Writing Great Characters Means Reconciling the Grey Areas of Life

write great characters

Image Credit: Hollywood.com

One of the gifts about being a writer is the desire to people watch and come up with stories about them. We notice patterns, we hear stories, we think of the “spin”. This week, I noticed a pattern and I wanted to talk about it because I think it offers a needed perspective, and helps us to write great characters (whether that is us or a fictional one).

An Example of Complex Characters

I’ve been watching a lot of Sopranos lately. If you don’t know, I currently live and travel full time in an RV and so movies and TV series make up my screen time (other than working in front of my computer, that is). Good stories often involve interesting, conflicted characters, like The Sopranos. The main character, Tony Soprano, cares about his family and takes his daughter to tour colleges, just like any good dad might, only to commit murder while she’s out making new friends. His wife, Carmella desires to be a good wife and devout Catholic yet can’t help but accept gifts joyously from her philandering husband. In my opinion, they are a perfect example of how to write great characters.

What I Mean By ‘Gray Areas’

I propose that reason why we identify with these characters is because we understand life is complex. For most people, we recognize there is a great deal of “grey” in our world, even though we are more comfortable with black and white conversations. Let me give an example as a way to illustrate this:

I really don’t understand why we have a homeless population. I wish everyone could have a place to live. This is a very black and white thought. It is easy and shallow if we leave it at this idea of “homes for all”. We get into the gray when we start talking about homelessness as a result of mental illness, or drug use, or the housing bubble burst. Now, we begin to get deeper and we realize that “homes for all” doesn’t always serve the homeless population but rather puts a band-aid on a social and/or economic issue. It’s easier to talk about desiring every human to have a home (black and white), and it’s hard to talk about mental health, opiate crisis and corporate greed (the gray).

But What About Consistency and Congruence?

When working with clients or while people watching, and even in self-reflection, I find we are complex and yet we desire not to be. We want to be consistent – one way or the other. But consistency is not how you write great characters.

One client described herself within a story of her childhood, as being a fearful coward when just a page and story earlier, she demonstrated true, brave badassery. She “owned” the scared part of herself, identifying it as a characteristic, but when it came to owning her bravery, she overlooked it and even assigned the attribute to her mother. She owned “coward” because, in my opinion, she couldn’t reconcile being both scared and brave.

A friend of mine told me he used to associate being narcissistic with being masculine and therefore strong. I get this because narcissist come across as confident and in control. However, he realized he wasn’t actually narcissistic, but acted in those ways to get people to back off because deep down inside he felt effeminate and didn’t like that. Afraid to be the sensitive man he was, he couldn’t accept that he was both masculine and feminine in attributes at any given time, so hid his true self.

So truly, we are only partially consistent – no one is 100% consistent. However, when we write a character, the reader still needs to understand the reason for the inconsistency. Why does the leader of a non-profit participate in a scam against the very people he serves? (In the case of The Sopranos story line, it is because he is facing significant financial troubles and felt disillusioned by what he thought he could accomplish when he was still ‘green’.) This is very understandable, and therefore we allow this inconsistency, as much as we hate it. In fact, when we see someone be 100% consistent, we actually call them a hero, a martyr, a zealot, etc.

Congruence, on the other hand, is not only more achievable, it is required. For example, if you tell me a character uses broken English because it is their second language, and during dialogue they use perfect grammar, that is not congruent and must be changed if you want to maintain integrity. EDIT your characters for congruence. In memoir, this looks like showing us stories where your character is tested and you come out more solidified in your resolve. In fiction, this means making sure a disabled character struggles with having to use a separate entrance with her wheelchair every so often. Don’t let the reader just assume that because you said something, it is so- show them. This is how you write great characters.

Write Great Characters

In reconciling all of who we are – complex and dual in our thoughts (ie. Can I be both strong and sensitive? Can I be both scared and brave?) – we show the world we are human and therefore relatable. We become interesting and, instead of putting ourselves above others, we invite them into the land of the gray. We are inconsistent, and that’s not only ok, it is expected from those who live a rich life. It is in the inconsistencies that our character is revealed. It is in our judgments and perspectives we discover more of ourselves. It’s in our congruence we become believable.

So, whether you are writing a memoir or fiction, keep in mind this concept of gray, and embrace it. It is, after all, what builds character, complexity, and interest. It provokes thought, and I personally see no higher calling that that.

 

Looking for more of this type of writing support? Check out my Rolling Writing Group – a paid, effective alternative to critique groups to make you a better writer. Want something else? Contact me.

