Writing Tips: Kill Your Darlings

writing tips kill your darlings

Writing tips: kill your darlings.

Some writing tips are cryptic.

When I first came across writing advice that said, “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant we should kill off our favorite characters. That seemed ridiculous. I mean, there are situations in which a story calls for characters to die, but to make a sweeping rule that we should default to killing off our most beloved characters is pretty extreme.

Almost immediately, I realized it was so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be the intent of the statement, and I concluded that although “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so, it also has a broader meaning. We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, if doing so improves our work.

That’s solid advice, and I agree with it. Read More

Writing Tips for Creating a Complex Villain

fiction writing exercises and villains

Create a villain with today’s writing tips.

When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.

Maybe you’re like me and find it difficult to write a really good villain — I mean — a really bad villain.

The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.

That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.

Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me — as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life. Read More

42 Fiction Writing Tips for Novelists

writing tips

Writing tips for fiction writers.

The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. Through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing, and revising, I have discovered countless details that authors have to consider as they set out to produce a viable work of fiction.

Over the years, I have collected a vast pile of notes and ideas concerning fiction writing. As I was going through these notes, I figured they could be compiled into a master list of story writing tips that might help writers tackle a novel by offering different perspectives and by providing fodder for the creative process.

These fiction writing tips come from countless sources. Some were picked up back in my college days. Others came from books about writing. Many came from interviews with successful authors that I have read, watched, or listened to. And a few came from my own personal experiences as both a reader and writer. Read More

What Makes Iconic Characters Unforgettable?

iconic characters

Why are iconic characters so memorable?

Luke Skywalker was the obvious hero of Star Wars: A New Hope so why did Han, Leia, and Darth Vader get all the attention?

When I think about the characters from Star Wars, Luke is often the last one who comes to mind. It’s not that he’s utterly forgettable, but he doesn’t stand out from the crowd of characters who surround him, despite the fact that the story centers on him. The other characters overshadow him, even the characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.

All the characters from Star Wars are iconic, but some are more memorable than others. What can we learn from iconic characters, and how can we create unforgettable characters in our own stories? Read More

Where to Find Ideas for Writing a Story

ideas for writing a story

Ideas for writing a story

It always seem like there are too many writing ideas or not enough.

When you don’t have time to write, ideas come hurtling out of nowhere. Sometimes they come so fast, you can’t even write them all down. But when you sit down, stretch your fingers, and lean over your keyboard to start typing, nothing happens. Where did all those ideas go?

Chances are, you’re not really out of ideas; you’re just not in the mood to write. Sometimes, that’s okay. Take a break and do something else. Give yourself a day off. But other times, you need to dig your heels in, make those ideas flow, and get busy writing.

Where to Find Story Writing Ideas

Luckily, ideas for writing a story are all around you. As long as you can force yourself to get focused, you should easily be able to overcome a bout of writer’s block.

1. Start with a character. Don’t worry about the story yet. Make a character sketch. Don’t think about whether the character is a hero, a villain, or some secondary character. Start with the character’s name, age, and occupation. Then describe the character’s personality, beliefs, and backstory. See if a story emerges.

2. Turn to your favorite fiction. All your favorite books, movies, and TV shows are laden with ideas for writing a story. That’s not to say you should re-purpose or regurgitate an existing story. Look for details that you can work into your own story. Example: In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a tornado sweeps a girl from Kansas to the fantastical land of Oz. In The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a storm sweeps Morris (and his trusty journal) to a land of books. And yes, the author officially recognized The Wizard of Oz as an influence.

3. Brainstorm with a mapping technique. What happens when you’re in the middle of writing a story and find yourself at a standstill? This recently happened to me: I didn’t know what my character should do next. I fretted about it for a few days, and then I made a list of all the possibilities — all the choices she could make. Then I stepped away from the list. In the hours that followed, one of those ideas stuck with me. That’s the one I went with.

