How to Write Strong Characters

Readers are not interested in seeing cliché, stereotypical characters—we want characters that we can relate to: their dreams, their fears, their quirks and their emotions. When we go to a movie and when we read a book, we secretly want to learn something about ourselves from the experience. If you have admittedly cried during a movie—guilty—was it because you found truth in their struggle, maybe you were even able to relate?

The key to writing strong, lovable characters is to write ones that are true to life. No one is happy all the time, no one gets everything they want, everyone has fears, secrets, and everyone lies. The best way to improve in this department is to study life, don’t worry it is a lot easier than it sounds. Look around you, go to a public place, enjoy a cold drink and people watch. Be sure to advert your eyes when needed to retain your perceived normalcy. Bring a notepad with you to jot down occurrences of different types of body language, habits, and phrases you are attracted to. Does your character bite their lip or nails when they are nervous? How can a character tell when another is lying? What one-liner exposes more about the person than we know? Building a lengthy list of such everyday quirks and exchanges will help you develop a one-of-a-kind character.

Often we encounter stories that are centered on the main character being a victim. Have you ever read stories where the antagonist was stereotyped as purely evil, or selfish? Think about how some teens portray their parents, and the parent’s pure motivation to ruin the teen’s life. We have heard the story time and again, but now let’s take a different perspective. In my short stories “The Weight of Truth” and “Any Means of Survival,” I took characters that are normally perceived as “villains” and I shared what factors brought them to such circumstances. In movies you will see that even the villains have characteristics that the viewer can admire: a moment of doubt, a need longing to be fulfilled, a moment of weakness. Avoid writing characters that readers will hate, give them a reason to sympathize even with the villain—the added complexity is truly beautiful. It is easy to think of things we do not like that people do, it is much harder to find ways to justify what deeper motives might have brought them to such actions.

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Guilt-free Experimentation

Forget about what your high school English teachers taught you. The things that were burned into your brain, you know, the repetitive preaching about organizing your five paragraph essays and blatantly spelling out the structure to the reader.

“Firstly, Secondly, Lastly…followed by the exact point you set out to prove.”

I can only speak true of my experience and those of my fellow writing colleagues, but when I began taking Creative Writing courses in college I was in trouble. I found my creativity was stifled by the rules that were branded into my frontal lobe and I struggled to stop the bleeding before they left a scar. I was so used to being told how plainly I must organize my ideas and how sterile my words should be. Sterile? Yes, once your mind has been unleashed into a pig pen of dirty, filthy, beautiful creativity any other way does feel sterile.

Contemporary literature is moving in a completely new direction and I believe the majority of the novelty rests in the amount of weight we now give to experimentation. I have read my fair share of classics and, in contrast to what we have today, I have never seen voice given so much emphasis and play. You may have encountered the pessimistic phrase that, “everything has already been said before,” but it has never been said like this *insert your latest experimentation piece*! (Call me naïve but I like to think that there are still some ideas that have not been uttered, but I shall save that rant for another post.)

Your paragraphs do not have to be 3-5+ sentences long. You do not have to be concise with the direction you are heading in and please, do not tell us where you plan on going up front! Just typing that, I am thrilled about the freedom that unleashes.

When I interned at The Florida Review, I quickly learned that the most emphasized part of our editorial philosophy was that we truly appreciated experimental work. What is even more fun than reading one experimental story amidst hundreds of submissions, was fighting over them in our editorial meeting. Some interns would absolutely, positively HATE the piece, but then there were those that said they have never read anything more beautifully original. Our mission as artists is to strive to capture the essence of originality laced with creativity—embrace the unusual.

By far, the biggest weakness I found with experimental pieces is when the idea is lost. It is wonderful to start banging on the keys with a stroke of mad brilliance, but if it the idea is not made clear, eventually at least, the beauty is ultimately lost. Never, ever, jeopardize an idea. Experimentation is only successful and appreciated if it aids your original idea. Playing with words and structure is the most fun to read (and write) when the idea still radiates through.

