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1. Grow Reader Empathy By Showing Your Protagonist Feeling Vulnerable

As writers, we all want to encourage a powerful bond to form between our audience and the protagonist so that readers care about the hero or heroine and root for them to succeed. How we do this is through empathy, which is a feeling of understanding and connection that comes about when we successfully put the reader into the character’s emotional shoes.

The Power of Vulnerability

brokenVulnerability is a necessary element to building empathy, but like all powerful things, it is a blade with two sides. On one hand, as people, we connect to displays of vulnerability because it gives us a glimpse at what lies beneath the mask a person wears day-to-day. When someone reveals a truth, an emotion, a deep belief or their biggest fear, they expose their heart to someone else. The willingness to be vulnerable (a necessary ingredient for love and intimacy, for example) is about saying, “this is who I am. I am sharing this real self with you.” It is self-acceptance and courage at the highest level, the purest form.

But vulnerability means being open, and that means risk. We’re going out on a limb, opening ourselves to whatever comes. Pain. Emotional wounds. Judgement, blame, criticism, rejection, humiliation, exploitation, and a host of other things no one wants to feel. This is why it is human nature for people to try to avoid feeling vulnerable and to act strong, even when we are not.

To create credible characters, we want to mirror the real world. This means that like real people, most characters will resist showing their vulnerable side, too.

Do you see the conundrum here? We need to show readers our character’s vulnerable side to help empathy form, but as mirrors of real people, the character will fight us, refusing to let down their guard and acknowledge their soft spots. What a head trip, right? Here we thought we authors were in charge, but nope.

Luckily, authors tend to be, er, sneaky. (Okay, okay, manipulative.)

When our characters are being all alpha tough and refusing to let people in, we can turn once again to the real world for help. Some situations just make a person feel vulnerable. There’s no choice. So, if we identify “universal triggers” for vulnerability, it won’t matter how stubborn our characters are. Simply by deploying a trigger, we’ll be able to place them in a situation that leaves them feeling exposed.

Through their actions, their thoughts and by making them look within at their greatest fears, readers will see a POV character’s soft side. Better still, because these are real world events, readers themselves will know exactly how the situation can lead to that feeling of vulnerability.

Here are some ways to make your character feel – and appear – vulnerable, whether they want to or not.

Through not knowing what will happen next.

vulnerablePeople crave control, of having  power over what the future will bring. Take that away and you are left with the feeling of not knowing, of having no influence or say in the outcome. By placing the power in another’s hands through choices, actions and decisions, you rob your character of control. The resulting feelings of frustration, anxiety and even despair are all ones that reinforce vulnerability. Readers have all felt a loss of control at some point and so will deeply identify with the character’s range of feelings.

Through the mistakes they make.

Despite our best efforts, we all make mistakes. Not only do we hate it when one happens, we tend to beat ourselves up about it, growing frustrated and disappointed for not being smarter, stronger or better. Characters who make mistakes feel authentic, and it humanizes them to readers. Besides, mistakes create great plot complications & conflict!

Through personal failures.

Not succeeding at what one has set out to do is one of the most heartbreaking moments an individual can experience, and it is the same for our characters. A hero’s personal failure, especially one that has repercussions for others, is one way to break down those steel walls and show our hero as vulnerable and human.

Through a death or loss.

A deep, personal loss is never easy. Often a person only realizes what they had or what something meant when it’s gone. Again, this is a universal feeling, something all readers can identify with. Written well, seeing the hero experience loss will remind readers of their own past experiences. Death is final, but other losses can be potent as well. The loss of hope is particularly wounding.

By having one’s role challenged.

Whatever the character’s role is (be it a leader, a provider, a source of comfort , etc.), having it challenged can be devastating. Roles are tied to one’s identity: the husband who loses his job may no longer be able to provide for his family. The leader who made a bad decision must witness the resulting lack of faith from his followers. The mother who fails to keep her child safe feels unsuited for motherhood. When a role is challenged in some way through choices or circumstances, it creates self-doubt, making the character feel vulnerable in a way readers identify with.

By casting doubt on what one believes.

Each person has set beliefs about the universe, how the world works, and the people in it, allowing them to understand their place in the big picture and instilling feelings of belonging. When knowledge surfaces that puts trusted beliefs into question, the character suffers disillusionment, a powerful feeling that can make them feel adrift in their own life.

Disillusionment is an emotional blow and everyone has suffered one at some point. This can be a good way to trigger that feeling of shared experience of vulnerability between character and reader.

By experiencing fear or worry for another. 

This ties into that loss of control I mentioned above, because one directly or indirectly has a lack of influence over circumstances affecting a loved one. Fear and worry can also create road blocks about how best to proceed. It’s one thing to take risks that only affect oneself, and another to take risks that will impact others. The paralysis a person feels over what decision to make when it impacts relationships is an experience readers understand.

By having one’s secrets brought out in the open. 

Secrets are usually hidden for a reason and are often the source of guilt or shame. When one’s secrets are revealed, the character is stripped of their security, and they believe others will view them differently as a result. Readers can empathize with this raw feeling of being exposed. (This link has lots more information about secrets.)

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]Showing vulnerability is all about emotion, so if you have it, pull out your Emotion Thesaurus the next time you want to find a unique way to show, not tell, that feeling of being exposed.

As you can see, there are many other ways to bring out a character’s vulnerable side. What techniques do you use on your cast of characters?


Image 1: Foundry @ Pixabay
Image 2: RossandZane @ Pixabay

The post Grow Reader Empathy By Showing Your Protagonist Feeling Vulnerable appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™.

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2. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

In 1933 in the midst of Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address, wisely stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That wisdom has as much relevance today as it did during the Depression.

The post “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” appeared first on OUPblog.

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3. On Self-Confidence in Writing by Lisa Maxwell

Today, we're welcoming Lisa Maxwell to the blog, to talk about a very elusive concept that is so important to the way we create: self-confidence. Lisa's second novel, GATHERING DEEP was released on October 8th, and her third, THE STARS TURNED AWAY will be published in February.

On Self-Confidence in Writing by Lisa Maxwell

The thing that I struggle with more than anything else is self-confidence. Like a lot of other writers, I’m an introvert. Putting myself out there is probably one of my least favorite things to do. Maybe there was a point, right when I was about to finish my PhD, where I actually felt sure of myself enough to be truly confident in the future I had ahead of me. I’d worked my behind off for six long years, went above and beyond doing all the things a good grad student who wanted a job could do, and thought for sure that I’d finally done enough. I was so sure of myself and my prospects, I bought two suits and a plane ticket to California (where the interviews were going to be that year). And then… the economy tanked, there were no jobs, and I had a non-refundable ticket to California that I didn’t need. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like more of a failure, more unworthy in my entire life.

Strangely enough, that failure led to me to writing, maybe it was because that failure freed me in a way. I’d always thought, for whatever reason, that if I just did enough, worked hard enough, I could prove myself. I could eventually be as successful as I wanted to be. Not getting a job after my degree was a huge disappointment, but it was also a huge revelation. There I was, jobless, without any real career prospects in the industry I’d spent almost a decade training myself for. I’d done everything right, and it didn’t work. All the hard work in the world wasn’t enough to counteract a pitiful economy and constricting education sector I found myself in a completely novel position (for me, at least)— and the thing was, it wasn’t really about me.

From the time I declared my major as English, I spent years telling people that I didn’t want to write books. I just wanted to read them. To be honest, I never thought I did. I never thought I could. Writers were people way more talented than I could ever possibly be.

Looking back, I realize now that I was just afraid. I was afraid of not being able to write as well as the authors I so admired. I was afraid of being a failure, of not being good enough. But over-educated and underemployed,aAll those fears I’d had for so many years about writing didn’t matter at that point—I was already at the bottom, career-wise. I was in a place where I had nothing left to lose.

There was a strange kind of freedom in that.

I wrote my first book, because I needed to. I needed stories in my life, even though I wasn’t taking or teaching classes. I needed beautiful words and the escape that literature had always provided me, so I decided to try making it. And then to my utter surprise, it worked. I found out that I loved writing stories even more than I loved reading. I discovered that I was pretty decent at writing them, and that I wanted to keep writing them.

When I first started writing, I was writing with the kind of desperation that comes from having your dreams dashed. Maybe it’s because when I first started, I didn’t really think the whole publishing a book thing would work. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t believe getting published would happen as quickly as it did for me. I expected to fail…a lot. I expected to finish books, only to box them up and store them away because they weren’t ready yet. I wrote with an almost complete lack of expectations for myself or the work, but not without hope. Something about that combination did work, though. Maybe it was because for the first time I wasn’t worried about being good enough. I was just concerned with the work itself.

Then, all of a sudden, I had a 2-book contract. All of a sudden, I was an author.

Right about then, I think the fears about being good enough started to rear their ugly heads again: was the book good enough? Was I doing enough to promote it? Could the next book be better? Did I deserve to be considered an author? Was I really enough to be a “real” author?

Those fears never really go away, it seems. There’s always someone writing better, getting a bigger deal, doing a better job of promoting. There are always multiple somebodies who look like they have this author thing down, that they are in control. And the more I see that, the more I struggle with my own self-doubt.

Four books later, I’m not sure I feel like a “real” author, whatever that means. Writing—and especially being paid for my writing—still seems like this miracle I fell into when things were at their worst—a complete surprise and an amazing gift. But when it comes to the business side, it’s so easy for self doubt to creep in. Those old fears of being enough—especially now that I know that, sometimes, all the hard work in the world won’t be enough.

I’m working on my fourth contracted book now, a book that I’ve outlined and am so excited about. A book that my publisher has approved and is also excited about. And even with all that excitement, the old fears come creeping back. Can I make this what I want it to be? Will what I do with the book be enough to make it popular? To make others like it? Am I good enough to write this story? Who am I to think I could write this story?

No surprise, the fear of not being enough has done a number on me. The writing is going excruciatingly slow right now. I know these characters, and I love their story, but all of those doubts are back, creeping in again and making writing harder than its been in a while. I’ve been letting my struggles with self-confidence get in my way, and I have to keep reminding myself to go back to the page, back to the words. I have to make myself try to remember that time when I was writing with nothing left to lose, a time when all that mattered was the work, because whatever happens—I have the work itself, and that always is enough. Even when it’s at its hardest.

About the Book

When Chloe Sabourin wakes in a dark, New Orleans cemetery with no memory of the previous days, she can hardly believe the story her friends tell her. They say Chloe was possessed by a witch named Thisbe, who had used the darkest magic to keep herself alive for over a century. They tell her that the witch is the one responsible for the unspeakable murders that nearly claimed the life of Chloe's friend, Lucy. Most unbelievable of all, they say that Thisbe is Chloe’s own mother. As she struggles with this devastating revelation and tries to rebuilt her life, Chloe wants nothing to do with the magic that corrupted her mother…especially since she feels drawn to it.

Now, a new series of ritualistic killings suggests that Thisbe is plotting again, and Chloe is drawn unwillingly back into the mystical underworld of the French Quarter. To stop Thisbe before she kills again, Chloe and her friends must learn what they can from the mysterious Mama Legba. But when her boyfriend Piers vanishes, Chloe will have to risk everything and embrace her own power to save the one person she has left… even if that means bringing down her mother.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

About the Author

Lisa Maxwell is the author of Sweet Unrest (Flux), Gathering Deep (Flux, 2015) and The Stars Turned Away (Simon Pulse, 2016). When she's not writing books, she teaches English at a local college. She lives near DC with her very patient husband and two not-so patient boys.

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4. Why Is Your Character’s Emotional Wound So Important?

flawedEmotional wounds hold incredible power, steering a hero’s motives, actions, and beliefs. They damage their sense of self worth, filter how they view the world, and dictate how they interact with other people, making it harder for them to achieve their goals. So what exactly is a wound?

An emotional wound is a painful past event so emotionally damaging that it changes who your character is. This negative experience triggers a psychological reaction: the need to protect oneself from further emotional hurt. This need is so great that behaviors change, new negative traits (flaws) form as the character dons emotional armor to create a wall between himself and others. The idea of experiencing this kind of emotional trauma again becomes a deep fear, one he will do anything to avoid.

Because wounds act as a devastating emotional blow caused when one is in a vulnerable state, they often involve the people closest to the protagonist. Family or caregivers, lovers or friends. Betrayals, injustice, neglect, isolation or disillusionment are all common themes that lay fertile ground for hurt, mistrust and the desire to avoid situations where that same pain might reoccur.

Like in real life, characters suffer many different smaller wounds throughout their lives, but the “wounding event” that factors into your character’s internal arc should be symbolic of the false belief they must reject in order to become whole once more. This false belief is known as “the Lie” the character believes about themselves as a result of the emotional wound. Let me show this through an example.

Let’s say our main character is Tim, a teenager who was turned over to Foster Care at age ten (Wound). His parents were alcoholics and neglectful. As a result, when he enters the foster system, he is mistrustful, uncommunicative and moody. Because of his parents’ abandonment, he believes that he’s defective, that he’s not worth loving (The Lie he believes about himself because of the wound).

Tim stays with families who provide the essentials to live but no love or affection. This suits him after what he went through. He keeps his emotional armor on, keeping people at a distance, because he’ll just be moving on in a month or year, and getting attached means getting hurt. However, as Tim is fostered out for the fourth time, something changes. His foster family shows genuine interest in him and they work at trying to pull him out of his shell. There is another child there, a foster child who was adopted the year before. Hope enters the picture…could this somehow be different?

At this point, Tim must make a CHOICE (as all protagonists must.) If he continues to keep his emotional wall in place (using his flaws of mistrust, moodiness and an uncommunicative nature to keep people from getting close) he will not forge a bond that will make him part of the family. But if he is able to move past his wound (fear of neglect/abandonment) and open up to this family to receive and give love, he might at long last get his happy ever after.

happinessThis is what character arc is all about: growth. Learning to let go of the past, learning to see The Lie for what it is, and moving forward free from one’s fears. Once a character can let go of the past, they can find the strength to achieve their goals, finding happiness and fulfillment.

Do you know your character’s Emotional Wound?

If you need a place to start, check out this list of Common Character Wound Themes or brainstorm the list of entries from our NEW Emotional Wound Thesaurus.

Have you put yourself on the list to receive updates regarding our One Stop For Writers™ creative brainstorming software launching October 7th? Sign up here!


Image 1: Didgeman @ Pixabay
Image 2: Jill111 @ Pixabay

The post Why Is Your Character’s Emotional Wound So Important? appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™.

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5. 3 things I've learned About Conferences & Me

Howdy, Campers--and happy Poetry Friday!
(See below for a poem about being a writer by Richard Wilbur and for today's PF host.)

We're in the middle of TeachingAuthors' series on Summer Learning Opportunities.

So far we've heard from JoAnn--who, through her own fascinating Summer Science Experiments, is learning more about hatching monarchs in her backyard; Esther--who's learning about authors from her own fair city (Chicago), discovered four "eye-openingly insightful" blogs, learned about the "3-paragraph query," and how to "attend" the National SCBWI conference if you can't be there in person. Carla shares what she's learned about the unexpected benefits from attending an SCBWI conference, and Mary Ann inspires us with her summer Young Writer's Camp.

As for me, I'm looking forward to being on the faculty of the National SCBWI Conference from July 31 through August 2nd (with intensive workshops available for an additional fee on Monday, August 3rd). Once again I'll be critiquing manuscripts submitted by conference attendees who've paid extra for written and face-to-face critiques.

My very smart friend, author and poet Greg Pincus (who blogs at GottaBook) posted the link to this fabulous blog post on attending an SCBWI conference by art director Giuseppe Castellano...and our own Esther has written what is by now a classic essay on attending an SCBWI conference.

Esther and I come at conferences from two very different perspectives. Basically, She jumps into the fray carrying a bunch of balloons; I get overwhelmed by more than 10 people at a party.

So, here are three things I've learned about conferences (how they affect me and how I cope) in the 24 years I've attended SCBWI in Los Angeles:

1) Be kind to yourself.  This conference can be overwhelming. No--I take that back: this conference is overwhelming. This summer 1000 people are attending from around the world.

A few of the attendees at this year's SCBWI Conference
(from morguefile.com)

We crowd into a posh hotel over a long summer weekend. The excited, anxious, ecstatic, frightened, enthusiastic, vibrating energy of 1000 friendly/shy/talkative/mute children's book professionals and pre-professionals (thanks for that term, Carla!) can be paralyzing.  The air in any hotel over that many days with that many people gets used up. And so do I.

2) Take breaks. I usually stand in the back because there's simply TOO MUCH SITTING!  That's one way I've learned to give my body a break. I've also learned (to my astonishment) that it's okay not to attend every single session. I can actually go outside and gulp fresh air...sit on the grass with my eyes closed for a few minutes. It's amazing how so simple an action as breathing can change my body chemistry.  Ahhhhhh....

No--not me.
(from morguefile.com)

3) And I've learned that some years I just need to be VELCRO®.

from morguefile.com

Although there have been many years I couldn't wait to sign up for the conference, couldn't wait to bond with new peeps, couldn't wait to find out what everyone was doing and share what I was up to, there have been other years, too.

Years when I couldn't figure out how to write that book--the one that was going to put me on the map, years when no one had invited me to submit a poem since the Ice Age, years when I was raw, raw, raw from rejection, Those are the years when I did NOT want to attend that stupid conference.  Nope.  Not gonna do it. And you can't make me.