4. Cull ideas from your own life. If all you need is a story starter, look back on your own life. After you graduated high school, did you think about spending a year hiking around Europe but instead got a job and went to college? Is there someone in your past, someone you almost married, but didn’t? A job you were offered but turned down? An invitation you declined? Use the crossroads from your past as a starting point for a story. Bonus tip: you can do this with other people’s lives too. Remember that story your grandma told you about how she won a dance contest when she was a teenager? Start with that!

5. Write outside the story. Forget about story and plot. Just write something, anything. You can start with a scene, a character, or a situation. Maybe what you write will become backstory or maybe it will be the epilogue. Maybe some tangent will carry you into a new story that you want to fully realize.

6. Turn on the news. You can get the news from television, the Internet, or a newspaper. Whatever source you choose, it’s sure to be packed with excellent ideas for writing a story, from a double homicide to a neighborhood do-gooder or a corporate conspiracy, you’re sure to find something that will spark your muse into action.

7. Ask a friend. Whether you’re struggling to start a new story or are stumped with a story you’re working on, you might want to try turning to friends and family for a little direction. Even your non-writer friends will have tons of great ideas to help you out. Bonus tip: friends and family are also great for bouncing ideas off of, especially when you’re working on a complex concept.

8. Freewriting. It’s the all-purpose writing activity. Use it for daily writing practice, brainstorming, problem solving, clearing your head, and getting ideas to flow. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Take out your notebook (or some sheets of paper) and write whatever comes to mind (no matter how wild or crazy) for the allotted time period. Don’t stop, don’t think. When you’re done, see if there’s something in there that could prompt a story.

9. Writing prompts. There are oodles of writing prompts right here at Writing Forward, and if can’t find what you’re looking for here, just do a Google search for “story prompts” or “fiction writing prompts.” You’ll be confronted with more story starters than you’ll know what to do with.

10. Turn to your notebook. If you’ve been diligent about jotting down your best writing ideas, then your notebook should prove to be a valuable resource when you’re feeling uninspired. If you haven’t filled your notebook with ideas for writing a story, then crack it open and use the tips above to start your own idea journal.

What kind of stories do you write? Do you ever have trouble starting a story, or are you more likely to get stuck somewhere in the middle? When you need ideas for writing a story, where do you turn? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.

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23 Fiction Writing Ideas That Will Revitalize Your Story

fiction writing ideas

Refresh your story with these fiction writing ideas.

Sometimes our fiction writing projects dry up. The characters turn out to be flat, the plot becomes formulaic, and the story suddenly seems lackluster.

This is when a lot of writers give up and file their half-finished manuscripts into a bottom drawer never to be seen again. What a waste of time and energy.

Before giving up on a project, why not try to resurrect it? Some stories may not be salvageable, but many can be rescued with a little innovative thinking and a few fresh fiction writing ideas.

Fiction Writing Ideas

Today’s writing ideas will help you enhance stories that are suffering from a variety of maladies ranging from boring plots to unrealistic characters. Scroll through these ideas and see if your story can be revitalized.

