Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Whittling

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

WHITTLING

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Andrea Parrish-Geyer @ Creative Commons

Description: To shape a piece of wood by chipping or cutting small pieces from it

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: good hand-eye coordination, dexterity, a steady hand and firm grip, the ability to sit for long periods of time without getting stiff or sore

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: imaginative, artistic, patient, calm, resourceful, meticulous, focused, obsessive

Required Resources and Training: Whittling is a time-consuming activity that takes much practice to master. It can be learned with little or no teaching; all you really need is a sharp knife, a piece of wood, and lots of time. It helps to have a basic understanding of wood types, so you can choose the type of wood that will yield the best result for the project. And while you can whittle with any knife, smaller ones work best, and different kinds of blades can help with different cuts.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: The most common stereotype associated with whittling is the country bumpkin (usually male) sitting on the front porch whittling sticks down to toothpicks. While it makes sense that an avid whittler needs access to wood, he doesn’t have to live in the actual woods. Items can be whittled from wood chunks or twigs found in a park, or even from lumber bought at a hardware store.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • for relaxation or stress relief
  • as a way of passing the time when one has excess time on one’s hands
  • coming up with a new product or technique that can be turned into a much-needed money-making venture for the hero
  • when a small, secretive item is needed to help save the day (a lock pick, wooden coin, weapon, etc.)
  • when it’s necessary to camouflage something important as an everyday object

Stories Where Whittling is Used As Part of the Plot Line

  • The Shawshank Redemption—though Andy Dufresne whittled soapstone instead of wood
  • Spindle’s End (Robin McKinley)

Related Talents and Skills: Carpentry

Resources for Further Information:

Whittling 101

A Beginner’s Guide to Whittling 

Getting Started in Woodcarving and Whittling

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

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Pacing Tips

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, let me give a hearty shout out to all of you doing NaNoWriMo. *POM-POMS*  I’ve never been able to NaNo with the rest of the world, since November is such a crazy month for me, but I have so much respect for all of you in the trenches right now. KEEP IT UP! You’re halfway there!

Even the Dark Side needs motivation

Kenny Louie @ Creative Commons

So, I mentioned that November is insane, right? My son’s birthday falls just before Thanksgiving. This year, we’re throwing his first party. He wanted a Darth Vader theme, and I may have gone a teensy bit overboard. Regardless, his birthday party, combined with his actual birthday, followed by my father-in-law’s birthday, and then Thanksgiving for the family at MY HOUSE THIS YEAR… Well. Let’s just say that it’s all about planning and pacing right now.

Advice that is so often true of writing, too.

And I just happen to have this nifty post on the subject, which originally aired at Lisa Hall-Wilson’s excellent blog. So, in homage to the difficult topic of pacing, and in an effort to maintain my natural hair color through yet another November, here it is, for your viewing pleasure…

I’d like to start this post by stating an opinion that I think pretty much everyone shares: Pacing Sucks. When you get it right, no one really notices. I mean, how many times have you read a 5-star review that went on and on about the awesome pacing? On the other hand, when the pacing’s off, it’s obvious, but not always easy to pinpoint; you’re just left with this vague, ghostly feeling of dissatisfaction. One thing, though, is certain: if the pacing is wrong, it’s definitely going to bother your readers, so I thought I’d share some tips on how to keep the pace smooth and balanced.

1. Current Story vs. Backstory. Every character and every story has backstory. But the relaying of this information almost always slows the pace because it pulls the reader out of the current story and plops them into another one. It’s disorienting. And yet, a certain amount of backstory is necessary to create depth in regards to characters and plot. To keep the pace moving, only share what’s necessary for the reader to know at that moment. Dole out the history in small pieces within the context of the current story, and avoid narrative stretches that interrupt what’s going on. Here’s a great example from Above, by Leah Bobet:

The only good thing about my Curse is that I can still Pass. And that’s half enough to keep me out of trouble. But tonight it’s not the half I need because here’s Atticus, spindly crab arms folded ‘cross his chest, waiting outside my door. His eyes glow dim-shot amber—not bright, so he’s not mad, just annoyed and looking to be mad.

