Kids and the Decline of Reading, Part 2: What We Can Do As Authors

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In case you missed it, I posted last week about the decline of reading among kids (particularly teens), and how we could head that off at home. Some good ideas were generated, and I came away from the discussion with a particularly encouraging bit of news: many of you said that while your kids did stray from reading during the teen years, those who loved reading as a child often came back to it as an adult. That was good to hear.

So, as was mentioned in that post, if we want our kids to love reading, there are some things we can do at home to encourage that. But as authors—as the ones writing the books that we want our kids to eventually read—we also have a vested interest in this issue. Here are some steps we can take in that direction:

1. Write the books that excite us. When we write with passion, it comes through in the finished product. Being excited about our work drives us to keep at it, do it better, and make the end result awesome. If we want to provide kids with books that are exciting and full of life, we need to write the stories that excite us. As with any art form, passion translates well into the written word; it will come through in our stories.

2. Write the books that kids want to read. I know, I just said to write the book that you want to write. And it’s all well and good to be jazzed about a given topic; if you’re excited to write about Jar Jar Binks’ favorite snack foods, then by all means, go for it. Written well enough, there’s a market for just about anything. But if we want to engage kids, our best chance is to combine our passion with the kinds of books that kids want to read. Talk to librarians. Talk to classroom teachers. Better yet, talk to the kids themselves. What topics hold their interest? Which books are their favorites, and why? What kinds of books would they like to see on their library shelves? If you can learn what kids are looking for, you just might hear something that gets you all worked up, enabling you to write a book that kids want to read AND one that you’re excited about. The best of both worlds.

Sidebar: One thing that most kids like? Humor. According to a recent Scholastic Reading Report, 70% of kids want books that make them laugh. Also high on the list: books that tell a made-up story, allow them to use their imaginations, contain the kind of characters that kids emulate, teach them something new, or provide a mystery or problem to solve.

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3. When possible, provide ways for teachers to use your books in the classroom. One of the big issues discussed in the comments of last week’s post was the required reading in classrooms and how the books themselves were turning kids off of reading. If we don’t like the kinds of books that are being used in classrooms, we need to be writing the books that teachers can use, and making it convenient for educators to use them.

Donna Gephart writes funny, contemporary middle-grade books that aren’t the typical required reading in classrooms, but she provides reading and activity guides for all of her books so teachers have ready-made lesson plan options for kids who read them. And teachers are using them. Another example is author Christina Farley, who recently spoke at a school in Seoul where Gilded, her young adult contemporary fantasy, had been read by the entire 8th grade class. Christina also provides Unit Study Guides and Common Core Educator’s Guides for her books, making it easy and appealing for teachers to use her books in the classroom.

Most teachers are actively seeking materials that will engage their students while helping them meet core criteria. After you’ve written a great book, be sure to provide materials for teachers, making it convenient and easy to incorporate those books into their lesson plans.

4. Provide books in kid-friendly formats. We know that the average teen is addicted to his/her phone and uses it for much more than its original purpose; kids use them to watch movies and TV shows, play games, view YouTube videos—all pleasure activities that are easy to do on the phone because the phone is always with them. While most kids still prefer print books, it’s my belief that digital books are going to increase in popularity simply because reading them is one more thing that can be done on a phone or tablet. Again, it’s about convenience for the consumer. Whenever possible, we should be reaching kids on their level and making books available in whatever format they’re most inclined to use.

5. If you’re a published author, engage in school visits. While it’s likely that teachers and many of their parents are trying to get kids to read, author visits introduce students to yet another human being who sees reading as valuable. It’s one more person saying, “Hey, this is important!” It reinforces what is hopefully already being taught. And it gives kids insight into not only the writing process but a viable career option that they may not have considered—one in which they might become authors who help to encourage the next generation of kids to read.

So those are my grand ideas for solving the problem of kids who aren’t so interested in reading. Problem solved ;). Seriously, you all offered some great advice last week on how to address this problem at home. What else can we do as authors?

Posted in MG & Kidlit, Reading | 4 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Enhanced Sense of Smell

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. 

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Pixabay

Description: Being able to detect even trace amounts of odors and identify them. 