  1. Give your characters more than a goal. The characters’ goals are the core of almost every story. They are looking for love, trying to return home, or attempting to save the world. In addition to a goal, give your characters secrets, regrets, ulterior motives, bad memories, or any other issues that will shape their decisions as they move toward the goal.
  2. Deepen the plot. Most plots are actually pretty simple, but things get really interesting when you introduce subplots or make the plot richer by complicating it: the hero’s goal is to save someone she cares about, but what if she will gain something great if she doesn’t save that person?
  3. Breathe life into the setting. Sometimes a story’s setting is just a backdrop: Anytown, U.S.A. But you can enliven a story by giving the setting a little time in the spotlight. Any setting, from a deserted island to a major metropolis, can have personality.
  4. Make new character connections. Relationships often drive plot and conflict. What if two characters who barely know each other find out they share a friend (or enemy)? Build interesting relationships between all the characters in your story.
  5. Add a twist. Some plots plod along predictably. Give your story some zing by tying the plot up in knots. Nothing keeps readers glued to the page like plot twists and cliffhangers.
  6. Fine-tune the descriptions. Don’t tell us the character is staring at a wall. Show him staring at something on the wall: a crack, an ant, or peeling wallpaper. If a character is wearing blue jeans, tell us whether they’re old and faded or crisp, dark denims.
  7. Enhance the dialogue. Are all the characters speaking in the same voice? It’s probably your voice. Give each character distinct expressions. Maybe one character says “dude” a lot while another is constantly assigning pet names to everyone she meets.
  8. Push conflict to the brink. There’s a reason the hero never diffuses a bomb until one second to detonation. Get your characters so deep into conflict, readers start to believe there’s no way out. Then save the day!
  9. Strengthen the themes. You can plan which themes will be threaded through your story, but if you don’t, themes will emerge on their own. Identify the themes, and then strengthen them. If redemption is a theme, show a character humming “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley.
  10. Introduce an archetypal character. These characters stand out and feel familiar. Introduce a mentor or a trickster, or give one of your existing characters some archetypal qualities.
  11. Scour your favorite stories for tried-and-true fiction writing ideas. If your story hits a slump, just think about how some of the writers you admire have handled similar problems.
  12. Give your story greater meaning with symbols and symbolism. A white rabbit marks the beginning of an adventure, water indicates birth and rebirth, winter symbolizes death. Create your own symbols (like the mockingjay in Hunger Games) and look for objects of importance that can become symbols, such as a pen, pendant, or some iconic image.
  13. Dip into your characters’ backstories. They had lives before the story started. Give readers a taste of each character’s past through dialogue (in which they relate something that happened to them) and flashbacks.
  14. Add tension and intrigue to the plot by making a deal. One character wants something that another character has. To get it, she has to strike a deal. The higher the stakes, the more riveting the read.
  15. Use repetition for emphasis. Repetition works especially well with symbols. A boy gives a girl a pen when he goes away to college and says, “Don’t forget to write.” She writes, but he never writes back. For three years, she holds on to the pen and the hope that he’ll come back. Then she loses the pen. As soon as she loses it, she meets someone else. The pen makes repeat appearances, emphasizing its relevance to the story. The pen, of course, isn’t the cause of these events but provides a nice echo and works as a symbol for the greater story.
  16. Complicate your characters. Would a spinal surgeon have a bunch of tattoos? Probably not, which means if the spinal surgeon in your story has a bunch of tattoos, he’ll be mysterious and extra interesting. Choose personality traits and descriptions that don’t quite add up!
  17. Make the story emotional by killing off a significant character. Some authors have a hard time with this one, but death is part of life. In fact, it’s the one thing we can all count on. Killing a character is almost necessary when your cast is constantly facing danger of a life-threatening variety.
  18. Plant a red herring in your story. It confuses readers in a delightful way. It looks like the heroine will fall for the charming doctor, but it turns out the man she really loves is a con artist. Red herrings work especially well in mystery stories.
  19. Let your characters be affected by the events that unfold. The point of a story is to show characters experiencing something significant or meaningful, something important enough to change them. By the end, the characters should undergo attitude adjustments, adopt new philosophies, or otherwise evolve from who they were when we first met them.
  20. Engage readers with irony; it makes people think. The atheist experiences a miracle. A fugitive on the run gets captured because he saves someone’s life. A fire station burns down.
  21. Play around with the language. Most readers care more about the story, but they’ll notice if the prose is choppy or dull. Study literary devices and read a little poetry to build your vocabulary and make the best possible word choices.
  22. Good guys do bad things and bad guys do good things. Sure, truly evil or purely good people turn up on Earth occasionally, but really, most people are a mix of good and bad. The same should apply to your characters. Give the hero a criminal record. Show the bad guy doing something decent.
  23. Take a broader view. If you’re writing a murder mystery, the main character can have a love interest. If you’re writing a romance, you can throw in a few mysterious twists. Don’t be overly attached to your genre. Sprinkle a little magic on your story.

Got Any Fiction Writing Ideas?

Got any tips or ideas to add? Have you ever put a story on the chopping block and then saved it? How did you do it? What storytelling tricks do you have up your sleeve? Share your favorite fiction fixes and writing ideas by leaving a comment.

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20 Fun and Inspiring Character Writing Ideas

character writing ideas

Where do you get your character writing ideas?

One of the most difficult things to execute well in a piece of fiction is a realistic character. We’ve all read stories in which the characters were dull or hollow; they come across like clones of the same characters we’ve met in dozens of stories before.

Readers want characters who are as unique and complex as real people.

Are we, as writers, obligated to deliver such characters?

Not necessarily. Plenty of stories are plot-driven or centered around theme rather than character. But the stories that resonate the most have vivid, layered characters. Readers and writers often sing the praises of character-driven fiction. So the single best way to intrigue readers is to give them characters they can’t forget.

Character Writing Ideas

You can spend hours, days, weeks, or months developing character ideas. Whether you launch into your story with little knowledge of your characters or create full sketches and backstories for each one before you begin drafting the narrative, there are plenty of tricks and techniques you can use to inspire characters and breathe life into them.

  1. Use real people as models for your characters. Think of all the people you know intimately, people you love as well as people you despise. Take their strongest and most interesting traits and qualities and give them to your characters.
  2. Need a face for your character? You can use people you know for this too, but you can also use celebrities and other public figures. Some writers find that putting a face to a character brings out a more robust personality. Try it!
  3. Baby name dictionaries are a great starting place for names, and names can help you generate ideas for your character sketches. Think about how names influence our perceptions of people and sketch a character that fits his or her name.
  4. Start with a predicament. Then, you may need to create characters who have the skills to get out of that predicament. Thieves, for example, can pick locks, so if your characters need to get something out of a locked room or building, one of your characters may have some experience in burgling.
  5. Live out your dreams. When you were a kid, did you want to be a rock star or an astronaut? Well, now you can live vicariously through your characters!
  6. Turn to fiction. Books, movies, and TV shows are packed with incredible characters that audiences have already fallen for. Don’t try to copy these characters, but by all means, use them for inspiration. Ask yourself what made your favorite characters so compelling.
  7. We all have quirks, so it makes sense for characters to have quirks too. Freckles, bitten fingernails, a limp, or a lisp are all ways you can set one character apart from the others.
  8. Family and friends make us who we are. Draft sketches for your characters’ family and friends (even if they’re not going to appear in the story) and you may learn a thing or two about your character.
  9. Have some style! From a modern urban princess to a bum on the street, every person has his or her own style. Your characters should too! What do they wear? How does she make up her face? Does he wear cologne?
  10. Most people have interests, hobbies, and passions. Even if your character’s personal interests aren’t tied directly to the plot, they could enrich it, and they’ll certainly make your character more believable.
  11. I’ve always found mannerisms and gestures fascinating. You often see the same mannerisms mirrored throughout a family or group of friends. In fiction, give each character his or her own unique gestures – biting the bottom lip, scratching one’s forehead, and tapping one’s toe on the floor are all good options.
  12. Have you ever noticed that everyone you know has their own special way of talking? We each have a unique voice comprised of how we string words together, expressions we frequently use, and our intonation. You can make a character more realistic by simply giving the character a unique voice through dialogue.
  13. Some of the best characters are extreme or over the top. Think of Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood, and Indiana Jones. These characters have strong personalities and are deeply driven by higher values and personal desires. Think about how your characters’ philosophies and goals shape their personalities.
  14. Not all characters are human! Stories can be enriched with pets; they may not be necessary to the plot, but they can add to the emotional value of a story.
  15. Do you write science fiction or fantasy? Forget non-human pets. Try creating characters who are not of this earth: androids, aliens, and mythological or fantastical creatures.
  16. When you’re fresh out of good character writing ideas, try taking your characters out of the story altogether. Write a scene from a character’s backstory or draft a monologue in your character’s voice.
  17. Spend some down time with your characters. What do they do when they’re not struggling with conflict or saving the world? Where do you characters eat, how do they organize their closets, and what do they listen to while working out? Sometimes taking a peek at your characters’ most normal moments will give you insight to who they are.
  18. Balancing traits among a group of characters means that each character brings something different to the table. Harry Potter was a hero, but where would he have been without Hermione’s smarts and Ron’s loyalty? Distribute different strengths and weaknesses among your characters, especially if you’re writing an ensemble piece.
  19. The literary canon is full of ancient and archetypal characters. From the herald and the hero to the trickster and the villain, myths, legends, and fairy tales can inspire and inform your characters. Put a new twist on these old favorites by forming (rather than copying) your characters from these proven standards from storytelling.
  20. What about you? It’s the oldest trick in the book: base a character on yourself.

