Want Memorable Characters? Focus on the Little Things

I love building characters. In fact, “building” is apt, because for me, they come a piece at a time. A brick or two might lock into place as I wrestle with that hateful night demon, Insomnia. Another may manifest with morning coffee or as I scarf down a non-food pyramid approved lunch. But slowly—oh, so slowly—the pieces come. That half-glimpsed figure sliding along the edge of my imagination packs on winter weight, and becomes someone interesting, special, and worth rooting for.

Give your character a hobby to make them memorable and unique. Many writers don't take this writing opportunity to add depth to their characters, so mke sure you do! It’s common to pay close attention to the big ticket items when character building: personality (those positive and negative traits), physicality (physical features), worldview (morals, beliefs, biases, attitudes) and of course backstory, which leads to the most important piece of all: motivation. Knowing what unmet need the painful past has created tells us what drives the character, and toward what: the perfect goal that will fill this unmet need.

These big pieces lead to medium ones: the character’s emotional range and behavior, their skills and talents, their relationships, and how they communicate.

Once these blocks are set though, some writers get impatient–they want to write. So other aspects (a character’s occupation, their likes & dislikes, interests, secrets, quirks, hobbies, etc.) are rushed as the writer goes with whatever seems “good enough.” After all, these are small bits. They don’t matter much…right?

But here’s the thing…they do.

Little details play a big role: they make a character human.

Readers want to connect to a character who feels real. Someone they could sit and have a beer with. Someone who is, just maybe, a little bit like them.

Lately I’ve been working on One Stop for Writers’ idea generator (specifically creating more options for hobbies, a perfect example of “smaller details”).  The idea generator offers a brainstorming nudge if it is needed, and when it comes to hobbies, we want writers think past the stock choices and instead choose an interest that gives the character depth, making them memorable.

As I was adding new hobbies to that generator, I wanted to make sure I was supplying a good range of choices. So, I created categories for the different types:

The Odea generator at One Stop for Writers is one of a kind, helping you brianstorm characters and story elementsin practical, useful ways.

  • Focused Interest
  • Collecting
  • Animal-Related
  • Advocacy & Community
  • Skill & Knowledge
  • Intellectual
  • Creative
  • Food-Related
  • Sports & Active Lifestyle
  • Adventure & Thrill-Seeking
  • Strategy & Invention

These cover a variety of possible hobbies, and hopefully will allow writers to find a match that will show readers something specific and interesting about the character.

For example, a thrill-seeker might choose street racing, going on shark dives, or searching for paranormal activity as a hobby.  The type of person into these things would be someone very different than say, a character who performs random acts of kindness (advocacy & community), handles poisonous creatures (animal-related), or likes to enter eating challenges (food-related).

But then I started to think about hobbies that aren’t mainstream. This led to 3 more categories: Unusual, Disturbing, & Illegal

Now we’re cooking with gas! After all, your anti-hero, antagonist, or villain can have a hobby. It provides the same valuable opportunity to characterize them. And if that hobby gets them into trouble at the worst possible time? Even better.

Bottom Line: Hobbies Are More Than Stage Dressing!

1)  They Characterize. How someone chooses to spend their time says a lot about them. If they put their energy into a particular interest, it can show their level of intelligence, other skills or talents they possess, and even indicate what beliefs, morals, and values the character holds dear.  Does your character hunt with a rifle, or a camera? Do they collect artifacts to preserve history, or do they think forward, looking to invent the next trend, style, or big thing?

2)  They Add Dimension. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when it comes to the protagonist and the antagonist by making everything be about the goal at hand. But by paying attention to the smaller things (especially in the opening of a novel), you actually make the characters feel more human, and that makes them more accessible to readers, helping them better slip into the character’s reality. Think about it like a save the cat moment, but rather than going for likeability, you’re taking an opportunity to round the character out, showing that they have interests and passions just like anyone else.

3)  They Make Someone Seem More Real — A Work-In-Progress. It is very easy to make certain characters (like the story’s hero or heroine) super skilled so readers admire them and they will have what it takes to achieve their goal. But if we go too far, characters cease to be realistic. I mean, are you good at everything? Me neither. And readers are the same. Showing a character trying to master the learning curve (and even fail at something) shows they are just like anyone else. Becoming good at something, even a hobby, takes time.

4)  They Can Contribute To The Story.  A hobby or interest is something you can bring into the plot to further events. Maybe their hobby will factor into how they solve a big obstacle in their path: a blind neighbor they read to is the only person in a position to help the character escape an abusive marriage, or the investigative skills they’ve learned by digging up their ancestry becomes the key to finding the evidence that proves they are being framed for murder. When it comes to character building details, maximize everything.

5)  They Can Hint That Something Is Off. Hobbies can also indicate a character’s dark side. If your friendly high school math teacher surfs the dark web…why is that? Or if their interest in people-watching leads them to set up webcams in public places (and then not-so-public places) do they realize they have crossed a line? Interests can become hobbies…and hobbies can become obsessions. What happens when your character realizes they are no longer in control?

Whether you are planning a big character piece or a small one, all details should be chosen with care. Make them meaningful, not random. This is how we master subtext, show & tell, and create characters that feel human. 🙂

Does your character have a hobby? Let me know in the comments!

If you need it, you can find our One Stop for Writers Idea Generator HERE. This is a subscription site, packed with custom tools made for writers. The cost? About two lattes a month…not a bad investment, not to mention zero calories!

Posted in Basic Human Needs, Characetr Hobbies, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Traits, Character Wound, Characters, Description, Emotion, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Reader Interest, Show Don't Tell, Software and Services, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons, Writing Resources | 17 Comments

Mapping Your Story’s Setting

Benefits and Techniques for Mapping Your Story's Setting, by writing coach Sara LetourneauAs writers, we do our best to know our story’s setting as intimately as we know our characters. We can visualize the buildings, rooms, and geographic landscape. Maybe we even know the climate well enough to feel its heat or cold, driving rains, or windblown snow. But if you were actually dropped into the setting, would you be able to navigate from your protagonist’s home to another character’s – without accidentally changing direction more than once in the manuscript?

Don’t worry. Not every writer thinks of this when they begin a rough draft, much less decide on a story’s setting. However, knowing how to get around in that setting is incredibly important, for both you and your readers. So how can you keep place-related details straight and avoid making mistakes in the text? By creating a map of your setting.

This recently happened to me as I was working on my WIP, which takes place primarily on a fictional college campus. At one point, when the protagonist was walking from her dormitory to one of the academic buildings, I asked myself, “Which way does she need to walk to get there?” That prompted a host of other questions, like “What is the name of that academic building?”, “How close is the library?”, and “What does she see when she drives from her dorm to the campus’s front entrance?”.

The following night, instead of writing, I drew a campus map, with everything you’d likely find at a small college, down to the parking lots and street names. It’s no masterpiece, but I’m grateful I took the time to make it. In fact (*deep breath*), I think I’ll even share a photo of it here:

Benefits and Techniques for Mapping Your Story's Setting, by writing coach Sara Letourneau

Did I have fun making this map? You bet. But did indulging my curiosity serve a purpose? Absolutely. And if you’re writing about a fictional setting, including one inspired by a real-life location, you might want to consider mapping yours as well.

The Benefits of Mapping Your Story’s Setting

Even for writers who aren’t artistically inclined, the benefits of mapping a story’s setting outnumber (and outweigh) any drawbacks. A setting map can help you:

  • Remember the location and names of important places and objects of interest within the setting
  • Determine which way characters travel to get from Point A to Point B, as well as the distance between those points
  • Maintain consistency of names and directions in the story, and thus avoid confusing readers (and yourself)
  • Better understand the role of topographical features (or natural elements that often appear in maps, such as hills / mountains, coasts, bodies of water, and forests) in the setting
  • Make your vision of the setting more concrete, rather than keeping it all in your head

That last bullet underscores the most important reason for creating this kind of map: It makes the setting more real. By committing these details to paper, you’ve also committed to knowing the setting deeply. Then you can apply that knowledge to the story so that readers can feel like they’re driving the same roads or following the same sidewalks as your characters.

Seven Pointers for Creating a Map of Your Setting

As interesting as it might sound to draw a map of your setting, it’s important to approach the process carefully. In fact, before putting pencil to paper, you should already have an idea of what readers will find in the place you’re about to sketch. So here are the steps I took before and during my mapmaking process. Maybe this method will work for you, too.

  • Research real-life maps before you get started. First, I studied campus maps of real colleges in my local area (including my alma mater) that are about the same size in acreage and student population as my fictional college. This helped me decide how to structure my map and what features (buildings, streets, parking lots, etc.) it should include.
  • Determine the number of features. Knowing how many of each feature you’ll need can prevent unintentional overcrowding on your map. I already had a rough estimate of the college’s student population, so I used that number (as well as the statistics I’d found during my research of local colleges) to figure out a reasonable number of academic buildings, dormitories, and other structures.
  • Start small. If you’ve never created a map before, it might be overwhelming to start with a large are like a country or continent. Instead, focus on a smaller area such as a town, state, or other immediate region where the events of your story will take place. You can even draw a floor plan of a house or other building, if that’s more appropriate.
  • Gather your tools. Use pencils instead of pens, and have a pencil sharpener and a good eraser handy. That way, if you make any mistakes, they’re easy to remove. 😉 As for paper, I recommend drawing paper that’s receptive to pencil and either 11 x 14 or 14 x 17 inches in size, which allows for plenty of room to draw. You can find most of these supplies at your local arts and crafts stores.
  • Include topographic symbols, if you’re inclined. Nature is essential to the great outdoors, including the place you write about. The right natural elements in the right spots can enhance a setting’s personality, act as obstacles for characters, and reinforce its sense of realism. So consider adding symbols for trees, changes in elevation, bodies of water, etc. to your map. They don’t have to resemble actual topographic symbols found on maps. They’re simply for your reference, so use whatever works for your logic and artistic ability.
  • Create a legend for symbols and (if necessary) names. Also known as a key, this table is an ideal place for “explaining” what your map’s symbols mean. It can serve as a listing for the names of buildings, landmarks, and other highlighted areas as well. For my fictional college campus, I devised an alpha-numeric scheme (A1, B1, etc.) for labeling dormitories, academic buildings, athletic facilities, and so on directly on the map. Then I used a separate sheet of paper for my legend, where I identify the name of each building with its alpha-numeric label.
  • Let go of perfectionism. Remember, we’re not making works of art like the maps you’ll find in atlases, history books, or fantasy novels. So it’s OK if your lines aren’t straight or your erasure leaves smudge marks. What’s more important is that you’re putting in the time and effort to make this “reference document” in the first place.

Of course, if your setting is based on a real-life location, mapping that setting isn’t the same as visiting that location and familiarizing yourself with its unique features and sensory details. Creating that map, however, would be an excellent follow-up exercise to your site visit. You’d reap all of the benefits from this activity while enriching yourself, and your story, with first-hand knowledge of the place.

Regardless, the next time you’re struggling to remember certain details of your story’s setting, consider making a map of it. Don’t worry about how skilled you are at drawing. Instead, remember that this map is for your reference. Having one will help you feel more confident about your understanding of the place you’re writing about – and your ability to fully immerse your readers in the story.

NOTE: Admittedly I’m not familiar with any computer programs that create maps. But if any WHW readers are, please list them in your comments. Thank you!

Have you ever drawn a map of the setting of one of your stories? How helpful was the activity for you and your story? What other suggestions would you add? And if you’ve never mapped your story’s setting before, is it something you’d consider doing?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA/New Adult magical realism manuscript. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Setting, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Personal Assistant

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Does your character have a job as a personal assistant? Here's description on this occupation and what work they do for a celebrityOccupation: Personal Assistant (to a celebrity)

Overview: A personal assistant is required to perform a variety of duties at the whim of their employer, many of which will be industry-specific to the type of work their employer is involved in. For this entry, we will look at an assistant to a celebrity, but personal assistants may also work for politicians, diplomats, CEOs, best-selling authors, entertainment industry executives, fashion designers, royalty, professional sport personalities, leaders and important members of any industry, or any person (and often their family members) who has a great deal of wealth, power, or influence (or all three).

An assistant for a celebrity will be required to be “on call” and to perform many types of tasks (scheduling appearances, organizing events, attending to social media, collecting work-related materials, planning travel, couriering more sensitive personal documents or important items, melding the celebrity’s personal and professional calendar, and coordinating with other key personnel such as the nanny, personal trainers, hair stylists, make up artists, fashion consultants, the celebrity’s agent, etc.). Some tasks are mere errands, running from the mundane (walking the dog, shuttling the celebrity’s children, picking up their dry cleaning) to the unusual or outrageous (securing a phone number of someone the celebrity is interested in, obtaining a candy or coffee from another country, convincing a restaurant owner to open after they’ve closed for a private dinner, being a personal shopper, buying and delivering gifts (to grease the wheels and keep the celebrity’s brand strong), and even purchasing high-end items at the bequest of the celebrity (jewelry, art, vehicles, etc.).

Assistants must be fierce advocates of their employer, ensuring their every need is met whether they are at home, traveling, or getting ready to perform or be interviewed. Celebrities don’t make requests–they make demands, and each, regardless of how easy or hard it is, must be done immediately. Having a personal life is difficult as the assistant’s time is rarely their own; they run on the same professional schedule as their celebrity, attending the same events and traveling when they travel. They will carry several different phones (a primary and a back up) and be expected to respond immediately regardless of the time of day or night, and attend to every request.

Assistants can often become confidants and secret keepers, so they witness not only the high moments, but the low ones. Some may have to cover up or minimize the fallout of their celebrity’s actions, be asked to procure things that are illegal, cross personal moral lines or do things that make them uncomfortable, and perhaps even pay people off to fix problems that crop up. For this reason, assistants usually are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that forbid them from discussing their relationship with the celebrity. The strain of being constantly available and the high expectations of this job often lead to anxiety and burnout. There’s a lot of turnover despite the perks of travel, clothing allowances, access to influential people and exclusive events, along with financial compensation.

Necessary Training: While no official degree is required to become a personal assistant, connections in the industry can help one procure a job. A character seeking this type of job should have a strong command of social media, know their celebrity’s industry inside and out, have their finger on the pulse of trends and gossip within the celebrity’s realm, and be very comfortable with organizing and multi-tasking. They must also be a creative problem-solver, as some of the things they will be asked to do will require ingenuity to complete, and not coming through on a demand will lead to a very short career. Having a strong network of people who are facilitators (“I know a guy”) is key, and so the assistant must have strong connections in this area, or be willing to build a network of people quickly.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, blending in, charm, empathy, enhanced hearing, esp (clairvoyance), exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, haggling, hospitality, lip-reading, lying, making people laugh, mentalism, multitasking, photographic memory, predicting the weather, promotion, reading people, sewing, strategic thinking, swift-footedness, writing

Helpful Character Traits: Adaptable, adventurous,alert, ambitious,  bold, calm, charming, confident, cooperative, courteous, creative, decisive, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, efficient, extroverted, friendly, hospitable, imaginative, intelligent, loyal, mature, meticulous, obedient, observant, organized, patient, persuasive, proactive, professional, protective, resourceful, responsible, sophisticated, tolerant

Sources of Friction: Dealing with an impossible request, being asked to do something illegal or immoral to fulfill a request, being unfairly treated because the celebrity is upset and the assistant is “safe” to lash out at, a celebrity that crossing the line to make inappropriate advances, being blamed for something the celebrity did to save them face, being approached by another celebrity to work for them, an injury or illness that interferes with one’s ability to perform duties, discovering something disturbing about the celebrity’s friends and being asked to participate in a cover up, being forced to trade one’s personal life for the celebrity’s narcissistic needs (having to cancel an attendance of a son’s piano recital because one’s celebrity demands one remain in one’s hotel suite in case the celebrity wants food delivered when she gets back from a spa treatment).

People They Might Interact With: the celebrity’s family, agent, and friends, various other handlers or advisors (a personal trainer, nutritionist, therapist, doctors, nannies, coaches, tutors, drivers, managers, etc.), travel specialists, hotel management and staff, venue staff, green room managers, industry executives, other celebrities and their assistants, business owners and managers, a network of “professional gophers” in different countries who can procure anything one needs there, fans, club owners, fashion designers, photographers, paparazzi, artists, people of importance who run in the same circles

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character who is so caught up in this profession may never be able to take the time to pursue their own passions and dreams.
  • Love and Belonging: In this career, one’s personal life will always be sacrificed for the needs of one’s employer. Family who don’t understand the commitment needed for this career (or resent it), or a lack of personal relationships due to having no time of energy for them can cause the character to long for caring, loving relationships that include acceptance where one can be imperfect, yet still cherished and valued.
  • Safety and Security: Being closely tied to a celebrity could be dangerous as many have fans who are rabidly devoted. These fans, and those who are certified stalkers, may go to any length to obtain access or information on the celebrity, including inflict harm.

Common Work-Related Settings: airplane, airport, art gallery, ballroom, bank, bar, big city street, black-tie event, boardroom, casino, casual dining restaurant, coffeehouse, cruise ship, elevator, fitness center, flower shop, green room, hair salon, hotel room, jewelry store, kitchen, laundromat, limousine, liquor store, living room, man cave, mansion, marina, movie theater, museum, nightclub, nursery, outdoor pool, parking garage, parking lot, patio deck, penthouse suite, performing arts theater, race track (horses), ranch, recording studio, rock concert, shopping mall, ski resort, spa, sporting event stands, subway train, taxi, therapist’s office, trendy mall clothing store, tropical island, upscale hotel lobby, Vegas stage show, waiting room, wedding reception, winery,  yacht

Twisting the Stereotype:

  • personal assistants are often relatives or friends of the celebrity. Why not bring someone from the celebrity’s past who was a rival, but happens to be the best assistant in the business?
  • personal assistants are expected to get what their celebrity wants, no matter what it is and what they need to do to get it. Rather than showing your assistant as someone who will bully to get what they need, why not have someone who has another type of leverage (they are famous themselves, perhaps connected to royalty, or they know so many secrets about people in the industry no one will cross them in fear of backlash, or they simply have a way with people and are able to persuade people no matter how resistant they may be when first asked for a favor.
  • what about a personal assistant that was a celebrity who fell from grace, who is now seeking a way to get back into the business, or access to the business in order to discover who was the cause of her downfall (and to get revenge)?
Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Theme Made Simple

Let’s talk about theme, shall we? No, don’t run away. I know it can be hard to understand and even harder to do well, but theme plays such a huge part in writing a story that resonates with readers. Luckily, Daeus Lamb is here today to share a technique for incorporating theme into your story without being pedantic. 

Adding Theme to Your Story: Use this writing technique to make your story resonate with readersYou’ve read that book before. All you can say at the end is, “Wow.” The book wasn’t just entertaining, it was…powerful.

Having done your due diligence and scoured the internet to learn how to write like this, you’ve learned that the power these stories carry comes from their well-executed themes. It sounds great in theory, but theme is a scary word. To be honest, you’ve started to think that theme is a mystical force that descends upon some novels and passes over others at random.

Let’s unpack theme and discover how it is actually easy to manage once you understand the basics. Before we get carried away, let’s ground ourselves with a definition.

Theme: the moral topic that your story covers

So far, so good. We know we don’t want to be preachy, but just having a moral topic in our story doesn’t sound too frightening. Your favorite novel probably covers a moral topic.

Pro tip: don’t confuse theme and message. A theme is a moral topic, and it isn’t controversial. “Love,” for instance, could be a theme. A message is the point you make about that theme, and messages very often are controversial. More on messages in a bit…

In your novel, you’ll want to pick one main theme to focus on. Let’s say your theme is love. That’s great! Lots of stuff can happen that’s related to love. Here’s what not everybody knows though. The best novels focus their energy primarily on one aspect of their theme. The tool we use to direct our focus is called a focusing question: a moral question about one aspect of your story’s theme. This is the main question your novel is trying to answer.

Adding Theme to Your Story: Use this writing technique to make your story resonate with readers

If our theme is love, one focusing question could be, “How do you love those who ignore you?” This doesn’t restrain us from writing scenes about love in general, but it keeps our story lean and strong. As much as we’d love to write a novel that encompasses everything there is to say about love, we’d only end up writing ourselves into a tangled mess.

Now that theme has been explained, let’s talk about how to execute it well in your story.

While there are a million different little tricks to improve your theme, the basics are not hard to master. We’re going to call the basic system for creating a good theme the parable strategy. In classic parables, lessons are effectively conveyed through this very simple process.

  1. Character A acts one way (good or bad).
  2. Characters B through Z act differently.
  3. Basic cause and effect takes place and characters experience different outcomes depending on their actions.
  4. The reader examines what happened and learns a lesson.

Step one is that character A (your protagonist) acts one way. We want our character’s actions to be pertinent to our theme, so we look at our theme and focusing question. In a beautiful piece of simplicity, all we have to do is give him his own personal answer to our focusing question by which he operates in life. Our character could have many answers to the focusing question of “How do you love those who ignore you?”:

  1. Show them care without pestering them.
  2. Treat them roughly till they get the point and stop acting like a jerk.
  3. They don’t matter. Ignore them back.
  4. Pester them with attention.

These answers to the focusing question are called experiments in living. It’s the way your character chooses to act in regards to the theme. It’s them taking their personal philosophy and making their own life the guinea pig of that philosophy. We assign one of these to our protagonist, then move on to the other characters.

Why the other characters? Because we need to explore the theme from more than just one angle. Applying different philosophies to other characters allows us to show the reader how how some experiments in living work and others don’t. These different philosophies also add depth and complexity to the cast.

And now we move on to step 3. Contrary to popular belief, a message is good for your story because it ties together the theme. Only when messages are on the nose do they stink like rotten potatoes. Step three of the parable strategy allows us to deliver a message in a very natural, refreshing way. Take a look again at the four experiments in living listed above. Wouldn’t they all lead to different outcomes? Wouldn’t some outcomes be better than others?

To tie together your theme, all you have to do is let cause and effect work its magic. Let good experiments in living lead to satisfying outcomes and bad experiments in living lead to unsatisfying outcomes. At the same time, restrain yourself with a healthy dose of realism. Often, a satisfying outcome is only reached through great sacrifice and an unsatisfying ending doesn’t always mean absolute, 100% failure.

Now you’ve learned the basics of theme. I won’t lie and tell you these simple techniques will make you the next Dostoevsky. There’s more to it than that. Still, you should never tell yourself you don’t have what it takes to write a story with a great theme. Such a feat is well within your grasp.

Hopefully this tutorial has broadened your understanding of theme and how it can work. It takes practice to become adept at incorporating theme into stories, and now you have the tools to get started. Take heart, because writing a story with a great theme is now a feat within your grasp.

When Daeus was fourteen, he did something that was definitely not recommended for the faint of heart. He wrote a story. This dangerous expedition developed in him an addiction to storytelling. Since then, he may or may not have visited numerous doctors, all of whom have announced his case hopeless. Current symptoms include: locking himself in a room for hours to write, a heightened consumption of raspberries and chocolate, and becoming a psychopathic stalker of his Kindle. If you’re brave enough to check out some of Daeus’s endeavors, pick up a free copy of his book The Golden Ziggurat and take a peek at his online writing school.

Posted in Reader Interest, Theme, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 7 Comments

How to Write Introspection Well: Show “Just Enough”

september-c-fawkesNothing can quite kill a story’s pacing like a big hunk of rambling introspection, except, of course, its cousin, the info dump. The reason for this is that the more time we spend reading a character’s thoughts, the less immediacy the story has, which means the less the audience cares about it. And yet some stories have whole passages of introspection. So what gives?

Here are some tips to help you master introspection that makes your writing stronger, not weaker.

Less is More

Because beginning writers love character depth (who doesn’t?) and are trying hard to get the audience to feel close to their characters, they will often write huge chunks of introspection, especially in the opening.

In reality, writing less is more. If you truly want your audience to love your character as much as you do, you need to let them discover the character themselves—you don’t need to spoon-feed them with chunks of introspection. You need to let them come to their own conclusions about your character.

To get your audience interested in your character’s interior, you need to show them just enough. Keep it short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the character’s point. A glimpse of an interesting interior will make us want to come back, without slowing the pacing in your story so much we want to get away.

Instrospection can become boring or come across as an info dump if the writer isn't careful. Here's how to write inner thoughts well!

You can sneak in bigger chunks after we already know and care about the person. But almost never put big chunks in the story’s opening.

Look Forward, Not Back

A mistake that is easy to make is to only include introspection that looks back at something—something that happened earlier in the story, or, that really naughty thing, a flashback, and have the character relive it in his or her thoughts.

Since introspection naturally takes away immediacy, it’s often better to have your character think forward on something. What could happen. The past can’t change (unless you shift context). But the future is something we can only guess at. And having your character think forward on something can create anticipation, tension, hooks, fear, dread, or hope, and then makes the audience want to read more to see what happens.

It’s not necessarily bad to look back and sometimes you need to, but it’s problematic if you only look back. Ideally, if your character is going to look backward, see if you can connect it to something that is forward–how a past experience is going to affect an upcoming one, how a past experience makes the character fearful or hopeful of a future one.

Make It Intriguing

A chunk of introspection can hold the audience’s attention if it’s intriguing in some way. This means that the character’s thought can’t simply be a recap of something the audience already knows or read. Introspection needs to have a reason to be in the story, which usually means it needs to bring something new to the table.

While it’s common for introspection to take away from tension, because it takes away immediacy, when used well, it can actually add tension, through your character’s interpretation, perspective, and predictions. If you character is dreading something that could happen, and how it will completely unravel her world if it does–that can kick up tension.

Instrospection can become boring or come across as an info dump if the writer isn't careful. Here's how to write inner thoughts well!

Introspection can be used to create character depth, which can be intriguing–but only works if it’s something new or unusual. Rehashing what a character thinks for a full paragraph is boring if we already know what the character is naturally thinking. Rehashing isn’t depth. It’s repetition. To achieve more depth, you need to peel back your character’s layers to reach something deeper—an inner motive, thought, or feeling. And it should be interesting.

Introspection can be very intriguing when it asks thematic questions. Remember the key here is the questioning. If your character is musing about thematic answers without having considered the questions, it’s more likely to be boring. But if they are legitimately questioning something moral, ethical, thematic, or intellectual, that can stir the reader’s own mind, which makes it interesting.

Introspection can be intriguing when the character brings a new interpretation, or new context, to the story. If you need to have your character think back for a bit, one way to keep it interesting is to have them change the context and interpretation of what they are thinking back on. That gives us an interesting way to interpret the past event and it gives us more character.

In closing, when working with passages of introspection, make sure it adds value to the story, instead of taking value away.

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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Milestones that Provide a Valuable Opportunity to Look Back

So, funny story.

In January, Becca and I hit 10 years of blogging. TEN YEARS. That’s a lot of time, but also not a lot of time, because we all know time flows differently in the book business. It’s all hurry up…and wait. Repeat. Forever.

Writing, publishing, book selling…it is one crazy roller coaster ride. As much as we can sometimes hate parts of it, we also love it. Deeply.  (If not, we all would have gotten off by now, right?)

So much has changed in 10 years, including us being busy to the point where we didn’t even realize it had been 10 years. *facepalm*

That’s also something we all understand: the writing roller coaster isn’t just a maze of loops, drops, and cloud-touching peaks, it also forces a person to contort and twist constantly. Being a writer these days means thinking on the fly, mastering business skills, navigating deadlines, building a brand, and becoming a subject matter expert in many things. You need a live example of adaptability, persistence, and grit? Look at any writer who is steering their career.

Rewinding the Clock

Fact: when Becca & I started blogging at The Bookshelf Muse, we were clueless. Utterly. No idea what we were doing, no idea of where the roller coaster was leading. We just had a dream of publication.

That blog is only a landing page now because we moved everything to Writers Helping Writers. But, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I was able to find an archived version of that first welcome post.

We chose the name “Bookshelf Muse” because we liked the idea that maybe something we did could inspire writers and help them see they could succeed at this book thing we all love so much.

We started with a feature called “Thesaurus Thursday” to explore different emotions and the body language that went with them. We struggled with this and thought if others did too, it might bring some traffic our way. Our first post was “FEAR.”

(Note our “Esteemed Bookshelf Stalkers” list: 24. We were thrilled that 24 people read our blog!)

In 2012, we took a huge leap of faith and decided to turn the Emotion Thesaurus on our blog into a book. *whispers* A self-published book. We did it because people were pirating our content and selling it. Plus, we felt that a) traditional publishing probably wasn’t ready for a “book” made of lists, b) finding a publisher willing to take on two newbies to teach others about writing was unlikely and c) it would take too long to publish. The industry had a pretty negative attitude toward SP back then, and we knew we were half-crazy to do it, but we uploaded the book anyway.

Our hope, factoring in the long tail of self-publishing, was it might sell 50,000 copies in its lifetime. That would put us over the moon.

Never did we imagine it would become a staple for writers, or be used in university programs or analyzed in thesis papers. Never did we fathom it would be translated into 5 other languages or lead to a series of 6 books. We never thought it would also kick off an entire website filled with tools we helped to design so writers could write stronger fiction faster than ever.

Something else happened in January, another milestone that still hasn’t quite sunk in.

We sold our 300,000th book. (About 180,000 of those are The Emotion Thesaurus.)

Ten years ago, we were two writers grappling with how to get our fiction published. We were trying not to make utter fools of ourselves by blogging. We had 3 comments on our first emotion thesaurus post.

We never could have imagined this. Our gratitude to you, our supporters, champions, biggest believers…off the charts. We have no words (oh, the irony for two thesaurus-makers!).

But this post is more than a thank you…it’s a message, too. 

Don’t get caught up in where you are (or aren’t) right now, or how steep the roller coaster incline is ahead of you.

BECAUSE YOU

(ABSOLUTELY, UNEQUIVOCALLY!)

HAVE GOT THIS.

We believe in you. Always have, always will. 🙂

To celebrate these January milestones, Becca and I are giving away signed copies of all our books and a few other fun things also. This giveaway is internationally open to all who can legally enter giveaways.

To shake things up a bit, we’re going to draw winners from our newsletter subscriber list. If you subscribe, boom, you’re in the draw! If you haven’t yet and would like to, just go here. Our newsletters are packed with great links and neat things we have found that will help you and your writing. Plus, you’ll always be the first to know what we’re tackling next. 🙂

Thanks for joining us in our first ten years. We hope you’ll stick around for the next ten, too. 🙂

Posted in About Us, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Foreign Rights, Goal and Milestones, Motivational, One Stop For Writers, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Publishing and Self Publishing, Sales Numbers & Helpful Data, Setting Thesaurus Guides, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 39 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Funeral Director

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Character Occupation Thesaurus: Fumeral Director; Remember to give your character a job that will characterize them, deepening your story and the reader's connection to them.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Funeral Director

Overview: Funeral directors oversee end-of-life preparations (either to pre-plan a funeral, or after death) and will have a variety of responsibilities including body pick-up, preparing legal documentation, working with surviving family members to arrange for funeral services (the burial and cremations arrangements, casket and flower arrangement options, music and slideshow options, attending to the obituary and creating pamphlets for the service, transportation, etc.). A director also coordinates with a church and minister (if used), volunteers, caterers, florists, and any other agencies required. They also oversee the funeral service itself, ensuring everything is run according to the wishes of the deceased and their family.

Often the funeral director will also prepare the body itself, attending to storage, embalming, body preparation (dressing and appearance), and cremation (if it is requested). If so, the director may be called an embalmer or mortician.

This profession requires a special sort of person, someone who is not only comfortable with death but also highly empathetic. They must have a strong work ethic and be able to handle long hours and an unfixed schedule. Death isn’t 9-5, and people working in this industry can receive call outs for body pickups at any time of the day or night, seven days a week.  Funeral directors often miss out on family outings, birthdays, and special events because duty calls, and so if they have a family, the support and understanding of its members regarding the job is imperative.

Necessary Training: Required education may vary depending on the state or location one practices in, so if this factors into your story in a real-world locale, do some research for that area. In general though,  most directors will have an associate degree in mortuary science, if not a batchlor’s degree. A funeral director also needs a license to practice in the state they work in. Directors must also be educated in the legal aspects of body preparation and follow strict guidelines and procedures, not only for the forms to be filled out (death certificates, etc.) but also in the case of chain of evidence situations so that any legal proceedings can move forward seamlessly.

Funeral directors also require “soft skills” to work well with those who have lost loved ones. To offer genuine support in a difficult time, a director should be compassionate, a good communicator, and have strong patience. Grieving people may struggle with decision-making and memory recall, or may change their minds frequently because they are in a very emotional state so being able to navigate this and remain calm and supportive is essential.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Basic first aid, blending in, empathy, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, hospitality, multitasking, sculpting, sewing, talking with the dead, time management, cosmetology

Helpful Character Traits: calm, centered, courteous, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, efficient, empathetic, focused, honorable, hospitable, independent, industrious, kind, mature, meticulous, nurturing, obedient, organized, patient, persuasive, professional, proper, responsible, spiritual, supportive

Sources of Friction: a difficult body collection (the body of a child, a loved-one, or someone who died in a very horrible manner, a person who is the same age or is similar on some way to the director), conflict between relatives over funeral arrangements, a break in the chain-of-custody, making preparations for those who have no one to make their arrangements, struggling to have a work-life balance, balancing the mental and emotional toll of one’s work, family members who are not understanding of the pressures of one’s work, social prejudices against one’s career, missing instructions or paperwork accompanying a body, theft of a body or items with the body (such as jewelry), employee misconduct, families who refuse to pay, problems during the funeral, misprints in a obituary or on a death certificate, being short-staffed, equipment malfunctions, a body being cremated by mistake

People They Might Interact With: grieving family members, church management, volunteers, pastors and ministers, florists, caterers, community hall organizers and staff, representatives from the military (the the deceased was in service) or a specific church organization (if one held a position within the organization) who play a role within the service, police investigators, coroners, repairmen, delivery people, employees

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: If a character is in this profession because it is a family business, they may feel it is an obligation career that holds them back from things they might find fulfilling (pursuing higher education, following a passion that requires time and energy they don’t have, giving back through volunteerism, etc.)
  • Love and Belonging: A character in this industry may struggle to find and maintain loving relationships due to the demands of the job and the stigma that comes with this type of work.
  • Safety and Security: A character could fine themselves caught up in a dangerous situation if they are working on a high-profile client (a criminal, a mobster, or a person of interest in a federal investigation).

Common Work-Related Settings: car accident, cheap motel, church, community center, construction site, courtroom, flower shop, funeral home, hospital (interior), hospital room, house fire, morgue, nursing home, parking garage, parking lot, police station, underpass, waiting room, wake

Twisting the Stereotype:

  • Morticians are often portrayed by men, so why not assign this profession to a woman?
  • Rather than dour and somber, show your mortician character as an extroverted, exuberant personality with a great sense of humor
  • People in this profession are very comfortable around death…but what if your character wasn’t? What emotional wound, fear, or reason could he or she have for being in this industry?
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Characters As Mirrors

Make Your Characters a Mirror of Real Life: choose character traits, story goals, fears, and basic human needs to make your characters relatableI’ve been thinking lately about something that Angela and I touch on in all of our books: The Mirror of Real Life. It’s this idea that something in our stories is like a mirror for readers that reflects back to them something of themselves. When we portray the character as this mirror, it draws readers in and encourages empathy because they recognize a commonality with the character.

In today’s world, where there are roughly a gajillion books your readers could be buying, it’s super important to pull readers into YOUR story. You want them staying up way too late finishing your books, thinking about them after they’re done and running to the computer to see when the next in the series is coming out. While there are a number of ways to encourage this fascination, one of the strongest methods is by writing characters that resonate with readers on a personal level. So I want to talk today about common elements that, when applied to our characters, increase our chances of engaging readers.

Fears

I’m not talking about surface phobias like Brussels sprouts and spiders (though, please, both are icky). I’m talking about deep-seated, debilitating, life-altering fears: rejection, failure, betrayal, physical harm, the death of a loved one. These fears are so great that they become drivers for our behavior, leading us to do and not do things that we believe will keep these painful events from happening. Inflicting these on our characters is cruel and probably makes us as authors horrible people, but they do serve a solid storytelling purpose: they tap into common experiences that readers understand. When readers see the character struggling with a familiar fear, a connection is forged, and empathy is born.

Make Your Characters a Mirror of Real Life: choose character traits, story goals, fears, and basic human needs to make your characters relatable

Traits

There are many contributors to the formation of a character’s positive and negative traits. Fears can be a factor: Mom is proactive, observant, overprotective, or paranoid because she’s afraid something will happen to her kids; Joe worries about rejection, so he tends to be withdrawn, abrasive, or cautious. Upbringing can be instrumental, along with the caregivers who raised the character, positive experiences and successes they’ve had, their ethics and values—even genetics can play a part.

Regardless of their origin, when a character’s dominant traits mirror those of the reader or people in the reader’s life, the character becomes more interesting. Traits like stubbornness, optimism, fairness, and impulsivity act as tags that say, “Hey! This guy’s just like me, or Grandma, or that jerk kid who lived down the road who used to shoot me with his BB gun.” Giving your character flaws and attributes that are common to the human experience can be the most straightforward way to bridge the gap between readers and your cast.

Human Needs

Make Your Characters a Mirror of Real Life: choose character traits, story goals, fears, and basic human needs to make your characters relatableThis one takes us back to Psychology 101 (which is farther back for some of us than others) and good ol’ Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The premise of this theory is that there are five basic categories of needs that all people must have in order to be wholly realized. When one of these is missing, we become compelled to fill that void, and we do this through adopting new habits, thought patterns, and beliefs that align with that purpose. These needs are universal, meaning that even on a subconscious level, we all share them. So, for example, when readers see a character whose safety and security has been compromised, they understand what that’s like and why it’s so important for the character to get it back. Boom! Connection.

Story Goals

And how does the character regain that missing need in their life? Through an overall goal. To paraphrase Michael Hauge in Writing Screenplays That Sell, every plausible story idea can be explained with a simple formula:

It’s a story about A (the protagonist) who wants B (the story goal) because Y (the missing need that will be filled through the accomplishment of that goal).

Getting the girl, escaping an alien invasion, winning the court case, avenging oneself—we see the same goals repeated from one story to another because they’re tried and true ways that missing needs can be met. Why does he need to get the girl? Because he’s missing love and belonging. Why does she want to win the court case? Because it will provide the esteem she’s been lacking for so long.

Story goals resonate with readers on two levels. First, they’re goals the reader personally has pursued or have seen others pursue. Secondly, they recognize, often subconsciously, that achieving that goal will fill the need; they know that getting B is vital to the character’s happiness and success, and they want the character to win. Give your character an overall goal that not only makes sense for the story but also meets that internal need, and you’ll increase the chances that your reader will relate to the character.

Self-Growth

We may not verbalize it often, but we all are on a journey in this life to improve ourselves. We don’t want to be the same people ten years from now that we were yesterday, and we all hope to leave the world a better place than it was when we found it. When readers see characters on this journey of discovery and self-growth, they get it. They’ve been there. And they want the character to succeed because if the character can do it, then there’s hope for them too.

Emotional Wounds

I saved this one for last because, when it comes to mirroring real life, nothing has the impact of an emotional wound. We’ve all experienced terrible things in our lives—singular events or repeated situations that were so emotionally and/or physically painful that we don’t want to ever go through them again. Readers can relate to those experiences and their devastating effects. As a matter of fact, when you take the effort to explore your character’s backstory and unearth this formative event, it enables you to incorporate all of the aforementioned elements, resulting in a character that reads as true-to-life and utterly relateable. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

Something awful happens to your character (emotional wound). They become afraid that it or something similar to it will happen again (fear). So they adopt emotional shielding to keep them safe in the form of new characteristics (traits), behaviors, and false beliefs about themselves or the world. But instead of protecting them, this shielding ends up creating other problems, such as keeping others at a distance or limiting their ability to successfully do what they love (human need). To fill the void, they either knowingly or unknowingly set out to accomplish something (story goal) that they believe will meet that need. But they’re unable to succeed because the wound is hobbling them, holding them back. It’s not until the character is able to face that wounding event and come to grips with it (self-growth) that they can distance themselves from the past and move forward into the future.

Basically, the wound is the Alpha and Omega of reader-character relatability. It supplies the starting, middle, and end points for a story structure and character arc that will offer many opportunities for readers to see themselves in the protagonist and the story. And once readers care about your character, they’re going to want to keep reading to see if he or she overcomes.

Posted in Basic Human Needs, Character Wound, Characters, Motivation | 9 Comments

Writing By Design Part 2: Pattern and Repetition

In my previous installment, I introduced you to writing by design and how you can use techniques from the visual arts to inform your writing. In particular, we looked at the concept of space and how the finite nature of it can affect your writing.

Today we turn our attention to the design elements that help us navigate space—pattern and repetition. In design, patterns help achieve visual harmony and repetition establishes what the patterns are in the first place. But there is a more subtle element at play, and this has to do with the psychology of expectation.

Tension and Expectation

There is a whole body of psychological research that examines what happens physiologically, cognitively, and emotionally when people expect one thing and the outcome turns out to be different. A lot of this research centers around music and the tension that occurs when we expect the tune to go one way and it instead goes in a different direction.

Use techniques in design to weave into your fiction, creating compelling storytelling that will pull readers in deeply. In design terms, when we talk about tension it usually means that something in the design is off-balance or out of whack. For example, when two objects almost overlap (but don’t) or when a layout is almost centered (but not quite), it creates visual tension. This tension occurs because visually we expect the objects to overlap and the layout to be centered, so when it’s just a little bit off, the design overturns those expectations.

This ties to what psychology researchers refer to as the tension-expectation theory. This is the idea that when we have certain expectations and those expectations are not met (or are broken), we experience tension. Musicians and designers have been talking about tension and balance for decades, but more recent research has shown similar findings in other contexts, like in storytelling and literature.

It makes total sense that this tension-expectation theory would also apply to writing. Think about it: when we craft a story, we establish a level of trust with readers and set the “ground rules” for how the narrative will play out. A little bit of tension—unexpected surprises and plot twists—hooks readers and helps keep them turning pages.

But shattering that trust altogether could backfire. This is why we usually try to avoid drastic changes, like switching protagonists or using a totally new point-of-view, once we’re far into the story. Of course, we can always “break the rules” for effect, but as writers we need to remember that when we set certain expectations, breaking them will create tension for our readers.

Rule of Three

One of the best tools that allows us to play with this idea of tension and expectation is the rule of three. The rule of three is a sequence containing three similar elements. These can be characters, objects, even events in the story. The key is that the first two elements in the sequence set up a pattern, an expectation for what the third element will be, but the third element breaks that pattern.

Use techniques in design to weave into your fiction, creating compelling storytelling that will pull readers in deeply. The classic rule of three example, of course, is in the fable of the three little pigs. In this case, the whole story is one gigantic rule of three. All three pigs build houses, but they each use different materials: straw, sticks, and bricks. When the wolf comes, he blows down the first two houses easily, but the house of bricks stands firm.

Another great example of the rule of is the movie The Wizard of Oz. This time the rule of three plays out in the new friends Dorothy meets on the road to Oz: Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion. The first two are similar in that they’re humanoid but are not actually living creatures. We know this because when they cross the poppy field, Scarecrow and Tin Man are unaffected by the Wicked Witch’s sleeping spell. Lion, on the other hand, is a living creature and we get the sense that he is a little bit different from the other two. After all, he gets his very own extra song about being king of the jungle that he sings when they’re waiting for an audience with the Wizard.

The reason the rule three works is twofold. First, it’s concise. Three is the smallest number possible where you can both establish and break a pattern in one fell swoop. But there’s another wrinkle to this rule: it’s ingrained in our collective consciousness. We almost expect the third element of a sequence to be a twist on the first two.

Of course, the minute your audience comes to expect a twist or surprise, it stops being surprising. As writers we constantly have to walk that fine line between stretching our readers’ expectations without completely shattering their trust. As you look at your own writing, ask yourself: What patterns am I creating? Some patterns are necessary because they give your story structure and stability. Other patterns might pigeon-hole your story and you may need to shake them up.

If that’s the case… take a note from Taylor Swift and “shake shake shake.”

So far in this series, we’ve covered two design elements: space and pattern. In upcoming posts, I’ll dive into two other aspects of writing by design: light and color theory. Stay tuned because there are so many more juicy techniques we can learn from design and apply to our writing.

Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She is also a speaker, podcast host for DIY MFA Radio, and author of the forthcoming book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, July 2016). Join the word nerd community at DIYMFA.com/join.

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Posted in Experiments, Reader Interest, Reading, Resident Writing Coach, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Lessons | 8 Comments

Character Occupation Entry: Taxidermist

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Use charater occupations to show readers who they really are. This type of characterization gives them deeper layers and shows personality and skills. Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Taxidermist

Overview: Taxidermists are trained in the art of animal preservation, restoring a variety of animals to a lifelike state, drawing out their original beauty and strength. Taxidermists often have specialties, which may include pets, fish, reptiles, birds, small animals, or large game. They may have a small shop where they handle pets and local wildlife, or may focus more on animal trophies (either in an area where many hunter frequent, or as more of a commercial operation that deals in exotic animals). A few highly skilled taxidermists also work with natural history museums, creating displays used for educational purposes and repairing items already in the collection.

Taxidermists are both male and female and view their profession as artistic. Most are very passionate about recreating the breath of life through their work. It requires a certain artistic eye and attention to detail as certain aspects of the animal must be incorporated in the preservation, such as an accurate account of muscles in movement so this can be recreated in death. Some practitioners in this field will take on any job that they feel skilled to handle as work can be sporadic or revolve around hunting seasons, while others have ethical boundaries and so they avoid certain jobs (such as preserving endangered animals or those shot for sport). They take a great deal of pride in their work.

Overall, taxidermists see a variety of clients—hunters looking to obtain trophies, pet lovers struggling to release an animal companion, and people who find dead animals and want to preserve the beauty of their forms.

Necessary Training: There are several certificate and diploma programs for this field but a degree is not necessary. Courses cover anatomy, interpreting reference material, and the mounting techniques, processes, and tool handling required to prepare carcasses. Students also learn how to treat and tan skins, feathers and furs, how to create habitat construction, work with forms, as well as become proficient in air brushing and other finishing procedures. Often people get their start by apprenticing under a licensed taxidermist, learning on the job and taking classes as they need them or to specialize in a particular area.

A person is required to have a license to practice, they may need special permits to work with migratory birds or endangered species, and they must abide by regulations set by fish and wildlife. The exact licenses or permits may vary depending on the location of your taxidermist, so if this factors into the story set in a real-world location, make sure to do your research.

A great deal of research into an animal is needed to understand their structure and movement to ensure a lifelike end product. Taxidermists usually have an impressive collection of reference books, pictures, and videos to help them with the shaping of subjects that they work on. If they own their own businesses, some skills in management and accounting is also needed to manage accounts, pay bills, and balance the books.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: a way with animals, carpentry, empathy, multitasking, photographic memory, repurposing, sculpting, sewing, strategic thinking

Helpful Character Traits: calm, cautious, centered, creative, focused, imaginative, independent, nature-focused, observant, resourceful, talented, thrifty

Sources of Friction: clients who don’t pay or who have impossible demands, being asked to prepare an animal that was an illegal kill, people who discriminate against one for the type of work one does, having difficulties keeping a seasonal business afloat, being asked to work on animal when one has ethical concerns, making a mistake when preparing an animal that causes it to be misshapen or ruined in some way, a break-in

People They Might Interact With: neighbors, hunters, wildlife officers, commercial agencies, delivery people, locals

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character who sees this career as their life’s work as a way to honor the dead by giving them beauty in death would be devastated if an accident or illness damaged their ability in some way (the steadiness of their hands, vision problems, etc.)
  • Esteem and Recognition: Characters in this job may struggle to be given the recognition they deserve for their artistry because many view it as a morbid practice, not a creative pursuit
  • Love and Belonging: Building loving relationships with a romantic partner may be an obstacle as potential partners could be turned off by this type of profession

Common Work-Related Settings: basement, bookstore, garage, hardware store, taxidermist, workshop

Twisting the Stereotype:

  • Taxidermists are often men, so choosing a woman might be a way to freshen this profession
  • A taxidermist who was especially known for taking on taboo projects (displaying animals in a way that depicts cruelty, not compassion…or even using human subjects) might also be an interesting alternative
  • How about a taxidermist who uses this career as a way to build his own private collection…that would cause a lot of embarrassment or even legal action if discovered?
  • A taxidermist known for creating humor with his subjects (dressing up animals in human clothing, hats, and props, or creating diorama habitats where the animal is drinking with friends, playing cards, betting on a horse-race or other fun, ironic, or even poignant scenarios) might create sought after collector pieces.  This might “soften” the attitude people have toward this profession so they see it in a more creative and “art-like” light.
Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments