This Is Why It's So Important To Write Compelling Characters | MarisMcKay.com
Writing Resources

This Is Why It’s So Important To Write Compelling Characters – Fantasy Friday

When we think of what defines fantasy literature, we typically think of the settings. Either it takes place in another world or something has been changed to make our own world unfamiliar. There’s magic and mythical creatures and otherworldly settings. But no matter how fantastic your world is it’s not what gives you a story.

Middle Earth is a beautiful place rich in lore and history, but would we care about it if a hobbit didn’t live in that hole in the ground? Would anyone want to read about Westeros if it wasn’t peopled with characters you care about enough to weep when they die? Could I have bothered reading about the magic system in Ixia if I didn’t want to find out what happened to Yelena next?

Without characters you don’t have a story. Their actions in your world are what drive the plot. And while worldbuilding is vital for a fantasy author (that’s what I’ve been working on lately for Women of Kern), it can’t make up for weak characters. Both have to be strong.This Is Why It's So Important To Write Compelling Characters | MarisMcKay.com

Which brings us to what I want to talk about today: the Enneagram. A friend recently suggested I give it a look since they know how much I like Myers-Briggs. I’m partway through reading my second book on the topic, and I’m starting to think it might be a very useful tool for helping flesh-out characters. In fact, once I buy Understanding The Enneagram I’ll have a hard time deciding whether to put it next to the psychology books or the character archetypes books.

The Enneagram describes people’s core passions, temptations, fears, and desires. Those are the sort of things that drive characters to go on epic quests, take over a kingdom, or go through hell to marry the person they love. And the Enneagram has the type of depth we need when we start digging into our characters psyches — depth that other character archetypes don’t necessarily have. One of the most helpful aspects of the Enneagram (at least as far as building characters is concerned) is the levels of development. These levels describe how each type changes based on how healthy or unhealthy they are. It’s definitely a useful tool for adding more nuances to heroes and villains.

Me trying to summarize everything the Enneagram can help you with would be pointless when I can just point you to some great resources. The Enneagram Institute, formed in 1997 by the late Don Richard Riso and by Russ Hudson, has pretty much all you need to get started. Here are some quick links:

Creative Writing

Do Something Unexpected

You don’t write great stories by being exactly like everyone else. How many YA books have you read where you felt like it was just the same love-triangle regurgitated in yet another uninspired story? How many Tolkien fantasy knock-offs have you read that didn’t add anything original? I’ll bet they didn’t stick in your minds as a great story or become one of your new favorite books.

We all want to find that special something which will make our work stand-out from other writers. While there isn’t a magic formula for this and several factors have to come together successfully, I think perhaps it starts with the “What if …?” Either you have a unique “What if …?” that no one has used before, or you have an interesting answer to an over-used “What if …?”

  • What if a detective solved crimes from his armchair? (Edgar Allan Poe in The Mystery of Marie Roget [1842].)
  • What if a dead Scottish hero was seeping power up into a vat of beer over his grave? and then we threw in some King Arthur lore? (I simply cannot recommend Tim Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark highly enough)
  • What if aliens attacked earth and we knew they were coming back? (Orson Scott Card has a masterful and unique take on this common “What if …?” in Ender’s Game)

In your next story, try doing something unexpected. We’re literally only limited by our imaginations. Well, that and our ability to write the unexpected and strange so our readers will set aside their disbelief instead of our books 😉

  • Make the superhero and the villain siblings who still share Thanksgiving dinner with their parents (credit to PROMPTUARIUM).
  • Tell the story of a teenage girl who discovers her father actually has a very good reason for asking her to stay away from the new kid at school, and she agrees with him.
  • Write about the dragon who rescues princesses from unsuitable knights (like in this adorable comic by Pedro Arizpe).
  • Fill your technology-reliant world with every-day magic (as suggested here).
Creative Writing, Writing Resources

Writing With Myers-Briggs

Icy Sedgwick, quote from "He was a man of good character"
Icy Sedgwick, quote from He was a man of good character

As a writer, I value precision of language. So when I tell you I’m obsessed with personality psychology, know that I’m not exaggerating very much. It’s a perfect hobby for a writer. After all, aren’t we in the business of studying people and revealing their innermost beings to our readers?