It's about the shame, of course. I'm judging my insides against everyone else's outsides. It's like that false fog which hovers over FaceBook where I see those sparkling photos and know that every one of my FB friends are completely fulfilled, are always at goal weight, and have (just yesterday) signed a three-book deal.  (It's true--they have, you know.)

That's when I've learned I need to VELCRO® myself to real-life friends at the conference.  Hang with them. Go into the hall with them. Choose whatever breakout session they choose--it doesn't matter. They're my peeps. My buds. The ones who believe in me...and I believe in them. They save me from the darkness every time.

So, if you're coming to the SCBWI conference, please come up and say hello!We can VELCRO® together for awhile.

And Campers--if you are going to any gathering this summer that makes you a teensy bit uneasy, a little bit insecure, maybe the following quote will help. It's helped me.

Just for today, be open to the possibility
that there is nothing wrong with you.

Finally, here is a poem to inspire you:

by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
click here for the rest of this poem

The poetry gods and goddesses bring Poetry Friday to Keri Recommends today. Thanks for hosting, Keri!

posted live from the floor of SCBWI's National Conference in living color and with love by April Halprin Wayland

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6. Help Kids Deal with Fear and Have Fun

When my picture book Brave Little Monster came out, in addition to being a book that makes young and old laugh, many parents and teachers liked how it could be used to help young children deal with both real and imaginary fears. To help with that effort I created a fun puppet-making activity that can be used in the home and classroom to further help teachers and parents talk to kids about their fears and help them learn how to deal with them. Check it out and make your own "Be Brave" puppet.


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7. Inside One Stop For Writers: Unique Templates & Worksheets

Welcome to One Stop For Writers’ launch week. Have you entered to WIN one of seven 1-Year Subscriptions to One Stop For Writers, or the Pay-it-forward Education Gift for a workshop seat in writing coach Jami Gold’s terrific online class (ending today)?

Also, don’t forget to snag a special Launch week code giving you 50% off ANY PLAN at One Stop For Writers.

For all the details, follow this link!


A Look Inside One Stop’s Templates & Worksheets

As you can imagine with an online library, there are many nooks and crannies to explore. One of my favorite places is up in The Stacks where we keep our Templates and Worksheets. (click to enlarge)

fear1_one stop

Pictured above is the Character Fears Template. By following the prompts, you brainstorm a character’s secrets, failures, greatest mistakes, relationship issues, wounding events, situations he avoids, the lies he believes, etc. so it uncovers the thing he fears most…which, in Character Arc, is the very thing he must face and defeat to become whole and achieve his objective or goal.

Templates are easy to use. You can fill them out right at One Stop and the information transforms into a helpful “wheel” showing how everything ties together. This is terrific for planning and plotting, and will also help keep you focused on your character’s motivation in each scene. Once a Template is created, you can save and access it onsite, or export it to your computer for printing. Try creating one for each character in your book!

(We’re also building new ones as we go, so if you have an idea for a template or worksheet that you’d really like to see, make sure to submit your Wishlist Idea through the CONNECT button at One Stop.)

If you aren’t a member yet, don’t worry! You can register at any time for free and poke around. Go check out the Templates and Worksheets for yourself, and see what you think!

Happy Writing,

Angela, Becca & Lee

The post Inside One Stop For Writers: Unique Templates & Worksheets appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™.

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8. Planning a Novel: Character Arc In A Nutshell

It’s NaNoWriMo Season, and that means a ton of writers are planning their novels. Or, at the very least (in the case of you pantsers) thinking about their novel.

Whether you plot or pants, if you don’t want to end up in No Man’s Land halfway to 50K, it is often helpful to have a solid foundation of ideas about your book. So, let’s look at the biggie of a novel: Character Arc. If you plot, make some notes, copious notes! If you pants, spend some time mulling these over in the shower leading up to November 1st. Your characters will thank you for it!

Are you excited? I hope so. You’re about to create a new reality!

Can you imagine it, that fresh page that’s full of potential? Your main character is going to…um, do things…in your novel. A great many things! Exciting things. Dangerous things. There might even be a giant penguin with lasers shooting out of its eyes, who knows?

But here’s a fact, my writing friend…if you don’t know WHY your protagonist is doing what he’s doing, readers may not care enough to read beyond a chapter or two.

The M word…Motivation

It doesn’t matter what cool and trippy things a protagonist does in a story. If readers don’t understand the WHY behind a character’s actions, they won’t connect to him. We’re talking about Motivation, something that wields a lot of power in any story. It is the thread that weaves through a protagonist’s every thought, decision, choice and action. It propels him forward in every scene.

Because of this, the question, What does my character want? should always be in the front of your mind as you write. More importantly, as the author, you should always know the answer.

Outer Motivation – THE BIG GOAL (What does your character want?)

ONE STOP Worthy GoalsYour character must have a goal of some kind, something they are aiming to achieve. It might be to win a prestigious award, to save one’s daughter from kidnappers, or to leave an abusive husband and start a new life. Whatever goal you choose, it should be WORTHY. The reader should understand why this goal is important to the hero or heroine, and believe they deserve to achieve it.

Inner Motivation – UNFULFILLED NEEDS (Why does the protagonist want to achieve this particular goal?)

ONE STOP Character MotivationFiction should be a mirror of real life, and in the real world, HUMAN NEEDS DRIVE BEHAVIOR. Yes, for you psychology majors, I am talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Physical needs, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization are all part of what it is to be human.

If you take one of these needs away, once the lack is felt strongly enough, a person will be DRIVEN to gain it back. The need becomes so acute it can no longer be ignored–it is a hole that must be filled.

If someone was threatening your family (safety and security) what might you do to keep loved ones safe? If each day you went to a workplace where you were treated poorly by your boss (esteem), how long until you decide to look for a new job? These needs are real for us, and so they should be real for our characters. Ask yourself what is missing from your character’s life. Why do they feel incomplete? The story becomes their journey to fill this lack.

One Stop Raise The StakesOuter Conflict – THE WHO or WHAT (that stands in the way of your hero achieving his goal)

If your story has an antagonist or villain, you want to spend some solid time thinking about who they are, why they’re standing in the hero’s way, and what motivates them to do what they do.

The reason is simple…the stronger your antagonist is, the harder your hero must work to defeat him. This also means the desire of achieving the goal must outweigh any hardship you throw at your hero, otherwise he’ll give up. Quit. And if he does, you’ll have a Tragedy on your hands, not the most popular ending.

Our job as authors is to challenge our heroes, and create stakes high enough that quitting isn’t an option. Often this means personalizing the stakes, because few people willingly put their head in an oven. So make failure not an option. Give failure a steep price.

The problem is that with most stories, to fight and win, your character must change. And change is hard. Change is something most people avoid, and why? Because it means taking an honest look within and seeing one’s own flaws. It means feeling vulnerable…something most of us seek to avoid. This leads us to one of the biggest cornerstones of Character Arc.

Inner Conflict – The STRUGGLE OVER CHANGE (an internal battle between fear and desire, of staying chained to the past or to seek the future)

To achieve a big goal, it makes sense that a person has to apply themselves and attack it from a place of strength, right? Getting to that high position is never easy, not in real life, or in the fictional world. In a novel, the protagonist has to see himself objectively, and then be willing to do a bit of housecleaning.

What do I mean by that?

Characters, like people, bury pain. Emotional wounds, fears, and vulnerability are all shoved down deep, and emotional armor donned. No one wants to feel weak, and when someone takes an emotional hit after a negative experience, this is exactly what happens. They feel WEAK. Vulnerable.

The Birth of Flaws

What is emotional armor? Character Flaws. Behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that a character adopts as a result of a wounding event. Why does this happen? Because flaws minimize expectations and keep people (and therefore their ability to cause further hurt) at a distance. But in doing so, flaws create dysfunction, damage the protagonist’s relationships and prevent his personal growth. And due to their negative nature, flaws also tend to get in the way, tripping the character up and prevent him from success.

Facing Down Fear

Fear, a deeply rooted one, is at the heart of any flaw. The character believes that the same painful experience (a wound or wounds) will happen again if unchecked. This belief is a deeply embedded fear that blinds them to all else, including what is holding them back from achievement and happiness.

To move forward, the protagonist must see his flaws for what they are: negative traits that harm, not help. He must choose to shed his flaws and face his fears. By doing this, he gains perspective, and views the past in a new light. Wounds no longer hold power. False beliefs are seen for the untruths they are. The character achieves insight, internal growth, and fortified by this new set of beliefs, is able to see what must be done to move forward. They finally are free from their fear, and are ready to make the changes necessary to achieve their goal.

Why Does Character Arc Hold Such Power Over Readers?

