Unleash Your Inner Toddler To Write Better Characters

A young girl crawling through a metal tunnel with a very confused look on her faceTheodore Scott

 

 

How Children Figure Out The World

I don’t have children, but I have met a few, and from what I hear, most of them go through this phase where they will not stop asking, “Why?”

They ask because they aren’t sure yet what the rules of the world are. They are starting to understand that some things cause other things, and they are trying to figure out why. They are trying to build a dataset that will allow them to accurately predict what will happen when they do a thing.

Yes, I pretty much just turned children into robots. Let me also tell you how awesome my emotional intelligence is.

 

Writers Need To Figure Out The World, Too

Whatever world you are creating, whether you are replicating the modern world, what you believe the past might have been, what the future could be, or if you are generating an entirely new world with entirely new rules, you need to know why things happen.

You need to have a set of situations so that you know, when X happens, then Y is likely to follow. If you jump in the water, you will probably get wet. Your characters, assuming they aren’t children, also need to know these rules, and they need to act as if they know them.

Say you’re writing a fantasy novel where clothing never gets wet. When people get in the water, they leave their clothes on, because, why wouldn’t they? Clothing never gets wet. If a character from this world suddenly found themselves in a world where clothing did get wet, they would act according to the wrong set of expectations, and hilarity would ensue. Before they touched the water, they would be baffled that other people change into other clothing, but once they got their socks wet, they would learn real fast.

Maybe that’s a stupid example, but the point is that all adult characters in your world should always have motivations based on how they have observed the world to work.

 

Ask Until You Never Want To Hear It Again

You could ask “Why” about everything you write down. Every action your characters take. Every thing they say. Every time they are surprised. Allow them to answer this question, because in fiction at least, there is a reason for everything.

People are not random and unpredictable. Every person is working from a different data set, and it makes sense to know what your characters’ assumptions are.

 

Even If You Never Need To Know

There is value in asking “Why” over and over and over, even if you never explicitly state the answer in your story. Any given character will always approach similar situations with the same expecations.

A huge cause of unbelievable characters is that they are inconsistent. A character tells her boyfriend that she was sexually abused as a teenager, but then he gets in a car with a complete stranger and drives a few states over. Why? What on Earth could make her do that? If you can’t answer that question and your reader can’t guess, they will quit your story.

 

Meet Your Inner Toddler

I’d like to introduce you to your Inner Toddler, now. He or she probably (but not certainly) is of the same gender as you, and probably goes by one of your nicknames when you were a baby. For example, mine is a little boy named Battering Ram Head.

In between demanding candy and throwing things on the floor, Battering Ram Head helps me figure out things like why a sexually abused teenage girl would go somewhere with a complete stranger.

Unlike a real life toddler (from what I hear), he can be satisfied, and he can follow complex and nuanced reasoning. I never said the analogy was perfect.

In any case, Battering Ram Head doesn’t buy that she’s going because he just seems so warm and fuzzy. But he does believe she might do it if she thought she was helping him save another girl from her fate. It would depend on how she acted in other situations as well.

 

A Consistent Character Is A Believable Character

If you always question the intentions and expectations of your characters, and make sure they are acting in accord with their previous intentions and expectations, they will be believable.

If your characters change, their intentions and expectations should change as well, and they should approach the same situations in different ways.

If your readers can’t guess what your characters will do, or rationalize why they did something unexpected, they will stop reading.

 

Now I ask you, Why?

 

 

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How to Use Pinterest to Supercharge Your Descriptions

Using Pinterest To Supercharge Your Writing

 

The Author’s Secret Weapon…

For a long time, authors have used photographs to improve their writing. It’s much easier to imagine the mannerisms and expressions of people in pictures than it is to invent a dozen people entirely from scratch without overlap. Places come alive from photographs in the same way, although they tend to be even better when based on a real place the author has been.

 

…Modernized

In the dark ages, writers used to cut pictures out of magazines and keep them in a binder, referring to them often enough that they could remember each picture. But since the internet, there are many, many easier ways to maintain a library of inspirational photographs. Of course, since the internet, there are many different options, but today, I’m going to tell you about Pinterest.

 

What Pinterest Is

Pinterest is a semi-social networking platform where people collect and trade pictures. They are often difficult to trace to their sources, and their legality is… questionable, but the system is undeniably useful. You can follow other users, or just their boards, and you will tend to find a group of people with similar tastes and interests to yours.

You can keep up to 500 characters worth of notes on each picture, but I typically don’t bother. Be aware that there are no privacy settings, so if you want to keep your inspirations private, you’re better off with another service, like Springpad or Evernote.

Also, if you have or are recovering from an eating disorder, you should be aware that Pinterest is full of sketchy thinspiration, and that people you followed for their cool nature pictures will periodically cover your internet with quotes like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” and pictures of people who might be mistaken for tree branches. If you don’t want to see that stuff randomly, don’t follow people, only follow the boards you find interesting.

 

My Boards And How I Use Them

Scenery

My Scenery board is my favorite. I collect pictures of beautiful and strange landscapes, rooms, and houses. Most people keep inside and outside pictures separate, but I don’t feel any need to do that. I like to find them all in the same place.

 

People

I also collect pictures of people. It can be tough to find interesting people on Pinterest, because the “People” category tends to be swamped with the same celebrities. If you’re persistent, though, you can find people who are pinning people who look like they have interesting stories.

I also have a board of fantasy artwork that I typically use only for people.

 

Nature

When I write a fantasy novel, I like to describe the flora and fauna in great detail, and I like to make them seem bizarre and otherworldly. Turns out that you can actually do that from photographs, because plants and animals on earth are pretty weird already. Also, there are plenty of people out there making digitally altered photographs out of animals, and those are pretty cool as well.

 

Clothing

My fashion board tends to flip back and forth between being the fashions of the world I’m making, things I actually want to wear, things I want to make, and things I would wear to LARP. That said, I love to read books where people’s clothing is described in exquisite detail, so I keep this board around in case I ever feel like doing that.

 

Pictures that Make Me Curious

I have two boards dedicated to pictures that make me wonder. One for real life pictures, usually but not always black and white, and one for art and illustration. I also have a board I call “Inspiration,” which is where I put things I don’t know what to do with. It tends to have a combination of weird things and cool color combinations.

 

Boards For Specific Projects

I feel that Pinterest is at its most powerful when I make specific boards for specific projects. I don’t use this exclusively for writing.

Beautiful Dreamer is the working title of the fantasy novel I’m working on (I promise to think of a better one someday). On this board, I have pictures for all of the main characters, at least three main locations and some of the spaces between them, what magic springs look like, and a couple of pictures of the predominant fashions of the time.

The Palettes, We Watched the Rain, The Menagerie, Specimen Boxes, and Yggdrasil, are for mixed media art projects, not writing. The only exception is the Menagerie, which I use for both. It also serves as inspiration for my demonology novellas.

 

Other Boards

For some reason, I feel the need to be complete, so let me say that I have a bunch of other boards that really have nothing to do with my writing.

 

What are you waiting for?

Yes, Pinterest can be a terrible timesink. But once the initial obsession died down, I have found it to be an excellent way to use (timed) five minute breaks, and I have certainly found it to improve my writing intensely.

If you need an invite, leave a comment, and I’ll happily send one your way.

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Sell It! Get Your Reader To Buy

A salesman sitting in front of some shoesAntonio Machado

 

Boy, do I have a fantastic deal for you. Just today, for the low low price of your ability to read this message, you too can write in way that the reader will buy.

 

First things first, write over the phone!

If you have ever been on a sales call (a live one, mind you) you already understand part of what I mean. Over the phone there is no connection between the salesperson and the audience. If the seller blandly lists facts, people will get bored and hang up. But if their words paint a picture, people will be interested and remember what they had to say.

 

For example:

Bland Salesman: “This weight loss pill prevents fat building and allows you to lose up to 10 pounds.”

What does that look like? Have you ever seen 10 pounds floating down the road? Did it stop you in High School and steal your money, or kick sand in your face in front of all the attractive people? No? Try something more like this:

Good Salesman: “Now image this, you go into your closet and pull out those jeans you couldn’t fit into anymore and your (significant other) gives you that special little look when you look good in them again.”

 

Do you see that? Can you see this product working for you? If you can, you’re going to fork over your credit card number. In this case, your reader is going to pay attention.

How does this apply to writing, you ask? If you write “John walked up the stairs,”  yeah, you know what happened. But if you put it like “the old, warped boards creaked underfoot as John crept from stair to stair, slowly winding up …” you get a much clearer picture of the whole situation.

 

(In)Significance of Research?

Believe it or not, selling is entirely about the format, not about the facts. Take the world’s best salesperson, hand them alien technology, shove them through a time machine and they will sell rockets to Romans. They can do this because they understand the formula.

In writing, what this means that you don’t need to know every last detail about something to write about it. I’m not saying just go ahead and wing it all the time, but consider that a lot of people may not know exactly what your talking about anyway and will just buy it.

For example: Do you know what the Sea of Dirac is? How about Cognitive Dissonance? Ever read a Book of Hours? These are outside the common parlance and as a result, are a few steps above the average reader’s scope. If you want to sound pretty cool, look up something incredibly obscure on Wikipedia (or even better, hit up a library), throw down a few spicy facts, and let the reader fill in all the mystery for you.

 

What Are You Selling?

The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself this question. What do you want the reader to buy? What do you want them to believe? Then think of a vibrant way to sell it. Buy now. You won’t regret it.

 

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