Whenever I’m planning a new novel and working on character sketches, one of the key pieces of information I write down is each important character’s Myers-Briggs type. Though no personality test is perfect, once you get beyond treating the test as four dichotomies and dive into the science behind it the MBTI is one of the more nuanced and useful ways to categorize type. Here’s some quick links for a crash-course in function stacks:

Perhaps the easiest way to use MBTI in writing is to take a personality test as your character. I usually have a pretty good idea of who my character is and how they’re going to act in at least a few different situations before I start thinking about their personality type. I’d rather get to know them a little and let them develop organically before trying to categorize them. Then I use the type they’re most like to learn more about how they perceive the world, make decisions and interact with other people.

Lauren Sapala, quote from Peel Back the Mask of Your Protagonist
Lauren Sapala, quote from Peel Back the Mask of Your Protagonist

I recommend taking more than one test, then reading descriptions about they type(s) you got for your character. If you take the 25 Quiz test linked above, it will give you several probably types.  Pick the one that fits your character best.

Now you can Google things like “do INTP and ESTJ relationships work?” or “How do ISFJs react to stress?” to get more specific information. I like browsing MBTI forums and getting perspectives from many different people with the same type. That’s a great way to see how similar, and different, people who share a personality type can be.

Your Turn: What are your go-to resources for crafting well-rounded characters?

For more great quotes about writing characters, check out 99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation by MJ Bush. That’s where I found the ones I’ve used in this post.

Writing Resources

Hero and Heroine Archetypes – Updated Images

My writings about Hero and Heroine archetypes have become my most popular posts, and it makes me wish I’d taken more time with them. You know when you’re trying to get a blog post written so you become just a little bit lazy with some aspect of it? Well, I may have done that with my images (though the written part is still quite relevant).

Here are up-dated examples for each archetype. These characters fit better and are a more diverse cross-section of people. I’m afraid more than half of them are still from sci-fi/fantasy shows, but what can I say? I love my speculative fiction.

Hero Archetypes

Original Heroes Post, Part One

Original Heroes Post, Part Two

Hero and Heroine Archetypes - Updated Images

Heroine Archetypes

Original Heroines Post, Part One

Original Heroines Post, Part Two

Hero and Heroine Archetypes - Updated Images

 

Creative Writing, NaNoWriMo

What I’m Using to Prep For NaNoWriMo 2015

This year for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been struggling to come up with a good plot, and turned to the Internet for help. While there’s a huge collection of tools out there (click here to check out one of the most impressive NaNo prep lists), sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the writing tools available.  I’ve narrowed it down to just a few main sources for the sake of my sanity (though I’ll probably use others as I discover a need). Here’s the ones I’m finding the most helpful in my NaNo preparation for 2015.

Check out what I'm using to prep for #NaNoWriMo2015 and share your favorite writing tools at MarisMcKay.com

Checklist

I love checklists for making sure I don’t miss anything. 6 Tasks You’ll Love Yourself for Checking Off Your NaNo Pre-Writing List is sort of a checklist for checking things off of your checklist. Since I’m using elements of an old story that I’d previously abandoned on page 58, I’m hoping this will help me make sure I’ve got all the information I need for the new and improved story.

Pinterest

I admit it — I’m a Pinterest addict. There’s a good reason, though. It’s the best way I’ve found to collect visuals for use in your novel. You could clip pictures from magazines, scan them from books, or draw them yourselves and keep them in a physical book or folder (that might be fun, actually), but Pinterest is faster and easier to store.

Follow Maris’s board WIP – All Under Heaven (NaNoWriMo 2015) on Pinterest.

Hiveword

Trying this out just to see if I like it. Hiveword is an online plot and scene outliner/organizer that also keeps track of characters, settings, and important items. There are name generators for people and places built in, you can access it from anywhere, and it’s free.

I like my writer’s notebooks, but I thought I’d give Hiveword a try. I like the idea of being able to keep track of every character without taking up pages of notebook space. I also like how detailed the character sheets are, and that I can go back and add things easily. It won’t replace my beloved sticky note outline, but I’ll use it as a supplement.