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: Good sinus health, a strong memory, past exposure to many different scents

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: curiosity, focus, observant, aware, tolerant, adventurous, nosy, perfectionistic

Required Resources and Training: There are two parts to having a strong sense of smell: being able to detect scents, and being able to identify them. When it comes to being able to smell different odors, people are usually born strong or weak in this area. Someone wishing to strengthen their sniffer could do so through focused practice, but only to a certain degree. If a person is able to detect many smells, identifying them becomes a matter of exposing oneself to a variety of odors and remembering them so they can be recalled when a scent arises.

Associated Stereotypes: People who can smell things really well are often the ones with the largest noses. And they’re audibly sniffing; everywhere they go, other people can hear them constantly scenting the air.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • When a toxic element is in the environment
  • When someone is about to be poisoned
  • When an item or person has gone missing and must be tracked
  • At a crime scene
  • When a catastrophe or apocalypse is coming and the event is preceded by changes that can be detected with the sense of smell
  • When someone needs to solve a mystery
  • When a chef needs to identify the ingredients in a dish
  • When identifying edible plants in the wild
  • When it’s necessary to identify people by their perfume, shampoo, or other smells

Resources for Further Information:

How to Sharpen Your Sense of Smell

Improve Your Sense of Smell Without Using Your Nose

Quiz: Facts About the Sense of Smell

Related Talents and Skills:  Enhanced Taste Buds

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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Kids and the Decline of Reading, Part 1: What We Can Do At Home

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Courtesy: Pixabay

As a mother of a 5- and 6-year-old, I’m always curious about reading trends in the kid world, and how to get children to like reading. I know that reading is on the decline with kids, but I was still slightly appalled to hear about this conversation between my husband and one of the teenaged employees at his quick-service restaurant:

Employee: Has anyone seen The Maze Runner? Is it any good?

Husband: It was pretty good. But you should read the book. It was awesome.

Employee: Why would I read the book when I can just go see the movie?

Husband: Because the book is almost always better than the movie.

Employee: *rolls eyes* Only old people say that.

This struck me to the heart—like a failing pacemaker, I presume, since I’m apparently OLD. Maybe it was the way she said it: very nonchalant, like her viewpoint on the subject was beyond commonplace and she couldn’t believe that adults couldn’t get up to speed on the fact that reading is a last resort for teens.

Maybe it shocked me because just a week before, we had finished an extended family lunch, and when the kids disappeared to do their own things, my thirteen-year-old neice retired to the couch for a bit of texting. Totally nothing wrong with that. Completely natural for a teenager to dash for the phone upon being released from a dinner with the old farts. But I couldn’t help thinking that if that had been me however many years ago, I would have been curled up with a book. And it made me sad. I want my kids to have the same happy experiences with books that I did, and with the advance of technology, that’s becoming less and less likely.

And then, to add insult to mortal injury, I found this dreadful little pictograph at Jane Friedman’s blog (it’s at the top of the post, so you can click over to view it); it shows how books rate in comparison to other interests for kids. As you can see, reading is at the top of most kids’ radar through age 10, after which point it makes a sharp dive until the age of 14, when books don’t even make the top 8.

Maybe I’m the only one, but this FLOORED ME. I think that, despite many conversations on this topic, authors don’t always recognize how widespread and real the disparity is becoming between kids and books. As writers, most of us love to read, and we hang out with people who love to read, and we’re all on a mission to instill a love of reading in our kids, so many of our kids and our friends’ kids like to read. So when we hear about the declining interest in books among teens, we’re all, Oh, that’s awful. But we don’t realize how true it is because we see information to the contrary within our own little authorial bubbles, where books are a huge priority. We don’t really get what it’s like for the rest of the world.

Well, now I get it.

And the question becomes: how do we reverse the decline?

For me, I think the answer is two-pronged, consisting of what we can do at home and what we can do in the industry. This post is already dragging on long enough to turn off avid readers, so today I’m going to address the first point and come back to the second part another time. I’d like to start by sharing some of my personal ideas for raising the value of books and reading at home (or at school). This is a very short, very individualized list of things that have worked for me, so I’m really hoping that you all will add to my ideas in the comments section.

1. Make Reading a Desirable Activity. These days, kids have a lot of choices about how to spend their free time. If they view reading as something boring, it’s always going to be low on their priority list. So come up with ways to make reading a desirable option. My daughter is six, and while she reads well, it’s not her favorite thing to do; she’s incredibly people-oriented and will always choose a social activity over a solitary one, so I’ve had to come up with some underhanded unique ways to get her to read. One thing that has worked really well? I pushed back her bedtime and declared those 15 minutes to be “Reading Time”. She can read during that time, or, if she chooses not to, then she can go to sleep. You can guess what she picks. Now, every night, she reads for at least 15 minutes—sometimes more, if she’s really into her book and it’s not too late. Other ideas I’ve seen is to put books in places where kids spend a lot of time, like the bathroom and the car. Make reading the best possible choice, and they might do it more often.