5 Ways to Use a Ghostwriter You May Not Have Considered

ghostwriter
a ghostwriter isn’t as creepy as it sounds

Several people have a ghostwriter to help them create written content, (including these 6 authors). As their name suggests, ghostwriters aren’t usually well known, nor are the extent of their ghostwriting services. Who uses them, and why they do, may surprise you. I’d like to share some of the ways I’ve worked with clients so you better understand what ghostwriters do. Whether penning a book, website content, or written collateral, a ghostwrite can help!

When English Is Difficult

The first book that I was hired to ghostwrite was for a bi-lingual client where English was his second language. I interviewed him and used recorded speeches to illustrate and explain the concepts and teachings of the Buddhist faith. He wasn’t confident about writing in English, even though he spoke it well. He had a large following, so ghostwriting made the most sense for him.

Other clients have come to me because they have a learning or other disability or have a traumatic brain injury. Clients who didn’t do well in English class are also on this list as they find it difficult to communicate in written form.

New Product Launch Content

I was contracted to write content about new product launches on a few occasions. Because the product was innovative and not yet a tangible product, I had to explain what it was, how it was intended to work, why it came into existence. Just like the new product needed to be created, so did all the written collateral, as there was nothing to research about it. Of course, research existed around the WHY of the product, but not the product itself. Ghostwriters are skilled at both research and creating compelling content.

Client Stories / Testimonials / Storytelling Marketing

Client stories are a form of testimonial – they follow the full story of a client from their problem to the solution. The great benefit of using client stories is that it really helps potential clients identify themselves to the other clients or customers, and help them visualize themselves as a client. They are very effective and engaging.

A ghostwriter can interview clients to create quality stories that capture the interest of others.

Articles

Articles can be created based on interviews, research, and content that has already been created such as blogs, videos, podcasts, and presentations. These articles can be submitted to trade journals, magazines, and online publications your target audience reads, or even used as a marketing piece at events.

Digital Materials

Web designers are one of my largest referring sources, hiring me to write website content for clients who don’t have the time, skill, or marketing understanding to do it themselves. Digital materials include blogs and social media posts or articles, guest blogs, whitepapers, downloadable products and more. Digital materials need to be very customer focused, but also capitalize on Search Engine keywords.

 

Next time you have a project that requires writing, or if you simply haven’t taken on an opportunity because it does, consider the help of a ghostwriter. A fair ghostwriter will provide you with an upfront quote and have references from former clients and projects they have done. Finding the right ghostwriter is important as well, so let’s schedule a free consultation to determine if I, or someone on my team, is a good fit.

The Pros and Cons of Critique Groups

critique groups

Critique groups have somewhat dissolved over the years as online formats for sharing writing have become more accessible. However, they still play an important role in the process of writing for publication. Sadly, some can cause more harm than good – here are the pro’s and con’s to consider before joining one. 

What are Critique Groups? 

A critique group is a group of writers who are looking for peer support through the constructive criticism of their written pieces. There are often guidelines and/or procedures for participating in a critique group that may include having already been published, limited work to a specific genre(s), page count limits (including the font type, size, margins, etc.), and frequency of sharing and/or critiques. It is important to remember that any valid critique group will follow guidelines allowing for true constructive criticisms. Critiques are not about shaming or degrading authors.  

The Pros and Cons of Critique Groups 

Pro: Critique groups often are made up of people from many different backgrounds, creating a mini cross-section of society. This diversity brings more insight into what you have written. Without the critique group, you may have not had access to such diversity. You never know who may be helping you become a better writer with their insight. Someone who understands a particular character’s struggle first hand, ethnic sensitivities, you may even have a previously published writer reviewing your manuscript. 

Con: This may also mean that you have inexperienced writers reviewing your work who won’t catch errors. The diverse group may also include someone really doesn’t like or understand your style or genre. Lack of understanding and/or the dislike of a specific writing style tends to make one too harsh to offer value, or they may even be completely ineffective as a reader. 

Pro: Critique groups are generally inexpensive to join. Often times a free group can be found quite easily. 

Con: Attendance can be irregular at best. What this means for you the writer is someone who took your submission at the last meeting may not be at the next meeting to give feedback. Allowing the manuscript to be read at the meeting is a way some groups have squelched this problem. I, however, don’t feel this gives the reader enough time with the work to really dive in. I found hearing someone read their work made it harder for me to critique. This is probably the case for anyone who is a visual, as opposed to an auditory, learner. This lack of attendance can also mean a reader may only be seeing your chapters out of order, only creating more chaos. 

Con: In regards to online critique groups, I find many readers don’t fulfill their requirements. This leads to an imbalance as you, the reader, end up doing more critiques than you yourself are receiving. Then, of the feedback you do receive, you often find readers who are unhelpful in their feedback and/or the process takes so long at times you question if it’s worth it. 