This evolution from “something missing” to “feeling complete” is known as achieving personal growth in real life, which is why readers find Character Arc so compelling to read about. As people, we are all on a path to becoming someone better, someone more whole and complete, but it is a journey of a million steps. Watching a character achieve the very thing we all hope to is very rewarding, don’t you think?

Need a bit more help with some of the pieces of Character Arc? Try these:

Why Is Your Character’s Emotional Wound So Important?

Emotional Wounds: A List Of Common Themes

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus

The Connection Between Wounds and Basic Human Needs

Flaws, Emotional Trauma and The Character’s Wound

Make Your Hero Complex By Choosing The Right Flaws

Explaining Fears, Wounds, False Beliefs and Basic Needs

Logo-OneStop-For-Writers-mediumAnd did you know…

The bestselling books, The Emotion Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus are all part of One Stop For Writers, along with many other upgraded and enhanced description collections?

You can also access many workshops and templates to help with Character Arc, or take our Character Wound & Internal Growth Generators for a spin.

Are you NaNoing this year? How is your Character Arc coming along? Let me know in the comments!



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9. How Your Hero’s Past Pain Will Determine His Character Flaws

Authentic characters are usually modeled after real people. I don’t mean pulling traits and quirks from those we know (say, taking Aunt Judy’s laughter and blending it with the overly-smiley bus driver who takes us to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Rather, I’m talking about mirroring the human experience in the fictional world, giving readers a character who has desires they can relate to, and who struggles, fails or succeeds all in turn.

happinessHuman experience is also about the push for self-discovery, finding meaning, and achieving worthy goals. Just like real people do, our characters should seek to improve themselves in some way—at work, in personal relationships, spiritually, or through self-growth.

In fiction, the road to what one desires is never easy. Authors want to create a window into this internal life struggle that we all know so well. To do so, we write characters who have flaws–negative qualities that surface at the worst of times, sabotaging their efforts, blocking them from gaining what they want both on a conscious and subconscious level. It’s ironic, really; who they are and what they want are often at odds, making it difficult for them to achieve success.

As you can imagine, choosing the right flaws for a character is really important as they will directly affect character arc and how the story plays out for readers. So let’s look at why flaws become part of who someone is, and where they come from.

Digging Up Backstory: Negative Influencers & Experiences

In real life, who we are now is a direct result of our own past, and so in fiction, we need to look at who our story’s cast were before they stepped onto the doorstep of our novel. Many factors play a part in determining who our characters become, including the way they were raised, their role models, environment, and genetics. And if the character’s world is anything like ours, it’s filled with flawed people because life isn’t a perfect, well-balanced nirvana. And when it comes to the negative experiences or influences, each impart a lesson, and usually not a healthy one.

For example, specific events and long-term exposure to unhealthy ideas, behavioral patterns, and relationships can hamstring a character. An ignorant character, for instance, may be ignorant due to years of poor teaching, or from being sheltered in a way that limited his ability to connect or get along with others. This history of not being taught the whole truth creates a deficiency in his personality that undermines his ability to reach his full potential. An evasive character, on the other hand, may be this way as a result of seeing someone he cared about be taken advantage of by others because they spoke the truth, or they were overly trusting when they should have been on their guard.

lostWhile these past situations are important, the most crippling factor—the one that authors should always strive to unearth from their characters’ pasts—is emotional trauma. Old hurts can have a huge impact on our characters, influencing their current behavior. Emotionally painful events like these are called wounds and are profoundly powerful. This defining emotional experience from a character’s past is so debilitating that he’ll do anything to avoid suffering the same kind of pain again. It colors how he views the world and alters what he believes about himself and others. This traumatic experience instills a deep fear that the same hurt will happen again if the character doesn’t protect himself against it.

Physical defects with a lasting psychological effect, such as a crippling illness or disfigurement, can have the same result. In both cases, the mistaken belief that the character must harden himself in order to be emotionally safe is what allows negative traits to emerge.

The Character’s Wound

Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—an untruth that the character believes about himself (or a skewed belief about the world). He may think that he deserved what happened to him, that he’s unworthy of love or affection or happiness, etc. Self-blame and feelings of shame are usually deeply embedded within the lie and it generates fears that compel him to change his behavior in order to keep from being hurt again.

For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love (the lie) because he was unable to stop his fiancee from being shot during a robbery (the wound), he may adopt attitudes, habits, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women. If he does grow close to someone, he might sabotage the relationship before it can become too serious. He may also avoid situations in which he is responsible for others, believing that he will only fail them in the end.

To use a less dramatic scenario, consider a daughter growing up with a father whose work was more important than his family (the wound). This girl may become a workaholic adult due to her belief that the only way to gain the attention and acceptance of others is through career achievement (the lie). Although she wants a family of her own, she may sacrifice that desire so she can dedicate herself to work. Her health declines, friends become marginalized, and her life revolves only around activities that promote her career, leaving her successful at work but unfulfilled in her heart.

The lie plaguing your character should center on one of five basic human needs:

1) To secure one’s biological and physiological needs

RELATED LIE: I’m not capable of providing for myself or anyone else

2) To keep oneself and one’s family safe

RELATED LIE: I don’t deserve to feel safe

3) To feel connected to and loved by others

RELATED LIE: I am not worthy of love or affection

4) To gain esteem, both from others and from oneself

RELATED LIE: I can’t do anything right

5) To realize one’s full potential

RELATED LIE: I’ll never be a good ____ (parent, employee, friend, etc.)

Many secondary flaws result organically from one’s upbringing or environment rather than birthing violently from a traumatic wound, but a character’s major flaw should always be traced back to a defining hurtful experience. This flaw will compromise his path to achieving his dreams and prevent him from reaching his full potential. It is this weakness that the character will eventually have to overcome by revisiting the past and coming to terms with his old wound.

Wounds are powerful, both in real life and in fiction. Taking the time to probe you’re character’s past to find their emotional pain will help you better understand what motivates them and how they will behave when crises arise and choices must be made. One tool to help with understanding a character’s past, motivation, emotional sensitivities and more is the Reverse Backstory Tool. Full guidelines are in the Negative Trait Thesaurus, and a downloadable chart can be found HERE. Also, the Emotional Wound Thesaurus is a treasure trove of ideas for wounds, and serve as great examples for how much a wound will alter you’re character’s behavior.

Does your hero have a wound? What fear does it mask? What lie does the character believe about himself as a result? Let me know in the comments!

Logo-OneStop-For-Writers-mediumBefore you go…

Today is the last day to get your hands on free One Stop For Writers passes. Imagine having One Stop at your side during NaNoWrimo…you would be unstoppable, a demon with a keyboard!

So why not try to win 10 passes for your NaNoWriMo Group, and be the Superhero of November? 100 passes are up for grabs and all the details are right here…good luck!

Image 1: jill 111 @ Pixabay
Image 2: wocandapix @ Pixabay

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10. Hidden Emotions: How To Tell Readers What Characters Don’t Want To Show

pensiveOne of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels  vulnerable  and so tries to hide their emotions as a result.  Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting one’s reputation are all reasons he or she might repress what’s going on inside them. After all, people do this in real life, and so it makes sense that our characters will too.  Protecting oneself from feeling exposed is as normal as it gets.

But where does that leave writers who STILL have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?

The answer is a “TELL”– a subtle, bodily response or micro gesture that a character has little or no control over.

No matter how hard we try, our bodies are emotional mirrors, and can give our true feelings away.  We can force hands to unknot, fake nonchalance, smile when we don’t mean it and lie as needed. However, to the trained eye, TELLS will leak through: a rushed voice. An off-pitch laugh. Hands that fiddle and smooth.  Self-soothing touches to comfort.  Sweating.

For a story to have emotional range, our characters will naturally hide what they feel at some point, and when they do, the writer must be ready. Readers will be primed for an emotional response by the scene’s build up, and will be on the lookout for a character’s body language cues and tells.

Here is a list of possible TELLS that will convey to readers that more is going on with your Protagonist than it seems:

  • A voice that breaks, drops or raises in pitch; a change in speech patterns
  • Micro hesitations (delayed speech, throat clearing, slow reaction time) showing a lack of commitment
  • A forced smile, laugh or verbally agreeing/disagreeing in a way that does not seem genuine
  • Cancelling gestures (smiling but stepping back; saying No but reaching out, etc.)
  • Hands that fiddle with items, clothing and jewellery
  • Stiff posture and movements; remaining TOO still and composed
  • Rushing (the flight instinct kicking in) or making excuses to leave or avoid a situation
  • A lack of eye contact; purposefully ignoring someone or something
  • Closed body posture (body shielding, arms crossing chest, using the hair to hide the face, etc.)
  • Sweating or trembling, a tautness in the muscles or jaw line
  • Smaller gestures of the emotion ‘leaking out’ (see The Emotion Thesaurus for ideas that match each emotion)
  • Growing inanimate and contributing less to conversation
  • Verbal responses that seem to have double meanings; sarcasm
  • Attempting to intimidate others into dropping a subject
    Overreacting  to something said or done in jest
  • Increasing one’s personal space ( withdrawing from a group, sitting alone, etc.)
  • Tightness around the eyes or mouth (belying the strain of keeping emotion under wraps)
  • Hiding one’s hands in some way

Sometimes a writer can let the character’s true thoughts leak out and this can help  show the reader what’s really being felt. But this only works if the character happens to be the Point Of View Character. The rest of the time, it comes down to micro body language and body tells that are hard, if not impossible, to control.