2. Limit Other Activities. Now, I’m not saying that you throw the phone in the trash, because we don’t want to inadvertently spawn THE APOCALYPSE. But if our kids have access to electronics 24/7, they’re going to use them. And the likelihood of them doing  anything else is small. It’s perfectly healthy to implement some electronics-free times or zones where electronics aren’t allowed (unless, of course, they’re being used to read a book). I think we would all be surprised what stimulating, creative, and quality activities kids take part in when phones and tablets aren’t an option. Reading might even be one of them.

3. Read Aloud to Them. I won’t belabor this point, since it’s long been lauded as the #1 way to encourage kids to read. But it’s true. If you want your kids to like books and they’re not old enough or interested enough to read them on their own, read to them. It’s still a great idea when your kids are older, because it enables you to learn which kinds of books they might be most interested in reading.

4. Discuss Books. This point kind of goes along with the last one in that when you discuss a book you’ve read with your child, or a book she’s read on her own, it elevates its value. A book is no longer something that you read to simply say that you read it; it has meaning and messages. It means different things to different people. In today’s technological world, kids are anatomically attached to their phones; connectedness—having access to other people 100% of the time—is a priority for them. Talking about books and stories can be a great way of connecting with your kids and turning a solitary activity into a social one.

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My latest haul from the library. 

5. Provide Kids With a Variety of Books. I love to read, but I don’t like to read everything. If you told me how awesome reading was and only gave me contemporary fiction, I would probably choose to sleep rather than read. This is one of the main problems I see with the reading programs in school. Kids are often taught to read using boring basal readers and group story books. In middle and high school, they’re forced to read books that they see as outdated and irrelevant, or books that are incredibly hard to understand. And we wonder why they don’t want to read.

Now, allow me to disclaim. I taught school for ten years, so I value what teachers do and I understand the importance of the classics. They teach students many valuable things, but, in most cases, they don’t teach them to love reading. One of the best ways to do that is to provide kids with the kinds of books that they like. If they don’t know which books those are, help them by exposing them to a variety of genres and styles. Get eclectic at the library or bookstore. Bring home books that cover your kid’s favorite hobbies or interests. Try different formats: novels, graphic novels, comic books, nonfiction, and biographies. My son is five and can only read the most basic of books on his own, but we’re reading our way through a Superman sticker book together, and I’m always ready to stop before he is. Explore the different kinds of books out there until you find something your kids love. Then drain that well dry.

6, Model Reading. This is another idea that has been praised to the point of Well, duh. As a teacher, as a mother, I’ve always known that if I want my kids to like reading, they need to see ME reading, see that I enjoy books and value them. I never imagined this being a problem, since reading has always been my #1 leisure activity. But, ironically, things changed when I had kids. Suddenly, I had no time for ANY leisure activities. Reading is the one thing I’ve held onto, but I’m only able to do it before bedtime. As a result, my kids don’t ever see me reading. When I realized this, I made it a priority to sit down at least once a day and read. In car line with my son, at home on the couch, at the park while my kids are playing—even if it’s just for ten minutes, if they can see that I’d rather read than check Facebook or crush candies or watch TV, then it becomes an activity that has value. And they’ll be more likely to explore it for themselves.

These are just a few of the things I’m doing to try and show my kids that reading is fun and books are important. But, honestly, they’re 5 and 6. I’ve heard a lot of stories from parents about how their kids loved books at this age but wouldn’t be caught dead reading for pleasure as a teen. This is an important issue for me, so I’d really love to hear your ideas on how you encourage reading, particularly as they apply to older kids.

Posted in MG & Kidlit, Reading, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Character Talents and Skills: Talking with the Dead

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. 

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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. 

TALKING WITH THE DEAD

Description: the ability to communicate with those who have passed on, and if asked, convey messages between the living and dead

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: being a qualified medium (having the ability to tune into the specific spirit energy of a person to see the past, present and future) or having strong psychic and/or intuitive abilities, living a clean lifestyle to become more receptive to spiritual energy, having control over one’s fears, having strong meditation skills, being able to protect or replenish one’s own energy to avoid being drained by others, being educated in psychology to better council any who are tormented after the passing of a loved one and who are seeking reassurances or closure through this type of communication

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: compassion, empathy, intuitive, focused, relaxed, intelligent, intrepid, protective, helpful, honest

Required Resources and Training: while a certain amount of this ability would come from a natural talent, learning how to focus that talent would likely require a mentor (another medium) who could guide the character in learning meditation and focusing skills. A quiet environment (a place of peace) would help one learn this focus and how to let go of any emotions that might cloud one’s ability and disrupt the connection between the living and dead. A psychic may choose to use a specific communication method that would also need to be learned and practiced (ball gazing, card reading, palmistry, reading a haunted object, etc.)

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions:

  • Some believe that mediums and psychics are real, others do not. Of those that do, it is widely accepted that while true mediums exist, so do frauds

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • speaking with past generations to collect their knowledge
  • having the deceased’s help regarding an event that caused great disruption (a king who died under mysterious circumstances, finding the location of an important document or will, or getting details from a girl who was kidnapped and murdered to find her body or track down her killer, etc.)
  • personal guidance in spiritual matters and gaining insight on what will come after death
  • helping to rid a person or place of malevolent spirits
  • offering loved ones closure by being able to convey messages between the living and dead

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: PeterDargatz @Pixabay

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Critiques 4 U! March Edition

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CONTEST CLOSED!

I hope that Spring is springing wherever you are. This winter has been a hard one for many, so I’ll refrain from complaining about how the air has been on in my house for two weeks now and our eight-month Summer has already begun. No one wants to hear that. Least of all me.

What you DO want to hear is that IT’S CRITIQUE TIME again! If you’re working on a first page and would like some objective feedback, leave a comment that includes: 

1) your email address

2) the working title of your WIP

3) its genre (no erotica, please)

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | 59 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Herbalism

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. 

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Courtesy: Pixabay

Description: Using herbs and plants to maintain health and cure ills.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: Basic knowledge of botany and biology; being able to forage and find the plants that one needs

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, analytical, nature-focused, intelligent, objective, resourceful, studious

Required Resources and Training: Before modern doctors and medicine, herbalism was often the only medical resource available to the general public. Aspiring herbalists would be apprenticed to masters who taught them about the different kinds of plants and their properties. Less formal training methods would involve a student learning at the hand of a parent or neighbor. Today, herbal medicine is making a comeback as part of the alternative medicine movement, and much information is available for anyone wishing to educate themselves in this area in the form of books, online articles, coursework, and apprenticeships.

Associated Stereotypes: wise old women, midwives, medicine men, shamans, quacks

Associated Perceptions: In past times, when herbalism was common, those with medicinal knowledge of herbs and plants were considered wise and beneficent. Today, in many advanced cultures, herbalism is often seen as quackery, and those who practice it are viewed as ignorant and uneducated, since much of herbalism isn’t based on scientific evidence. Those who embrace it often do so out of a growing distaste for current medicinal practices and a desire to return to a more natural method of healing.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • In a fictional society where healers aren’t readily available to the general public
  • In a fictional society where plants have both medicinal and magical properties
  • In the past
  • In a post-apocalyptic scenario
  • When someone is isolated or alienated from society
  • When someone is injured or falls ill on a camping or hiking trip
  • When someone becomes gravely ill and known medicine techniques have been exhausted
  • During a time when medical supplies are scarce, such as a war or natural disaster

Resources for Further Information:

Medicinal Plants

Herbs and Plants Historically Used for Medicinal Purposes

From Traditional Remedies to Modern Pharmaceuticals

Gathering Your Own Herbs

Related Talents and Skills: Foraging, Basic First Aid, Gardening

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Tips When Writing Multiple POV Novels

Today YA author Lisa Gail Green is here to offer some thoughts on writing multiple POVs. This is a route some authors go, but handling more than one protagonist is not easy. Lisa’s latest novel features dual POVs, so the lessons she learned are fresh in her mind. Please read on!FleuronWhen starting a new manuscript, point of view is an important choice. Who is the best person to tell your story? Sometimes the answer includes more than one character, and that means multiple POVs.