What are some of your favorite character writing ideas and activities? How do you come up with new characters or make your characters realistic? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Genres: Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else

literary fiction

How is literary fiction different from other genres?

In creative writing, we talk about form and genre. Form is what we write: fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. Genre is how we further classify each of these forms.

In fiction writing, there’s literary fiction and everything else.

In fact, literary fiction and all the other genres are so at odds with each other that some writers simply say they are either literary fiction writers or genre writers.

But what does that mean? Isn’t all fiction considered literary?

Yes and no.

What is Literary Fiction Anyway?

Let’s start with a simple definition of the word literary. Dictionary.com offers several definitions, including the following:

  1. pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
  2. pertaining to authorship: literary style.
  3. versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
  4. engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
  5. characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.

So we can use the word literary whenever we’re talking about writing or authorship in general, but it can also mean an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to intellectual or academic snobbery.

Wikipedia offers a more specific definition of literary fiction: “fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.” The article goes on to say that “to be considered literary, a work usually must be ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘serious’. In practice, works of literary fiction often are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.'”

In other words, literary fiction has meaning and significance. I’ve also heard literary fiction defined as paying diligence to the craft of writing (or the art of stringing words together), exploring the human condition, and making bold commentary or criticism of society and culture.

Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else

I love literary fiction. Some of my favorite novels are The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which would be classified as literary fiction. These are the kind of books that people study and analyze. They’re taught in schools. People read them for decades, even centuries, after they’re published. They win prestigious awards and are beloved and celebrated by bookworms and scholars alike.

As much as I love literary fiction, I’d have to say that my heart belongs to science fiction. From A Wrinkle in Time to The Hunger Games trilogy, the science fiction that I love best has done everything that literary fiction can do and then some.

In an interview with the Paris Review (which I highly recommend), the great Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas.” He also observed that science fiction often goes unrecognized for having literary merit and expressed his chagrin:

“As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible… The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”

Some of the other genres have it even worse. When was the last time a romance novel or horror story won critical acclaim or took home the highest literary honors? Science fiction and fantasy writers have enjoyed more critical and commercial success in recent years: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins have dominated book sales, and they are all genre writers. Ray Bradbury himself won several prestigious literary awards. Sometimes it seems like the literary academics (the literati) are coming around and slowly opening their minds to genre fiction.

Yet there is still a stigma attached to genre fiction in certain literary circles. Just recently, I heard someone say they refused to read The Hunger Games because it was about kids killing kids and was therefore garbage. Yet kids are killing kids all over the planet: in gangs, in wars, and in school shootings. It’s not garbage; it’s truth, and that is the purest form of literature.

Looking for Merit in Creative Writing

Of course there is an argument to made about the merit of a work of fiction. I’ve read plenty of literary and genre fiction that said absolutely nothing about humanity or the world in which we live. Some of the literary novels I’ve picked up recently have been so abstract, obtuse, and erudite that after a few chapters, I gave up and moved on to the next book. And I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that is good fun but will never change the world.

Ultimately, each of us decides for ourselves which stories hold the most merit. We get to ask ourselves whether we want a gripping story or a story that makes us think, feel, and question. Do we read to be entertained and to escape, or do we read to broaden our perspectives and enlighten ourselves?