Bobet could have taken a lengthy paragraph to explain that certain people in this world have curses that are really mutations, that Atticus has crab claws for hands and his eyes glow when he gets angry. But that would’ve slowed the pace and been boring. Instead, Bobet wove this information into the current story—showed Atticus leaning against the door, showed his crustacean claws and his freaky, glowing eyes so the reader knows that he’s a mutant and, to the narrator, at least, this is normal. This is an excellent example of the artful weaving of backstory into the present story.

2. Action vs. Exposition/Internal Dialogue. Action is an accelerant. It keeps the pace from dragging. Granted, there will be places in your story that are inherently passive, where characters have to talk, or someone needs to think things out. The key is to break up these places with movement or activity. Characters should be in motion—smacking gum or doodling or fidgeting— while talking. Give them something to do during their thoughtful moments, whether it’s peeling carrots or painting a picture. These bits of action are like an optical illusion, fooling the reader into thinking something’s happening, when really, nothing’s going on. This is one scenario when readers actually prefer to be fooled, so make sure to energize those narrative stretches with action.

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Oliver Kendal @ Creative Commons

3. Conflict vs. Downtime. On the flip side, you can’t have a story that’s all go and no stop. One might think that since action is good, more action is better. Not true. Readers need time to catch their breath, to recover from highly emotional or stressful scenes. A good pace is one that ebbs and flows—high action, a bit of recovery, then back to the activity again. Even The Maze Runner, possibly the most active novel I’ve ever read, has its moments of calm. When it comes to conflict and downtime, a definite balance is needed for the reader to feel satisfied.

4. Keep Upping the Stakes. We know that conflict is important—so important that every single scene needs it. But for conflict to be effective, it needs to escalate over the course of the story. To keep the reader engaged, each of the major conflict points needs to be bigger, more dramatic, and with stakes that are more desperate. One of my favorite reads of 2013 was Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a historical fiction novel about the deportation of a Lithuanian family during World War II. It starts out ominous enough, with the family being forced from their home. Over the course of the story, they’re moved by cattle car across the continent, relocated to a forced labor camp, and eventually reach their final destination—a camp in the Arctic Circle where they’re expected to survive the elements with whatever resources they can scrounge. Clearly, lots of other conflict is interspersed, but when it comes to the major points, each one should have greater impact than the last.

5. Condense the timeline. When possible, keep your timeline tight. If it gets too spread out, the story will inevitably drag. It’s also hard, in a story that covers a long span, to keep things smooth; there will be time jumps of weeks or months or even years between scenes. Too many of these give the story a jerky feel. So when it comes to the timeline, condense it as much as possible to keep the pace steady.

For sure, pacing is tricky, but I’ve found these nuggets to be helpful in maintaining a good balance. What other tips do you have for keeping your story moving at the right pace?

Posted in Pacing | 19 Comments

Character Skills and Talents: Astrological Divination

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

astrology Description: exploring the study of the placement of stars, planets and constellations, to determine how astrological structure can affect personality and influence life events. A character who has studied astrology extensively can chart an individual’s celestial path by using the date and hour of their birth. This information can offer unique insight into their personality traits, relationships, and how certain planetary movements may be influencing their lives. This in turn can give greater context to past events, the present, and possibly open a window into what the future may hold.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: Strong reading skills, a background in psychology or working knowledge of the personality basics, being a people-person, having an investigative nature, a willingness to help others, an interest in other cultures and their beliefs, being strong in mathematics

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: open-mindedness, studious, intelligence, pensive, inquisitive, disciplined, patience, curiosity

Required Resources and Training: A character would have to dedicate significant amounts of time to the study of the stars, constellations (birth signs), cultural mythology (pertaining to astrological beliefs), and spiritual beliefs. Having a mentor or attending programs that focus on astrology and its teachings would fast track one’s knowledge. The character would also need significant practical experience in creating charts and learning the right questions to ask so that one’s advice addresses the specific areas the subject will find the most useful.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions:

Many believe that astrology is not a valid discipline, while others place weight on what celestial influences are interacting with their star/sun sign at different points of their lives. Most see astrology as being no more than computer generated horoscopes that run in newspapers and magazines, but in reality, it is a philosophical study of finding meaning in the stars.