Have you used any of these tells to show the reader or other characters in the scene that something is wrong? What tells do you notice most in real life as you read the body language of those around you? (These real life interactions can be gold mines for fresh body language cues to apply to your characters!)

TIP: For more inspiration on body language that will convey specific emotions, flip through The Emotion Thesaurus.

TIP 2.0: Becca has a great post on Hidden Emotions as well, and how “Acting Normal” might be the go-to expressive that gets hidden emotions across to the reader, while potentially leaving other characters in the dark.

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11. Hide and Go Seek — and other Things that Make me Scream

I am not a scaredy cat. I love to hike and wade in mountain streams.  I love to go to places I’ve never been and see things I’ve never seen. I like to watch documentaries on foods from other countries and want to visit those countries one day. I like to make new recipes! I’ll…

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12. Anxiety in non-human primates

Anxiety disorders adversely affect millions of people and account for substantial morbidity in the United States. Anxiety disrupts an individual’s ability to effectively engage and interact in social and non-social situations. The onset of anxiety disorders may begin at an early age or occur in response to life events. Thus, the effects of anxiety are broad ranging, affecting both family and work dynamics, and may limit an individual’s quality of life.

While there has been a great deal of research focused on anxious behavior and anxiety disorders in the past few decades, there is still much we do not know. In order to better understand anxiety disorders, and to develop novel options for those who are nonresponsive to current treatments, scientists need to investigate the biobehavioral mechanisms that underlie the expression of anxiety related behavior. Research with humans subjects is one strategy used to gain insight on how to effectively treat anxiety disorders. However, there are inherent difficulties with such studies, including complex life histories and differences in access to resources (such as health care), as well as ethical issues. Common physiology between humans and other animals allow for the development of animal models that allow scientists to examine the neurobiological underpinnings of anxiety disorders. The non-human primate (NHP) has been used in the study of anxiety due to the physiological, behavioral and neural commonalities we share.

One type of anxiety assessment in non-human primates relies on direct behavioral observations, either in the animal’s ‘home environment’ or in a situation in which the animal is mildly challenged to induce an anxious state. In these procedures, observers typically look for the presence of behaviors indicative of anxiety, including fear and displacement behaviors (normal behaviors that may occur at seemingly inappropriate times). For example, in certain stressful situations, macaques may pick at their hair, a behavior similar to hair twirling in humans. Importantly anxiolytic drugs that reduce the occurrence of these behaviors in humans have been shown to reduce these behaviors in non-human primates, suggesting a common biological mechanism.

One commonly used procedure to assess anxiety in non-human primates is the “Human Intruder Test” (HIT). This procedure was designed to evaluate an animal’s response to the “uncertainty” of the presence of an unfamiliar human. The species appropriate response when presented with this mild challenge is to remain still and vigilant; however, there is a range of responses, with some animals showing little response and others excessive freezing behavior. Variations of this procedure have used similar stimuli, including unfamiliar conspecifics and predatory threats (e.g., stuffed predator) to measure anxiety-related responses. Animals that exhibit heightened anxiety responses in the Human Intruder Test also show alterations in the same neurobiological systems affected in humans with anxiety disorders.

Barbary macaque. CC0 via Pixabay.
Barbary macaque. CC0 via Pixabay.

Another class of anxiety tests in non-human primates relies on measuring physiological response following the presentation of an unexpected auditory or motor stimulus. For example, anxious people are more likely than others to react to a brief, unexpected sound with an exaggerated heart rate. Researchers have adopted similar methodology to assess startle response for nonhuman primates using a wide range of stimuli and physiological parameters.

Other research has focused on the cognitive processes involved in the regulation of anxiety responses. These tests of “cognitive bias” are based on the idea that an individual’s tendency to attend to potentially noxious stimuli tell us something about how the individual processes or weighs the experience. Therefore, an individual’s “anxious” state can be by assessed from his or her judgment about or attention to stimuli with different potentials to evoke anxiety. Cognitive bias procedures have been adapted and successfully employed in humans and other animals with similar response strategies across species, making these tests valuable comparative tools in our understanding of anxious behavior behavior.

Our review presents non-human primate models used by scientists in an effort to understand the biobehavioral mechanisms that mediate anxiety. The cross-species approach of modeling human psychopathology aims to discover targets for treatment toward the goal of reducing human suffering caused by anxiety disorders. Additionally, the knowledge gained from our investigation of anxiety-like behavior inform captive care of non-human primates. The studies reviewed have refined our understanding of factors that may result in anxiety-like behavior and provide information on how to manage them. Modeling psychopathology in non-human primates is necessary and critical to our understanding and treatment of these disorders in humans and nonhuman primates.

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13. Personality Traits: Building a Balanced Character

Thesaurus PairIf writing the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books have taught me anything, it is that compelling characters are neither good nor bad, perfect or fundamentally flawed.

Instead, they are all of these things. Each has a set of good, admirable qualities, even while displaying frustrating or off-putting flaws. They have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, making them both skilled and inept at the same time. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The best characters are realistic and believable because they are just like real people. Like you or I. They have a balance of positive and negatives that give them a wholly unique viewpoint, attitude, belief system and personality.

Some writers want to create characters that ONLY have the best qualities, ones that prove they are good human beings that readers will admire and root for. They find it easy to create a blend of traits like loyalty, helpfulness, intelligence and determination, forming a true hero that can handle anything. But when it comes to choosing flaws, they pull their punches, worried that if they add a trait like selfishness, perfectionism, or impulsiveness, readers will view them as unlikeable.

Other writers EMBRACE the flawed character. They pile up flaws, forged by a hard past filled with emotional wounds that refuse to heal. They add layers of negative traits like suspicious, mistrustful and erratic, all carefully planned around an elaborate backstory that supports the necessity of emotional armor (flaws) that make them who they are.

But when it comes to admirable traits, they struggle. What positive traits would logically survive such a painful past? If say, the character was a victim of horrible abuse and to cope, they became a mistrustful, anti social liar, how can they also be friendly or kind? How can they logically be generous or carefree while harboring such deep flaws?

These are not simple questions to answer. Character creation, when done well, is not an easy process. Too many flaws (or even choosing the wrong type of flaw), and a character becomes unlikeable. Too many positive attributes, and they come across as altruistic, unrealistic or even (yawn) boring. So how can we achieve balance?

balanceUnderstand Who and What Shaped Your Character

Just like every one of us, your character has a past. And while yes, backstory turmoil and pain should be exploited to create conflict and tension in the present, there is always good mixed with bad. In real life, the good experiences (and people) are what keep us going no matter how bad it gets. So think about your character’s positive experiences and past influences along with negative ones as you dig around in their backstory. Understand what the character learned from both past trials and successes, and how each lesson will help to shape his personality.

Uncover Your Character’s Moral Center

Every character has a set of moral beliefs, even the villain. Think deeply about the moral code your character lives by, and what lines he will not cross. (HINT: the “why” of moral choices will be embedded in his backstory, and who/what helped shaped his view of the world.) Morals are the pulsing heart of motivation and action, so determine your character’s sense of right and wrong. (Read more about determining your characters morality HERE.)

Prod His Wound to See What Hurts

Nothing modifies behavior like pain, so understanding what deep emotional wounds your character carries is key to knowing what he also yearns for more than anything (Acceptance? Love? Safety? Freedom?) This wound and the fear that it can happen again is what causes deep flaws to form. They act as “false protection” to keep the hurt from reoccurring, and usually hold people at a distance. Here’s a helpful list of Common Wound Themes.

For example, a character who experienced rejection might close himself off from potential lovers because of his fear of being rejected again. How would flaws “help” him by pushing women away? Is he arrogant? Promiscuous? Uncommunicative? Dishonest?

And what attribute, if nourished, might grow strong enough to vanquish these flaws that hold him back from connection? Respectfulness? Honor? Loyalty? Empathy? Finding a major flaw’s opposite is the pathway to balance & resolving Character Arc through personal growth.

Give All Characters The Chance for Redemption

Some characters are intentionally unbalanced. If you have a character who leans one way more than the other (such as a villain or anti hero) by story necessity, then make sure you also build in something that suggests no matter how flawed or terrible, there is a chance they can change or be redeemed.

