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Make NaNoWriMo Last All Year

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Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world do something that might break them spiritually, psychically, or psychologically — though probably not physically: they attempt to write the first draft of an entire novel in 30 days. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (175 DS manuscript pages, based on a count of approximately 300 words per page) in thirty days. That’s about 1,700 words (or six DS manuscript pages) a day. Besides training for and entering an Iron Man Competition, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s known to participants, has to be one of the most challenging and demanding tasks anyone can voluntarily give himself.

Participants are not supposed to publish the book they write during NaNoWriMo as is. The NaNoWriMo book is the first draft. Writers have to revise, edit, get feedback from readers, re-write, edit, revise more, have some coffee, then decide whether they want to Indie publish or attempt to get an agent and try for the traditional New York publishing route.

NaNoWriMo is not about getting published or about being an author.

NaNoWriMo is about being a writer.

If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you probably learned as much about yourself as you did about your novel.  Even if you didn’t manage to complete the requisite 50K, even if you only worked on an outline for your planned novel, you did something important. If you learned nothing more than how difficult it is to write full-time, then you learned the most important thing NaNoWriMo could ever teach you about being a writer. Here are some tips for helping you continue to write full-time, all year long.

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Pretend It’s Your Job

As I wrote in another post, some of the best advice I ever got about writing came from a friend when I took nine months off work to write my first novel — 9 months without pay, after having borrowed $11K from the bank (at 17 & ⅞% interest, for a total loan repayment of $18K). At that time, though I’d been writing regularly and been extensively published in literary and university journals for over 10 years, I’d only written when inspiration struck me, i.e., in short, intensive bursts every few months. I’d never been paid for writing, had never published a book, and had never done it every day, all day long, for an extended period. I’d also only written poetry, which is easier to write sporadically since poems are quite a bit shorter than novels.

After almost a year trying to write my first novel while working several jobs, I’d gotten the bright idea to borrow money from the bank to write my book. To my shock, the bank approved the loan, based on my extensive publications and literary prizes. During the first month of my sabbatical, I didn’t write anything at all: instead, I spent my time thinking about my novel, all day long, every day. When I realized how much it had cost me to think for a month, I panicked. That’s when my best friend suggested that I think at my desk, with a pen in my hand, holding my pen over a tablet of paper. Further, she suggested that I pretend writing was my job, which meant getting up, getting dressed, going to my desk, and writing at the same time every day.

Pretending that writing was my job changed my life.

Celebrity authors are not the only full-time writers in the world: all of us who eventually got published had to write for a long time before our books received contracts. Full-time writers, including traditionally published authors, almost always have other jobs: they rarely can support themselves and their families solely from writing income. Full-time writers are those who’ve made a serious and long-term commitment to writing, no matter what their day-job is, how long their daily commute, how small their writing or office space, how large their family, or how extensive their outside obligations.

A full-time writer writes like it’s his job, even if he’s never gotten paid for his writing.

If you want to make NaNoWriMo last all year long, treat writing as your job.

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Get a Calendar and
Schedule Writing Time

When you have a job as a writer, you don’t merely write the time you have already spent writing on the calendar: you write down the time you are going to spend writing. Like it’s your job. You know what time you have to be at your job, and if you have multiple jobs, as I’ve had almost all of my life, you write down where you have to be and the time you have to be there. When I wrote for that year that I took off work, I wrote down, in advance, the times I was supposed to be writing, and I continued that practice after I went back to my paying job.

That’s how I got into the habit of getting up and writing by 5 every morning. I scheduled [Name of Book] on my calendar from 5-7 every morning. That meant I had to be at my desk writing by that time, not just getting out of bed, or lying there hitting the snooze button. I did it on the weekends, too, but scheduled my writing for at least 8 hours on weekends and holidays. Since I was used to getting up and working by 5, it was no inconvenience to continue doing that after I went back to work at my paying job.

For NaNoWriMo, you planned in advance to write the entire month, and you planned to get a certain number of words written a day. To continue the NaNoWriMo experience, get yourself a calendar and schedule your writing time in advance, just as you would your job, your vacation, holidays, or any doctors’ appointments.

Keep that scheduled commitment and be there writing.

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Consider Writing Time
as Your Apprenticeship

You have to pay your dues in practically any job. Sometimes you have to do volunteer work in your chosen field in order to have experience. Often, people educated in a particular field have to complete an apprenticeship, internship, or residency to get sufficient practical experience to qualify for a paying position in the field of their choice. Being a writer — and eventually an author — is the same as any other field. Everyone puts in plenty of time writing without getting paid or having any guarantee of publication.