Scenarios Where This Skill Could be Useful:

  • Choosing the right time to have a family, take financial risks or make bigger changes in one’s life by seeing if the influences in the stars are currently favorable or not
  • Understanding the traits that pair with Zodiac signs to determine if a friendship or other relationship will be a strong match, and if not, how best to work with a specific sign based on the traits that present typically with someone of that group
  • Increase awareness of upcoming planetary shifts that may present challenges, so one can work towards minimizing them before they occur
  • As a form of entertainment at parties
  • As a way to secure one’s place as an adviser or trusted supporter (provided the person in power believes in Astrological influences)
  • As a method to introduce a fictional prophesy or predict a major event

Resources for Further Information:

Understanding Astrology

First Steps in Astrology

The Personalities of Astrological Signs

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

 

Image: Kaz @ Pixabay

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Technical Writing: A Viable Career (Or Sideline) Option for Writers

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Tony Fischer @ Creative Commons

First let me start by giving a heartfelt THANK YOU to the men and women who have served or currently do serve in the armed forces. While Veteran’s Day is an American holiday, I applaud and respect the dedication it takes for anyone to serve their country in such a sacrificial way. I recognize that my freedom comes at great cost, and I’m humbly and eternally grateful for your sacrifice.

One of the freedoms we cherish in America is the ability to choose our own career paths—even if our desired career is difficult or impractical or monetarily unfruitful. (How’s that for a nice way to say MAKES YOU POOR?) Writing is a tough business in a lot of ways. It’s particularly hard to make as much money as we’d like (especially in the early years), which is why so many of us have day jobs. I know most of us wish we could have a job within the writing field, since we’d like to earn money doing what we love, so when Brenda Di Bella contacted us with a potential post about technical writing, I jumped at the chance. 

Back in college, I took a summer temp position at Harcourt-Brace, where I did some technical writing. I loved the writing aspect of that job. It’s a great option for writers of all stripes, so if you’re looking for a full-time opportunity or simply a way to supplement your income, check out what Bella has to say about this career option for writers…

 

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Lisa Risager @ Creative Commons

Why Technical Writing?

Technical writing can be an excellent source of income for all writers. There are thousands of opportunities out there for individuals with writing skills, and many of them are remote projects that can be done from home. You don’t have to be a technical expert to earn extra income in this lucrative and flexible field. In fact, because most “uber-techie” types are notoriously atrocious writers, the demand for skilled communicators is very high and continues to grow as technology evolves.

While many people (like myself) have chosen tech writing as a full-time career, many projects are available on a contract basis, making them temporary commitments with a lot of flexibility. Currently, the average hourly rate for technical writers in the U.S. is $31. This rate varies based on skill level, location, industry, and other factors.

 

What is it?

Technical writers are responsible for converting complicated technical and scientific information into language that is easy to understand. They usually work in conjunction with computer programmers, engineers, medical professionals, or other specialized experts. Just about every industry imaginable has the need for technical writers at some point in time. While an exhaustive list of the types of projects available would be far too lengthy for this blog, some common projects include:

• user guides, manuals, online help, and training materials
• design and marketing specifications
• research articles and reports
• policy and procedure documents

 

What Qualifications or Skills are Necessary?

Along with grammar skills, a successful technical writer must have a knack for clarity. The ability to consider the technical savvy of your audience is essential for this type of work. For example, when writing a user guide for a new software application, it is important to include every step necessary to perform a task. Likewise, policy and procedure manuals must be worded very carefully to avoid possible issues for the employer.

Some computer proficiency is necessary for most tech writing projects. The most commonly used applications for this type of work are Microsoft Word, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, and XML. In some cases, research and training skills may be required.

The qualifications necessary to acquire tech writing projects vary, but most clients prefer candidates with some education in English (or a similar field of study) and some writing experience. It is a good idea to develop a portfolio of writing samples to show off your abilities. Some resources for strengthening your skill set and learning about trends in the field are:

• The Society for Technical Communication (STC) – be sure to check out their webinars!
• The National Association of Science Writers
• The National Writers’ Association
• The National Writers’ Union

 

Where Do I Find More Info?

