I know you’re all anxiously awaiting the second-half of the A to Z Guide to Character Building and it’s in the works, but this summer has been unusually busy so the guide is taking a short hiatus.
So ... what is keeping me so busy? In between all the usual summer stuff (barbecues, trips, family fun) there’s also a little book project I’m working on called “The Accident.” Actually it’s not so little, it’s pretty big and it’s the third book in my Achdus Club series. I’m working on revisions now and, hopefully, it’ll be in stores in late November/early December just in time for Chanukah!
If you’re doing any traveling this summer, make sure to stop into a local bookstore and peruse the aisles. Discover an author you’ve never heard of or try a different genre. Ask the booksellers for suggestions on who the popular hometown authors are and seek out one of their reads.
When you are on vacation and traveling it can be hard to maintain a strict writing schedule, at times like this its good to catch a few minutes here and there whenever possible. If you can finish up your assignments before you go even better, but if you can’t set aside a specific time (maybe before breakfast and when everyone else is still asleep) to work on your writing. Just don’t let the opportunity for growth as a person and, yes, as a writer pass you by. Enjoy your time at the beach or in the mountains or exploring a new city. Recharge and reset your writing battery. Let your mind wander. You never know what little image or tidbit of history or information will spark your imagination and inspire a column, short story or your new novel.
Have you ever considered what your name says about you? How does it fit with who you are? Do you have a unique name? Are you a one-of-a-kind person? Maybe your name doesn’t define you at all. Maybe you are shy and have a name that better fits the most gregarious, outgoing girl?
Names can hold a lot of weight, and in storytelling they can give us plenty of fodder for storytelling. They can foreshadow some of our character’s personality traits.
Take, for instance, a girl with the name Charlie or a boy named Sue. While these names were once upon a time used for both sexes, recent trends have made them gender specific with Sue being primarily a girl’s name and Charlie one for boys.
But what if our hero or heroine had a name that was identified with the opposite gender? How would they react? Is there a way to use that to show something about their character? Their tenacity?
Then there are names like Amber or Daniel, names that conjure up certain images in one’s mind, like a popular, outgoing cheerleader for the former or a strong warrior for the latter. How can these stereotypes play into your narrative? For instance, what if Amber and/or Daniel were shy bookworms?
BTW: According to a study released earlier this year, my own name, (via the spelling “Faigy”) is New York’s favorite quirkest girl’s name thanks to the large concentration of Orthodox Jews in the state. (Also on the list are: Shimon, Yaakov and Nechama.) You can check out the rest of the list: http://www.today.com/parents/quirkiest-baby-names-state-t108836
Your Assignment: Research some names for potential story characters. Is there a name that perfectly fits your character? Or, perhaps, one that totally doesn’t fit? How can you use that to make your story and, more importantly, your character stronger and more vivid in the mind of your readers?
What will your character do when faced with questionable scenarios? Will they call their mother just to say hi or only when forced to once a day on Mother’s Day? Will they tell the clerk at the store that they were given too much change or just walk away a dollar richer?
The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about who characters are and what they value. What they believe in – g-d, country, greed, etc. – for better or worse will inform the decisions they make and how they should behave throughout the story.
Jane only speaks to her mother once a year on Mother’s Day. What will Jane do when her mother shows up on her doorstep one random morning and declares she’s moving in?
Jane isn’t just going to roll out the red carpet, hand her mother a cup of coffee and the keys to the house.
But what if she did? What if Jane acted completely out of character? Can there ever be a case for that? Yes, but it can’t be without a lot of discussion and introspection.
When your character behaves in a way that is opposed to the moral code that you’ve established for them, you need to give them a solid reason. Or, alternatively, you can use that as a springboard to a larger issue.
Joe watched James as he stormed off, slamming doors in his wake. Joe didn’t know what to make of his brother’s behavior. Where was the James that barely spoke above a whisper? The brother who stopped to give panhandlers crisp dollar bills or went and shoveled the neighbor’s walkway after a snowstorm just because?
Obviously there’s something going on with James and as the story unfolds, you, as the writer, need to explore, explain and build James’ character so that his actions make sense.
Your Assignment: Think about the essence of your character’s moral code. How do they behave with their family? With random strangers? How can you show through your character’s actions and interactions what they value? Are there any circumstances under which they will abandon their personal moral code? Can you use this to deep your story?
My books were showcased at the Torah Umesorah convention by my publisher! Happy to share the news and share the booth with fellow Menucha authors, including Rebecca Klempner.
For some reason when I write I tend to ignore writing about a character’s appearance. Maybe it’s because I’ve read one too many books where the character’s “cover” picture (aka the drawing on book cover) that don’t match the way the character is described in the story.
Luckily this hasn’t happened to me in my books. I’ve been very luck in that the cover illustrator for my Achdus Club series (the very talented Dena Ackerman, thank you Dena!) has created beautiful and unique heroines for each of my novels.