Consider any time you spend writing before publication as your own apprenticeship,  internship, or residency until you get really good at it.

If you are traditionally published after you finish your book, it is unlikely that you will get a large enough Advance to live on. You may become a bestseller, but, given how long it takes for a traditionally published book to reach bookstores after it’s sold to the Publishing House, you won’t get rich immediately. That means you’ll be writing your subsequent book with no guarantee of additional money or of another publishing contract.

Think of NaNoWriMo as the beginning of your internship.

Now extend that month of your writing internship for the entire year.

After you’ve published your first book, you will be an author, but all authors still have to write, and they write all year long, not just in November.

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Choose to Write

You are not super-human, so you will have to make choices if you want to include writing in your life. For me, it meant delaying children because I needed all my time for college, grad school, teaching, retail jobs, and writing. If you really want to be a writer, writing should always be at the top of your list of priorities and commitments. If it’s not, stop reading this post and go do something else: you don’t want to be a writer bad enough.

Next on your list of priorities, put your paying job since you have to support yourself and your writing, which costs money even if you don’t Indie publish. Put your family or permanent relationships after that. Anything else can be considered superfluous and can be eliminated.

You need to make choices in life, especially if you want to be a writer: it is such a time-consuming career. If you want to be an author, which is a published writer, you will still have to write.

If you want NaNoWriMo to last longer than the month of November, you have to establish your priorities and make conscious choices that will guarantee you have sufficient writing time.

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Be Ready to Open the Door
When Opportunity Knocks

To unpublished writers, being traditionally published is like being in the Garden of Eden, but nobody wakes up already in Published Author Paradise. You must always be writing, revising, editing, writing more, completing your books, improving your craft, searching for agents, submitting your work to editors and agents, and writing even more. That way, when the Getting Published Opportunity knocks on your door, you’ll be qualified to answer the door with (at least one) polished, finished book in hand.

NaNoWriMo gives you a taste of what being a writer is like.

If you want to be a published author, use your NaNoWriMo experience to continue being a full-time writer, whether or not you have another paying job. You’ll be writing more than one month out of the year, and you’ll also be finishing your books so that you’ll have something to publish when your opportunity to become an author arrives.

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Don’t Expect Fame & Fortune

As any artist in any field can readily tell you, there is a very small number of celebrities in any field who are well known to everyone, get any job they want, make most of the money, get all the attention, and make most of the money.

Don’t expect fame. Don’t expect fortune. Those things cannot be controlled.

The amount of time you spend writing is the only thing that can be controlled. Expect, therefore, to write, write, write. And then to write some more.

If you’re lucky, you might get some prizes, or a big Advance from one of the traditional publishers, or an option on your book that actually leads to a big movie deal, but don’t expect or plan on any of these things because that’s just not the way the artistic world works.

Expect to be a writer.

You experienced that during NaNoWriMo, so you already know what it’s like to write.

Now, go write.

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Take Care of Yourself
Spiritually, Emotionally, & Physically

Writing is a taxing business. It’s much harder than any job you leave behind at the workplace when you clock out at the end of the day. For that reason, you need to exercise, eat healthily, and should probably do some form of meditation daily.

You also need to keep negative people away from you: there’s enough rejection in this business. You don’t need negative people “rejecting” you as a writer in your personal life as well. Eliminate the negative people in your life even if they are family members, friends, or spouses. Surround yourself instead with loving and supportive people who encourage you to be a writer. Additionally, find writing-support groups, reliable beta-readers, and good editors.

Rest when necessary.

Don’t forget to play.

After all, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to write.

Photo by Raw Pixel © Unsplash

If you truly wish to be a writer, you can’t just write when you feel like it, or when inspiration hits you, or when your muses are singing to you, or when it happens to be convenient. You have to make a commitment to writing. You have to make conscious choices to have the time to write. Despite NaNoWriMo, which I think is a wonderful idea, you cannot spend only one month a year committed to writing as a priority in your life.

Writing has to be your life.

And you have to take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually, and physically so that you can continue to write. That way, NaNoWriMo can last more than a month: it can last all year, every year, for the rest of your life.

