Writer's Digest Pt. 1: Building Characters that Breathe

Over the course of the last four days in NYC for the Writer's Digest Conference, I did three things in excess: Learn, sweat, and spend money on good food. As a novice writer there was so much valuable information to be learned- I suspect that even seasoned writers took something away from this event. And it didn't just come from the sessions, the writers off stage were just as brimming with insight.

If I had to sum up the conference in three words they would be: Brilliant. Collaborative. Necessary.

I plan to spend the next few weeks unpacking both the awesome new content in my head and my suitcases (because I am a procrastinator). From structure and development, to networking, to the ever mysterious Pitch Slam, I will attempt to regale you (in parts) with tales and wisdom.


Because this conference will level up your writing career and the more prepared you are going into it, the more you will get out of it when you join me there in 2019!

You know you want to.

I'm starting this series off with, you guessed it, character development. You can't tell a story without a character- I dare you to try.

This particular topic has been weighing on my mind since Sunday, when I stood in the registration area with new friends Ron and Wendi and all of the vendors were closing up shop. The final keynote had just ended and we were all quite tired, brains full and fingers itching to get back to our keyboards.

TIP #1 - Give your characters some air

I casually mentioned to Ron that one of my characters was giving me trouble. My main character in my current manuscript has changed her mind at least three times about who she is in love with.

"Is it a love triangle?" He asked me.

That was a tough question to answer because yes, there is a love triangle (cue booing and hissing), but I meant something deeper than that. What I meant was, I have a completed manuscript with a relationship arc and I think my MC is trying to tell me that it is with the wrong guy.

"She isn't trying to tell you. She is telling you."

As writers, for all of our doubts in our ability, we also somehow have a god complex. We sit down at our computers and believe that we are in control of these characters, that we get to tell them what happens to them. This is not so and the earlier on we learn that, the better.

Ron continued to tell me about a character that he'd struggled with in the past. Every scene he put her in she would fight him.

"And then I realized I had her name wrong."

"When someone tells you who they are, believe them."

I KNOW. This quote is about something else, but I am going to use it for purposes of this post BECAUSE IT APPLIES.

Your characters will always tell you who they are and as their author you should give them the respect they deserve and believe them. You need to give them space to breathe and reveal themselves to you- you can't just impose upon them who you wish for them to be. To your reader it will come off as ingenuine and it will weaken your writing.

If you are feeling stuck on this and your characters are being stubborn, throw them to the wolves. Or if you are feeling less violent, put them in a room full of people they love and ask yourself who they would be most excited to see. The point is put them in a situation (whether you are using it in your story or not) and let them reveal themselves to you. This exercise can be fun and SO informative.

TIP #2 - Watch what you say

Once you know who your characters are (yes this advice applies to ALL of your characters not just your MC) you need to make sure that you are staying true to them in every scene.

One of the strongest ways to convey character is through dialogue. Not only does good dialogue reveal character, but it moves the story forward if done correctly. Your character's interaction with those around them tells the reader if they are kind, smart, funny, dull, cantankerous, prone to anxiety, and so much more. Dialogue as a tool can even reveal how a character feels about another character based on how they speak to them.

At the conference, I unfortunately had to leave before the end of Joan Dempsey's talk on dialogue, but before I had to skedaddle, I got some great information. If you need some help strengthening your dialogue, Joan does teach a free class on this topic and you can find it if you click on the link below:


TIP #3 - Characters without faces

I said it in the last section, but I need to make one more note. These tips should apply to ALL of your characters, including the ones who don't have faces.

You might be thinking, "Well all of my characters have faces so..."

And at the risk of sounding presidential I say, "Fake News".

Some of your most important characters don't ever show their faces in the story.

1) Your Narrator - whoever is telling your story has to have a voice. Even if it is some omniscient, unbiased sky beast. You have to decide how they are going to tell the story and you have to stick with that throughout the entire thing. Obviously in cases of multiple POVs this rule applies to each narrator as their own character. Their biases or unbiases have to be evident- you have to know WHO they are, even if they are no one.

2) Your Setting - Place is a character (or characters) in your story. In every aspect of character it is important to stay consistent EVEN in said characters inconsistencies. Your characters with faces interact with their surroundings all the time so contradictions in the space your characters inhabit can be just as detrimental to your readers as inconsistencies in your voice.

Having trouble remembering where you put all of the furniture in your MC's bedroom? Draw it!

3) Time - Again, it all comes down to being consistent. The time frame, whether real or made up, that your story takes place in is important to consider as a character. It certainly has as many, if not more, complexities as anyone else in your story. What are the limitations of the time? What is the history that brought us to this moment? If the time changed, what would that mean for the progression of the story?

I'll sum this all up with one final phrase:

If you want your characters to come alive, you have to let them breathe.

I hope that some of this information helps you as you go forth fearlessly in your writing week. Join me next Wednesday for Pt. 2 of this series, 10 Things You Need to Know About WDC.

Find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube!

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