Thousands of tech writing opportunities can be found every day on all the popular employment websites (Monster, CareerBuilder, Indeed, etc.). In addition to these, be sure to check out Dice.com (which specializes in tech jobs), the STC website, and the job placement department of your alma mater. I mention these resources in particular because I have had personal success with each of them. There are also a plethora of sites specifically dedicated to tech writing jobs. These might very well be viable resources for opportunities, but be cautious about any which require you to pay for their services, and don’t expect to be flooded with offers. Finally, many companies do not use employment sites to post job openings, but a quick visit to their corporate website can tell you if they are looking for someone like you.

Blog Photo

 

Brenda Di Bella is a Senior Technical Writer with 20 years’ experience. She has a bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing from Purdue University, and has successfully completed projects for dozens of Fortune 500 companies like Bank of America, Eli Lilly and Company, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and Bally Total Fitness. She is currently self-employed, offering a variety of writing and editing services. For more information about Brenda, please visit her website.

Posted in The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Throwing One’s Voice

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

THROWING ONE’S VOICE ventriloquist

Description: also known as ventriloquism; the ability to change one’s voice to make it appear to be coming from someone or somewhere else

Interesting Origins: This ability was originally involved in religious practices. Ancient Greeks believed that the noises that came from one’s stomach were the voices of the unliving, who took up residence there. The ventriloquist was the interpreter of these voices, and so was believed to be able to converse with the dead and to foretell the future.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: strong core muscles to enable one to breath correctly, good acting chops (since successfully throwing one’s voice relies heavily on listener perception)

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: disciplined, dedicated, sneaky, manipulative, dramatic, playful

Required Resources and Training: Throwing the voice requires utilizing the right muscles throughout the body, changing the way one typically would speak (via placement of the tongue, lips, etc.), and placing the voice in a different area of the throat than is normally used when talking. Basically, this ability requires learning to speak in a whole new way. It requires study, discipline, and lots and lots of practice.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: ventriloquists; fortune tellers and other scammers

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • when one needs to escape or throw an enemy off of one’s trail
  • to provide a distraction
  • to scare someone
  • to discredit or embarrass someone (by making people think that person is saying something he/she wouldn’t normally say)
  • to trap someone (by getting them to follow the sound of one’s voice)
  • for entertainment purposes

Similar Talents and Skills: Mimicry

Resources for Further Information:

Throw Your Voice Like a Ventriloquist

Ventriloquist Circle

 

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

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Critiques 4 U, November Edition

CONTEST CLOSED!

I trust that everyone had a great Halloween—full of treats and short on tricks, preferably. It was tons of fun at my house this year. My son is obsessed with Darth Vader, so his costume was a no-brainer. After he declared his choice, my daughter decided to pair it up, and this interstellar awesomeness resulted:

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I am your father. I mean, your brother. Wait a minute…

My 1980s cup overfloweth.

But Halloween is over, and man cannot live on cuteness alone. There are words to be chopped. Characters to be killed off. Entire plot lines to be reconsidered. That’s right: I has CRITIQUES 4 U! I’m opening submissions for this month’s contest today. For those of you who aren’t frantically NaNoWriMo’ing: if you’re working on something (no erotica, please) that needs fresh eyes, leave a comment that includes: 

1) your email address

2) the working title of your WIP

3) its genre

4) the intended audience

ONLY ENTRIES THAT FOLLOW THESE INSTRUCTIONS WILL BE CONSIDERED.

3 commenters’ names will be drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck! And may the force be with you…

Posted in Uncategorized | 48 Comments

Character Skills and Talents: Heightened Empathy

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

micelangelo
When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

HEIGHTENED EMPATHY

Description: the ability to place oneself deeply within another person’s experience to see their view of the world and better identify with their emotions, concerns, goals and life struggles. NOTE: this entry does not cover Empaths, which is a talent that goes beyond learned empathy.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: control over one’s emotions and being able to reject any personal bias that might get in the way of seeing life from another person’s view, perceptiveness and knowing what questions to ask, strong listening and communication skills, openness to new experiences and ideas, being comfortable enough to open up and share in kind

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: curious, kind, understanding, objective, honest, calm, encouraging, fair, diplomatic, selfless, imaginative, compassionate, non-judgmental

Required Resources and Training: to hone one’s empathy, a character must open themselves to other people, their thoughts, perceptions and experiences, and be able to view these as having as much value as their own personal ones. Listening–really listening–means not rushing in with advice or expressing sympathy or pity. Empathy is acknowledging another person’s emotion as being valid, and seating oneself in their viewpoint to better experience their perspective.

Learning to be open-minded, and set aside one’s own experiences and interactions that can lead to unintentional bias can be difficult to achieve, but necessary to achieve true empathy. Training oneself to watch for physical cues and body language will help the character see if supportive questions might encourage a deeper sharing of emotions and experience, or if quiet listening is better in the situation. Being aware of body language and what it communicates will also allow the character to use their own to reinforce the message that they are open and engaged, and listening without judgement. Trying new experiences, identifying and then facing different personal challenges, and looking for deeper meaning in the world around will help the character open themselves to “trying on” different perspectives, making it easier to set aside their own feelings to better feel another’s.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions:

  • The misconception that people with empathy are bleeding hearts who can’t make hard choices
  • People who show empathy build trust quickly
  • Empathy creates balanced leadership
  • People who feel strong empathy may also feel strong guilt if they are unable to bring about a needed change

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful: in friendship and relationships, in careers that focus on social sciences, mental health and well-being, human advocacy groups, politics and leadership, communication and diplomacy, any job that requires strong interpersonal skills, people in an advisory role to those in power (using empathy skills to convey the need for change, reinforce balance and promote open communication)

Resources for Further Information:

Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People

Five Ways To Grow Your Empathy

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

 

Image: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

How Morals and Basic Needs Influence a Character’s Strengths

You ever have one of those mornings where you’re just feeling…bleh? Life wasn’t exactly ticking along like clockwork and I was struggling with self-doubt. Then I clicked open my inbox and read the most wonderful message from a reader praising our Trait Thesaurus books. The most interesting thing was that she had been really touched by the front matter, rather than the entries. 

Well, I perked right up at that. It made me think of some of the really cool things Angela and I have accomplished over the past three years—of the hard work, the struggles to come up with front matter that would be as helpful as the entries in our books. So today, in a state of nostalgia, I’m reposting an oldie but a goodie, which originally aired at Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog. Enjoy, and if you think of something nice to say to someone today, please don’t hesitate to share it. You never know when someone might need a little encouragement!

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Pixabay

Since writing our last book, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, I’ve been thinking a lot about personality traits and how they’re formed. Flaws are incredibly important for a character to have—and, let’s be honest: they’re really interesting to read about. But one of the main reasons we fall in love with characters is because we want them to succeed, to achieve their goals and overcome their flaws; this is where the positive attributes come in. The fact is, every character needs both positive and negative traits, and these traits need to be chosen thoughtfully.

When it’s time to create your character and figure out what his traits will be, you should take into account many factors that influence their development: genetics, upbringing and caregivers, past wounds, environment, peers—all of these things absolutely cause certain traits to organically emerge for a character. (For more information on how these factors influence trait development, please see this post on the topic.) Today, I’d like to zero in on what I believe are the two biggest influencers on trait formation: morality and basic needs.

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courtesy: Paul Downey @ Creative Commons

Morality

Every character—protagonist, villain, sidekick, mentor, etc.—lives by a moral code. His beliefs about right and wrong are deeply embedded in his psyche and will influence his decisions, day-to-day actions, the way he treats people, how he spends his free time—they will impact every area of his life, including his personality. A character will only embrace traits that in some way align with his moral beliefs. Because of this, it’s crucial that we know what our characters believe and value in order to figure out which qualities will define him.

Take, for example, Zack Mayo from An Officer and a Gentleman. Mayo’s morality is largely derived from a traumatic childhood event: finding his mother’s body after she killed herself. Mayo’s father took him in but made it clear that taking responsibility for an impressionable boy wasn’t going to put a crimp in his affinity for drugs and prostitutes.

Fast forward a decade, and Mayo’s moral code has been formed from this sad crucible: look out for yourself because no one else will. Many of his defining traits stem directly from this belief. He’s independent, opportunistic, persistent, apathetic, emotionally withdrawn, and selfish. It would have made no sense for someone with Mayo’s moral code to embrace selflessness or loyalty, because to embody these traits, he’d have to go against his most important belief.

This is why its crucial to know your character’s backstory. All those factors I mentioned earlier? Put those puzzle pieces together to figure out what your character now values, what he believes about right and wrong. Once you know his moral code, you’ll know which traits he’ll embody and which ones he’ll disdain. His defining traits will be pretty much fixed because to reject them, he’d have to reject what he most believes in.

Basic Needs

But sometimes, as authors, a drastic shift in morality is exactly what we want for our characters. This kind of change doesn’t occur easily, but it can happen under the right circumstances. This is where basic needs come into play.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, individuals are driven by needs that fall into five categories:

1. Physiological: the need to secure one’s biological and physiological needs
2. Safety and Security: the need to keep oneself and one’s loved ones safe
3. Love and Belonging: the need to form meaningful connections with others
4. Esteem and Recognition: the need to increase one’s sense of esteem
5. Self-Actualization: the need to realize one’s full potential and achieve personal fulfillment

The first level is the most important; if a character’s physiological need isn’t being met, he’ll do whatever it takes to meet that need. Once it’s met, the next level becomes the most crucial. And so on.

If you’re crafting a story and you discover that you need one of your characters to undergo a major moral shift, simply take away one of his basic needs. An awesome example of this is the movie Prisoners. Hugh Jackman’s character is a responsible citizen — morally upright and a family man. But then his daughter goes missing (i.e., his need for safety and security is no longer being met). He’s certain he knows who abducted her, but the police won’t do anything about it. He tries everything he can think of to get his daughter back while working within the confines of his moral beliefs. When those ideas run out, he begins wrestling with the options that don’t coincide with his moral code. Desperate to regain his former equilibrium where all of his needs were being met, his morality shifts. He abducts his daughter’s suspected kidnapper and tortures him in an effort to learn of her whereabouts. His basic belief that all human beings are deserving of dignity and respect has changed—and so have his traits. Respect has turned to cruelty. Centeredness gives way to fanaticism. And all of this can be traced back to one need that is no longer being met.

We’re cruel taskmasters, we authors. But it’s through difficulty that true character emerges, and if we want our protagonists to grow, we have to provide growth opportunities. Know your character’s moral code and choose suitable traits. If you need your character to make a big change, threaten one of his basic needs. Using these two influencers, you’re sure to come up with a character who is believable and will resonate with readers.

Posted in Character Traits, Characters, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: The Midas Touch

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

THE MIDAS TOUCH

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Keith Cooper @ Creative Commons

Descriptionthe ability to multiply one’s money; having a knack for making money. Most people with this talent have a bent toward the business arena. Many are entrepreneurial by nature and, without any education or formal experience at all, have an inherent knack for understanding the dynamics of finance and are able to apply their knowledge in a way that leads to success.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: being able to quickly and accurately size up an opportunity, seeing opportunity where others see nothing, being good at math

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: disciplined, self-control, shrewd, patient, greedy, risk-taking, ambitious, bold, focused, discerning, persistent, analytical, visionary

Required Resources and Training: Many people with this gift can be found making money at an early age through entrepreneurial enterprises without any resources or training to speak of. As they grow older, they either increase their knowledge through education or experience in the field. They often end up becoming experts in a particular area, be it finance, the stock market, real estate, the fashion industry, etc. They grow and improve (often by making costly mistakes in the beginning) through immersion in their given area.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: investors, entrepreneurs, business moguls. People with this skill are often portrayed as being greedy and caring first and foremost about money. They’re often perceived as materialistic with a shaky moral code.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • a situation where the hero is in need of money
  • if someone needs to disappear or start a new life but needs to be able to support himself
  • to support the lifestyle one has become accustomed to living
  • when a large sum of money is needed to back a cause or organization

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

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How Image Systems Can Supercharge a Novel

You know, after 5+ years, we’ve covered a lot of writing-related topics at this blog. At times, it’s a challenge to come up with meaningful material that hasn’t been done to death. So I was super excited to receive C.S. Lakin’s post on a topic that we’ve never discussed before at Writers Helping Writers—a topic that I’d never actually even heard of before: using image systems to improve your novel. What the heck is an image system? I’m so glad you asked….

C.S. Lakin

Filmmakers use a term called “image systems,” and novelists can benefit greatly by creating a similar kind of image system for their novel.

Just What is an Image System?