Related Posts

Creative Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

Publishing & Writer’s Life

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

A Week in the Life of a Writer, and a Peek Inside my Office



Filed under #WritingTips, Authors, Creative Writing, NaNoWriMo, Real Life of a Writer, Writing, Writing & Revising

Writing Effective Dialogue


Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The biggest mistakes inexperienced writers make are including absolutely every single word or sound someone might say in real life (things like uh, duh, hmmm, etc.), writing dialogue so wooden and lifeless that no human on earth could ever possibly talk that way, or attempting to imitate Voice artificially through incorrect punctuation, for example, rather than through vocabulary or dialect patterns. That kind of dialogue can end up looking something like this,

“Uhn-uh, NO. You did NOT just say that. Oh, noooooo, you are NOT realllllly ser-i-ous, ARE you? Because. I. Do. Not. Believe. This. Uhn-uh. Not. At. All. I am NOT going to stand here and take any more CRAP-OH-LA from YOU, buster,” she shrilled like a cockatoo, waggling her eyebrows at him in defiance and disbelief.

That kind of dialogue is so distracting, the readers notice more about the way the author wrote the scene than about what’s going on between the characters. With only a few tips — and lots of practice — you can learn to write dialogue that is more effective than many real life conversations, and that’s essential for successful fiction.


Aim for Artistically Natural Dialogue
Unless you are already an accomplished in the area of writing dialogue, I recommend that you speak all your dialogue into a tape recorder or smartphone’s voice memos before writing it. Say everything as naturally as you normally would, that is, at the speed and in the tone that you would use if you were actually having that conversation. If your character is angry, then raise your voice and shout. Make sure you do all the parts of the dialogue. In other words, pretend you’re all the characters and pretend you’re acting out all the parts.

After you have the scene’s dialogue, play the recording back and try to write out the dialogue as closely as you can — except for the uhs, duhs, etc. Putting in every single word or sound people might say in an actual conversation might seem like the best way to write fictional dialogue, but that type of presentation can be deadly. Fiction is not life, after all, but an imitation of it for artistic purposes. That means authors are making compromises to keep readers interested. Dialogue should seem to be natural without actually being a real-life conversation. Dialogue should never bore readers. Don’t put any tags (he said/she said) when transcribing the recording: just start a new paragraph each time someone new is speaking.

After you have written scenes with dialogue, you should read any spoken passages aloud, doing all the characters’ parts as if you’re in a play, aiming for natural speech patterns. Even better, you could have someone else read the dialogue aloud to see how it sounds coming out of someone else’s mouth, and this would work best if the person were not intimately familiar with your characters. Be sure to modify or delete whatever doesn’t work. You’re aiming for artificially natural dialogue: this is fiction, after all. Presenting realistic yet effective dialogue is trickier than it seems, but eventually, with enough practice, you’ll be able to do dialogue without recording it,  and without reading it back to yourself aloud.

Have Characters Talk Only to Each Other
When people speak to each other, they often leave things out since the information is already known to all the parties involved in the conversation. One of the deadliest dialogue mistakes writers make is including information the characters already know, such as shared events from the characters’ past or the full names of acronyms with which they’re already familiar (e.g., having FBI or other law enforcement characters say each individual word of VICAP in a police procedural). If the characters were real people in these situation, they would never say such things to each other. This type of dialogue is written to convey that information to the reading audience since the characters themselves already know it. Having your characters talk only to each other, not to your readers, is not only more effective, but it can also increase Urgency by maintaining the readers’ interest.


Include Silence and Action
Often, beginning writers forget that not everything has to be spoken aloud. People do not always respond to each other verbally, even in heated arguments. Actions and silence sometimes do speak louder than words. Silence and gesture on the part of your characters can be very powerful. One-sided dialogue interspersed with silence or with description of behavior rather than with verbal responses can be an interesting way to show the relationships, history, nature, and conflicts of your characters.


Show Characters’ Nature, Relationship, History, and Conflict
Dialogue should be important to the novel’s Urgency and character development. If you have dialogue that can be skipped over, take it out. Dialogue itself should have Urgency; it should reveal the nature of the characters’ personalities and their history together; ideally, it should also have conflict. Dialogue can be used to include any information from the “back story” or the characters’ past that you haven’t included anywhere else. No matter what genre you write, your dialogue should sound natural while it reveals the relationships, natures, history, and conflicts of the characters.