Perhaps, then, and this is more likely, I like to create my own image of just who the characters are. I want to imagine what the hero looks like as he explores the abandoned cabin or the heroine as she rows across the lake.
As writers, however, it is up to us to guide the readers. Here then are some things to think about:
Don’t make this a laundry list of description – Joe at 6 feet, 5 inches tall with brown hair and brown eyes, he was a bit of giant – rather give some thought and “color” to the description. Have the character’s appearance unfold within the story. Perhaps this description comes from another’s character’s observation or even the character’s own observations.
* For the first time since he was a young boy, Dan wished he had a box to stand on. Instead, he had to tilt his head all the way back to get a good look at Joe who towered over him.
* Joe raised and lowered the bedroom mirror. He’d long since gotten used to the idea that no mirror would give him a full view of how he looked. If he put the mirror super high on the wall, he couldn’t see his feet and if he put it low he couldn’t see his face.
Each of these scenarios allow us to envision just how tall Joe is, but does so without being specific numbers. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, writing the descriptions this way also provide a key insight into the thoughts and feeling of your characters.
(For more on this topic see D Is for Descriptors)
Your Assignment: Go over your story and see how you describe your characters. Is there a way to make the descriptions more colorful? Will rephrasing a scene or two with descriptions allow your reader to get to know more about how the character is feeling or thinking?
Things have been quite busy here recently, so the A, B, C Guide to Characterization will be back soon. In the meantime, here’s some news that will be of use to writers and editors. (And you’re seeing this mostly because the computer just ate two blog posts, including a much wittier version of what you will read below.)
Both the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook will issue new editions later this year. These are THE manuals for writing, word usage, grammar rulings and more in the writing/publishing world. They dictate everything from how and when to italicize to when to add a hyphen in a word that starts with the letter “e” as in email, but e-commerce.
For writers, editors and those who make their living around the English language these changes can sometimes make like easier. Take, for instance, when the word style gurus (whoever they may be) decided that the singular “they” would be OK to use. This made copy much cleaner, if a little less precise.
If either Jack or Jane wants to go they can.
Nice, neat and simple, right? But consider how it would have been written before the use of the singular they:
If either Jack or Jane wants to go he or she can.
This is more clunky and takes up more space on a page, though it is a bit more precise.
The Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition is expected out this fall and will include many changes that will trickle down to the books you write and read, and the copy you write.
The AP Stylebook (officially The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law) is the the guide for reporters and the media. It will release the 2017 edition in mid-June and is expected to contain more than 200 new entries.
It’s always fun to see the things that change from one style guide to the next, which new words are included and what spelling has been changed. I remember how excited I’d get when I was working at a newspaper full time and the new style guides would arrive. I would take a few moments to peruse the new edition (a more thorough read came later) and share my excitement about the changes with my colleagues. (Truth be told, only one editor shared my enthusiasm and, hopefully, she knows who she is.)
I may not call out across the office to share the latest style changes anymore, but I’m still excited to see how language continues to evolve and how the word style gurus try to make our writing clearer.
So I’m wondering, if you could change any one thing in the word/grammar rule universe what would it be?
If you were on a desert island what five things would you take with you? Or, similarly, if you had 15 minutes to evacuate your home what are the most important items that must come with you?
Many people would say family photos followed by a pet, but what comes next? What else matters to a person so much that they wouldn’t want to leave it behind?
No, this week’s column isn’t about planning for a disaster, it’s about thinking about how your character lives and what matters most to them, beyond just the people in their world.
Think about these questions and try to imagine how they might play out in your story.
We are all attached to our stuff, some more than others, and though we may not want to acknowledge it, on some level it does seep into who we are and what we want and do.
YOUR HOMEWORK: Come up with a list of things your hero or heroine can’t live without and then create a scene where the item is lost. How will your characters react? Can they find an easy substitute or will they be paralyzed with fear? Is the keepsake something they always carry with them, like a lucky charm, or something they have buried in their dresser where only they can see it? Why is it important? Use the answers to these questions to shed some light on your character’s inner actions and feelings.
Whether you realize it or not, your characters are on a journey. No, they don’t necessarily need to be physically traveling somewhere, but they do have to get somewhere – at least internally – in your story. Characters, like people, need to be moving. They need to have goals, wants, desires and they must take actions to help them at the very least try and reach their goals.
Ask yourself, what motivate your character? Why are they the person they are? What incidents in their past have most-shaped who they are in your story? What are their dreams?
Once you have the answers consider how the events in the story will intersect with the journey your character has had until now. Will it change who they are? How does their personal history influence how they will respond to actions in your story’s plot.
By answering some of these questions, you will gain insight into your characters and how they will act and the journey they will take when they face all the challenges you as the writer will throw their way.
YOUR HOMEWORK: Grab a piece a paper and jot down a few things that have happened to your character in the past. Then, jot down some of the challenges they will need to face in your story. See how they will meet (or even fail to meet) those challenges.
Writer, Editor and Author of the Achdus Club novels for girls.