writing: mystery, world building, describing weird plantlife

I’ve only recently discovered this album (I know, about 5 years late), and all I can say is, I love it. There’s beautiful classical music, intricately layered acappella, and funky syncopated beats.

Haelos

Works well for writing: female characters, traversing cityscapes

This band is more ambient and electronic than the others. It has some powerful beats, male/female vocals, and lots of emotion.

That’s my list for now. Do you listen to music when you write? If so I’d love to hear your favorites. Let me know in the comments below!

Blurbs are hard!

I don’t think I need to tell you how important a good blurb is. The small bundle of words on the back of your book have the arduous task of representing the thousands of words within. It’s no secret that a blurb can make or break a book.

After spending days, nay weeks refining the blurb for my own book, Recreance, I have finally landed on what I hope is the final (though let’s be honest, these things are never really finished). I am not an expert, but I thought I might share some tips and information that I came across along my journey. Without further ado…

Step One – Research

If you are writing a blurb, or thinking of writing one, stop. Open up a browser, search “bestselling <your genre here> amazon” and read the blurbs. Pick books that look like they fit the theme of yours, and maybe a couple that don’t. Read at least 15-20, and refer back to your favorites as you write.

Step Two – Write (within the rules)

Dive in, but remember these key rules:

It is commonly stated that a blurb should do the following things:

  1. Introduce the world (more common in fantasy)
  2. Introduce the character(s)
  3. Explain their plight
  4. Convey what is at stake for the character
  5. Create Intrigue (most important)

Books with multiple character streams (e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings)
In some cases, the blurb is broken up to give a little tidbit for each character. If you plan to do this, it is critical that you create a common theme (e.g. war, religion, famine), or at the least a geographical relationship (e.g. across the ocean) to link one character to the next.

Length
Most will recommend you keep your blurb under 200, or even 150 words, though I have seen best selling authors go over. If the text will be on the back of a printed book, you will have less room to make it long. If it’s for an e-book, you might be able to get away with a few extra words.

A taste of your writing style
Use the same writing style that you do in your book. Give readers a taste of your prose, and maybe even a peek into your character’s personality.

Tense
You will want to write your blurb in the present tense. It helped me to think of this as if I were explaining it to a friend, or listening to a movie trailer. Keep it current, keep it punchy and if you can, keep me wanting more. The present tense rule isn’t hard and fast though. You can get away with past tense when sharing details about the world, or explaining how a character ended up where they are now.

Step Three – Refine

Be ruthless. Trim it down. Yes, that line was amazing, but is it absolutely necessary? Does it build intrigue? If not, cut it. You want to make sure every word has a purpose.

Step Four – Feedback

Now that you’ve toiled for hours and hours, writing, refining, and throwing away only to start from scratch, you finally have what you hope is a decent peek into the world you’ve created. It’s perfect! Isn’t it? Maybe it is, but chances are other people will catch things you missed.

Unless you are selling your book to hundreds of thousands of version of yourself, you will want other people to give their take. Share it with family, friends, other authors, and be prepared to make changes. Keep what changes you like, reject the ones you don’t. Tell them what you are trying to accomplish (see step 2).

Above all, don’t take offense! These people have taken time out of their day to help you – they deserve your gratitude.

Step 5 – Promotion

Congratulations! You did it. Now use your new blurb to promote your book left right and center. Remember, though “finished”, it isn’t set in stone. You can always go back and change it (on copies you haven’t printed, anyway).

And Finally

Here is the blurb for Recreance, Book 1 of the Aeternum Chronicles.

Coming soon:

Recreance

Book 1 of the Aeternum Chronicles

Available May 2017

When death is overcome, life may never survive.

Fourteen hundred years after discovering the secret to eternal life, a battered humanity recovers from centuries of conflict known as the Aeternum Wars. Ruled by the all-powerful Ministry, what is left of humankind huddles in the geo-magnetic powered colony of New Arcadia.

When his parents are murdered by Ministry Breakers, seventeen-year-old Oren is forced to flee into the deadly Miralaja desert, leaving behind his best friend Clementine, and the life he once knew. As clues of his past fall into place, so too are the dark designs of the Ministry laid bare.

Back in New Arcadia, Clementine is driven to the streets, where she is faced with a choice—steal, or starve. Not one to give up, Clem adapts and thrives, using her mastery of geo-tech to earn a small fortune, and a large reputation. Everything was going brilliantly until she took a job infiltrating a Ministry Defense building. Now she too must flee New Arcadia with a dark secret she dares not ignore.

On an epic journey of secret magic and ancient mysteries, Oren and Clementine find themselves fighting not only for their own survival, but for that of all citizens of New Arcadia.

 

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