Finding balance in your life isn’t simple. Balancing life and writing is even harder. Finding balance in your writing? That’s something you’ll be working on for the rest of your natural writing life, because a well-written story balances exposition, description, action and dialogue, but not in equal measure. You need to keep a watchful eye on exposition.
In its basic form, exposition is the part of a story that sets the stage for the drama to follow, introducing the theme, setting, characters, and circumstances, usually at the beginning of the story. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well, writing good exposition that flows with the story and continues to draw the audience in, isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, many writers misuse exposition as an illegal dumping ground for information that not only causes a distraction that breaks the flow of a story, but also decreases interest.
And you don’t have to be an expert to spot the exposition dump (aka infodump) because we’ve all experienced and recognized it while reading a novel or watching a movie or television program. It’s that speed bump or sometimes roadblock in the story where the writer unloads a ton of information at once as a means of explaining things like backstory, characters, and the rules of the story world. If you’re a culprit of this, stop it now. We’ll forgive your ignorance in past works (go back and cull the exposition, if at all possible) but it’s a bad exposition technique and the line must be drawn here. This far, no further.
Typically, infodumping occurs when a character, new to the scene, is introduced to a foreign setting and is force-fed all the knowledge of the various individuals at play, the rules of the micro society, and the overall big picture of the story world. You’ll find this a lot in science fiction and fantasy tales.
Other bad/lazy infodumping techniques include “The Lecture,” where a speaker over-explains information the writer discovered during their research period of the writing process and thought would show their faux expertise in the subject. The other offender is commonly known in the sci-fi writing community as the “As You Know, Bob,” conversation, where one character tells another character information they already know. Please don’t do this. Not only is it lazy, but it comes across as unrealistic.
This isn’t to say that all exposition is bad, in fact, properly executed, it takes up roughly 10% of a well-balanced written piece (the other 90%, of course, being the description, action and dialogue that make up the scenes). Some of the information embedded within expository text is actually relevant, it simply requires a little finesse to fit it in seamlessly and not disrupt the story’s flow.
Of course, if you handle your description, action and dialogue properly, you can whittle that 10% down and most people won’t notice or care about the missing exposition.
Well, that’s enough infodumping for me today. I’m off to tear a story down and rebuild it.
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert
Live a good life. This isn’t something I should have to tell you. As you make your way through the workaday world, you should strive to do no harm, treasure your relationships with family and friends, seek calming pleasures that contribute to peace of mind, and live in harmony and balance.
Your written life? That’s a different creature all together.
Safe, tame, bland, and sometimes “it’s good” (with the unspoken “but…” attached on the end like a phantom limb) are among the worst things someone can say about your work. Whenever you write, your goal should be to provide elements that hook your audience and reels them in and after the story has been told, leaves them with an emotional takeaway.
Writing is about risk-taking, about snapping off the handbrakes, about shrugging off restraint, about leaving your internal censor bound and gagged in a tiny room, allowing your words and imagination to run amuck and wreak havoc in the world you’ve created.
If you’re not currently writing this way, what’s holding you back? What’s bridling your passion? What’s preventing you from creating bold characters, powerful phrases and dangerous situations? If not yours, then whose hand is on the lever that controls the sluice gates holding back the churning anxiety, obsession and peril your story desperately needs?
Are you trapped within the safe zone because of fear? Then allow me to geek out a moment as I quote the litany of fear, an incantation used by the religious/political sisterhood known as the Bene Gesserit from Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Fear is also an art-killer. It’s typically the fear of being judged by professionals, critics and peers, of not being admired by the audience for taking a controversial stance or doing horrible things to characters. But the possible opinions and tastes of everyone outside yourself shouldn’t factor in while you’re creating your story. The transfer of ownership hasn’t taken place at this point. It isn’t the reader’s story yet, it’s still yours, so why not write fiercely?
Give your characters barbed tongues and let them spit venom. Give them the courage to do all the things you would never dream of attempting, even on your most adventurous or foolhardy day. Tear their hearts out and make them suffer as you place them smack dab in the center of conflict and tension-filled drama.
Basically, I’m asking you to fish out that key that you’ve hidden in the back of a junk drawer within the deep recesses of your mind and open the door to your wildest imaginings.
You’ll come to discover that if you’re open, honest and free in your writing, yes, you will have your critics and people who won’t either like or understand your work, but you’ll also attract an audience that will come back for more.
What’s that? You need more incentive? Okay, well I didn’t want to break out the big guns but here goes:
I dare you to become more engaging and intriguing with your writing. I double-dog dare you.
If you approach online surfing with the mentality of a prospector and sift through content, letting the useless bits fall away (no judgments on the content you derive enjoyment from) the interwebz is packed to the rafters with knowledge, wisdom and lessons. It’s the wise sage of our virtual village.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of the adages that can be applied to your life can also be applied to your everyday writing, be it screen, creative, novel, short story, blogging, etc.
The goal of a post like this isn’t to sugar coat how difficult and torturous writing can be at times, there’s no masking that truth. Your takeaway from this should be that your approach to and mental outlook on writing needs to become a positive thing, if it isn’t already.
“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time”
Unlike Lord Chesterfield, to whom the above quote is attributed, I’m not opposed to multitasking, and I’m sure you’re a marvel at juggling several things at a time, but when you sit down to write, that’s all you should be focused on.
“But,” you say, “I’m a chronic multitasker!” Don’t worry, I’m not trying to strip you of your royal heritage, but it is essential to develop a meditative focus when it comes to act of writing. You’re creating a world, sharing an experience, and/or teaching a lesson to your reader, and they deserve your full attention, don’t they?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained/You only get out of life what you put into it.
What exactly can you put into your writing? The answer to that question is up to you. Hard work, determination, and a positive attitude are a few things that come to mind. Doing the donkey work and writing everyday, come hell or high water, are the breadcrumbs you lay down to attract the muse.
“There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.” –Richard Bach
You will make mistakes in your writing. That fact is as certain as one day you will die (but not for a long, long, long time, knock wood). All the missteps in tackling a story you couldn’t work out an ending for, creating characters that refuse to talk to you, stories that lie as flat as road kill, and even writing that makes you absolutely retch. Embrace it all. Mistakes are your teachers along the rocky path of becoming a successful writer. To be clear, being successful has nothing to do with publication, sales, or fame. Sure, that stuff’s awful nice to have (great job if you can get it) but satisfying your inner critic is the mark of true success, in my humble opinion.
“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” — Nhat Hanh
Yup, we’re back on that positivity kick again. Why? Because it’s your cheerleader when you absolutely hate your work, your rah-rah section when you’re slogging through difficult writing, and your attaboy when you finally clear the briar patch of a formerly impossible writing task. The responsibility rests upon your shoulders to become your biggest fan throughout all the writing stages–brainstorming, outlining, character development, the draft, and yes, even editing.
I could list others, but I think you get the point and you’re smart enough to figure the rest out on your own. Good luck, and stay positive.
As stated in a previous post, hand in hand with creating a strong premise for your story, developing believable characters to fill your imaginary world is an essential part of constructing fiction. The best way for your audience to identify with characters lies in your ability to understand them fully, and the best way for you to accomplish this is to talk to them, or better yet, ask them a series of questions. It’s important that you don’t allow them be evasive and certainly do not take no for an answer.
Don’t worry, you won’t be asking them complicated things like their strategy on balancing the nation’s budget, why the burning sun doesn’t incinerate itself, or how do you solve a problem like Maria? The list of questions below are relatively basic, some which have occurred to you and others that most likely haven’t. And even though most of their answers aren’t particularly relevant to your story and probably won’t come up in conversation, it will aid you in understanding the inner workings of their nonexistent minds.
You’ll notice that the questions have been broken up into bite-sized nuggets, thus making the task of developing your characters less insurmountable, and offering you a coffee or ciggie butt break between your interrogation, should you need it. Now, without further ado:
101 Character Development Questions (grill ‘em like a steak!)
Character Development Questions #1 – The Basics
These are the first questions you need to answer about your character – the stuff you probably need to know to get started.
Do they speak with an accent?
Where are they from?
Where are they now?
Character Development Questions #2 – Backstory
Developing a solid backstory for your characters is essential – even if you don’t put much or any of it in the narrative. The more you treat your character as though they are a real person, the more real they’ll become.
Who are their parents? Biologically and socially.
What is their earliest memory?
What did they want to be when they grew up?
What did/do their parents want them to be?
Do they have siblings? Older or younger? Brothers or sisters?
Do they have or have they ever had children? How many?
Do they or have ever had a significant other? Are they still with them? Why? Why not?
What were they doing right before the story starts?
Up until now, what’s the most noteworthy thing they’ve done? To them? To the people around them?
What was their education like?
Character Development Questions #3 – Tastes
Your characters likes and dislikes is possibly the most overt part of ‘who they are’.
What’s your character’s favorite color?
Do they/would they choose to wear a scent? What would it be?
Do they care about what things look like? All things, or only some?
What’s their favorite ice cream flavor?
Are they a tea, or coffee drinker? Or soft drinks, or do they drink a lot of alcohol? What kind?
What kind of books do they read? What TV shows and movies do they watch?
What kind of music do they like? Do they like music at all?
If they were about to die, what would they have as their last meal?
Are they hedonistic? In all cases? Or does practicality sometimes/always/often win out?
Do they have any philias or phobias?
Character Development Questions #4 – Morals, Beliefs, and Faith
A character’s moral code and beliefs can offer a lot of insights on their motives, and the likelihood of their taking a given course of action.
Do they have an internal (something that they’ve come up with for themselves) or an external (something handed to them via religion, family traits, etc.) moral code?
To what extent are their actions dictated by this code?
Do they believe in a God or Gods/Goddesses/Higher being of some description?
Are they superstitious?
Do they value faith/instinct more highly than reason?
Do they believe in an afterlife? If so, what’s it like?
Do they have any specific beliefs that manifest obviously?
Are the respectful of the beliefs of others? To what extent?
Have they ever had to stand up to criticism for being religious? Or not being religious?
Would they be more likely to act for the good of the one, or the good of the many?
Character Development Questions #5 – Relationships
It would be difficult to write a character who never interacted with anyone else. We learn more about a character from the way other people react to them than by their actions alone.
Do they make friends easily?
Do they have a best friend?
Can they get people to do what they want them to? If so, how?
Do they have a lot of romantic relationships? Serious, or short term?
Do they fall in and out of love easily?
Do strangers and acquaintances actually like them when they meet?
Do they have a network (people they’re connected to without necessarily knowing)?
What is their relationship like with their family?
Are they still in touch with non-family people they were in touch with a year ago? Five years? Ten? More?
Do they like children? Do they want children of their own?
Character Development Questions #6 – Physical Appearance
Time to play dress up!
How does this character dress? How would they choose to dress, if all options were open to them?
Do they have any tattoos? What do they mean?
Do they have piercings? How many? Is this culturally appropriate for them?
Do they have scars? Where did they come from?
Do they alter their appearance in some way on a regular basis (make up, hair dye, etc.)?
Is there something they’d choose to change about their appearance if they had the opportunity to?
Is there something about their appearance they’re particularly proud of/happy with?
Objectively, are they physically attractive? Fairly plain? Unattractive?
Do they have an accurate mental picture and opinion of their physical appearance?
How much time do they spend thinking about their physical appearance?
Character Development Questions #7 – General Knowledge
How well acquainted is your character with the world around them?
Can they navigate their own local area without getting lost? To what degree?
Do they know who the top politician or monarch is where they live? What about elsewhere?
Do they know if/where there are any major conflicts going on right now?
Do they know the composition of water?
Do they know how to eat a pomegranate (or any other tricky item of food)?
Are they good with the technology available to them? Average? Completely hopeless?
Could they paint a house… without making a mess of it?
Could they bake a cake? Would you eat it if they did?
Do they know how to perform basic maintenance on the common mode of transportation?
Do they know the price of a loaf of bread?
Character Development Questions #8 – Specific Knowledge
What about special skills?
Do they have a specific qualification in a narrow area?
Is there something they do or know exceptionally well that most other people don’t?
Do people often comment on a particular skill or area of knowledge to this character? Behind their back?
Is there an area this character could be considered top of their field or a genius in?
Have they deliberately sought to gain knowledge in a specific area? If so, why?
Do they speak more than one language? More than two? Why?
Does their cultural background effect what they would be expected to know?
Have they ever been publicly acknowledged for being well-versed in something?
Have they ever been bullied for knowing a lot about something?
Do they actively seek new knowledge, or let it come to them naturally?
Character Development Questions #9 – “What if…” Questions
These questions are designed to give you a different perspective on why certain things are important about your character – or why they’re not.
What if they’d been born with a different biological sex?
What if they’d have more or less siblings?
What if a key formative event in their past had gone differently?
What if they lost a limb?
What if someone close to them died unexpectedly?
What if they’d been born 50 years earlier? 100 years? 1000?
What if they’d done something completely different on the morning when the story starts?
What if they found enough money to make them wealthy for the rest of their life in a bag?
What if they were stranded and deserted?
What if they were betrayed by someone they trusted?
Character Development Questions #10 – Miscellany
These are just questions that any real person would likely be able to answer, but a fictional character often can’t.
What did they have for breakfast this morning?
What ridiculous beliefs did they have as a child?
Do they like marshmallow treats?
Do they sleep on their side, front, or back?
Do they work better with sound or silence?
Do they have a strange obsession with something minor?
Do they like art?
How fast can they run?
Do they prefer to sit on the floor or on a chair?
What do they want, right now?
Question 101 – Why Should Give A Tinker’s Damn About Your Character?
Don’t get offended, it’s a valid question. What makes your character interesting? Am I supposed to like them, or hate them? Why?
Congrats! You’ve made it to the end of the tedious, yet invaluable character question list. Hopefully it helps. Now stop standing around here gawking. Sally forth and be writeful.
Enjoy your holiday weekend (and you really should have invited me over for some Christmas goose. Maybe next year, eh?)
Everyone I knew wrote me off as a space case, as if I was insane or some sad eccentric with little grip on reality but none of them, not a single solitary person, bothered to get to know me, to peer beyond this veil of all too fragile flesh in order to witness the infinitude that lay within.
Bitter nausea rises in Sandrine’s throat as the shards of the shattered vanity mirror shoot up from the table and floor in a maelstrom of sharp chaos, pieces binding themselves together in DNA helix fashion, building themselves from inanimate splinters of reflective glass to take on a new, sinister shape, the form of her abusive, late husband.
“Honey, I’m home,” says the mirrored monstrosity in a voice that sounds broken glass edges scraping together.
Researching on her tablet, Mayra discovered the first functional fetal organ to develop was the heart, typically eighteen to nineteen days after fertilization which began to beat and pump blood around day twenty-two. But when it came to ensoulment, the closest thing she found to a specific answer dated back to the time of Aristotle, where it was believed the human soul entered the forming body at forty days for boys and ninety days for girls, which was of exactly zero use in explaining why there had been no sightings of child or baby spirits and if her as yet unborn child currently had a soul.
“How long do you think you’ve been pregnant?” Bethany asked.
“Um, I don’t know,” Mayra said, counting the days back to when she first took the test.
“At least six weeks?”
“Sure, I think. Maybe? Why?”
“Because six weeks is the earliest you can get a dating scan.”
“A what now?”
“An ultrasound to find out how far along you are and detect the presence of a heartbeat. Don’t you want to hear your baby’s heartbeat? I know I do.”
Mayra felt slightly ashamed that Bethany had taken the reins with regard to the clinical aspects for the pregnancy while she was preoccupied with the metaphysics of soul creation and death.
“It’s been over six weeks since I missed my period,” Mayra said.
“So, should I book us an appointment?” Bethany asked, and received no response. “What’s up with you?”
“You’re not going to like this,” Mayra sighed. “But I think Gavin might be right.”
“Maybe it’s not right to bring a child into this new world.”
Bethany sat across from Mayra in complete silence, lost in her thoughts for a long while before saying, “I don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, if that’s Gavin’s voice in your head, I’d tell you to tell it to fuck off. If you’re thinking it because you’re nervous, I can totally understand that but like I’ve told you a hundred times, you are not alone, and I’ll keep telling you until it finally sinks in. But if this is truly how you feel, then I support you and your choice and I’ll be here for you however you need me to be so don’t feel guilty because you have to do what’s right for you.”
“I have to admit, Bethy, I have no idea what’s right anymore.”