First things first: figure out the purpose behind your choice. If you want to write multiple POVs, you should always have a dang good reason for it.

soul crossedWhen I started writing SOUL CROSSED, I knew using dual POVs was the perfect way to help build sympathy for both my Demon and my Angel. Readers would understand the thought processes of each MC as well as see how each interpreted the world differently and why. For me the choice was a great tool to plant the seeds of my theme: is there pure good and pure evil?

Another great reason for multiple POVs is that each compliments two or more story arcs that intersect at a later point. If this is the case, you have to make sure both arcs are truly necessary for your overarching story. Look at backstory with the same lens. How much is truly needed and when does the reader need those specifics?

Now that you’ve defined the purpose and benefits of multiple POV’s, it’s time to get to work. Here’s the challenge: when you have dual POVs, you have two internal arcs to plot and the decision of what scene is in whose point of view. Lets look at some rules you’ll want to follow.

  •  Make sure each character has a distinct voice.

1) Does this character use certain anachronisms or speech patterns? What is his/her educational level? Does he/she think in phrases or complex sentences?

2) What senses does this character use the most? Pick those out for use with descriptions.

3) Get inside his/her head. Use some character building exercises if you need help. Look up some theatrical ones and try those too.

  • Understand each character’s goals, stakes, and pitfalls.

Make sure each POV character (really all characters) have a specific goal and obstacles that keep him/her from that goal. Ask yourself in each scene whether he/she is acting toward that goal, what’s at stake, and what’s in the way.

  • Don’t redo the same scene from multiple POVs.

Full disclosure: I break this rule once in SOUL CROSSED. I did it for all of maybe a page, and I did it purposefully because it was important to understand when Josh and Grace came together what was happening in each character’s head. I also wanted to highlight this moment for readers and slow it down so I used this as a device.

Overlapping POV in scenes is a real temptation. As the author, you know they’ve each seen something different or had a different reaction to the same scene, and you want to share it with your audience. Resist, unless you have a VERY good reason, like I did. Instead, pick the POV that gives the important info to your reader and use that. Believe me, it gets really tired if you don’t move forward with a story. Each chapter should build on the last.

  •  Have a reason a particular chapter is in a particular point of view.

Why did you choose this character to tell this part of the story? Does he have a crucial piece of info to reveal? Does she reveal something deep about her character when confronted in this scene? If you don’t have a reason, go back and make sure there’s a purpose for the scene itself.

  • Ground the reader as soon as each switch takes place.

The last thing you want is for the reader to be confused about whose head she’s in. So make sure you give clues right away with setting and internal dialogue before you jump in.

I used names as chapter titles to help indicate who was speaking. This is a common practice. It’s not foolproof as some people skip titles when they’re in the groove, but it does help.

If you’re still unsure whether you should undertake a multiple POV manuscript, try it out and see how it feels. Ask someone to read it specifically for POV to see if it can be followed easily. Finally, it’s great to challenge yourself, but make sure you’ve got a traditional structure down before you go for it.

lisaLisa loves YA. She believes with all her heart that teen readers are ready and willing to experience things that some adults have closed their minds to, that books are the safest way to explore, learn, and escape, and that imagination is the key to just about everything.

Praise for Soul Crossed

“The Mortal Instruments meets Romeo and Juliet in this title that’s jampacked with love, chaos and heartbreak. Readers will have a hard time putting Soul Crossed down” — Romantic Times

“A wickedly romantic story that will have you cheering for Lisa Gail Green’s addictive storytelling. Soul Crossed is devilishly delicious!” — Martina Boone, author of Compulsion and the Heirs of Watson Island trilogy 

Want a chance to to snag a copy of Lisa’s newest Paranormal YA book? Your in luck. There’s a big giveaway going on right now. You can also find Lisa at her website, twitter and add Soul Crossed to your Goodreads List.

Have you written a book in Multiple Point of View? Are you tempted to give it a try?

Posted in Characters, Guest Post, Point of View, Uncategorized | 30 Comments

What’s So Good About Talents and Skills?

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No idea. But having a high skill in bean curd must account for something.

As many of you know, Angela and I are currently creating a Talents and Skills Thesaurus that includes many different aptitudes that a character might have. We started this thesaurus because we wanted to offer writers more options than the usual talents we see portrayed over and over in novels. Hence, this thesaurus.

But recently, I received a question on my Facebook page that made me think about this: Why does every character have to have a unique skill or talent? In formulating a response, I realized that this is an interesting question that needed more of a response than I could type into a comment field. So I’d like to address it here.