Have you ever watched a film or read a book that you thought had a lot of artistic or intellectual merit only to learn that the critics shot it down? Have you ever experienced a story that you thought was just awful and learned that it won awards and prestige? What are your thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Tips for Developing Story Writing Ideas

story writing ideas

Tips for developing story writing ideas.

Short stories, flash fiction, novels, and novellas: there are countless stories floating around out there — and those are just the fictional works.

It’s no wonder writers get frustrated trying to come up with a simple concept for a story. One look at the market tells you that everything has been done.

But what makes a story special is your voice and the unique way that you put different elements together. Sure, there might be something reminiscent of Tolkien in your work, but so what? Echos of Lord of the Rings can be found in some of the most beloved stories of the 20th century: Harry Potter and Star Wars, for example.

I’m not saying J.K. Rowling and George Lucas intentionally used elements of Tolkien’s work in their stories. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. But I would bet both of them read and appreciated Lord of the Rings. Whether they were conscious or not of its influence on their work doesn’t really matter.

Developing Story Writing Ideas

There are countless ways to develop story concepts. You can start with an event from the news or a character you’ve created; you can base your plot on an old legend or fairy tale; or you can combine two of your favorite genres.

  • What happens when you mix Hamlet with Star Trek? Well, you might get something that looks like Star Wars. Take a traditional legend or folk tale and send it to space or place it in a magical fairyland to give it a new twist.
  • It works both ways. You can take a modern story and put it in a historical setting. Star Trek is about explorers who are deeply humanitarian. Could there have been such explorers on Earth thousands of years ago?
  • If you can create a believable and complex character, you can evolve a story from the character’s emotional landscape and personal experiences.
  • A romance horror story, a western set in space, a chick-lit war story, and a fairy tale about the business world are all ways you can combine genres to inspire writing ideas.
  • Instead of starting with a story, start with a big idea. How do you explore abstract concepts like sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, and wrath through story?

Sometimes, by brainstorming established genres, stories, and themes, you’ll find that an original idea emerges.

More Specific Story Writing Ideas

Let’s say you’re writing a story about a homeless teen who squats in a family’s Manhattan apartment during the day while they’re at work and school. It occurs to you that there are some parallels to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Instead of writing off your idea as unoriginal, use the fairy tale to infuse your story with archetypes and symbols that are universally recognized: three teddy bears on the child’s bed, three chairs of various sizes in the living room, the family eating porridge for breakfast.

Here are some more specific idea starters based on fairy tales:

  • Little Red Riding Hood in Suburbia: There’s a stranger at grandma’s house.
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears in the Big City: A squatter makes herself at home.
  • The Gingerbread Phone: A smartphone becomes self-aware.
  • Dystopian Cinderella: This fairy tale been done and redone. Cinderella is apparently an exhaustive source of story writing ideas. Set your version in a bleak future.
  • The Little Badass Mermaid: Take any old fairy tale and turn the heroine into a badass.
  • Beauty is the Beast – What if the gender roles were reversed?

What’s Your Story?

Our world is full of patterns and cycles that repeat infinitely. Every story you write comes from every story you’ve read. Some writers consciously use old tales as a foundation for their work; others are surprised when they realize there are blatant similarities in their work and someone else’s.

I’m not suggesting you go out in search of stories to rewrite (and I’m definitely not suggesting you avoid coming up with your own original ideas). I hear from writers, on a regular basis, who are frustrated because they analyze every detail in their stories and stress out when they realize certain elements already occurred elsewhere in the literary canon.

So, I want to put forth the simple truth that everything has been done. Your job is to do it your way.

Where do you get your story writing ideas?

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12 Character Writing Tips for Fiction Writers

character writing tips

Character writing tips.

Characters are the heart and soul of every story.

Almost every great story is about people. Plot, setting, theme, and every other element of fiction is secondary to realistic characters that an audience can connect with on an intellectual or emotional level.

There are exceptions, of course. Some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but they never seem to achieve the massive popularity that stories with rich, layered characters achieve. Why do fans adore Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen? Because they feel like real people.