Delete Inconsequential Dialogue
Too many times, authors put in dialogue that doesn’t convey any important information. That makes some readers skim or even skip dialogue because they’re not expecting anything of consequence to be there. If readers can skip anything in your work without missing something, that is a strong indication that you can delete that scene, chapter, or dialogue. Of course, if, like Hemingway and other literary masters, your dialogue is intentionally banal at times because it’s revealing a particular character’s nature, then by all means, leave the banality in. As long as it works symbolically and the readers don’t get bored, then it will be effective. However, if the readers can skip a section of fiction without missing anything of consequence, it needs to be deleted, even if it’s dialogue.


Eliminate Dramatic Dialogue Tags
I know you’ve probably been instructed to use strong verbs in your writing, and I completely agree with that. But the one place you don’t need strong verbs is in dialogue tags. If you use only the essential tags — he said/she said — and use them only to prevent readers from mis-reading the dialogue, you’ll be forced to make your dialogue more important and relevant to the fiction.

This tip is the one that has always caused the most vociferous objections and rebellion in creative writing classes because it means using no tags like he shouted, he yelled, he implored, etc. It means no tags like she laughed, she whispered, she crooned,, etc. And it most definitely means avoiding tags like he intoned, she pontificated, he menaced, she growled, he enunciated, she elucidated. It means you don’t even put a tag like he asked; instead, use he said/she said even if the character is asking a question. As long as you have the requisite question mark, the readers will understand. Further, dialogue tags should be presented only to help readers understand who says what. Tags should be eliminated whenever possible, and otherwise virtually invisible. That will keep the readers concentrating on what the characters are actually saying to each other rather than on how the writer is putting down the scene.

Strong verbs make the readers do the work in the dialogue, not the writer. Tags like he shouted, she screamed, he cried, they whined, etc. are all dependent upon the reader to interpret how the dialogue is supposed to be read. Instead, the author needs to put the shouting, screaming, whining, etc. into the dialogue itself. Showing is more effective than telling, even in dialogue. In this example, all the whining is in the dialogue itself, not in the tag.

“But I don’t understand why you don’t want to see me anymore,” he said. “Why? Can’t you at least tell me that? Please, just tell me that. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Please, just answer the question. Why can’t we be friends? Why not? Please, just tell me. Please.”

Similarly, adverbials — phrases or words that tell how, why, when, or where, and which modify verbscan cause dialogue problems. A manner adverbial tells how something is done, and it’s the how adverbials that weaken the dialogue because the writer is depending on the adverbial to to convey the emotion rather than on the dialogue itself. Combined with strong verbs, this can lead to some pretty melodramatic dialogue tags: he shouted venomously, she snarled as viciously as she could, the child whimpered piteously, etc. Basically, the writer is telling the readers how to interpret the dialogue rather than writing strong dialogue.

In the examples below, there is only one word spoken, yet the readers are expected to interpret that one word in wildly disparate ways based on the verbs and the manner adverbials  (how) that follow, which I’ve intentionally exaggerated to make a point.

“No,” he shouted.
“No,” he laughed.
“No,” he whispered.
“No,” he growled.
“No,” he whined.
“No,” he begged.
“No,” he implored.
“No,” he snarled.
“No,” he giggled.
“No,” he pleaded.
“No, he whimpered piteously.
“No,” he hissed angrily.
“No,” he shouted venomously.
“No,” he whispered erotically.
“No,” he moaned with pleasure.
“No,” he begged like a whipped dog.
“No,” he implored like a cold, starving beggar in ragged clothes, all alone and homeless on the blustery streets.

One of the deadliest things that can happen in a piece of fiction is to have the readers unintentionally laugh at dialogue, which most often happens when they’re reading the tags rather than the dialogue itself. To avoid jarring readers out of the fictional world, an author should include dialogue that portrays how it is said by the word choice, sentence structure (not through arbitrary or incorrect punctuation), repetition for emphasis, and other good writing techniques.

Though strong verbs and adverbials may be good for showing a character’s action in other areas of fiction, they tend to weaken dialogue, especially if the author relies on those things to tell how the dialogue is to be interpreted, rather than to show the manner in which the dialogue is said in the dialogue itself.. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have your characters doing something as they’re talking. In this example, “I never loved you,” he said, turning away before she had a chance to answer, the tag is he said, and the next phrase shows his action as, or immediately after, he says it. There’s nothing wrong with showing what your characters are doing as they are saying something. Just don’t depend on verbs or adverbials to convey how the dialogue is being spoken.