Think of the overall message coming through your novel. What themes are you honing in on? What controversial issues or moral dilemmas are you presenting? What is the “take-home” feeling you want to leave with your reader after she finishes reading the last page. Asking these questions can help you step back and look at the tone, mood, and intent of your story.

In a film, an image system might include repeating shot compositions—for example, a movie might use a certain shape or image in a landscape and repeat it throughout the film. An image system often uses specific colors—some which may not be easy at first to notice or that work on a subliminal level in some way.

Great novelists know the power of motif and symbolism, often using something like a repeated word or phrase, or an object of importance to the character, to bring a richness to the story and to enhance the theme of their novel. In effect, they are creating something similar to an image system. By taking a look at some of the ways filmmakers develop image systems for their films, novelists can learn much and expand their technique.

Get a Clear Vision of the Story You Are Telling

Filmmaker Gustav Mercado says, “If you want to become an effective storyteller, one of the most important things you can do is to have a clear vision of your story, so that it reflects your unique take on it, not somebody else’s. . . . Anything and everything that is included in the composition of a shot will be interpreted by an audience as being there for a specific purpose that is directly related and necessary to understand the story they are watching [or reading, in the case of a novel].”

Writers, as well as filmmakers, need to first identify the core ideas of their story in order to create an image system. Once that is determined, they can design a system that supports and brings out that core idea in either obvious or subtle ways consistently implemented throughout the book.

Ask these questions about each of your scenes:

• What are the main elements (or one main element) that should dominate the scene and be brought to the reader’s attention? Can these be an object or word/phrase or bit of setting that can be symbolic and repetitive in your novel?
• What should and shouldn’t be included in the scene that will help the reader focus on that element? (Think about all that unnecessary narrative or trivial dialog.)
• What meaning will be conveyed subconsciously by these elements you show?

Overlying all this is your main theme or core idea. You’ve perhaps been told you should be able to sum up your premise in a sentence or two (elevator pitch). In that premise lies your core idea for your book. You may have gotten a germ of an idea for your novel, and from that you developed characters with issues and goals, and you came up with settings and scene ideas to play out your storyline. But overlying all that is your core idea.

In Just a Few Words

See if you can encapsulate the main theme or idea of your story in one line or a few words. For example, the core idea behind the movie Rocky might be about gaining self-respect. That’s a simple summation. But if you can come up with a basic thematic concept, you can gear the elements in your scenes to bring out that theme.

Emblematic Shots to Highlight Theme

Think about including emblematic elements that reveal theme and motif.
• Is there a place your character keeps coming back to?
• An emotion she keeps struggling with that can be symbolized by a particular scene composition and “camera angle”?
• A place where she reflects and looks out on the world that can subliminally indicate her mood, self-image, or view of others?
• An object that she studies close up?

Emblematic shots are usually placed at the beginning and end of meaningful scenes, to emphasize them, make them stand out.

Sum It Up in One Picture

Here’s something you can try. Imagine taking one (only one) snapshot of your novel (not of the actual physical book). This picture needs to “tell” what the core idea or theme of your story is about. Think movie poster.

A movie poster has to somehow convey the feel and premise of the entire movie. Imagine showing this picture you took of your novel to a stranger and asking him what he thinks the theme or core idea is behind the photo. Ask him what symbolism comes through. Did you include symbolic elements? What colors did you choose?

Even without knowing the emotional power of each color, we all resonate similarly when it comes to colors. Can you come up with one image that can be the core of your image system? We’ve heard the cliché: a picture is worth a thousand words. If your picture can just speak a dozen key words to you, you can build an image system around it.

Try jotting down six key words that best “represent” your novel. Then think of emblematic images, places, objects, or phrases that will capture those succinctly.

Developing an image system is just one way to infuse your novel with cinematic technique. The more novelists can borrow great “tools” from filmmakers, the more visually powerful and dynamic their novels will be.

What about your novel? Can you come up with some elements to make up your image system? Share your “poster” concept in the comments. Do you have some emblematic objects, places, or phrases that help create an image system for your story? If so, share them!

Shoot your novel ebook cover final

C. S. Lakin is a multipublished best-selling novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Technique to Supercharge Your Story—is designed to help writers learn the secrets of cinematic technique. You can buy it here in print and as an ebook. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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