First, let me say that all characters don’t have to have a stand-out talent or skill. I can think of a handful who don’t (though I could argue that they do have talents disguised as character traits, like charm or leadership). But the fact that the overwhelming majority of memorable characters are really good at something speaks to the value of talents and skills. A lot of good things happen when our characters display an aptitude for something. Knowing this, I’d like to share a few reasons why you should consider assigning one to your hero, villain, or sidekick.

1. Talents and skills are admirable. Why are we drawn to certain people in real life? Many times it’s because there’s something about them that we admire—a character trait they possess or a talent that they’re good at. Michael Jordan, John Williams, Christina Aguilera…we’re interested in these people because they can do something really cool, and they’re really good at what they do. Giving your character a special talent makes them a little more interesting to readers for the same reason.

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Courtesy: Steven Depolo at Creative Commons

2. They add uniqueness. How many novels have I read recently where the main character was a runner, artist, or writer? These are great skills, but sometimes you want something to make your character a little more unusual. When a talent is bestowed thoughtfully, in a way that makes sense for the character, it can go a long way toward creating a character that no one has ever seen before. And that’s usually a good thing.

3. They add character depth. So often, talents and skills seem to be randomly attributed to characters. Many times, a talent or hobby is a popular one that seems to be a passion of the author more than a true gift of the character. To add dimension, choose talents and skills that make sense for THEM. They should flow out of the character’s backstory, upbringing, experiences, and life circumstances. Chosen thoughtfully, a talent or skill can enliven an otherwise dull character.

4. They add depth to the story. Skills can definitely be used to enhance a character, but what about skills that elevate the story itself? Archery is a pretty cool talent in itself, but when it’s necessary to Katniss’ survival and solving the overall story problem in not just one but all three novels, it adds to the story, making it thick and meaty and layered.

5. They define peripheral characters. It’s not just the hero or villain who benefits from being good at something. Secondary and minor characters are also made more memorable by their talents or skills. Take To Kill a Mockingbird. Look past the main players to the ones in the shadows. Mrs. Dubose, a nasty, racist, morphine-addicted old woman who grows the most beautiful gardenias on the street. Calpurnia, the African-American housekeeper who breaks the stereotype of the day by being able to read and write. Dill, the summer playmate who, it turns out, is very inventive when it comes to making up stories about his past. There are a lot of characters in this well-loved story, and when the cast is large, it’s easy to get them confused. But when the players are assigned interesting or memorable skills, they’re less likely to be forgotten.

6. They can add conflictNot everyone will value a character’s talent as much as the reader or character himself do. What about the jealous competitor who wishes he could rival the hero? The parent, teacher, or government official who doesn’t see that particular talent as being valuable? The character who wishes he was better at his skill, or that he didn’t have it at all? A talent that must be hidden or downplayed? There are so many ways to add conflict to a story. Using a character’s supposed strength is a great and unusual way to add tension.

7. They can be removed. Characters depend upon their talents. Many times, they define who a person is. Assigning a skill to a character can be beneficial for the simple fact that it can be removed and make things really complicated. When a childhood piano prodigy loses her ability to play, how does she then define herself (Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay)? When Grace’s mother dies and she’s unable to write the poetry that has always soothed her, how will she cope? (The Secret Hum of a Daisy, Tracy Holczer). As closet torturers, authors are always looking for ways to make things more difficult for their characters. Giving them a talent, then taking it away, is a great way to add inner conflict and turmoil.

For these reasons, I would argue in favor of giving your character a specific talent or skill. You can have a successful story without them, but including them can make the job a lot easier.

*photo credit: Wm Jas at Creative Commons

Posted in Character Traits, Characters, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

The Secret to Creating a Really Good Bad Guy

12 pillarsBecca and I are welcoming Susanne Lakin today, who is a writing coach, author and editor all rolled into one. Susanne is our go-to expert for all things editing, and has a great new book out called the The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction: Your Blueprint for Building a Strong Story (The Writer’s Toolbox Series). I’m reading it now and am far enough in to say this is a book that you want to add to your collection. Susanne does a great job of showcasing each critical piece of storytelling, and explaining how they all fit together to frame the structure of a compelling and meaningful novel.

Today she has some great thoughts on how to build an memorable antagonist, so please read on! FleuronDon’t you just love to hate really great bad guys in novels? A list of the most intriguing villains in literature includes characters such as Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Long John Silver in Treasure Island, Edmund from Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.