I don’t know about you, but I can say that there have been times when I was struck by a sudden epiphany for my next story or script idea and after pondering how wonderful it could really be I noticed it kind of has been done before. “Oh yeah, I saw that movie last week…and it kind of had the same plot.” Damn media and its influences. What I learned in my Magazine Writing courses is that it might have been said before, but give it an angle that we have never seen, shine a light on the details we have never been told. I believe that advice rings true for writing stories as well, and how better to do so then with experimenting?

My next short story is the most experimental piece I have ever written and I could not be more excited for the journey.

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Writing Life Q&A

Q: Why do you write? 

 A: That can be a tough question to grasp when a passion is so engrained in you. I write because I feel there are stories I need to tell, and if I don’t tell them my mind will overflow with them and I will not be able to think of anything else. I have always had a deep interest in exploring the human condition, interactions, and the universality of human emotion. I absolutely love it when ordinary people make a difference and/or prevail extraordinary struggles and circumstances. Those are stories I feel I have to tell in hopes that I may disrupt the monotonous “brain blockage” we all suffer from in our modern world. Sometimes we need to be reminded of what truly matters or told of situations that deserve, no, demand, our attention. I write because I can’t not write, I need to tell their stories.

Q: Where and when do you write best? 

A: I write best at night. In the morning, I usually feel overwhelmed with all the pending items on my to do list. I make the best use of my time by eliminating as much as I can from the list that way there is nothing to distract me when I feel it is the right time for me to write. For a reason that I cannot understand at this time, I find myself to be more analytical of life, human behavior, and personalities in the evening—maybe that is because I am not a morning person. I am only partly joking.

I write best at my desk. I love that it nestles up to a window, and although the view of our apartment building parking lot isn’t much, I can watch the trees sway with the breeze and the birds sing on the rims of my pots. I also have strategically placed items on my desk that are sentimental to me; they help make my writing area a place that is grounded in my memories.

Q: What has been the most successful piece you’ve ever written, and why? 

A: The most successful piece I have written thus far is a short fiction story called “The Weight of Truth.” I have found it to be my most successful piece yet because I have grown so much as a writer through the months I spent writing and revising it. If I was to lay the first draft beside the final draft, I could highlight new techniques I have recently discovered and began exploring. As I am still a flourishing writer, this piece will be surpassed by others as I continue to grow, but I can still look at it and admire the challenges it posed and the growth that resulted.

Q: What skills have you mastered, and what still eludes you? 

A: I would honestly say a skill is never truly mastered; we are always honing our current understanding and execution of a technique, but there are certain techniques that are stronger than others. I would say I have a strong connection to exploring and capturing the universality of human emotion and the extraordinary circumstances of ordinary people—this is important to me, so I have worked hard to emphasize this in my writing. I also like to create lively, vivid, original descriptions of people and surroundings. I like everything to feel true to life and something that a reader can close their eyes and visualize but in a way they might not have seen before.

I am still working on pacing and structuring my story so that it feels linear and fluid. Sometimes I feel a section is a little too slow when, in contrast, I have been told I really need to slow it down and savor it more. Also, I sometimes am not sure of how to properly deliver flashbacks and change time sequences in clear way—at least in my opinion.

Q: What is your revision process? 

A: It is very important to me to take time away from a draft once I have it in a place I am comfortable with. When I say comfortable, I mean I want to make sure I have explored a character and the plot as much as I can at the current time. Although I may not look at the manuscript for days or even weeks, my mind is subconsciously exploring the characters and their interactions with each other. I have said, “the more you look the less you see,” what I meant by this is that if we keep fretting over every word in our manuscript we may become oblivious to areas that are lacking and hurt the piece more than just a missing phrase. Once I have taken time away from a manuscript I am able to set fresh eyes upon it and notice if I have neglected a character or skipped over an important scene. I take time away from the manuscript after each full revision.

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