Further, you can show the volume of the character’s voice in other ways besides putting verbs or adverbials in your tags. You can have he began to shout in the text before the character’s dialogue appears, or, more challenging for you and rewarding for the readers, you could make his dialogue resemble shouting by your word choice. For softly spoken dialogue, you could have another character ask the person to repeat what was just said, implying that it was whispered, mumbled, or otherwise unintelligible to the character who requests clarification. There are many inventive and effective ways to show your readers how the dialogue is being spoken without using melodramatic tags.


Summary of Guidelines for Writing Dialogue
Here’s the summary of my suggestions and tips for writing effective dialogue in any genre.

• Aim for artistically natural dialogue.
• Have characters talk only to each other.
• Include silence and action.
• Show characters’ natures, history, relationships, and conflicts.
• Delete inconsequential dialogue.
• Eliminate Dramatic tags

Remember, these are tips and guidelines, not rules or injunctions handed down from Mt. Sinai. Take what you need, my Lovelies, and leave the rest.

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View


Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Wanna see something scary? Take a look at a few of the terms floating around in creative writing handbooks to explain Point of View: viewpoint ...
Continue reading

Myths about Point of View

If you haven't yet read the post Who's Afraid of Point of View, you might consider reading that first, so that you are familiar with ...
Continue reading
images-4 copy 2

Urgency in Fiction, Part One

If I hadn't fallen off the mountain, I never would have believed it. Actually, I did believe it before I fell off the mountain, but ...
Continue reading
Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

Urgency in Fiction, Part Two

If you haven't read "Urgency in Fiction, Part One," I'd suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that ...
Continue reading

No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters

Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader ...
Continue reading

Writing Effective Dialogue

Once fiction writers have mastered Urgency (parts one and two) and creating realistic characters, the next major stumbling block is usually portraying effective dialogue. The ...
Continue reading

from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.


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Filed under Creative Writing, NaNoWriMo, Writing

No Demons, No Saints: Creating Realistic Characters


Character development is one of the most important things an author has to master to create memorable and vivid fiction. Without realistic characters, the reader will not be able to relate emotionally to the novel.  After Urgency (in fiction and in opening lines, titles, etc), character development is the most important element of fiction to master.Unlike short stories, which can successfully have a more limited number of characters, novels most often have many characters. The more characters you introduce into a piece of fiction, the more work you have to do to make those characters distinguishable from each other and to make each character come alive on the page, even the minor ones. Further, you don’t want stereotypes — saints or demons — but realistic characters that will live in the minds of your readers after they’ve finished your book. Here are some tips.


When being discussed in literature and in creative writing classes, characters have typically been divided into four major types or categories: flat, round, static, and evolving.

Flat Characters
Flat characters are like cartoons or caricatures: they are one-dimensional; they are not realistic human beings because they lack the emotional depth and complexity of living humans. Flat characters often become stereotypes whose behavior is predictable according to their types: villains do bad things, heroes save the day, damsels are in distress, etc.

Round Characters
Unlike flat characters, round characters, as their name implies, are three-dimensional. In other words, they are realistic human characters with the emotional range, depth, and complexity that real people have. Most famous characters in classic literature are round characters. If you find yourself questioning a character’s motives or behavior when reading a piece of fiction, then in all likelihood, that character is a round one.

Static and Evolving Characters
Often people confuse static characters, who do not change throughout the piece of literature, with flat characters, who are not realistic human beings. Round characters can be static. Their being static simply means that they do not change throughout the work. If they do not change and they are round characters, then the author obviously has a reason for that character’s not changing. It may be political commentary, symbolism, irony, etc.

Evolving characters, as their name indicates, change through the course of a work. A flat character, since it is not like a real human being, could not be an evolving character. His changing would automatically elevate him into a round character.

Evolving Characters in Literary vs Commercial Fiction
In literary fiction or other stand-alone books, if a character is going to change and evolve, then, obviously, he must do so in that one book. In commercial fiction, the characters may evolve over a series of novels. Crime fiction series also often have the crime-fighter protagonist changing over the course of the series of books, usually while dealing with different criminals or crimes. If you write a series, remember that most people are usually changed by their experiences, so if you want to create vivid and realistic characters, they should change over the course of the series.



Even if you are writing commercial fiction and intend to write a series of novels containing the same characters, it is advisable to develop the characters as fully as possible within each novel in the series. In literary fiction, of course, it is essential that the characters come to life in that one book. Although it takes patience and practice, it is not difficult to create realistic, round characters with the depth and complexity of living human beings. Here are some tips to help you.


