Posts Tagged With: Writing Tips

Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy Steps

Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy StepsI’ll let you in on a secret: readers want your character to change.

They know, deep down, that your character is unhappy with the status quo at the beginning of your book.

Something is terribly wrong in your character’s life, and things can’t keep going on this way.

Something’s got to give.

Readers fervently hope that your character will rise to the challenge and become a better, happier person.

In other words, what your readers want is a character arc. But how do you create one?

Believe it or not, there is an easy way. Here’s how to create an arc in any story.

1. What’s wrong with this character?

First, you need some raw materials to work with. The best way to create them is by brainstorming.

Open up a blank page or document and jot down at least ten problems in your main character’s life. Not the main plot problem of the novel, but some kind of trouble that your character would have to deal with even if the main plot wasn’t happening.

These could be personality flaws, toxic relationships, a bad living situation, a lousy job, anything that needs to be fixed in order for this character to be happy.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is lacking from this character’s life at the start of the story?
  • Why are they in this situation?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What self-defeating belief are they carrying around that’s holding them back?

Jot down anything that comes to mind. These could be problems that are already there in the story, or they could be ideas for new problems. You don’t have to use all of them. Just pick the single most dramatic or compelling problem, and start there.

Here’s an example. In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the main character desperately wants to be a crystal sorceress, but she doesn’t believe in herself. So she settles for opening a crystal shop instead.

“I have just a smidge of talent. That’s it,” Dru said. “I never developed any real powers, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried super hard.”

“I know. I was there.” Rane made a face, apparently reliving some awkward memory.

Dru sighed. “All I’ve ever been able to do is a few crystal tricks. That’s it. Maybe brew up some potions that never ever seem to work right. So I decided to open up a crystal shop. I figured if I can’t fight the bad guys on my own, then the least I can do is help the real sorcerers any way I can.”

2. Make it a scene.

Now, write a scene near the beginning of the story where the character has to make an important choice—and they choose wrong.

Most importantly, make sure that they do the wrong thing because of their flaw.

What are the consequences of that? How does it make this character’s life worse? Show the complications that come out of that choice.

Be careful with this scene. You don’t want to lose the reader’s sympathy. Use all of your writerly skills to make it completely believable and understandable why the character chooses a path that is about to make them horrendously unhappy.

Here’s what happens in the first Dru Jasper book, It Happened One Doomsday:

She was a little nervous, leaving a safe cubicle job and opening her own business, trying to run it all by herself. But the work was exhilarating.

Curing magic-hangover headaches and nausea. Finding the right ingredients for a good luck charm. Helping the occasional B-list sorceress track down a long-lost book, decode an ancient inscription or identify an errant creature that had strayed too far into civilization.

Working with a real sorceress was like being invited backstage by a rock star. Every time, Dru had to resist the urge to squeal.

3. Now, make the right choice.

Let’s fast-forward to the far end of the character arc and see how it all works out.

Imagine that your character has grown past the flaw that used to hold her back. (Because by the time we’re done, that’s exactly what’s going to happen in your book.) Picture this character as a whole, happy, competent person.

Now, write another scene near the end of your story where the character digs down deep inside and finds the strength to make the right choice.

This scene can parallel the earlier scene, or it can be something totally different. The intent is to show that your character has learned something important. They are stronger now. They are better than they used to be.

And voila. Your character has just transformed.

Bonus tip: After the character has made that pivotal choice, have someone else point out this character’s newfound inner strength.

Here’s an example from It Happened One Doomsday, after Dru has finally found the strength to believe in herself and use her magical powers to defeat a malevolent creature of darkness:

Dru shook herself. She still couldn’t believe what had just happened. The concept of actually being a sorceress was just too big an idea to handle.

Rane punched her in the shoulder. “Welcome backstage, rock star.”

“Ow.” Dru rubbed her upper arm. “Thanks. I think.”

4. Build that arc throughout your novel.

Basically, what you’re doing here is showing the “before” and “after” versions of your character. It’s kind of like one of those late-night infomercials, except that instead of showcasing some dubious exercise gadget, you’re revealing your character’s transformation.

Neat, right? But don’t stop there.

Go back through your book and look for places where you can show your character struggling with the same issue. Put in a couple more scenes in the middle where your character is trying to change, and gets closer every time—but doesn’t quite make it.

When someone reads your book straight through from beginning to end, they will see a character who starts out flawed and living a troubled life, who strives to do the right thing and eventually—after much struggle and heartache—becomes a better person and finally triumphs.

Now, that’s a character you can really root for!

How miserable can you make your character?