So, What’s the Solution? 

There is no cut and dry answer to this. The solution depends on your desired outcome. If you are wanting a critique group, as yourself why. Make a list of what you want to get out of it and then look specifically for those things – you’d be surprised what you find online when you are really clear. It may mean working with a professional, attending a workshop or signing up for a class. There are also online forums, but again, make sure they match your desired outcome and don’t have you spending all your time critiquing other’s work rather than working on your own project. 

Because I have found some writing groups to be more harm than good, I decided to put together a writing group that takes all the best components of a critique group and leaves out the harsh and ineffective feedback process. Contact me HERE to learn more. 

Should I Use a Beta Reader?

beta reader

Beta readers can be a valuable part of the writing and publishing process, but there is quite a debate about their contribution and overall impact on the writing process. Do you need to use a beta reader? Here’s how to determine if you should, when you shouldn’t and how to set it up for success. 

What is a Beta Reader? 

A beta reader is usually either an avid reader and/or a writer willing to read your work and offer feedback. Sometimes they want a small compensation or want to trade to have you read their work. 

A specific type of beta reader emerging in today’s market are sensitivity readers. Unlike an editor, their main purpose is to read your manuscript in a way that minimizes or eliminates any “-isms,” (such as able-ism, ageism, racism, sexism) the author may have unintentionally created within their work. If you are writing a book with characters and situations that are culturally diverse, especially in regards to a culture you the author does not identify with, I do recommend using a sensitivity reader. However, the sensitivity reader should follow the recommended guidelines for beta readers in general. I have outlined these guidelines below. 

The Benefits and Disadvantages of Beta Readers 

One benefit of beta readers, especially in comparison to critique groups, is that beta readers are given your complete manuscript and therefore see the bigger picture of your manuscript. Critique groups limit what can be submitted to be read at any given time. 

Another benefit is that there is another set of eyes on your manuscript. This helps with things the editor doesn’t care about such as character likability or story feasibility. Your editor, even on a developmental edit, will be looking for story holes, grammar, punctuation and flow. They may point out problematic areas, such as your villain waking from a coma in the hospital and having access to machine gun, but a beta reader will tell you they threw the book across the room when they read that scene. 

A big disadvantage includes the fact that another person has full and complete access to your manuscript. When you give your work to an editor or other writing professional, it is part of their standard of ethics to maintain your intellectual property. While it is ethical not to steal the product of someone else’s creativity, unless you are willing and able to sue a beta reader for stealing your idea, you agree to the risk of losing it. Even if you are willing and able to sue, and even with a contract in place, it is a hard fought case to prove an idea was yours. There are many high profile cases out there that attest to this. 

Beta readers can also be a disadvantage to an author who has a deadline in place, or if time is a factor in any way. This is because beta readers can significantly slow down, or even put to a halt, the publishing process. Countless times I’ve seen beta readers over commit and miss deadlines. I’ve also seen them offer little to no help, even after reading the manuscript, because they aren’t reading it the way an editor or trained eye would. 

For example, I’ve had a reader come back to me and say, “It was good. I liked it.” This feedback is unhelpful as I am not applying for awards that judge my book as ‘good and likable’. I also received feedback on a particular scene, where I was told I was too descriptive about a bedroom. The bedroom was a scene designed to “show not tell” about the living conditions this particular character had. I said nothing about the character in words, but showed her very clearly, from her likes to personality and financial status, by describing where she spent most of her time. Beta readers don’t always understand how an author develops character or story line. 

Tips for a Successful Beta Reader Experience 

If you are wanting a beta reader, ask why. Often your editor is the only set of eyes you need. After their three-part comb-through, they will have a proofreader take a look to catch anything they missed. BUT, if you do choose to use a beta reader, I suggest it be someone in your target market. Your target market includes those who will likely buy your book because they are interested in the topic you have written about. Your target market reader will read with the interest needed to be helpful and they will be able to give you constructive criticism and detail what they liked about the manuscript. Make sure they are honest, tell them exactly what kind of feedback you are looking for, and give them a deadline. Have them sign a confidentiality agreement and offer some compensation, whether it be a signed copy of the book when it comes out, a financial stipend, or another service of value to them… under the condition of them meeting the deadline. 

You may want to consider two or three beta readers in case one or more doesn’t complete the task, but that is up to you. Regardless, set a deadline for yourself that if you don’t receive their feedback, you continue on to your editor without it. 

 

Because I have seen so many beta reader attempts fail and authors get incredibly discouraged, I decided to put together a writing group that takes all the best components of a critique group and beta readers and leaves out the ineffective feedback process and missed deadlines. Contact me HERE to learn more.