We connect with characters in fiction for any number of reasons. Maybe the character reminds us a little of ourselves. We might love her because she represents who we want to be, or we might hate her because she reminds us of the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. Some characters feel like friends; others remind us of our enemies. We might admire a character’s heroism and relate to his philosophy or we might admonish his acts of destruction and hate.

Some writers argue that it’s not necessary for readers to connect or identify with characters in a story. That might be true to some extent, but the most beloved stories throughout the history of literature are populated with characters we love and characters we love to hate. There’s something to be said for making readers care.

Character Writing Tips

Readers won’t care about characters unless they are believable. So how do we make our characters realistic? Why do the most celebrated characters seem so real even though they are made up? How have some writers managed to render animals, aliens, and even inanimate objects into characters that we embrace emotionally?

The answer is simple: the best characters come with all the flaws, quirks, and baggage that real people possess. They are not just names on a page. They have pasts and personalities, and they are unique.

Here are some character writing tips to help you develop characters that feel like real people:

  1. Backstory: We are born a certain way, but our life experiences continually mold and shape us. Each character has a life before the story begins. What is it?
  2. Dialogue: The way we talk depends on the language we speak and where we live (or grew up) but there’s also something unique to each person’s style of speaking. We repeat certain words and phrases, inflect certain syllables, and make certain gestures while we speak.
  3. Physical Description: Our primary method of identifying each other is the way we look; hair and eye color, height and weight, scars and tattoos, and the style of clothing we wear are all part of our physical descriptions.
  4. Name: Esmerelda doesn’t sound like a soccer mom, and Joe doesn’t sound like an evil sorcerer. Make sure the names you choose for your characters match their personalities and the roles they play in the story.
  5. Goals: Some say that a character’s goals drive the entire story. He wants to slay the dragon; she wants to overthrow the evil empire. Goals can be small (the character wants a specific job) or big (the character is trying to save the world). Come up with a mix of small and large goals for each character.
  6. Strengths and Weaknesses: Villains sometimes do nice things and heroes occasionally take the low road. What are your character’s most positive and negative behaviors and personality traits?
  7. Friends and Family: These are the people in our inner circles, and they have played important roles in shaping our personalities and our lives. Who are your characters’ friends and family before the story starts? What new friends will they meet once the story begins?
  8. Nemesis: A nemesis is someone with whom we are at odds. This character doesn’t have to be a villain, but the goals of the nemesis definitely interfere with your main character’s goals.
  9. Position in the World: What do your characters do for a living? What are their daily lives like? Where do they live? What is a character’s role or position among his or her friends, family, or coworkers?
  10. Skills and Abilities: A character’s skills and abilities can get him out of a tight spot or prevent him from being able to get out of a tight spot. Skills can be useless or they can come in handy. Does your character have an education or special training? What can he do?
  11. Gestures, Mannerisms, and Quirks: One character chews her nails while watching movies. Another runs his hand through his hair when he’s trying to figure something out. Give your characters identifiable quirks and behaviors, like real people.
  12. Fears: An old fiction writing trick is to figure out what your character is most afraid of, and then make the character face it. We all have fears; characters should, too.

How to Put These Character Writing Tips into Practice

Characters need to be detailed and complicated in order to seem real. These character tips give you a lot to consider, but how do you put them into practice?

You could tackle each idea as a separate exercise. Write your character’s backstory one day. The next day, do a page of dialogue to see how the character speaks. Then spend some time looking for a perfect name for your character. If you work through all these tips as separate exercises, you’ll end up with a robust character sketch, and your character will be ready to enter the plot of your story.

Character sketches are by no means mandatory. You could also start writing the draft of your manuscript and see how each of these elements develops organically for each character. During revisions, you can check your narrative against this list to make sure the characters are consistent and have all the depth of real people.

How do you create characters? Do you start with a character sketch or do you just start writing? Do you have a checklist (like the one above) to help you know and understand your characters? Got any character writing tips to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep writing.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

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