The most important tip for creating realistic characters is one that is difficult for some writers to accept: Like your characters. An author has a moral responsibility to like all of the characters he creates, even when the character could be considered a villain. If you don’t like your character and are glad when something bad happens to that character, that is an indication that you have not created a round character.

Liking your characters is not synonymous with approving of everything the character does, but it means making a commitment to learn enough about the character so that you understand him, telling the story from the character’s perspective no matter what point of view you write in, and understanding him on his terms rather than on yours.

That doesn’t mean the character must be a hero, but it means that, as a writer, you have empathy for the character and understand his behavior. This empathy will consequently transfer from you to your readers because it will help you create realistic characters.


Consider your own children, spouses, siblings: each has a unique personality, with good and bad characteristics. You may not like how your husband puts the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator, but you still love him. And if you don’t want to fight all the time, you learn to stop nagging him about it. Your wife might be unfaithful, but be a good mother, so you stay married to her, hoping that she will stop having affairs. Or, you might divorce her, but allow her to share visitation since she has never harmed the children with her adultery. These are real life situations. You need to do this with your fictional characters, too — let them live their own lives and make their own choices.

Forcing a character to live the author’s life rather than his own prevents the character from acting according to his nature.  All characters, if they are to be fully developed, round characters, have to learn (or not learn) from their own lives, not from their author’s life. By allowing the characters to live their own lives, by letting them be true to their own natures, whether or not you personally approve of their choices, you will create characters who are real human beings. In the simplest terms, you are allowing your artistic subconscious to form the characters for you rather than being consciously aware and in control of every aspect of your art. Characters that come from the subconscious are more powerful and realistic.


Knowing your character’s past makes him more real, even if you don’t use every single piece of this background information in the final work, because it is the character’s history that makes him behave as he does. This approach is especially beneficial for minor characters, who don’t get as much attention as the major protagonists.

For example, let’s say your male protagonist is being unfaithful to his wife — not for the first time. To convey this information to the reader is simple. During one of their fights, the wife can say to her husband, “You promised you’d never leave me, not even when you fell in love with that one from Chicago.” With only a few words, the wife has become more realistic — she’s been hurt before and despite her husband’s continued infidelity, she does not want him to leave her — and we’ve learned more of both the husband’s and wife’s history.

Give each of your characters a complete past, no matter how little of these details appears in the final draft. Some writers like to use questionnaires to help them create their characters’ histories. If you find this helpful, do so. Such questionnaires might include information about the character’s favorite color, food, vacation spot, or pet. It might have questions on the character’s education, income level, marital status, and health.

You don’t have to use a questionnaire, however, to learn about your haracter’s past. In fact, you don’t have to write each character’s entire history before you write the novel. I don’t know everything about my characters before I start writing a novel. I discover their personalities as I’m writing the novel, just as I would learn about another person in real life over time, by spending time with him and getting to know him.

Writing out every single nuance and idiosyncrasy of your characters before you’ve written the novel and not deviating from that list is one of the surest ways to turn your characters flat. How can they develop, mature, grow, live when you’ve predetermined absolutely every single one of their personality characteristics? Joyce Carol Oates has often said, “If your characters can’t surprise you, then how can you surprise your readers?”

One of the most rewarding ways to discover your characters’ nature is simply to write the novel and trust your characters to reveal themselves. After you finish each scene, ask your characters, “What happens next?”  This process can be quite frightening the first few times, but it can also be exhilarating. Some people feel more comfortable with detailed outlines; some get extremely stressed when they ask the questions and don’t get an immediate response. I’d advise you to try it with at least a scene or two, and see how it progresses. You don’t have to throw away your character outlines if you’ve already made them: just put them away in a drawer and don’t look at them. Give your characters a chance to talk to you and tell you what they’re like. Then let them develop according to their desires. Because your characters will not be pre-conceived or their behavior pre-determined, they will be more realistic.

As long as you know everything about each character’s background before you finish the novel, any pertinent information can easily be inserted in the appropriate places before you submit the manuscript to an agent or an editor, or before you self-Indie publish the book. That’s one of the valuable tasks that revision serves: it allows you to flesh out the characters in earlier scenes after you’ve learned about their personalities in later scenes.