Antagonist

I’ve noticed a tendency in my stories to write lots of internal conflict for my main characters and either leave out or under-develop the antagonist. This story has room for a great bad guy, and I want to make sure I write him well. I’d previously pinned several articles on writing good villains, and here are the ones I think will be most helpful:

Villainy 101: Villains Are People Too – The Academy of Ultimate Villainy is here to help make sure your villain is well-written

4 Types of Villain – The Last One is Truly Scary Because He’s So Good — uses Jane Eyre to explain different villain types

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 31: One-Dimensional Conflict — not just about villains; a good source about conflict in general

Worldbuilding

If I’d discovered the 30 Days of World Building tutorial at the beginning of this month, I’d have been very tempted to work through it as a month-long precursor to NaNoWriMo. We’ve got less than two weeks before NaNo starts, though, so I suppose I’ll have to go through it a little more quickly than intended. I’ll also pull from some of the other resoources I’ve collected on my world building Pinterest Board.


What about you — do you have any go-to resources  you recommend for NaNo?  something you discovered recently or you always use when crafting a new story? Share it in a comment!

NaNoWriMo

7 Strategies for NaNoWriMo Prep

National Novel Writing Month is less than 1 month away, and I have no idea what I’m going to write. Or, rather, I have too many ideas:

  • Should I go with the super-human dystopian YA novel that I almost wrote last year?
  • Perhaps I continue work on the sequel for The Heather and the Falcon? It’s already started, but just barely, and I could easily write another 50,000 words on this story.
  • Maybe one of the ideas in my writer’s notebook would make a nice novel. There are so many of them to choose from.
  • Or is there a new, undiscovered story lurking somewhere in my unconscious just waiting to be pulled out and set on paper?

Whichever one I choose, I’m going to approach planning for this novel the same way I did in 2011 and 2013, the years I “won” NaNoWriMo. It’s been a good strategy for me, so I thought I’d share my tips with you. I hope you’ll find them useful!

  1. Write a one-paragraph description of the story’s main conflict. You want to clarify the central focus of the novel early on. It might change as the story develops, but having a guideline helps with later plotting.
  2. Draw a map. Both my novels have been fantasy, but don’t ignore this step for real-life settings. Being familiar with your story’s geography limits the need for looking up where the characters will be traveling or how far they are from a place, and that leaves more time for writing.
  3. Name the main character(s), and write a character sketch. By the time I start my novel, I have a name and complete physical description for my MC, along with their Myers-Briggs type, archetype and basic back-story. At least two full pages in my writer’s notebook are devoted to them. There’s a huge amount of information out there on this topic, and I’ve been collecting it on my “Building Characters” board on Pinterest, if you want more ideas.
  4. Repeat step 3 for important secondary characters. The better you know all your characters, the easier they will be to write. For the MC’s love interest or best friend, these character sketches might be quite extensive. For a character that’s not as important, a paragraph or two can suffice.
  5. Make a list of names. Even if you have lists of all your characters ready, you’ll always need more names and it saves time if you don’t have to look any up. I draw a line down the middle of a page in my writer’s notebook, then write male names on one side and female names on the other. This leaves just enough space for a brief description of each character I assign the name to.
  6. Write a flexible plot outline. When I was taking creative writing workshops, my professor told us to never decide the ending before we start writing. For something like NaNoWriMo, it helps greatly to have a direction, but don’t set your outline in stone. Some writers will lay-out 40 scenes in detail. I usually opt for a bullet-point progression of main plot points, which allows for flexibility in the scene structures as my characters develop. For my NaNoWriMo novel last year, I thought one of the three main characters was going to die, and by the end of the story they ended up killing the character who was supposed to kill them. Since I didn’t feel bound to a ridged plot outline, I just let their character develop naturally.
  7. Choose a point of view. There are few things more annoying than starting out a story in fist-person point of view and then deciding to switch it to third person. Or vice-versa. It’s almost impossible to catch all the “he”s or “I”s and change them to make the story consistent again. So pick one now, and stick with it. My 2011 novel had one main character, and was character-driven, so it’s first-person from her point of view. My 2013 novel followed three characters, so I wrote it in close third-person.