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Guest post: Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story by Nina Munteanu

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of characters, is brought to you by science fiction / fantasy author, writing coach guest blogger, interviewee and spotlightee Nina Munteanu.

Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story

Your story lives and breathes through your characters. Through them your premise, idea and your plot come alive. Characters give your story meaning; they draw in the reader who lives the journey through them. Without them you wouldn’t have a story—you’d have a treatise.

Here are some questions you need to ask each of your characters:

  1. Will the story fall apart or be significantly diminished if you disappear? If not, you don’t need to be there; you aren’t fulfilling a role in the book. Hugo award winning author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job”: they tell a story. In real life, people may act through no apparent motivation, be confusing, incoherent and make pointless statements or actions. Story characters show more clear motivations, coherence, and consistency. They don’t clutter your story with muddle and confusion like real people do. They fit into your story like a major puzzle piece.
  2. What is your role? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.). Each character fulfills a dramatic function in your story. You can’t just be there because you’re cute. Well, ok, maybe. But even being cute can and should provide a dramatic function in the story by exploring how that quality is viewed and treated by others. As with setting, which serves a similar purpose as character in story, every aspect of both minor and major characters interact with and illuminate story theme, premise and plot.
  3. What archetype do you fulfill? In the “hero’s journey” plot approach, each character fulfills one to several archetypes, which help define how they service the plot and theme of the story. The mentor archetype, for instance, generally believes in and enables the hero on his journey. The threshold guardian, on the other hand does not have faith in the hero and obstructs him on his journey. The hero archetype, usually on a quest (for truth, forgiveness, home, victory, faith, etc.), must negotiate her world of archetypes to reach her destination.
  4. How do you contribute to the major or minor theme of the book? This is particularly relevant for all major characters and their associated sub-plots. Sawyer stresses that “your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.” All other characters, in turn, either help reflect the main character’s journey or the overall story premise and theme. If your book is about forgiveness, each character helps illuminate your exploration of this theme.
  5. Are you unique? If the reader can’t distinguish you from other characters, chances are you need to be eliminated because of point number 1 anyway. In order to contribute to story, characters must provide a sufficiently distinguishable feature, complete with sub-plot, on the story landscape. The more varied and rich the landscape is, the more interesting it will be. Fictional characters achieve distinction through individual traits that readers recognize and empathize with. Authors use vernacular and body language to achieve colorful fictional characters.
  6. Are you interesting? If you aren’t interesting to the reader, you won’t do your job. Readers need to notice you, distinguish you and find something about you that will keep their interest—even if it’s something annoying. Just remember to be consistent—unless inconsistency is part of your character.
  7. What is your story arc? Do you develop, change, and learn something by the end? If not, you will be two-dimensional and less interesting. This is just as true for minor characters as for main characters. The more characters the author imbues with the depth to develop, the more multi-layered the story will become. This is because each character and her associated arc provides her own perspective to the theme. This is what is truly meant by “richness” — not the richness of infinite detail, like a baroque painting, but of infinite meaning like an impressionist work. Choose your minor characters as you choose your major characters.
  8. What major obstacle(s) must you overcome? You need these to struggle and “grow” and change; otherwise there is no tension in the story, no development and movement and no story arc. Your character will be like a still-life with no movement, no direction and no interest. The more your character changes over a story, the more she will be noticed and remembered.
  9. What’s at stake for you (theme), and for the world (plot), and how do these tie together? If a writer is unable to tie these together in story, the story will fail to evoke emotional involvement and empathy. It will lack cohesiveness and will not give the reader a fulfilling conclusion with ultimate satisfaction through the character’s journey related to theme (the hero’s journey, essentially).
  10. Do you change from beginning to end? If you don’t develop throughout the story, then you aren’t growing as a result of the thematic elements and plot issues presented in the story. In other words, you haven’t learned your lesson. While it’s ok for some characters not to develop (e.g., to be one note or flat or plain old stubbornly the same) this is disastrous for any of your main characters. Just ensure that the changes you make your character go through are warranted and relevant to the theme.

Characters help the writer achieve empathy and commitment from the reader. Characters are really why readers keep reading. If the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, she won’t really care what happens next. It is important to be mindful of the emotional and narrative weight of a character and achieve balance between characters. For instance, the foil of the protagonist should carry equal weight; otherwise the reader won’t believe the match-up. Equally, a large cast—often used in epic fantasies or historical pieces—can be used successfully, but only if each character is given a clearly distinguishable personality and role.

That was great. Thank you, Nina!

nina-fireplace-crop01-close2-webNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to five published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world.

Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award and the Aurora Award, Canada’s top prize in science fiction.

Nina lectures at university and teaches writing workshops and courses based on her award-nominated textbook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!

Last Summoner

Her award-winning blog The Alien Next Door hosts lively discussion on science, travel, pop culture, writing and movies. Visit www.ninamunteanu.com for more information and to book a coaching / workshop session or class with Nina.

Her latest book, just released this autumn by Starfire, is The Last Summoner, a historical fantasy about a young baroness who discovers she can alter history.

The book is currently enjoying Canadian Bestseller status at Amazon.ca in Historical Fantasy.

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If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with fantasy and YA author Elaine Ouston – the five hundred and seventy-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

 

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Guest post: Creativity and Healing by Fran Dorf

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of how writing can be therapeutic, is brought to you by psychological novelist Fran Dorf.