Every negative has a positive, and no matter how dark or skewed a character’s view is, or what he feels he’s better without, there will always be a flicker of light that can help him find his way back to becoming whole and complete. Show this to readers, be it a motive that is pure, a relationship with someone that is on some level healthy and good, or a positive quality that is admirable.

Balancing your character’s positive and negative sides means some deep brainstorming! If it helps, here are some more ideas on how to plan a character before you start writing.

How do you create balanced characters?

Image: Bykst @ Pixabay

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14. Author v. Them: When to Revise for Critiquers

PB&J: Picture Books and All That Jazz: A Highlights Foundation Workshop

Join Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison in Honesdale PA for a spring workshop, April 23-26, 2015. Full info here.
  • "This conference was great! A perfect mix of learning and practicing our craft."Peggy Campbell-Rush, 2014 attendee, Washington, NJ
  • "Darcy and Leslie were extremely accessible for advice, critique and casual conversation."Perri Hogan, 2014 attendee, Syracuse,NY

I am scared to work on my WIP story right now.
Because someone I respect read the story and said that it’s working well, but I think I need to make one change–a pretty big one–to make it even stronger. But Critiquer said it was great, as is. If I mess with it, will it – well, mess it up? Or will messing with it make it stronger like I suspect?

The Role of Critiques: Clearing up Confusion

This leaves me with a major question about the role of critiques. Basically, I get critiques to check how well I’m communicating. I don’t get critiques to see if my writing is any good (see this post on the good/bad question)

Good feedback includes a reader pointing out where they are confuse or where they lost interest.

Confusion, in early drafts, is often because my vision for the story isn’t solidified, which results in inconsistent portrayal of a character, or contradictory information.

“On page 11, you said Martha was mad, but when she meets Horace in page 15, she runs up and hugs him. Which is it? Mad or glad to see him?

Often, I want to say, “Both.”
But that doesn’t work, does it? If she is livid on page 11, she’d better show that fury on page 15. Else, why have her so mad on page 11?

Another inconsistency that escapes me in early drafts is points of fact or logic. In my WIP, the villain will use a drone to deliver something remotely. My idea about drones was that they are sort of airplane shaped, but the reviewer quickly sent me to YouTube to discover that they are more helicopter-like, but instead of one big blade on top, they have multiple rotating blades on top. Or at least, one current popular model looks like that. I could, of course, invent my own drone design for this story, but why? That would take valuable time away from the creation of characters and plot. My story isn’t ABOUT drones, so it’s not worth the effort. Instead, I’ll look at videos of several different models and synthesize something more factual than the current description.

The Role of Critiques: Reader Reaction

Again, I don’t care if you call my story good or bad. But I do want to know where a typical reader loses interest. WHERE is the key question. Not WHY? As the author, I should be able to pinpoint the why. I just need to know WHERE. When you tell me where you lose interest, I’ll look and go through a mental list of things that could be happening: the prose is awful, nothing is happening, the characters are boring, etc.

I can revise to keep your attention by using better prose, pumping up the action, writing more active character descriptions, putting more at risk in the main character’s life and so on.

The Trap of Critiques

The biggest problem for me today, though, is the trap of critiques; or perhaps to sat it differently, the problem is that someone said my story is Good. Good is the enemy of Best, goes the old proverb. But it’s good. Someone–a reader I respect–said it’s good. Do I trust that, or do I listen to the itch in my storyteller’s sense that I need to tweak this one spot, which will improve pacing later, and create BETTER?

I’m scared of messing it up badly. Of course, I can keep a copy of BEFORE; but the revision will take a lot of small changes and it will be hard to get back to the original. Will I take a chance or not? And if I make these changes, but then realize that it didn’t turn out for the best, will I be willing to do the work to undo everything? Commit or not? Today, I’m scared to work.

It’s a typical day for an author.

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15. Meet Davina Bell, author of The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade

Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Davina Bell. My pleasure! What’s your background in books? I was the type of kid who read all night by the hallway light that peeked through the cracks of my bedroom door and wrote endless stories on old computer paper – the type with the holes in the side […]

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16. In today's HuffPo: writing toward fear, as I wrote toward One Thing Stolen

I have made reference to the challenges that beset me (self-afflicted, surely) as I set out to write One Thing Stolen. Today, in Huffington Post, I'm write of the fears I was writing toward during the process.

The piece begins like this, below, and carries forward here.

There is a girl who only just recently knew who she was, what she wanted, the dimensions of now. A girl who has a retro-minded best friend and a reputation for ingenious ideas about night snow, urban gardens, and the songs that rise up from Philadelphia streets. She has a mother and a brother, both loved. She has a father obsessed with the Florentine flood of November 1966--that unforeseen spill of the Arno River, that mud that clawed through homes and stores and across the face of Cimabue's "Crucifix," among so many other treasures. This girl has moved with her family to Florence. This girl is losing herself.

It's hard to say, precisely, when she began to peel away. When an obsession with nests and nest building became her terrible secret. When thieving erupted as a necessary part of her existence. When words began to clot and clog and answers became elusive.

It's hard to say when all this started. It's impossible to know how it will end.

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17. Vulnerability: The Key to Compelling Romantic Relationships

loveThe connection between two characters is one of the most magnetic forces in storytelling, especially in romance novels.

Whether they welcome the relationship, fight it, or fall somewhere in between, emotional friction creates an energy that leaves readers anxious to see what will happen next.

Building a compelling romance is not easy, and to make the pairing realistic, a writer must know each character down to their bones, including any past hurts experienced at the hands of others. Pain is a necessary component of any fictional romance. Pain? I know, it sounds crazy. Here’s why.

1) Romance isn’t simple.

You can’t throw two people together and expect pheromones and sex drive do all the work. Readers have expectations that a rocky road lies ahead, because obstacles, suffering and hardship are what makes a romance so satisfying. Characters willing to walk through fire to be together convinces readers they belong with one another. Love is powerful, and there is great beauty in the struggle to obtain what the heart wants most.

2) Healthy relationships (especially romantic ones) require vulnerability.

To really dig into this, we need to first look at vulnerability in real life. It’s usually cast in a negative light, used in the context that if we don’t avoid it, bad things will happen. If we don’t lock our doors, we’re vulnerable to thieves. If we don’t protect our personal information, people may steal it. Negative experiences teach us to be wary of appearing vulnerable, so we take care in who we trust and what we share. We dress a certain way, act a certain way, hide our hurts and pretend we are strong.  Characters, to be realistic, should think and act the same way.

But there is another powerful side of vulnerability: acceptance.

When a person accepts themselves, faults and all, they are able to show their true self to others rather than hide it. This openness, this sharing of one’s innermost feelings and beliefs, is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. Being genuine and honest allows a person to connect with another on a deep level. In romances, characters who are willing to be vulnerable and put their true feelings out there open the gateway to love and intimacy. Without vulnerability, a romantic relationship reads false.

So where does the pain come in?

Being vulnerable is not easy, especially for characters who have been hurt by those they once loved. A character’s past is often a quagmire of painful events making it difficult to let down one’s guard and trust.

For example, if our protagonist was manipulated by an abusive ex-husband, her painful experience with him becomes a wound she can’t forget. She will harden herself, maybe push people away, using emotional armor to keep from being hurt. But this also blocks any new trusting relationships from forming, something she may deeply want. Even when she finds a man to love, it is a difficult process to strip oneself of that armor and be vulnerable enough to forge a strong relationship, risking hurt once more. The character’s desire for the relationship must outweigh her fear of being hurt.

As writers, the need for vulnerability creates a giant obstacle. Why? Because it is our business to create characters who are broken, jaded or struggling in some way. Yet somehow we must show them it’s okay to trust. We must find a way to give them the strength they need to let go of their fears of being hurt and open themselves up to another. The question is, how do we do that?

1) Hone in on the desire for “something more.”

A common need we all have as people (and therefore all characters should have it as well) is the desire for growth and fulfillment. Fears hold a character back and leave them feeling unfulfilled, affecting their happiness. They must realize this, and yearn for something to change. This is the first step.

For example, if your character is having a hard time with trust and openness, have her look within and see the dissatisfaction she feels at not having close relationships, or people to hang out with, trade gossip or confide in. This realization will lead her to probe for what she truly wants (genuine friendship and connection) and create the desire within her to obtain it.

2) Create positive experiences for vulnerability.

There are many times when opening up and being genuine pays off. It feels good to tell someone a secret fear only to find out they understand because they fear it too. Or asking for help and then getting it. Even when we share a problem, we feel the weight of it lift because it’s no longer ours alone. Experiencing love, intimacy, trust, and friendship are all positive experiences that can build a person up, encouraging them to be more open and vulnerable with others.