The more troubles you give your character, the more challenges you force them to overcome, the more dramatic their character arc will be. So don’t hold back. Make your character miserable. And then when they finally succeed, your readers will stand up and cheer.

What’s the biggest problem you can think of to give your main character?

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

7 Keys to Irresistible Plots

Is there a simple way to make the plot of your story irresistible, so that your readers keep turning pages, desperate to find out what happens next?

Yes. Every irresistible plot contains seven key elements that help catch the reader’s attention and hold it to the very last page.

These keys are so universal that you’ve seen them hundreds of times before, even if you didn’t recognize them. In fact, you’ll actually find these plot keys hidden in the spelling of the word FICTION.

F is for Flaw

In a well-crafted story, something is already wrong even before page one. It could be a dysfunctional relationship, an unhealthy situation, or an unresolved trauma haunting the viewpoint character. Or all three at the same time.

Creating a character who is perfectly fine at the start of the story robs you of opportunities to put your character in deeper and more complex trouble over the coming pages.

But starting the story with a character already suffering a certain amount of misery gives them more room to grow — and helps make your story irresistible.
Continue reading

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Ultimate Guide to Character Motivation (Part 2)

ultimate guide to character motivation part 2Why do heroes and villains do what they do?

In Part 1 of this article, we explored Greed, Revenge, and Acceptance, three of the most powerful motivations in literature.

Now, let’s find out how you can you can create fascinating characters driven by the need for Identity, Love, or Survival.

I is for Identity

Who am I? That question lies at the core of countless stories.

A character driven to establish their identity often begins the story in a negative place, and then has a moment of clarity that tells them why they need to fundamentally change who they are. This is a common motivation for characters just starting out in life who strive to become someone better. It also works for mature characters who have fallen from grace and need to redeem themselves.

Young adult characters trying to establish their identity often come into conflict with parents, teachers, and friends who are growing in different directions.

Identity is also the motivation driving a character who is heir to a “throne” (literal or figurative) that he or she doesn’t want. The character often casts off the fate that has been preordained for them and sets off on their own path, to establish their own identity.

Identity can also be a rich source of conflict when society imposes a stereotype on a character, telling them that they have to “be” a certain way. Consequently, the character must struggle to prove their individuality. This can be a tricky motivation to pull off without falling into clichés. But if done right, it can be deeply moving.

In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the heroine begins as an ordinary shopkeeper who has always regarded sorcerers with undisguised awe. But when her newfound magical powers make her a sorceress in her own right, she struggles to fit into her new identity.

Identity also often plays a part in heroic characters who are trying to make the world a better place, whether by improving society, elevating humanity, or stamping out a widespread problem. In many cases, the character’s true motivation arises from their personal quest to establish or change their identity.

L is for Love

Where would fiction be without characters motivated by love?

Romantic love is by far the most common type in fiction. But it’s also important to remember that “love” in the truest sense can also extend to the love of your friends, your family, your hometown, your country, or any other person, place, or thing.

Love is a powerful motivator. You can make any character go to great lengths simply by threatening someone, something, or someplace that the character loves.

This happens all the time in my books. Greyson, the love interest, must risk his life and even his mortal soul to save the heroine, Dru. Of course, because she also loves him, she just as often saves him in turn. These characters are series regulars, so their love is a continuing source of conflict.

Don’t write off love as a motivation for villains, either. A villain motivated by love can become not only a tragic figure by the end of the story, but also completely sympathetic and unforgettable to the reader.

S is for Survival

One of the most primal motivations, survival is at the core of most action-driven stories. For pulse-pounding excitement, not much can beat watching a sympathetic character struggle to survive against overwhelming odds.

In any science fiction, fantasy, horror, or adventure story featuring a monster with gnashing teeth, the motivation is starkly clear: don’t get eaten. It’s as simple as that.

The survival motivation also kicks in whenever a character becomes lost in the wilderness, shipwrecked, or otherwise stranded far from civilization. Plus, anytime a character is imprisoned, kidnapped, taken hostage, or captured, survival is at the core of your story.

In my Dru Jasper series, the characters are constantly faced with monsters, demons, evil sorcerers, and other deadly forces of darkness. Even though the series takes place in and around the city of Denver, there are plenty of dark alleys, abandoned warehouses, and even the isolated valleys of the nearby Rocky Mountains where the heroes must struggle to survive.

Survival can also be used metaphorically when a character’s career or marriage is at stake. The threat of losing a job or a spouse can feel like a threat to their survival, and drive a character to extremes. What new facets of the character will be revealed when they come face-to-face with their own mortality?

Exercise: What Motivates Your Character?