One of most difficult premises for some writers to accept is a simple fact of human nature: everyone has both positive and negative personality traits. If you want your characters to live on the page and in your readers’ hearts, you must give characters both kinds of traits. Thus a murderer could have a sense of humor, a juvenile delinquent could be fiercely devoted to his pet, an unfaithful husband could be an ideal father or a talented musician. You need not make a character intentionally evil. In fact, realistic fictional characters are not often consciously evil. They might be selfish, arrogant, etc., but they need not be consciously evil.

When writing in First Person Point of View, you can use unreliable narrators to make them more realistic. When a narrator is unreliable, he is not necessarily lying, and this is an important distinction. In other Points of View, you would have to show that someone is unreliable when interacting with other characters, rather than from the readers’ perspective.

In addition to using unreliability, you can use denial to make your characters realistic. To explore this area, I recommend *  you read Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman. This book is a fascinating explication of the ways human beings unconsciously protect themselves from painful knowledge (or memories) with self-deception — denial (again, not lying). Characters who are unreliable because of denial may be telling the absolute truth as far as they’re concerned. This is an important distinction to creating characters that you like who are realistic.

Positive Illusions
In addition to denial, the use of illusion can help you create realistic characters. Shelly E. Taylor, in her book Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind, explains how positive illusions affect all human beings. The simplified version of Taylor’s theory is this: at times, all people must deceive themselves in order to survive, and these self-deceptions, whether conscious or not, are healthy. Each time you get into a car, for instance, you are under the “illusion” that you will not have an accident. This “healthy” illusion allows you to do things that might otherwise be too frightening, like driving on a freeway during rush hour.

Final Words on Unreliability, Denial, & Positive Illusions
Recognizing these concepts — that people are sometimes unreliable without lying, that they are literally unable to face some knowledge and so therefore do not face it, and that humans live with healthy, positive, beneficial illusions — will help you create realistically human characters. The more you learn about human nature in general, through psychological studies or through direct observation, the more easily you can create realistic characters.


Finally, one of the most powerful tools for creating realistic characters is irony. A famous critic once defined irony as “a secret between the author and the reader,” and it’s one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard. To create realistic characters, use ironic tension. Think of irony as a secret between you and your audience, one your characters do not know, and use irony to create more realistic characters. It is challenging to use irony because it is very difficult to show your characters being blind to something without having your audience accuse you of being blind as well. This is especially difficult when you are making political commentary, such as Twain did with his protagonist Huck Finn, who, repeating the beliefs of his society, still believed in the moral “rightness” of slavery. Because the readers know that slavery is not moral, it becomes a “secret” between the author and his readers that Huck has not yet learned. Using denial and irony gives the reader a deeper understanding of your characters as “people,” making them more realistic. It also allows you to make political commentary on the events in the novel without having the characters act as your political spokespersons. That is irony.

Using Hints for Negative Traits
Irony is also vital when you are creating realistic villains or other unsavory sorts of characters. To avoid creating caricatures, you should only give the reader hints about your character’s negative side (which other characters may misinterpret or fail to notice entirely). Hints is the operative word here. If you make your protagonist a raving lunatic — ranting, screaming, throwing things, shooting animals, kicking holes in the walls — then there’s not much of a secret for the author and reader to share. The quandary is to create an attractive character — attractive in the sense that the reader wants to know more about him — while at the same time demonstrating to the reader that you are not some dim-witted author romanticizing evil.

In addition to making characters more realistic, irony makes fiction more satisfyingly complex because, in effect, it makes the reader a “co-conspirator” with the author and the other characters who are “in the know.” Though irony might seem heavy-handed the first time you try it, remember that the information you’re presenting may, indeed, seem obvious — to you as the author — but it isn’t necessarily obvious to the other characters or to your reader, for that matter. That, in fact, is the very point of irony, and that’s the reason it helps you create human characters.


Review of Guidelines for Creating Realistic Characters

• Like your characters
• Let them live their own lives
• Know every character’s past
• Give each character both positive and negative traits
• Use hints to show negative traits
• Use unreliability, denial, and positive illusions to create psychological realism and complexity
• Use irony

Liking your characters, allowing them to live their own lives, endowing them with good and bad characteristics, the skillful use of unreliable narrators — these are all valuable tools for creating realistic characters. Observing human nature and becoming conscious of the techniques other skillful writers use will also help you develop your own characters.

Take what you can use, my Lovelies, and leave the rest.cc

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Mastering Fiction & Point of View


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from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.

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