3) Showing how the past has affected your character but having them see how negativity is holding them back so they can take an important step forward.

In the example above of the woman seeking friendship and connection, it will take time to learn how to trust and feel comfortable sharing details about herself, but if the desire for change is strong enough, it can be achieved.

The path to vulnerability is often the meat of a romance, so it’s important to get a good grasp on it as it plays into the obstacles, hardship and struggles that must be overcome to end with a deep, loving connection.

Image: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay


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18. San Diego Comic-Con Hoteloween was scarier than usual this year


As I write this, the hotel situation for this year’s San Diego Comic-Con remains in flux. Open hotel registration—which is in effect a lottery based on hand and browser speed—took place yesterday morning, and it was a tense, tense 10 minutes with confirmation emails yet to go out.

Hours of training, both physical and mental, memorizing maps and testing internet speed were all for nought for a bunch of folks—the Beat included—because the website suffered some kind of hitch. Tony Kim has a sad account, backed up by many on Twitter. As the world collectively hit the refresh button at high noon EDT, 9 am PDT, the hotel selection form froze up and then sent you to the “Congrats, wait for your email” screen. That’s what happened here. I got the first screen, clicked on some hotels hit return, got kicked out and then sat there in confusion and dread and then went back in. The second time it worked but by then four minutes had passed, four precious, precious minutes, and downtown hotels are usually gone long before that to people with better autofill speeds.

Several people have heard from Travel Planners, the company that has been running Hotel Hell for many years, that a follow-up email would be sent to those who had submitted faulty forms and they would have a chance to pick their six hotels and resubmit. But would the first time stamp be honored? A few tweets of relevance:

I didn’t get any Travel Planners email so I guess my second form went through alright…but too late. No one seems to have gotten any “confirmation” emails from Travel Planners yet, either. But the fine folks there are doubtless working hard to make sure that people are taken care of.

And now the waiting begins. But I’m not going to just sit here and wait. I’m making a bold offer. If anyone has a spare room at the Omni, either Hilton, the Marriott Marina or the Hyatt, I’m willing to trade this mechanical pencil for it.
That’s right, for an extra hotel room you have no need of, you will receive this beautiful mechanical pencil, size B. The pencil is a few years old, but has not been used much, and has a secure grip for a firm, confident line. The pencil does not come with leads, but I’m sure you can find those at any stationary store.

This is a good deal, please give it some serious consideration.

Good luck to everyone caught up in this trying time. And as is now traditional for speaking of Hoteloween, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

PS: I know that the hashtag used among Hall H waiters is #hotelpocalypse, but I’ sticking with #hoteloween because you never know what you’re going to get and I was here first.

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19. Cartoon- Black money

cartoon -black- money-fear

भारत के वित्त मंत्री अरुण जेटली ने काला धन मामले पर  राज्यसभा में बताया  कि 250 लोगों ने स्वीकार किया है कि उनके विदेश में बैंक खाते हैंऔर  जिन 627 लोगों के नाम सरकार ने सुप्रीम कोर्ट के सौंपे हैं उनमें से 427 लोगों की पहचान कर ली है और उन्हें नोटिस भेज दिया गया है अब अपने नामों के खुलासे के डर से कुछ लोग इतना डर गए है कि घर मे या पलंग के नीचे ही दुबक ही गए हैं वही जनता जानना चाह्ती है कि आखिर नामो का खुलासा होगा तो कब होगा

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20. Danger!

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21. The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak: What Scares Me As A Writer by Brian Katcher

We're excited to welcome to the blog today author Brian Katcher. Brian's The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak has been described as a hilarious he said/she said romance about two teens recovering from heartbreak and discovering themselves on an out-of-this-world accidental first date! He's here to share with us what scares him about writing.


  The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak: What Scares Me As A Writer by Brian Katcher

Writing is similar to acting. You take on the persona of someone you are not, and have to make that persona believable. You work at it for months, even years, and in the end, you either nailed it or you didn't. There's very little middle ground.

As a YA author, the challenge is twofold. The hurdle I face with every book is how to realistically portray young characters. As I just turned forty, I constantly fear that I'm going to end up writing about how things were back in my day, rather than with the voice of a present-day seventeen year old. On the other hand, some things never change. While speaking to a high school once, I said "When I was your age, we used to hang out at the mall, watch MTV, and try to meet girls. I have no idea what you all do now." A boy responded "We hang out at the mall, watch MTV, and try to meet girls."

When writing for a YA audience, never mention these things: current slang, celebrities, or technology. They'll have all changed by the time the book comes out.

Read more »

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22. Deciding To Worry About That Tomorrow

Two posts about fear and worry in the past few weeks? Yeah, you bet. Because I’ve been skiing for the past few weeks, and that always reactivates all the fear cells in my body and makes me think about my safety in ways I don’t normally have to in my everyday life.

I like the ground. I like dirt. I love to run and hike and backpack–all at my own bodily speed.

But when you’re at the mercy of gravity and two slick planks speeding over slippery snow, that’s not normal. Even Olympic downhill racers will tell you so.

The problem is, I love it. Love leaving my southwest desert town where it’s already in the mid-80s (sorry, east-coasters) and going to the mountains where it’s still winter. Love being out in the snowy wilderness with husband and dogs, cross-country skiing for hours at a time while our year-old black Labrador, Moose, rolls in every snowbank he can find and the older Lab, Bear, trots along beside us hoping he won’t have to run too much because really, this is fun and all, but isn’t it time for a nap?

So to reconcile those two things, I’ve had to adopt the Worry About That Tomorrow schedule.

It’s something I read about years ago, and thought was ridiculous–until I tried it.

The idea is to schedule your worry. Decide, “Okay, at 3:00 PM every Thursday, I’m going to sit down for an hour and really cut loose. Remind myself of everything I’ve been afraid of all week–maybe even keep a list of worries for just that reason–and then sit down and go through each of them and really feel the fear. No shame, no holds barred. Steep in it. Go.”

Sure, some weeks by the time Thursday afternoon came around I was already over the anxiety I’d felt about something on Monday. But there were also times when I really looked forward to giving myself permission to flip out if I wanted to. It feels good to be your own best friend and say, “Okay, let’s hear it. Tell me everything.”

Once I got used to putting off fear until a specific day of the week, I learned to extend it for weeks at a time. And eventually to months. Here’s what I’m talking about:

It was the beginning of summer. Sweltering hot (see March temperature above and add 30 degrees to it). I was reading Outside Magazine and came across an article about outdoor summer adventures in Iceland.

Ice-land. YESSSSS.

Luckily, I have the kind of husband who, when I send him an e-mail asking, “Want to go to Iceland in a few weeks?” writes back succinctly, “Sure.”

So I started planning and reserving, and put together an awesome adventure trip. One that included staying on an Icelandic horse farm for a week, then kayaking in the North Atlantic, then backpacking on this very remote, rugged, isolated spot of land.

And to do all that, we’d have to (1) ride on big horses, (2) ride in small boats, and (3) ride in small planes. All of which have a history of activating my fear cells.

But I really wanted to do it. Really wanted the adventure, all those experiences, and especially really wanted to get the heck out of the hell temperatures we were experiencing.

So I just scheduled my fears. Picked a date on the calendar that was a few days after our trip was over, and made myself the solemn promise that I would completely freak out then about all of the dangers I had to face.

And I’m telling you, it worked.

Every time my heart started to beat a little faster during the trip, I’d remind myself, “Not now. Later.” And because I was so used to keeping my promise about fully feeling the fear at scheduled times, I knew that promise was real. So I immediately settled down.

We did crazy things for those two and a half weeks. Scary, dangerous things that I didn’t even know we’d be doing when I planned the trip. And I was completely serene about all of them.

And ever since then, because of that, I know I can flip the switch on and off. That was a really important experiment for me. And it’s a skill I’ve taught friends and family, and a lot of them have had similar successes.  It’s doable, people, I promise you. You can put your fears under your own control. I urge you to try the experiment for yourself.

I’ve also learned to apply it to my writing life. I always have dual reactions when a new book of mine comes out. On the one hand, I’m all, Look! I made this for you! I hope you all read it and love it!” But there’s an equally strong part of me that says, “No! Don’t read that! It’s full of my feelings and opinions! It’s too personal! Look away!”

It reminds me of a friend of mine whose little 3-year-old boy stood with her in the checkout lane at a grocery store, and had his hands down the front of his pants. The customer behind him kept looking at him and smiling, and finally the little boy blurted out, “Stop looking at me!”

Sorry, little dude, but if you’re going to stand in public with your hands down your pants, people are going to look.

That’s right, launching a new book is like standing around with your hands down your pants. You heard it here first.

I definitely had that reaction to my new book THE GOOD LIE coming out last month. I’d been sitting on it for a while, but then when that Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow controversy broke in January of this year, I knew I had some of my own feelings and opinions about the topic that I wanted to share. So I released the book, but definitely felt both “Read it!” and “Don’t read it!” at the same time.

So as with all of my books, I’ve had to pick a date in the future–four months seems about right–when I’m allowed to worry about it. On June 5 I will sit down and have a whole long session about it. But until then, nope, sorry, it’s all just perfectly fine.

Which makes this seem like a good spot to include this button you can push to enter to win a free signed copy of the book later next month. Go ahead. I’m not afraid. How can I be? It’s not even close to June 5 yet.

But I’m telling you, on that day, whew. Look out.

Good luck with your own experiments. Feel free to report back. :)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Good Lie by Robin Brande

The Good Lie

by Robin Brande

Giveaway ends April 25, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


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23. What is that? Fear?

We have entered some semblance of a routine around here. It isn’t like the old one, that routine is over for a while. Kylie and her mother being home allowed me to go for a nice six mile run. The weather is beautiful and it has been way too long since I’ve been out on the greenway. Of course, that led to some thinking (dangerous for me).

This might sound ridiculous, but we have all avoided public places since the diagnosis. Don’t get me wrong, everyone in our lives has been incredibly supportive. We all just find it tough to be in crowds. Her three sisters have had to go to school, so they have dealt with this quicker than I have. I have been working, but I work in a very small office so I don’t have to deal with crowds.

Yesterday, our dancer daughter had her ballet recital. My Lovely Wife and I split up and took in separate performances so one of us could stay with Kylie. While the dancers were beautiful, I found myself very sad when Kylie’s class was onstage. I couldn’t help thinking that she should be up there and I couldn’t take my eyes off of all of the perfect legs moving across the stage. Hers will be perfect again, it is just going to take time. I came in late and left quickly after it ended to avoid seeing too many people. What is that? Is that fear?

When did I start fearing? I’ve done some work in some of the worst slums in the world where fear should have been a legitimate reaction, but I felt a supernatural calm. What is this fear? Fear of people who care and show concern… What is that?

I am not an emotionally deep man, but I refuse to live in fear. That’s what I told myself as I ran today. Now, I have to decide what I am going to do about it. Am I going to be the leader hear, or keep using the three that have faced the crowds at school as shields because I am afraid?

When I am afraid, I will trust in you.  In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?  Psalm 56:3-4
I’m going to church now. Big step? Not really, bu that’s what I am going to do. I am going alone because my older girls aren’t ready. I totally get that. But maybe I can deflect some of the questions today and next week they will want to go. I don’t know if that will work. Psychology isn’t my strong suit. But I won’t fear.

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24. “It’s Only Scary Because It’s New”

I just did something that was not objectively scary at all. No rational person would think so.

Yet for me it was slightly terrifying. I’ve been putting it off for years because I knew it would scare me.

But I’m not into being limited by my fears, so today I did the thing.

And the whole time, I repeated a line in my head that I heard last weekend in a movie called The Internship, written by and starring Vince Vaughn. It was a sweet and funny film and I ended up watching it twice over two days. Obviously I recommend it.

The plot of the movie revolves around Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson entering a summer internship program at Google. When they first arrive on campus, they’re a little lost, and Vince suggests they ask for directions from the person in this car going by. Only there’s no one in the car. It’s self-driving.

For a brief moment, both men stand there in shock. But then Vince turns to Owen, slaps him on the back, and says, “It’s only scary because it’s new.”

And isn’t that true? About so many of the things we’re afraid of? Until we’ve done it once and can see what it’s about, we put it off and fear it and avoid it. At least I do.

Or at least I did. I’m actively working to let go of that habit.

So thanks, Vince. I needed that. I needed it over and over this morning on a loop inside my head.

Maybe some of you out there could use it, too. Because maybe this is the summer you do whatever that thing is for you.

Be brave! It’s the most fun way to be!

And remember, you can always decide to do the thing now and schedule your fear for sometime later when it’s more convenient.

Come on, gang. Let’s do this.

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25. Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them

I recently read a Huff Post psychology piece on Turning Negative Emotions Into Your Greatest Advantage and immediately saw how this could also apply to our characters. Feel free to follow the link and read, but if you’re short on time, the rundown is this: negative emotions are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary to the human experience, and can spark a shift that leads to self growth.

And after reading James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between and attending a full day workshop with him a few weeks ago, I can also see how this idea of using negative emotions to fuel a positive changes fits oh-so-nicely with Jim’s concept of “the Mirror Moment.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at what a mirror moment is.

mirror 2Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

Jim actually describes the Mirror Moment so much better than I can HERE, but do your writing a BIG FAVOR and also snag a copy of this book. (It’s a short read and will absolutely help you strengthen the character’s arc in your story!)

To see how the two tie together, let’s explore what leads to this essential “mirror moment.” Your hero is taking stock of his situation, realizing he has two choices: stubbornly continue on unchanged and hope for the best, or move forward differently, becoming something more.

The big question: what is the catalyst? What causes him to take stock of the situation? What causes his self-reflection?

The answer is not surprising: EMOTION. Something the character FEELS causes him to stop, look within, and make a choice.

Let’s assume this isn’t a tragedy. If this moment had a math formula, it would look something like this:

Emotion + look within = change

So what type of emotions are the best fit to encourage this necessary shift toward change? And are they positive emotions, or negative ones? Let’s experiment!

Common positive emotions, taken right from The Emotion Thesaurus:

Happiness + look within

Happiness is contentment, a feeling of extreme well being. If one feels good about themselves and where they are at, it doesn’t encourage a strong desire for change, does it?

Gratitude + a look within

mirrorGratitude is thankfulness, an appreciation for others and what one has. Because again, gratitude creates contentment, feeling “full” and thankful, it doesn’t make the best catalyst for change. However, if you were to pair it with something like relief (such as being given a second chance), then  gratitude over being spared something negative could lead to resolving to change.

Excitement + a look within

Excitement is the feeling of being energized to the point one feels compelled to act. On the outside, this looks like a good candidate for change, but it depends on the type of excitement. Is the “high” a character feels something that distracts them from self reflection (such as being caught up in the experience of a rock concert) or does it inspire (such as the thrill of meeting one’s sports hero in person)? If one’s excitement propels one to want to become something better, then change can be achieved.

Satisfaction + a look within

Satisfaction is a feeling of contentment in a nutshell. It is feeling whole and complete. As such, looking within while satisfied likely won’t lead to a desire to change anything–in fact it might do just the opposite: encourage the character to remain the same.

Common negative emotions, again right from The Emotion Thesaurus:

Fear + a look within

Fear is the expectation of threat or danger. Feeling afraid is very uncomfortable, something almost all people wish to avoid. Some even try to make deals with the powers that be, so deep is their desperation: if I win this hand, I’ll give up gambling, I swear. So, combining this emotion with some self reflection could definitely create the desire to change.

Frustration + a look within

mirror 3Feeling stymied or hemmed in is something all people are familiar with and few can tolerate for long. By its very nature, frustration sends the brain on a search for change: how can I fix this? How can I become better/more skilled/adapt? How can I succeed?

Characters who are frustrated are eager to look within for answers.

Embarrassment + a look within

Embarrassment is another emotion that is very adept at making characters uncomfortable. Self-conscious discomfort is something all usually avoid because it triggers vulnerability. When one feels embarrassed, it is easy to look within and feel the desire to make a change so this experience is not repeated.

Shame + a look within

Disgrace isn’t pretty. When a person knows they have done something improper or dishonorable, it hurts. Shame creates the desire to rewind the clock so one can make a different choice or decision that does not lead to this same situation. It allows the character to focus on their shortcomings without rose-colored glasses, and fast tracks a deep need for change.

*  ~  *  ~  *

These are only a sampling of emotions, but the exercise above suggests it might be easier to bring about this mirror moment through negative emotions. But, does this mean all positive emotions don’t lead to change while all negative ones do? Not at all!

Love + a look within could create a desire to become more worthy in the eyes of loved ones. And emotions such as Denial or Contempt, while negative, both resist the idea of change. Denial + a look within, simply because one is not yet in a place where they can see truth. Contempt + a look within, because one is focused on the faults of others, not on one’s own possible shortcomings. Overall however, negative emotions seem to be the ones best suited to lead to that mirror moment and epiphany that one must change or become stronger and more skilled in order to succeed.

1ETSo there you have it–when you’re working on this critical moment in your story when your character realizes change is needed, think carefully about which emotion might best lead to this necessary internal reflection and change.

(And of course, we profile 75 emotions in The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, so that’s just one more way for you to use it!)


photo credit 1: Dhinal Chheda via photopin cc
photo credit 2: nowhere Zen New Jersey via photopin cc
photo credit 3: stephcarter via photopin cc

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