Pick a character from your story and ask yourself these questions. Write down the answers in your notebook. Think in terms of hypotheticals: what could happen in your story, compared to what’s actually happening. That will get your brain primed to come up with new ideas.

1. What would this character learn or change about their own identity, if they could? How might society expect them to behave in a way that goes against their nature?

2. Who or what does this character love more than anything? A friend, family member, or romantic interest? Who or what would this character do anything to save?

3. What could threaten this character’s life, if not literally, then metaphorically??

To recap, the most powerful motivations are: Greed, Revenge, Acceptance, Identity, Love, and Survival.

Think about one of your favorite stories or books. What motivates the villain? How about the hero?

Click here to get free writing tips in your email.

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

6 Easy Steps to Planning Out Your Novel

Even if you hate the idea of writing an outline or synopsis, you can still figure out a plan to help you finish your novel fast, avoid major revisions, and beat writer’s block forever.

It’s surprisingly easy. Here’s how to do it.

First, turn off your computer and set aside your notebook. For this exercise, you going to need a pack of index cards. Regular old 3 x 5 cards will work just fine.

Wait — index cards? Really?

Yes. It may sound clunky, but writing on small cards actually makes it easier to plan out your story.

With cards, you can throw away or rearrange your ideas instantly. Plus, small cards force you to focus your thoughts. When you only have a few square inches to work with, you need to be succinct, and that boosts your creativity.

Here’s what to do:

Continue reading

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 Secrets to Writing Vivid Settings

3 Secrets to Writing Vivid SettingsThere are three elements that make up every story: people, problems, and places.

To form a good story, those elements need to be in balance, because each one affects the others.

That’s why you need to put as much effort into the places in your story—your setting—as you do for your characters and your plot.

Here are the three best ways to make that effort pay off, so that your setting comes alive. Continue reading

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Books That Will Inspire You to Be a Writer

The Pulp JungleAre you planning to write a book in 2020?

Want some writing inspiration and wisdom from authors who have written dozens or even hundreds of stories and books?

Check out my list of the five most inspiring books about writing over at Civilian Reader.

P.S. Do you love free stuff . . . like books, for instance? Want a chance to win one? Get my author newsletter.

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Secret to Writing Fascinating Villains

The Secret to Writing Fascinating VillainsWhat makes a villain fascinating?

It’s not just about scaring the pants off the reader.

The most terrifying thing a villain can do in a story isn’t killing the hero or blowing up the world — it’s making their twisted viewpoint seem morally right, and making the hero seem wrong.

Because if the villain’s outlook starts to make sense, and the hero seems to have things backwards, then for just a moment, the reader has to wonder: Have I been rooting for the wrong side all along?

In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, every book sees the heroes (all with strange and unique magic powers) fighting to defend the world from a looming apocalypse. The latest book, Forever and a Doomsday, squares them off against the worst threat they’ve ever faced: a horde of wraiths, the dispossessed souls of sorcerers, who can walk through walls and kill with a mere touch.

How do you fight something like that? Continue reading

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

9 Surprising Things I Love about Writing (and One Thing I Hate)

Nerds That GeekTrue story: When I was 17, I met an African storyteller.

He traveled to distant parts of the world, collecting oral stories and writing them down for posterity. He was my first real-life writing teacher.

His feedback helped me get started as a writer. Within a couple of years, I had sold my first magazine article. I’ve been writing ever since.

I got a chance to talk about that experience (and a bunch of other sometimes-funny, sometimes-humbling stuff) on the ever-excellent Nerds That Geek website. Check it out.

P.S. Want a chance to win one of my new books for free? Get my author newsletter.

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making Fascinating Monsters on The Bibliosanctum

The BibliosanctumHow do writers create fascinating monsters?

For me, it’s a many-layered process that involves thinking about where a monster came from, what it’s after, how it thinks, and what happens when it encounters the heroes.

I actually got the chance to dive deep into the monster-creation process and explain how to do it step-by-step, thanks to the marvelous Mogsy over at Bibliosanctum, the super-fabulous speculative fiction blog.

You can read my guest post here.

P.S. You can also get access to your own monster-making workbook when you get my author newsletter.

Categories: Dru Jasper, For Writers, how to write a book, how to write a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Writers Should NEVER Carry a Notebook

Why Writers Should NEVER Carry a NotebookBefore I became a published author, I used to carry around a writing notebook in my back pocket.

You know the kind I’m talking about: the little black book that tells the world you’re a Serious Writer.

But that little notebook is a big mistake, I eventually learned.

Here are three reasons why you should ditch it, and what you need to keep in your pocket instead. Continue reading

Categories: For Writers | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at