Creativity and Healing: Let The Little One Inside You Sing

Why do we feel so satisfied when we engage our creativity?  Why is singing, writing a play, cooking a wonderful meal, designing a building or outfit, composing a song or sonata, capturing a particular moment in a photograph, or coming up with a new idea, method, or a way of looking at things in the brainstorming session at work so fulfilling?  Why does using our imagination feel so wonderful? Why does making the metaphor that perfectly describes something by comparing it to something else feel so gratifying?  Why do people make art anyway?  Why do people write?

A man is struggling to go on after losing someone he loves.  A beloved wife.  I ask him to try a simple writing exercise, and he runs with it.  He is not a “poet,” but he produces poetry, beautiful and true.  He has turned pain into beauty, and he finds the process satisfying, cathartic, healing.

Or take my own experience.  I was already a writer when I lost my son in 1994, and yet afterward I simply refused to write for a number of years.  I refused because writing was what I did before, and that life seemed over.  But the problem was I was cutting off my most available path to self-healing: my writing, my own creativity. It was only out of sheer desperation that I began writing again three years later.  It turned out that the process of writing (my novel, Saving Elijah) was the very thing that helped me free myself from the prison and the merciless solitude of my sorrow.  Writing that book saved my life.  Everything I write now contributes in some way to my own self-healing process.

And it isn’t the applause we might crave at the end of our creative process that drives us, or that heals us.  It’s the process itself.  A writing mentor of mine always says, “Writing is a process, not an event.” This is, of course, true of all creative acts.  If you’re worrying about how what you’re doing will be received, your desire for acclaim, or your fear of rejection, you simply aren’t in the process.

I was recently honored and thrilled to be a part of an extraordinary gathering in San Rafael, California called The Healing Art of Writing.  The conference drew physicians, medical students,  psychologists, social workers, poets, a musician or two, and other helpers, healers, artists, and writers interested in the healing power of creative expression, in this case writing.  Just being in the presence of so many people accessing their own creativity or learning to facilitate creativity in others to heal was incredibly moving and healing.

Why is the creative process so healing?  I’m convinced that when we engage in creative expression–through writing, art, coming up with that new idea, or in whatever way we can–we feel healed because we have moved back into or toward our original state of creative bliss, a state from which we gradually separated in response to the reality of life and the demands of a sometimes harsh world.

Consider my grand daughter.  She’s two, and her creative spirit is still completely pure. Every moment of every day she is deep into her own creative process, she lives in a wellspring of pure joy at her own imagination and creativity. When she walks down the street, she doesn’t just walk, she claps, dances, or skips, and she sings or tells herself a story at the top of her little lungs.  Her song might be one she’s making up or one my daughter taught her, and her story might be about the moon and stars, or Elmo, or a purple cow.  She doesn’t care that cows are black and white, in her mind and creative imagination they can also be purple. Everyone on the street smiles, as if to acknowledge how adorable she is, maybe to share in the knowledge that children are such creative little souls who unlike the rest of us can live so in the moment, so in the creative process, unconcerned with outcome.  Watch my granddaughter now as she becomes angry and has a tantrum when you tell her to do something other than the incredibly creative thing she is doing at this very moment.  She doesn’t care that you might be trying to save her life when you insist she stop clapping and hold your hand because you’re going to cross the busy street. All she knows is that you’ve interrupted her creative process, her joyous in-the-moment creativity.

You can see the effect this kind of interruption has as a child gets older.  Few ten or fourteen-year-olds would skip and dance down the street singing at the top of their lungs, for fear of the outcome, the rejection.

A loving, nurturing, encouraging environment in childhood supports a person’s ability to appropriately access his or her own creativity as a source of self-healing. I always feel so sad when I sit with people who were subjected to a non-nurturing, restrictive, neglectful, abusive, traumatic, or rigid environment that stifled their once-brilliant creativity, and even made them lose their ability to connect back to it as a way of self-healing. Some are virtually paralyzed by self-condemnation, just as I was after my son died.  Some cannot even begin imagine their lives differently.  They continue to think the condemning thoughts and feel the hurtful feelings others have foisted upon them, a process that destroys rather than creates.

So remember that no matter what field you’re in, or where you are in your life, or what trauma you’ve experienced, you always have the power to connect to your original state of creative bliss, and even use the process of creating as a way of self-healing. That little child is still in there, singing blissfully at the top of her lungs.  All you have to do is find her.

That was really touching. Thank you, Fran.

Fran Dorf is a psychotherapist and writer, most notably author of three highly acclaimed, internationally published psychological novels, ‘A Reasonable Madness’ (Birch Lane/Signet), ‘Flight’ (Dutton, Signet), and ‘Saving Elijah’ (Putnam). ‘Saving Elijah’, which a starred Publisher’s Weekly review called, “Stunning, spellbinding, crackling with suspense, dark humor and provocative questions,” has just been released on Kindle. Fran’s essays, poetry, and articles are published in a variety of lit journals, anthologies, and online sites, and she’s currently working on a memoir.  She blogs on life, grief, creativity, healing, psychological topics, and “surviving this crazy life,” at www.frandorf.com, THE BRUISED MUSE. ‘Saving Elijah’ is available on Amazon.

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If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with children’s author and illustrator Carrie King – the four hundred and eighty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

 

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