Not every novel has a villain. Often many characters take on the role of an antagonist at various times —someone who stands in the way of your protagonist. They may be well meaning or not.

But if your novel features one specific character providing the central source of opposition for your hero or heroine—in other words, a villain or bad guy—take the time to craft such a character so that he or she will be believable and memorable.

hannibalThere are countless varieties of bad guys, but the best ones are memorable because of four specific traits:

  • They aren’t stereotyped. People are complex, fickle, selfish, self-sacrificing, and fearful. Depending on the situation and mind-set when something happens, each of us might react in an unpredictable way. The temptation, especially with a nemesis character, is to defer to stereotype. To make bad guys really bad to the point that they are comic-book cutouts. How can writers avoid the stereotype? Read on . . .
  • They have a reason they’re bad. Great villains are passionate about what they believe. They go after a goal much in the way a protagonist does, and believe that what they are doing is the right thing in the circumstance. They aren’t just bad to be bad. All characters, whether virtuous or villainous, need core motivation based on how they were raised and treated throughout their life, the lies they believe about themselves and the world, and the deep-seated fears that frighten them and cause them to act as they do.
  • They show a glimpse of vulnerability and inner conflict. The best villains in literature are the ones you almost like (but would never admit it!) and find fascinating. They are usually complex, full of inner conflict, but have moments of grace or kindness that seem contradictory. Those moments, though, turn a predictable stereotype into a riveting, believable nemesis. Give your bad guy a moment of doubt. Let your readers feel sorry for him . . . for just a second. Then get them back to hating him.
  • They are flawed, and they usually know it. Often a villain’s awareness of his flaws is what motivates him toward his goals. He overcompensates for those flaws with his negative traits: pride, impatience, cruelty, heartlessness, greed, lust—to name a few. Because he is unable to love, he hurts others. Because he lacks true self-worth, he hates to see others succeed and attain happiness. What has been denied him, he denies others.

Push Beyond the Stereotype

Life is messy, difficult, stressful. Everyone reacts to stress differently and often inconsistently. You may want to make your role as writer easier by manufacturing consistent, predictable, stereotyped characters, but I would like to encourage you not to.

Push yourself to create believable characters that are complex and sometimes unpredictable. If you can create a moment in your novel in which the hero and the villain agree on something and realize what they do have in common, you can have a powerful moment.

Likewise, those moments in which the bad guy is actually vulnerable and/or empathetic can go a long way to making your story feel authentic.

How Bad Guys Are Good for Your Story

 Even if you don’t have one classic villain in your story, be sure you have one or more antagonists in your novel in some form or another.

Antagonists are so useful in many ways. By providing opposition, the hero can voice and demonstrate what he is passionate about, what he’s willing to risk, and why he’s after that goal. Nemesis characters provide the means to amplify and showcase the themes in your story, for they often take an opposing view on issues.

Your nemesis character does not want your hero to reach his goal. He himself should have needs, fears, and goals he is striving for based on what he believes. He may be evil, greedy, psychotic, or a sociopath. Or he might instead be a friend who is fearful of losing something precious to her, and who believes with all her heart the protagonist must not reach his goal. It depends on your story.

If you don’t have anyone opposing your protagonist, spend some time thinking how to create someone. Make his needs and goals clash with your hero’s. Make him believe he is right and has the right to his belief. Then readers will really love to hate your bad guy. Which is a good thing!

Who are your favorite bad guys in literature and why? Do they show a glimpse of vulnerability or some empathetic quality in the midst of all their evil? Share in the comments.

susanne S. Lakin is the author of sixteen novels and three writing craft books. Her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive gives tips and writing instruction for both fiction and nonfiction writers. If you want to write a strong, lasting story, check out her new release The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series, which provides a foundational blueprint that is concise and practical, and takes the mystery out of novel structure.

Posted in Characters, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft | 18 Comments

Vulnerability: The Key to Compelling Romantic Relationships

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

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

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

1) Romance isn’t simple.

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

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

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

But there is another powerful side of vulnerability: acceptance.

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

So where does the pain come in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Create positive experiences for vulnerability.

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

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

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

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

Image: PublicDomainPictures @ Pixabay

 Would you like a bit more help with romantic relationships? Try my post over at Romance University today: You Wrote a Killer Love Story…But Did You Romance The Reader?

Posted in Character Flaws, Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Empathy, Fear, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft | 13 Comments