5 Tools for Writing Strong Characters #Writing #Writers


5 tools for writing strong characters
As a freelance editor, I’m always recommending resources to help my clients flesh out their characters. Writers need to make sure they know the answers to these questions: What does the character want? But what does the character really need, that he doesn’t know he needs? Here are some tools that I use when creating my own characters and that I frequently find myself suggesting to my clients. I hope you find them helpful on your writing journey.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi – I keep this book on my desk at arm’s length. In fact, somehow I lost my original copy. I even called the local library in case it got returned there by accident. After a couple weeks, I ordered a new copy as it’s that valuable. One of the biggest problem areas for writers is conveying a character’s emotions to the reader in a unique, compelling way. This book comes to the rescue by highlighting 75 emotions and listing the possible body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for each. Using its easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment.  This writing tool encourages writers to show, not tell emotion and is a creative brainstorming resource for any fiction project.

I’m not suggesting that you copy the suggested phrases word for word. Rather, use these lists to jog your own creativity. For example, instead of telling us “Her feelings were hurt,” you can show it by saying “She lowered her head, a painful tightness in her throat.” Which do you think is stronger?  I advise getting the paperback copy and not the e-book copy as the book is meant to be flipped through on a regular basis. You can even write in it and add your own ideas.

Archetype Cards by Carolyn Myss – I use this tool when I’m in the planning stages of a new book, during that phase where I am trying to get a handle on my characters.  It’s best to get your characters figured out early on, as otherwise you’re in for a lot of rewrites later. Archetypes are ancient, universal patterns of behavior that are embedded in what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” Caroline Myss has created a unique set of 80 Archetype Cards, each individually designed to provide the basic Light and Shadow Attributes of a different Archetype. The deck comes with an instruction booklet explaining how to use the cards to help determine which Archetypes are most active in your psyche, and how they can lead you to achieve greater insights into your life.

One thing I like about these cards is that it helps you to see both the positive side and the negative side of a certain attribute or archetype. Giving your characters strengths and flaws makes them well-rounded. For example, the light attributes of the Mother are nurturing, patient, and unconditional love for her children, but shadow attributes could be smothering a child with too much attention, abandoning a child, or instilling guilt in children for becoming independent. In a nutshell, these cards are a nice brainstorming tool.

The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi – So this is my process for fleshing out my main characters, particularly my two romantic leads. First, I flip through the above Archetype cards and jot some notes. Then I flip through The Positive Trait Thesaurus. Inside this book you’ll find a large selection of attributes to choose from when building a personality profile. Each entry lists possible causes for why a trait might emerge, along with associated attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. It offers real character examples from literature, film, or television to show how an attribute drives actions and decisions, influences goals, and steers relationships.

I use this book to help me decide on my characters’ main traits and to get some insight on what it really means to possess those traits. For example in my work-in-progress Prancing Around With Sleeping Beauty, my protagonist Rory is very cautious. On the plus side, that means she thinks before she acts, always has a thorough plan, and is reasonable when emotions run high. What I love about this guide is that it also shares the possible negative aspects of a certain characteristic. Even though a trait such as being cautious is positive overall (it’s a lot better to be cautious than irresponsible), positive traits can have a shadow side. As a result of this shadow side, Rory is often afraid to take a risk, is trapped in her comfort zone, and is rarely spontaneous – as a result, she feels stuck in a rut. Naturally, I had to give her a potential boyfriend (Kyle) who is the complete opposite – someone spontaneous and impulsive who intrigues her and makes her uncomfortable at the same time. Do you see where I’m going with this? Give your character some qualities and then introduce other characters who don’t see things the same way. This escalates the conflict and tension.

The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi – Are you noticing the pattern that I am impressed with the books of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi? Whereas their positive trait guide focuses on more positive or neutral qualities like easygoing, introverted, and playful, the negative guide focuses on negative traits like being catty, nagging, or reckless. Through the flaw-centric exploration of character arc, motivation, emotional wounds, and basic needs, writers will learn which flaws make the most sense for their heroes, villains, and other members of the story’s cast.

When developing characters, first I identify my characters’ positive traits. Then I will choose their negative traits. This guide helps me to select the best flaws for each character. For example, Dylan from Fooling Around With Cinderella can be disorganized. His desk is a mess. This quality is at odds with his goal of showing his parents that he has what it takes to run their theme park. If I hadn’t flipped through this book, that quality might have never occurred to me. Now Dylan’s messiness is a running joke in the series.

366 Ways to Know Your Character by Rachelle Ayala – Here is another book that is helpful in the early stages of a novel or if you’re stuck during the writing process. Rachelle poses a huge list of brainstorming questions to help you get to know your characters and spark ideas you probably never would have considered. Whether you’re developing your character before writing, or working it out as you’re writing, answering the daily questions can stimulate your characters to surprise and shock you as well as take your story in directions you might not have expected. Each question is designed to draw you deeper into your character’s psyche. This is a great book to use in conjunction with another of Rachelle’s guides that I recommend, Romance In A Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days.

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