Characters Are Basically a Snoopy Balloon

A writer friend and I were discussing characters today. She asked me how I make my characters’ voices unique. I had to stop and think about it for a while. I’ve mentioned this before, but I usually just see a character in my head and write them down. It’s not so much that I create them, rather, they find me.

Of course, that’s not a helpful answer, so I thought harder. In the post I linked above, I said I see characters as real people, but the question is, how do you get to know those people? Well, I get to know them by writing them. That’s the most unsatisfying answer ever, isn’t it? It’s the best one I’ve got though. I get an idea and write a couple chapters. I get a feel for the character.

Then I make a list of each character and their traits. What are their flaws? Their strengths? Their quirks? Do they have any scars? How did they get them? Do they chew pen caps? Are they sarcastic? Quick tempered? Easy going? I make a big list, then I make sure I write them in a manner that is consistent with those traits. Sometimes the character changes and morphs over the course of the story, or over the course of the drafts and I have to go back and reevaluate who I thought the character was. The more I write, the more I get to know them and how they would react to different situations.

I imagine having conversations with the characters. What would they say? How would they sound? How would they move as they talk? I observe people and combine different mannerisms into a single character. Then I write some more. Each draft rounds the characters out and adds more dimension, breathes life into them. It’s almost like inflating a balloon. You start with a flat piece of rubber or Mylar. As you pump air into it, it starts to take shape, until you have the finished product. Then it can float around Times Square, or wherever, knocking into buildings and creating all sorts of drama in your story like a runaway Snoopy balloon on Thanksgiving.

I read a blog once (and blast it, I can’t remember where. Yes, I just said “blast it.” That’s how I roll) that compared writing to drawing. An artist starts with a basic shape, then goes back and adds detail, then color, then more detail, until they have a final drawing. It’s the same with writing, especially with characters. I start with a short, red-headed, teenage girl, then I add her quick temper and determination. Part of the way through the draft, I realize she wears glasses. In the second draft I notice she has trust issues. In the third, I give her a scar on her right knee from a bicycle accident as a kid. Each draft adds detail and dimension.

I’m not saying I’m the best at creating good, memorable characters or anything, or even that I’m great, but when I go back and look at the first manuscript I wrote, it’s pretty plain I’m getting better. The more I write, the better I get. So that’s my advice. Keep writing, keep tweaking, keep adding that detail and listening to your characters. Listen hard enough and you’ll hear their voices. Write long enough and they’ll jump off the page.

What about you? What’s your process for writing characters? How do you inflate them?

Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out

When is your manuscript ready to query? It’s the question every writer asks at least once. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly impatient, so I tend to want to hurry up and start querying. I queried my last manuscript too early. It still needed work, but I thought “hey, I’ve got a good second draft, let’s see what happens.” I got some requests, but no bites, because it wasn’t ready.

So I’m forcing myself to go slow with my current WIP. I’m on my fourth draft and I’m still not sure if it’s ready. The ugly impatient gnome in my head keeps popping to the surface. “Just do it,” he whispers. “It’s fine. It’s good enough. Query already!”

I have to smack him back down like I’m playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck-E-Cheese. (Side note: I love that game! My college roomie bought a hand held version one night–cause that’s what we needed to spend our money on–and we played it constantly). The gnome has me thinking, though. When will it be ready? How will I know? I mean really, I’m my own toughest critic. I could probably tweak and change and edit forever and never think a manuscript was good enough.

So, how do you know?

I have no idea.

I think it’s a gut thing, but there are a few guidelines I recommend following.

1. Don’t submit a first draft. Please don’t. Not even Stephen King runs with his first draft.

2. Have someone else read it. Not a relative, not a friend, not even anyone you know. If you want to know if your work is actually worth reading, give it to a stranger. There are plenty of forums like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect to find good beta readers and critique partners. Let someone who doesn’t know you from Adam read it–they’re way more likely to be honest.

3. While you’re at it, grow thick skin. I had a beta recently who was nervous to point out some flaws in my manuscript. I’d told her I have thick skin, but a lot of people say that and don’t mean it. It’s not easy to receive criticism, but that’s the only way you’re going to get better. It’s like pouring alcohol in a wound. It hurts like the dickens, but you’ll be better afterward. In C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the characters, Eustace, turns into  a dragon. The only way to become a boy again is for him to scratch off the scales. It’s a long and painful process, but he does it, and when he comes out, he’s a better person. Now, that scene is a metaphor for a lot of things (namely, Christianity– Paul’s statement that you must die to yourself), but it fits here. In sports, many coaches sum it up as “no pain, no gain.”

4. Write your query and synopsis. It’s not fun. At all. But writing the query can, a lot of times, help you find flaws and plot holes in your story.

5. Edit. A general rule of thumb: if one person gives you a comment, take it with a grain of salt and use you judgment on whether to change something. If multiple people give you the same comment, you should probably change it.

6. This part sucks. Go through another round of betas. I always try to have at least two rounds, and they should be different people each time. Get fresh eyes on your newly edited manuscript to make sure your edits work.

7. Edit again, incorporating any changes from the latest betas. If there are still big issues to fix, you may have to go through a third round. If it’s small things, you can move on to the next step.

8. Nit-pick edits. Read your manuscript aloud. Yes, people will look at you weird if you do it in public, and your dog/cat may be entirely confused if you do it at home, but the best way to catch the cadence of a sentence and find errors is to read it aloud. Your eyes tend to skate over words like “the” “and” and “your/you’re.” You catch these things easier reading aloud, even if you’re just mumbling to yourself like a crazy person at the back table of the coffee shop. Just tell people you’re a writer–we have a history of being a bit nuts.

9. I like to run my manuscript through websites like YA Story Analyzer. This thing is amazing. You plug in your manuscript–it will take up to 60,000 words at a time–and chose what you want it to do: basic summary, sentence summary, repetitive sentences, highlight homonyms, pacing and flow, etc. Then it analyzes your entire text. The basic summary, for instance, finds cliche phrases, tells you the frequency of overused words (like “just” and “really”), gives you the percentage of “be” verbs and redundant phrases (“but yet” “up until”), and ends with your word count and grade level. I love it. It can be time consuming, but I think it’s so worth it.

10. Listen to your gut. If you feel ready, then query. You can’t sit around on a manuscript forever. Make it as good as you possibly can, then send it off into the world and cross your fingers, or pray, or turn in circles shaking your lucky pens over your head, or whatever you do. Then go work on your next manuscript to keep your impatient gnome at bay while you wait for a response.

That’s my process. Everyone is different and everyone will have different advice. I’ve learned so much since I wrote and queried my first manuscript (which definitely wasn’t ready!) and I’m still learning. My current manuscript isn’t quite ready to query, but I’m close. I can feel it. Hopefully soon I’ll be praying and shaking my lucky pens while I wait for a response.