It was an odd thing but being in the hospital to get the ultrasound made the situation real. Mayra was going to have a baby, she was going to be a single mom which meant she had some growing up to do. She was afraid the sonographer was going to make assumptions about her since Bethany was at her side instead of Gavin but it was one of those childishly foolish notions that she needed to push out of her head.
“At this point we should be able to see the baby take shape,” the sonographer, whose name was Gloria, smiled. “Your little one is slowly becoming a person and I have to admit this is the point I find the most exciting. Nine months might seem like a long time but it will fly by. Make the most of this experience because once you hold your baby in your arms everything will be different.”
“Do you think this is something I can do alone?” Mayra had no idea why she asked the question. The words just slipped out before she was aware of what she was saying.
“Yes, even though it’s obvious to me you aren’t alone,” Gloria said without missing a beat and nodding a smile at Bethany. “Somehow I can tell there are always going to be people around to help you. Pregnancy can sometimes make you feel like you’re in it by yourself but you’d be surprised at how people will step up to help.”
“That’s a curious bedside manner you’ve got there,” Bethany said.
“So I’ve been told,” Gloria replied and to Mayra she said, “The scan usually takes about twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes?” Mayra said.
“I know your bladder’s full but we’ll get through this as quickly as possible,” Gloria held up a squeeze bottle and a small hand-held device. “First I’m going to apply some ultrasound gel to your tummy and move this transducer over your skin to get views of your baby.”
Mayra looked down at the gel being spread over her stomach. Her body was still in the same shape it had always been, something the baby would soon change and she wasn’t quite sure she was ready for it. When she glanced at Bethany, she saw her friend was staring across the room at a ghost midwife standing nearby, watching the monitor, waiting patiently. It was impossible to pretend she wasn’t there but a strange phenomenon was taking place where people began ignoring the spirits, they had become so commonplace. Exhaling deeply, she turned her attention to the screen. Being able to see her growing child was the whole reason she was there, and she wasn’t about to let the dead spoil this moment.
“Okay, Mayra, this is going to feel weird, but I promise you it’s truly worth it,” Gloria said.
Mayra said a silent prayer that the scan turned out normal and the baby was healthy but the moment the transducer made contact with her belly—everything changed. Her vision filled with starbursts. A million points of light filled her mind and she was overcome with a sensation that was simply too good, too pure to exist in this imperfect world. Her sense of existence expanded beyond the limitations of infinity and for one brief moment the edges of her mind brushed against the minds of every person, living and dead, linking together like a jigsaw puzzle of peace and all was right in the universe for a nanosecond before infinite knowledge avalanched onto her mind sending shards of information into her brain and out through the back of her skull over and over eternally and existence filled her mouth, filled her throat, filled her lungs, suffocating her with its presence and it would not let up, would not let her fight, would not let her scream as she was engulfed by the unending blinding whiteness of everything until she became nothing at all.
The bits and pieces that made her unique no longer existed in this pearlescent void and how could it? The totality of everything had pushed everything she had ever been out of her. She was now a hollow lifeless shell—until she wasn’t. Reality, her reality, the only one she personally experienced, had begun reknitting itself, stitch one, purl two until she was back in the examination room with the sonographer and Bethany. Both women stood stock-still as if they had been turned into stone by a basilisk, mouth agape, staring at the monitor. What they saw on the screen looked nothing like a baby at all. It looked more like a blob, a swirling mass that resembled a distant galaxy viewed through a space telescope.
When Gloria recovered enough to form words, she said, “Let me get one of the doctors in for a second opinion,” and bolted out of the room before Mayra could ask a question.
Mayra turned to Bethany who was gathering their coats and bags in a hurried fashion.
“Bethy, what are you doing?”
“Sweetie, we need to get the fuck out of here, now!”
No one knew her name. She was just that shy girl with the crooked smile and nervous laugh who kept herself to herself and stood apart from the rest of the real world, dancing to a tune that no one else could hear and loving people who only existed in her imagination.
It was a dark and stormy night, the type I was all too familiar with—when all my estranged family and distant friends slept but I couldn’t because all the regrets of my life raged in my mind with an unbearable intensity along with the enduring question—
Rosalinda’s eyes were pitch black perfect and somewhere in their aphotic depths, I spotted the bioluminescence of her pain and gentleness as they came together to form the very art of her beautifully tortured soul.