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Top nine character development tips of 2009

If you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing a “best of” post to cap off my blog, I’d have said “What blog?”

What a difference a year makes. Without further ado, here are my top nine character development tips from the past year. Enjoy, and raise a glass to 2010. May all your characters come to life, and your books to unimagined success!

*9. Do you know the right way to use backstory?* Because a lot of writers don’t. It’s easy to get seduced by your excitement over the characters you’ve created, and in your zeal to share with the reader, dump a lot of plodding backstory into the novel in ways that kill the pacing and the intrigue. This article talks about using backstory to support and build your novel’s mysteries.

*8. Drive a stake through your character’s heart.* If you’re writing a vampire novel, you may or may not want to take that literally. In this article, I don’t mean it literally, but rather, I show a technique for raising the stakes in your novel by challenging a character’s assumptions about who they are: an identity crisis may suck in real life, but it can do wonders to elevate a novel.

*7. Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?* The typical outer character arc is all about characters changing and growing by learning from the events of a novel. But there’s another kind of character arc, the inner kind, which stems from resolving differences in the perceptions that characters have about each other.

*6. Do your characters’ flaws work on more than one level?* The tragically flawed hero or heroine is a workhorse element of much fiction. As readers, we like to see characters who aren’t too perfect, because we can empathize with them better. But as a writer, are you taking advantage of your characters’ flaws to enhance the drama in your plot as well?

*5. Don’t forget to revise your characters too* After National Novel Writing Month wrapped up, I wrote about a series of techniques you can apply while revising your novel to strengthen your characters. This series covers everything from speech patterns and mannerisms to deep issues of motivation and goals. Characters are the soul of fiction, so it pays to make them as vivid and lifelike as you can.

*4. Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?* Most of us have our first, formative writing experiences in school, where we learn to use the passive voice to put the emphasis on the facts we’re conveying rather than on ourselves. But when we begin to write fiction, passive voice becomes the kiss of death. Not because it hides the author from the reader, but because it hides your characters from the reader.

*3. Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?* Nearly everything in a novel reflects in some way on the characters. In this article, I show how characters can be damaged quite unintentionally by the gaps between scenes and chapters in a novel, and teach you how to build bridges over those gaps for your characters to cross.

*2. Hook ‘em with character* Every novel needs a good hook. You have to grab the reader’s attention and get them interested in what happens next. Plot-oriented hooks can be quite effective, but they’re not the whole story. Character-oriented hooks are quite powerful as well. In this article, I explain how a great hook shows character through conflict.

*1. The five stages of grief* Number one for the year is this article about the five stages of grief model of emotional response. Nothing makes a character come across as wooden and unbelievable faster than when their emotional responses aren’t believable, and nothing kills a novel faster than when this happens at a moment of high drama. You can fix both by getting the emotions right, and in this article I show a template for creating believable, compelling emotional responses for the most dramatic moments in a novel: when bad things happen.

Happy new year, and I’ll see you all in 2010.

December 29, 2009 17:15 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, identity crisis, inner character arc, perception, flaws, outer plot, revision, passive voice, gap, transitions, hook, conflict, emotion, grief, meta, best of

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What have I been up to lately? Lessons in blog management.

As I haven’t updated the blog in more than a week, I thought I should say a quick something about what I’ve been doing. It has been a busy week in the life of yours-truly.

I’ve had the usual nibbles and inquries from new clients, which is great. And I’ve been working on client projects. No earth-shattering news there.

What I’ve been doing with my blog-time, though, is making some improvements to the blog code itself. Some of them are for your benefit, some are for the benefit of my fellow blogger friends, and some are back-end stuff that only I care about.

Features for you: I added an archive section to the sidebar, to give you easy month-by-month access to past articles. Along with that, I limited the main blog page to only show the past 10 articles, which means the page will load faster. Yes, there will be some overlap between the most-recent-ten posts and some of the archive links, but I don’t see how that’s actually a problem.

The other thing I did for my readers was to add a simple comment formatting system. The blog should do a pretty decent job, now, of properly rendering your comments as you wrote them. Blank lines signal the start of new paragraphs, and you can use asterisks and underscores around stuff you want to be bold and italic, respectively. I’ll probably add other features as time goes on.

Lesson learned—presentation matters. It’s hard to express oneself without at least basic facilities to dictate not just what you say but how it looks. This is necessary to enable readers to engage in real dialogue in the comments, which is the whole point of allowing comments in the first place.

Features for fellow bloggers: Well, just one feature. I added a blog roll to the sidebar, containing some of the other good writing blogs I follow. If you have suggestions for blogs that ought to be on that list, by all means add them in the comments. I am going to try to keep the blog roll to a reasonable size, though, so probably only the top ten blogs I follow will make this list.

Lesson learned—reciprocity matters. You have to publicly recognize the good work of others before it’s at all fair to hope others will recognize your own good work.

Features for me: I’m using the same auto-formatting code for blog articles themselves as for the comments, which will make it faster and easier for me to write the articles. That’s a good thing. Also, I revamped my comment moderation feature, so it will be easier for me to deal with spammers and trolls (not that any of you would do that, surely, but it pays to be prepared). Along with that, I added a Terms of Use link way down at the bottom of the sidebar.

Lesson learned—efficiency matters. The easier I make it for myself to update the blog, delete spam comments, et cetera, the more likely I am to actually do it.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to this past week. I haven’t been blogging, but I have been busy. I’m hoping to return to the regular schedule of twice-weekly articles, but we’ll see what fun surprises life can throw at me to mess up that plan...

Features for fellow bloggers:

September 13, 2009 22:50 UTC

Tags: meta, blog

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What's this blog about, anyway?

My name is Jason Black, and I’m a freelance book editor. I’ll edit anything, or even help you write it, but I specialize in editing book-length fiction. That is, novels. There’s a particular excitement that comes from getting a sneak-peek at an unpublished manuscript, and a quiet joy that comes from helping the author turn that manuscript into something more likely to become a published novel.

You’ve probably heard that cynical old adage “those who can’t do, teach.” I’m not a believer in that, so I write novels, too. The best way to understand how fiction works, frankly, is to create some. My novels tend to be more character-driven than plot-driven. Someday I may try to write a Clancy-esque spy thriller, but for the most part I’m interested in creating characters the reader can root for.

In writing, I’ve come to learn that practically everything in a novel—nearly every single word—either contributes to or detracts from the portrayal of the characters in it. In editing, I’ve found that many if not most aspiring authors haven’t learned this lesson. They are writing from a perspective of plot, without stopping to consider how their choices affect the portrayal of their characters.

It can lead to some amazing blunders.

Now, there are roughly a zillion writing blogs out there already. Those other bloggers will help you with active vs. passive voice, or deciding on whether first-person or third-person is best for your story, or arguing over whether “said” is the only truly useful dialogue tag.

I’m not particularly interested in covering that same ground, which leads me to answering the question posed in the title of this post: what’s this blog about? What I have to contribute that you won’t find elsewhere is my perspective on character development. Read the other blogs for general advice on improving your writing. Read this blog for insight into creating and sustaining characters that people will want to read about in the first place.

Thus, I will be blogging about all things character. My goal is to write at least one article per week on the dos and the don’ts of portraying believable, multi-dimensional, sympathetic characters (and unsympathetic antagonists) in fiction. I will probably wander from time to time into the real-life world of what it’s like to work as a freelance editor, but the bulk of this blog should be about helping writers better “Show Some Character” in their writing.

I hope you’ll stay tuned!

June 30, 2009 05:32 UTC

Tags: meta

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For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar