How to Craft Wounded Characters

No one passes through life unscathed. We are all wounded along the road, in countless large and small ways. Realistic characters have hidden wounds (or not-so hidden wounds) from the moment they appear on the page. Giving your characters a few painful memories does a lot of things for your story: it makes the characters seem as if they existed even before word one, it gives them weaknesses and fears to confront, and it makes them feel real—human.

Some wounds are big, obvious things—childhood traumas, deaths, experiences with abuse—but even characters who have lived generally happy lives will still carry wounds with them, possibly unknowingly.

Like a young man who had a trauma-free upbringing with loving parents, but he sees a kid in the grocery store crying out for its mother, and suddenly he remembers that time he got lost at the mall for hours, and his chest tightens with the echo of that remembered sensation—that clawing fear of abandonment.

In my Marked Series, for example, it’s easy to see Bray’s wounds. She’s a victim of sexual abuse, and this effects her in a whole myriad of ways. It drives her to help the weak, but it also renders her reticent to touch others, and she is too often fueled by anger. My other protagonist, Yarrow Lamhart, also has wounds. They’re just not quite so easy to spot. He grew up in a large, happy family. But, as one of eleven children, he developed the belief that he is expendable, that as “one of many” he would never be long missed. His trajectory throughout the series is one of heroic self-sacrifice, but it’s clear that these early feelings of expendability make him a little too inclined to throw himself away.

The truth is, we’re all a bit bruised, and so your characters should be too. It’s realistic. But, in fiction, it also needs to be pertinent. You need your character’s wounds to play into the plot. And there in lies the challenge. You have to find ways to haunt your characters, force them to remember their worst days, and then make them confront those fears. Maybe they learn how to cope, maybe they begin to heal—or maybe not. But the wounds have to play a part in the story. It’s a Chekhov’s gun situation. If your character is terrified of water, at some point you need to push them off the boat.

And, in my opinion, you should make sure these wounds are not merely motivational. For example, it’s a common trope to spur a character into action by the death of a loved one. We’ve all seen that one before. The “my family was killed by vampires so now I’m a vampire hunter” plot. It’s a fine, functional device (not my favorite, but hey), however it annoys me when these experiences are exclusively motivational. Seeing your family murdered is going to evoke some trauma. Your badass heroine is still badass if she has anxiety.

So, how do you build your neurosis-fueled cast? It often happens organically for me, but there’s no reason you can’t sit down and deliberately plan this out. You can begin with either character or plot, depending on your initial inspiration.


Start with Character:

Let’s say we want to write an Urban Fantasy. We have a vague sense that we want a gothic-type setting, a dark city full of fiends, a place where it’s not safe to go out at night. And we know we want a tough-as-nails female lead.

I’m going to call her Spearmint Jones.

So, Spearmint is a pretty competent lady—she’s snarky, bosomy, handy with weapons—but she’s also human, so we need to give her some baggage. We want to invent at least one wound and grow the plot from there.

We start with a bad experience:

Off the top of my head: Spearmint was 12 when a fire spread through her sector of the city. It’s not safe to leave the house at night, but if she and her family remain inside they will burn to death. So they gather what possessions they can and flee. She is the oldest of four siblings, and her mother charges her with carrying her youngest brother, the wee ginger, Coriander Jones, and they decide upon a meeting point in the event of separation. The streets are chaos, she soon loses sight or her mother. Someone tries to steal her bag, filled with all of most valued possessions, so she sets her brother down and struggles over the rucksack, eventually knocking the would-be thief unconscious with a rock. But by the time the fight is over, she realizes Coriander is gone. She searches, but can find no trace of him. Eventually she has to return to her family and admit that she lost her brother—that he’s likely dead. Her mother insists that it’s not her fault, but she know that it is.

The wound:

GUILT

Ever since that day, Spearmint has suffered from the heavy burden of guilt. Feeling accusation in the eyes of her mother and other siblings, she leaves home at an early age. But she can never shake the plaguing sense that she’s forgotten something, that she’s letting someone down.

REGRET

She spent years replaying that night over and over in her head, and realizing all of the mistakes that she made. She should have just let that boy take her bag. The childish things she valued then—dolls and nicknacks—were actually worthless, and retaining them cost her her brother. As a result, she views any kind of attachment to possessions as a weakness.

LACK OF CLOSURE

Because she never found any trace of wee Coriander, she has spent the rest of her life unconsciously searching for him—knowing that he must be dead, but still haunted by a shred of hope.

Triggers:

1.) Fires. They’re common in the city, and every time she’s reminded of running through those streets, choking on smoke, her baby brother in her arms for the last time.

2.) Seeing him in strangers. It happens now and again—she’ll catch sight of a red haired young man on the street, and for one heart-rending second she thinks its Coriander. And when it isn’t her brother, she scolds herself for being so foolish: He’s dead, Spearmint. Let it go.

3.) Anyone saying “It’s not your fault.”

And, finally, we need to come up with plot points to force her to encounter her past. It depends on the kind of book you want to write, whether this is something that will be healing or not. This could be the kind of story where she finds Coriander and he’s alive. Or she finds him and he’s a fiend. Or maybe she follows a trail and, once again, it isn’t really him, and she needs to deal with the fact that she’ll never have an answer. She has to accept the not knowing. Or maybe at some point she has the opportunity to save some other kid, and it feels like a proxy for young Coriander. Regardless, we have to invent some specific scenes prior to the climax that will poke at her wound.

Such as:

Encounter Scene 1: Spearmint has been hunting a pack of fiends and thinks she has found their hideout. Little does she know, they’ve allowed her to pick up their trail and it’s a trap. She’s locked inside the building and soon she smells fire. They mean to burn her alive. The taste of the smoke reminds her of that night, and for a moment she’s overcome with the memory and feels twelve years old. She allows herself only five seconds to panic, and then turns off her emotions and focuses on how to get out.

Encounter Scene 2: She gets into a tight spot with one of her fellow fiend-hunters, a boy she thinks is too young to be on the streets at night. He’s injured during a fight and she hauls him back to their hideout, but he’s dead by the time she gets back. “I shouldn’t have let him take point,” she says. “It’s not your—” one of the other hunters begins. “Don’t say it’s not my fault,” Spearmint cuts in harshly. People only ever say that when it is.


Of course, we could just as easily start with plot and work backwards to character.

Start with Plot:

Now let’s imagine we’re writing a dystopian YA story. The goal is for it to be action-packed, mostly light hearted, possibly Robin-Hood-esque (because who doesn’t love Robin Hood?). Our broad-stroke plot ideas: third generation colonists on a farming planet, their ancestors signed contracts with the corporation who funded the expedition, giving over significant percentages of their crops. Over a century later, that corporation is still bleeding these communities dry. Employees of the corporation have tech and advanced weaponry that the commoners do not.

A band of young rebels begins to steal back the food-tax shipments, as well as generally interfering with all of the company’s goals. There is something within the compound that they need to get. In the climax, our heroes realize that if they allow the corporation to feel that it has won, by letting a large shipment of food through, they can effectively trojan-horse their way into the facility. So they are stuffed into crates full of various produce, stuck on a cart, and must wait and hope to pass through without detection.

One of these heroes is our protagonist, and we want to give him a wound. Let’s say the leader is our main character, and I’m going to call him Wolfgang Cooper.

So, if that scene is an “encounter” for good old Wolfgang, what might be his Trigger?

Simple answer: being stuck in a small, dark space. He’s Claustrophobic. 

If he suffers from claustrophobia, what is his wound?

Fear of restriction and lack of control.

And what experience might be the impetus for this?

Maybe Wolfgang, unlike most citizens on this planet, is a new arrival. He was part of a second wave of colonization, but when mechanical failures compromised the ship, his parents put him in a single-man escape pod. Miraculously, it made it safely to the planet, but the device was damaged upon landing so that he could not open it. He spent a day locked inside, in that cramped, dark metal pill, pounding on the hatch until his hands were bruised, believing he would die.


Alright, yet another long winded post! But I really feel strongly about this. It’s such a simple thing to give your protagonist a past, and yet I read books all the time in which the character seems to come out of some kind of stasis in the moment the book starts. Or the dreaded “my life was perfect until” opening.

Let your characters be wounded from the start. They will be so much more interesting for their scars.

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Scrivener Work Flow for Scenes with Many Characters

Last week I was working on a difficult scene in which my protagonist is thrown into a new situation full of new characters. This is always challenging to execute, because I don’t want to overwhelm the reader with a slew of new names all at once. I have to decide which characters I will name at first, and relegate others to physical or personal characteristics— “a red-haired young man,” “a brunette with a vicious sneer,” etc. 

So, in order to write this scene, I needed to be able to see my new characters—preferably all of them at once, while also being able to quickly access character details like personality type and family name. With a bit of playing around, I found an orientation in Scrivener that suited my needs. (Note: I’m using Scrivener 3)

First:

Split the screen vertically, with the scene on the left and your character folder on the right in cork board view. Arrange the characters so that they are all together, so you don’t have to skim through irrelevant characters.

Second:

In the inspector, go to bookmarks for the scene. Drag and drop all of the characters who will appear in this scene from the binder. Now, if you click on a name, the information for that character will appear below. (I also shared my character creation templates for Scrivener recently, if you’re interested in that).

Third:

Adjust the view until you’re happy. I select “Hide Binder” to give me more space. (Everything I might need to consult is already in my bookmarks, so I don’t need it). Then I adjust the view of the cork board to get my preferred balance for seeing a good number of characters without making the pictures too small.

Fourth:

Lock all of this in place. I lock the notes to the first scene into the inspector, so that if I click over on the cork board I won’t lose my bookmarks. I then lock the cork board in place so that I don’t accidentally click on a card and lose all of my pictures.

That’s it!

I like this layout because I can both see the cards and access the information contained within them without having to navigate back and forth. This orientation would work well for any project that relies on visual notes. I would imagine for a contemporary book, it might be nice for referencing real pictures of the setting, for example.

Anyway, I hope that was helpful. Happy writing!

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My Current Writing Projects: A General Update

I haven’t been posting much lately about my writing, mostly because I feel as though I’ve been keeping a dirty secret. You see, I’m not just writing book four of The Marked Series, I’ve also begun a new project. Actually, I’m currently bopping between three different WIPs: Resolution of the Marked, my prequel Bray Novella, and the first book in a new Young Adult Fantasy series with the working title “Irons and Roses.”

For those of you have been waiting forever for the final installment of The Marked Series, who are dying to know how Bray and Yarrow’s story ends—I KNOW.  I feel you. Waiting sucks, and knowing that an author is working on something other than the thing you’ve been impatiently tapping your foot over is an unpleasant revelation. Which is why I’ve been so reticent to admit it.

First, I want to say that you don’t have to worry that I’m not going to finish the series. I absolutely am. I owe it to myself, my characters, and my readers. I’m honestly so excited to get the finale out there, so you can all see how it ends. I began this project nearly six years ago, and I’ve been building up to this book since then. This book is happening. I am working on it. It’s just going to be a while longer (But still definitely a much shorter wait than between books 2 and 3!)

If you’re wondering why I’m not giving it my full attention, well…the answer is probably also going to be unpleasant. The truth is, my Marked Series doesn’t sell all that well. It’s a difficult series to market because it isn’t terribly similar to anything else selling at the moment. It’s such a hodgepodge of fantasy sub-genres that it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. That makes is hard to advertise. I can’t say, “If you liked A, you’ll love Division of the Marked.” There’s nothing near enough for that kind of 1:1 comparison.

It’s alright. This was my first series, and I’ve learned so much about the craft of writing and the industry over these past several years. Most people don’t hit it out of the park on their first go. But, you see, I have this dream: I want to make a career of my writing. I don’t aspire to superstardom or to put out huge bestsellers, only the ability to contribute to my household income with my books. And Resolution of the Marked is not going to help me achieve that dream. In all honesty, upon release, I will probably only break even on editing costs, as I did with Lamentation. And taking on a huge, emotionally-charged project when you know it isn’t going to reach many readers or earn much return on investment is…disheartening.

Which is the reason for Irons and Roses. I read a ton of YA fantasy in 2017 as market research, and I planned out this new series so that it will appeal to a pre-existing readership (as opposed to writing a book designed only to appeal to myself, as I did with The Marked Series). It fits neatly in a sub-genre (fairytales —> royalty) and will be much easier to market. However, it is by no means a knock-off of anything out there, nor do I think it is unoriginal. In fact, it’s been a pleasure to write. These characters have come alive for me so readily, the world feels real and textured, and my new magic system is a ton of fun to play around with. I can’t know for certain that it will sell—because I’m not an oracle, of course—but it gives me hope, at least. And that’s why I’m writing it concurrently with Resolution. I needed that hope to get me up and at my keyboard every morning.

I’ve found that working on multiple projects to be SO MUCH more satisfying that focusing on just one. Whichever story is speaking to me on a given day, that’s the one I write. I’ve been having far less trouble with writer’s block because I can bop back and forth as the muse strikes me.

So, there you have it. I’m writing three stories. I’m writing the Bray Novella because it has been circulating in the back of my head for YEARS, and there are all of these little pieces of it that I want so badly to get on paper. It feel like canon, and so it should be. I’m writing Resolution of the Marked because I could not possibly leave these characters, my old friends, adrift and lacking in closure. And I’m writing Irons and Roses because I believe it will find and please readers—and because it’s reminded me of the simple joy that is starting a new project, when everything is a fresh discovery and the possibilities are endless.

The Irons and Roses series is currently planned to be five books long, and I intend to write the first draft of the entire series before heading back for revisions, which means it won’t be released soon, but when it is released there will be little waiting between books. Likely you’ll get the Bray Novella next, then Resolution of the Marked, then Irons and Roses. At least, that’s the plan. Look out–2018 is going to be my year!

Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest.

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Pre-Writing Worksheet

About a year ago, I blogged about my pre-writing exercises (I recommend checking out that post for more details on my process. I’m going to be brief here).

This step in my writing process was a big break-through for my productivity. It still is, however I’ve recently tweaked and improved my method, and so I thought I’d share. 

I used to do my pre-writing exercises right in Scrivener. However, I discovered that whenever I got stuck–either in writing the beats or writing the scene itself–the best solution was to set aside my computer and try a more tactile method of problem solving: either pen and paper or my trusty whiteboard and a variety of colorful markers. I would create mind maps, doodles, jot down intentions and themes as well as potential plot points and see if I could draw connections. And somehow, out of all of that nonsense, an answer would always arise.

I really think that typing and writing by hand tap into different creative flows. And while I prefer typing for actual draft writing (so I can write my sentences inside out, rather than beginning to end), there is no doubt in my mind that handwriting is king when it comes to plot-untangling, character-redirection, and writer’s-block-busting. 

And so it occurred to me recently: why do I use this method as a step-backwards, and only when I’ve hit a snag? Why not tap into this more clear-sighted method of writing in the first place? So I made a simple PDF printout of my pre-writing exercises, leaving plenty of white space for mind-maps and doodles, and then began planning my scenes by hand.

Now, this is my favorite ritual. I take my empty worksheet and my sharpie pen, along with the other key ingredient: a cup of coffee, and I curl up in my reading chair instead of at my desk. Something about differentiating these work zones helps, too, I think. It’s very pavlovian. I take as long as I want or need to sketch out my scenes–and if daydreaming and doodling are necessary, so be it (I likely would have gotten stuck on that scene anyway, so time-wise I view it as a wash). And then, when I’m finished with pre-writing, I go to my desk and immediately begin writing the scene. No dithering now, no doodling now. The desk is a space for drafting and editing only. 

It really is an ongoing process: discovering all the little tricks and techniques that you, as an individual writer, can use to better tap into creativity and improve efficiency. I’m sure I’m still figuring out my own ideal work habits, bit by bit. But it’s always such a joy whenever I do find some small way to make the herculean task of writing a novel more approachable. Which is why I wanted to share–just in case this tip would speak for anyone else.

Here’s the PDF I use: Pre-Writing. Feel free to give it a whirl. 

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My Top 17 Reads of 2017

2017 was a big year for me, book-wise.

You see, it was about this time last year that I had a realization: I write Young Adult fiction. You’d think I would know this, but I didn’t. It only took years of reviews labeling my Marked Series as YA, as well as a Bookbub ad in the Teen section rather than the Fantasy section, to finally cue me in.

You see, I hadn’t set out to be a YA fantasy writer, mostly because I didn’t understand what that meant. What is YA fantasy? With contemporary, it’s easy to pick out YA books–they deal with teen issues. But in a fantasy world, an older teen is an effective adult.

Besides, age of character is not a sure-fire measure. I mean, Kvothe is a child and teen, but The Name of the Wind is adult fantasy. Kell is twenty-one years old, yet A Darker Shade of Magic is Young Adult fantasy. 

I was confused. I couldn’t understand the difference. And if I am a writer of Young Adult fantasy (which I apparently am), I should probably know what Young Adult fantasy is. Right?

So I set about finding out. By reading A LOT of Young Adult genre fiction, and taking A LOT of notes. I made this a part of my job, set goals, and took my TBR list seriously.

And I learned a lot. Even the books I didn’t much enjoy taught me about the genre, and there were a whole lot of books that I loved. Gushed over. Wanted to tattoo on my heart.

So I decided to do a little round up, to close out the year.

Here are my top 17 reads of 2017:

1.) Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

A fantasy heist story, but also so much more. This little duology stole my heart. Seriously, Kaz, I want my heart back.


2.) Strange the Dreamer, Laini Taylor

Beautiful, weird, and immersive. Lazlo Strange might be the sweetest, kindest protagonist I’ve ever read. I want to keep him.


3.) The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

I don’t say this lightly: The Scorpio Races is a perfect book. It’s atmospheric and magical and affecting. I adored it.


4.) Carry OnRainbow Rowell

This book is about a boy wizard falling in love with his vampire roommate. It’s written my Rainbow Rowell. And so, obviously, it’s amazing.


5.) Shadow & BoneLeigh Bardugo

Me trying not to fall in love with the villain (HE’S BAD! STOP!), brought to you by the talented Leigh Bardugo.


6.) The Raven CycleMaggie Stiefvater

One of my favorite series ever. This thing crawled its way into my chest and pitched a tent. I didn’t love certain things about the conclusion, but the overall journey is still so, so worth taking.


7.) The Lunar ChroniclesMarissa Meyer

I thought this might be a one-note story rooted in a neat idea, but it proved to be a surprisingly epic adventure, full of lovable characters, humor, and swoon-worthy romance. *slow clap*


8.) Daughter of Smoke & BoneLaini Taylor

So funny. So well written. Laini Taylor blows me away every time. I love the importance placed on friendship in this series. 


9.) The Song of AchillesMadeline Miller

What has Hector ever done to me? Ok, I’m not sure if this one is YA or not, but either way it left me well-marinaded in my own tears. Can’t say more, not without weeping all over my keyboard. 


10.) The Girl of Fire and ThornsRae Carson

Watching Elisa change and grow was a pure joy. I was taken aback by the complexity, heart, and nuance in this series. The blurb really doesn’t do it justice. 


11.) Red QueenVictoria Aveyard

Puppy Chow, the books. This series took over my life while I was reading it. In fact, I can’t even say if it was “good” or not, I was too busy devouring it like a bowl of puppy chow for that level of assessment. 


12.) Red RisingPierce Brown

This book and I got off to a rough start. Actually, I was strongly disliking it. And then only kind-of liking it. But then, slowly, I was invested. By the second book I was wholly smitten. It’s flawed, in my opinion, but this series also stuck with me in a way that most books don’t. It’s the kind of story that you just keep chewing over long after it’s through.


13.) Bitterblue, Kristin Cashore

This book was not only wonderful all on it’s own, but it actually made me retroactively like Graceling more. It’s about a young and inexperienced queen trying to sort through a messy political situation. It’s rare (and refreshing) in these kinds of books for the problems to lack an easy solution. (I also read–and enjoyed–Fire) 


14.) A Darker Shade of MagicV.E. Schwab

This was the last book I read in 2017, and I haven’t gotten to the sequel yet, but the first installment was very well done. I can’t wait to see where it goes next!


15.) The Black MageRachel E. Carter

This series snuck up on me. The first book held my interest, the second really expanded the top-notch magic system, but the third and fourth…damn. I probably would take issue with certain things that happened in the story, if I weren’t so engrossed that I couldn’t think beyond turning the page.


16.) The Wrath & The DawnRenée Ahdieh

A well-done retelling of a classic. I was charmed by the female lead and really enjoyed the texture and flavor of the world. The sequel left me a little underwhelmed, however.


17.) The Remnant ChroniclesMary E. Pearson

I did not love the beginning of book one, but once the plot gets moving I enjoyed this series. Didn’t much care for the romance, but I loved seeing Lia grow into her own person with her own priorities.


I’ve still got a whole lot of books on my list, and I’m excited to work on my next writing project now that I have a better understanding of the genre. 

What are some of your favorite Young Adult novels? 

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Roget’s Thesaurus: A Love Story

As a writer, I’m ever searching for the word. You know the one—that perfectly specific verb, that spot-on, lyrical adjective, that evocative noun—that peculiar word (or phrase) that will infuse an entire sentence with magic.

The word is often an elusive creature. Sasquatch-esque. And like the noble sasquatch, it’s out there—waiting. I often come to a point in writing when I know there is a perfect word, if only I can find it.

Which beings me to the point of today’s post: thesauruses (thesauri?). Actually, no. Let’s back up for a moment and talk about dictionaries. A few years back I stumbled upon this blog post: You’re probably using the wrong dictionary. It was a game changer for me. If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend doing so. But the gist of it is this: modern dictionaries do not hold a candle to this 1913 Webster dictionary. Its definitions often read like poetry, and it uses sample sentences from classic literature. It’s a wonderful resource.

But it got me thinking: is it possible there’s an older thesaurus that is also superior to the modern one that comes standard on my computer? I did some digging, and I found that the 1911 version of Roget’s Thesaurus is free and available online, and—much like the glorious Webster dictionary—it is rife with odd and wonderful words.

An Example

A while back, I was working on a short story (Prudentia) about a bureaucrat on a spaceship who works as an art censor, until a collection of poems forces her to reexamine her beliefs. It was a fun project, but it meant I needed to write a few poems—something I hadn’t done since college. I quickly rediscovered how much more sasquatch-esque the right word can be when dealing with verse. The word not only requires the perfect meaning, but also (potentially) the correct number of syllables or a specific ending sound.

I was stumped for a while on the fourth line of the second stanza in this poem:

I should rather bleed

Burn, choke, howl, keen,

For want of you, plead,

Than smile—blithe, serene

 

I should rather die,

Live, hurt, die anew,

Than have said goodbye,

And, ______, continue

 

Without you, Love

Oh – Oh my Love,

Without you.

I wanted a word that meant “willingly” or “gladly,” however it needed to be one syllable (and a one-syllable adverb is a pretty tall order.) Typing willingly into the thesaurus on my mac gave me this:

None of these words work. But I had the sense that the word I needed did exist, that I had read it somewhere before. When I checked on Roget.org (using the text queries feature, which has more results. Just click on the little ABC button at the bottom of the landing page) I got this:

And there she blows! Fain. FAIN! I double checked the meaning in my Webster dictionary:

And, yup. It’s the perfect word. Than have said goodbye / And, fain, continue. BOOSH!

My Thesaurus Journey Continues

I continued to happily use the web version of this thesaurus for quite some time, until one day I was placing an Amazon order and I needed to throw something else into my cart to get free shipping (Oh, Zon, you clever rogue, you), so I decided to get myself a physical copy (this one). I wanted something I could leaf through, so I might browse for words that strike my fancy without having to enter a search term.

When it arrived, with its fragile binding and yellowing pages, my first thought was that it really put the used in “used – very good condition.” But then I opened it, and found this:

I was expecting to think to myself: “this is a very good thesaurus,” or possibly “this is useless, but at least I got free shipping.” Instead, I found myself realizing something fairly embarrassing: I’d forgotten what a thesaurus is. Because I have long thought of a thesaurus as a dictionary, but with synonyms rather than definitions. However, the way this book is organized completely contradicts that notion. As you can see in the above picture, that page is not laid out alphabetically. It is designed like this: Communication of Ideas > Nature of Ideas Communicated > Meaning / Unmeaningness (Yes, let’s take a moment to savor the word unmeaningness.)

The introduction explains it perfectly:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.

Perhaps this is well known and I’m just the one dummy who hasn’t picked up a physical thesaurus since childhood, but it struck me as something of a revelation. A thesaurus is not a dictionary of synonyms. A thesaurus is an inside out dictionary, starting with the meaning instead of the word, and revealing the way those meanings relate to each other.

Take a look at this beauty:

Means of Safety / Source of Danger. I had no idea that a thesaurus could offer up such idea-driven word groupings.

The more I use this new resource, the more I love it. I still use the web version as well, but I’d forgotten that the core concept behind what a thesaurus is makes it impossible to digitize. A book that categorizes terms by meaning rather than by the word itself can’t be searchable without losing its heart.

So, here’s my tip for the day: use online thesauri (I certainly still do; it’s faster), but when you find yourself on the hunt for a particularly juicy the word, take a look in a physical thesaurus too. You might be surprised by what you find.

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Character Creation

As I’ve been working on the last book in my Marked series, I’ve also begun looking ahead to future projects (hurray!). I’ve been thinking a lot about my creative process—specifically all of the things that I did poorly early in the development of this series.

I made a pretty spectacular number of dummy mistakes when I wrote Division (foolish errors that made each book more difficult as I went, since I couldn’t go back and make changes). I don’t have any regrets, really—I learned a lot along the way, and I’m happy with most of the final product—but I intend to be smarter when tackling early planning in the future.

In particular, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my character creation process. Since I write character driven fiction, characters are the engine of my story. They are the most important ingredient. Which is why the complete lack of planning I did when I created my characters in Division was so short-sighted.

I’ve come to think of it as the “swing open the carriage door” method of character development, because that is literally how I handled character creation. My two main characters, Bray and Yarrow, came to me more or less fully formed, but I knew they needed friends. So, in the opening of the story, they are riding along in a carriage and they pick up two other boys along the way. I put zero thought into who these boys should be or how they would play into the plot. I just opened the door and let someone walk in. Arlow, Peer, Ko-Jin, and Adearre were all created this way.

THEN, I doubled down on this stupidity, when I decided in book two that these characters, whom I’d invented so haphazardly, should all get their own POVs and become major players in the plot. Which meant that I needed them to develop and grow in ways that would add to the larger story. I’d given them personality flaws at random, and had to think of ways for them to confront these flaws while still working towards the ultimate conclusion I’d already set in motion. It was like dumping random puzzle pieces down on the table and just praying that my future-self could figure out how they might fit together.

The fact that I actually DID figure it out is something of a miracle—and, as a result, I invented some interesting plot points that I otherwise would never have considered—but really, why make this so needlessly difficult for myself?

So, as I start developing my next project, I have begun with the radical notion of creating my characters BEFORE I dump them into a story that’s already on the move. This way I can deliberately shape the plot to suit my characters. I began looking for templates online for character creation, and though I found many out there, none were what I needed. They often had lots of details that were not relevant to me as a fantasy writer, and left out the things that I think are most important. So I decided to create my own.

I think strong primary characters must be three things:

1) Specific – Great characters are specific rather than vague. They aren’t merely a “type.” They are idiosyncratic. When I wrote up this character template, I was still suffering from a book hangover after reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and I could not get over how beautifully distinct and unique her characters were. All of the tiny yet consistent details made her cadre of friends vivid and real.  Gansey chews mint leaves and rubs his fingers to his lip when he’s thinking. Ronan is a foul-mouthed antiestablishment ruffian / practicing Catholic with soft-spot for baby birds. NONE of these characters are a type. There are so many different ways a character can be distinctly themselves: it’s in their mannerisms and speech patterns, their belief and desires, their possessions and appearance.

2) Dynamic – Duh. I know. Obviously my main characters can’t be static. So when planning a character, I need to think ahead to how they are going to change. I need to give them room to grow…or degenerate. I also need to consider that they existed before the story began (unless we start at birth). Real people have pasts that matter to them—cherished memories and painful experiences. The movie Inside Out helped me think about this in a more concrete way. Riley’s key personality traits were all attached to significant memories, and when she formed new (traumatic) memories, her personality was—at least temporarily—changed. SO, what past events have helped inform who my character is when he or she is introduced? AND, when something significant happens during the story, how will it effect my character moving forward?

3) DrivenMost commonly, we talk about characters being driven by a goal. They have an objective and they are moving towards it, or trying to. Usually they are held up by some manner of deficiency that they first need to overcome. But characters are driven in lots of ways—they can be driven my key character traits, like loyalty or ambition. They might be driven by a key belief or philosophy. Interesting character usually have more than one thing that is pushing them—and sometimes the things that motivate them begin to conflict. Maybe their lifelong goal of becoming an expert fighter begins to clash with their natural propensity for compassion. Think of all the things—the wants and traits and values—that will push and motivate your character, and how those things will potentially work together. But something MUST be compelling our characters to act and change, otherwise they either do nothing or are merely swept up in a plot that has no stakes for them.

So, with those three key components in mind, I created for myself a character template for Scrivener. It is pretty in depth. I used it to build the main cast of my next project, and it took me a long time. BUT, I found that the process worked really well. I would begin with a nebulous and vague notion of a character, and as I moved through the template I felt as if I really got to know these new characters. They now exist in my mind, fully complex, and already primed to grow with the plot.

Here’s how it goes:

 

I begin with broad strokes: general info about who they are, what they look like, and what they want. Character alignment is used in Dungeons & Dragons, and I think its a useful early tool for character development.

Next, I do their Myers Briggs Type. I find this a super useful tool to understand some of the basic workings of my character. Understanding these sorts of mechanics early helps me to write consistent characters. For example, if a character relies on Sensing over Intuition, they focus on the reality of their current situation rather than imagining all the ways that things could be different. This will be pertinent to how my character addresses challenges.

(In the Scrivener file, you can find lots of information in the document notes section to aid in filling out this part of the template. The “other examples” are pulled from, in order: Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avatar the Last Airbender, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, The Walking Dead, Marvel, and Star Wars.)

After I know their character type, I move on to development. I want to think about their goals, strengths, weaknesses, and knowledge at the beginning, during, and at the end. I want  to build in lots of room for them to grow and change. Here, I’m liable to start making notes about potential plot points that can help my character shift in necessary ways.

Next up, fundamentals and background! I decide on their wants, fears, and beliefs, but I also consider how these underlying motivators manifest. It can be interesting to play with contradiction here, or to subvert expectations. A natural assumption might be to have a desire for wealth manifest in hard work and a fear of being alone manifest in consideration for loved ones. But a desire for wealth might just as well manifest in stinginess and jealousy, and a fear of being alone might cause a character to preemptively isolate himself, so as to be alone by choice rather than abandonment.

Love languages (again, in the document notes) are a good way of thinking ahead about how a character will show affection. Not everyone expresses love the same way.

Background is an important and—I think—fun step. What has happened to them in the past and how do those experiences inform their current state? I make a list of defining moments—memories that my characters will no doubt reflect on at some point in the story. Prejudices and affinities are also usually informed by one’s background.

Once I know my character’s personality type and background, it’s easy to isolate their character traits. I also consider which personality traits are the result of some prior experience and what are just an inherent part of the character’s identity. Those traits that are resultant could change if future experiences challenge past experiences; those that are inherent are much less likely to be altered. Once I know the character’s personality traits, I can decide how those traits manifest.

Character perception is also a really useful thing to consider in advance. Perhaps the character doesn’t change (or doesn’t change much) but as the reader comes to understand the character the reader’s perception shifts. For example, a character’s goals and personality traits might be largely negative but manifest in seemingly positive ways—it could take time for the reader to see the darkness that lurks beneath the surface layer. Victoria Aveyard did an amazing job with this in Red Queen. The way Mare, and by extension we the reader, feel about the two princes is a giant emotional rollercoaster. I still haven’t gotten over that twist.

The next two sections are pretty straight forward. Giving each character their own specific set of mannerisms helps to make them feel more distinct. I particularly like to think about how my characters behave under the influence of certain emotions, because ideally a cast of characters should not all express their embarrassment in exactly the same way, for example. If you can invent a few idiosyncratic mannerisms for a given emotion, it will be a very useful tool in the future; you can simultaneously represent a feeling with “showing” and reaffirm characterization. (Like Gansey and his thoughtful lip rubbing. If his fingers are on his lips, I know he’s thinking without being told, and I’m reminded of this (adorable) idiosyncrasy which makes him feel distinct.)

The Voice & Language section usually takes me some time to ponder, but it’s very useful to know in advance how a character speaks. There is nothing worse than a book in which all of the character sound exactly the same (unless it’s a book with switching first person in which all of the character sound exactly the same). So, I take the time to write out some dummy dialogue and to isolate a few phrases or non-standard usages for each character. I plan to continue expanding this section as I write, so it will be easier to be consistent. Preference and Relationships are probably self-explanatory. I used “likes” as it is nice a broad, as opposed to some templates which demand favorite colors and sports teams. Your character might not give a flying shit about having a favorite color, but he or she is going to like SOMETHING. Maybe a favorite food or a type of music or the smell of yeast because their dear departed mama was a baker. Whatever. But these are the kinds of details that help flesh out who this person is.

Next is things. Possessions and clothing are potentially great opportunities for characterization, whether it be a sentimental keepsake or a a garish hat that says a lot about their personal style and priorities (à la Lindsay Buroker’s Maldynado)

And, FINALLY, I end with 5 little-known facts. This gives me an opportunity to think up some details that perhaps don’t fit into any of the above categories, and to give the character some surprising elements—a few contradictions or secrets.

And that’s it. Like I said, it isn’t terribly fast. It takes me some time to figure all of this out. But so far, I’ve found that the characters I’ve produced using this template are truly interesting and dynamic—and, even more importantly, I am always excited to start writing them after completing this process. This is needlessly detailed for secondary and tertiary characters, so I also created a truncated version for characters who are less significant.

If you use Scrivener and you would like to give my template a try, I’ve included it below. To add these character templates to your Scrivener file first download and open the file provided. Then drag and drop the sheets into your templates folder. If you do not have a templates folder then drag over the folder and set it as the template folder, like so:

Then open up a new template and get to creating:

Download and unzip: Character Template

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Music & Writing Multiple Points of View

Music is a big part of my creative process. There’s a lot of power in playing just the right song, at just the right moment. The fight scene in the second chapter of Elevation, for example, would simply not exist as it does without Woodkid. I was stumped, and then those drums woke me up.

When I began writing, the way that music played into my process developed organically. I began to notice that certain songs reminded me of certain characters. I’d be sitting on the bus on my way home from work, and The Head and the Heart would shuffle on, and suddenly I would be thinking of my character Yarrow. Often enough, those thoughts would yield useable ideas.

Once I realized this, I decided to give each of my characters their own song. This strategy became increasingly helpful as I added more view point characters to each book. The most difficult thing about writing with multiple POVs, for me, is switching from one head to another. They each have their own voice, their own struggles, their own goals and plot-lines. It is sometimes challenging for me when I’m in a groove with one character and then I suddenly have to shift.

The best trick I’ve found is to use music cues. Whichever head I need to jump into for the next scene, I play that character’s song. Because I do this so often, I believe it triggers something in my brain to help with the transition. It’s a simple Pavlovian reaction. My mind hears those drums, and it knows that it’s time to be Ko-Jin.

Having such strong tries between certain songs and certain characters also helps push me to ponder and day dream in constructive ways. If I’m out for a walk or at the gym and I know I’m going to have a writing session soon, I put on music that tells my brain it’s time to think about work. The connection is there, so I don’t have to try to herd my wild thoughts into a more productive direction. It happens effortlessly.

So, this is my tip: if you write multiple view points in your story, and you ever find it difficult to jump in and out of heads, take a moment to choose a song for each of your POV characters. I currently use the apple music app, which allows you to play a “radio station” based on a specific song, and it always plays that song first.

Some advice:

1) Don’t get too hung up on finding a song that perfectly speaks to the character in every lyric. Maybe there’s just a line here and there that fit. Or maybe the words are all wrong but the voice and beat are perfect. Ultimately, the song doesn’t matter that much, as long as you build the connection between it and your character.

2.) Make sure to choose different artists for each character, not different songs by the same artist. For me, the association tends to spread from that one song to all songs by the same artist. All Woodkid songs now make me think of Ko-Jin, even if they don’t fit. I think you’d have some crossed-streams if you overlapped.

3.) Pick songs you like enough that listening to them over and over again won’t drive you crazy. Personally, I can listen to the same song a million times in a row without a problem, as long as I like the song.

4.) Consider the mood / tone of the song in relation to the types of scenes that character is likely to be featured in. Having a slow, sleepy song for a character who gets into a lot of sword fights, for example, might not jive well.

Bonus

For fans of my Marked series who are curious, here are the songs I use for my POV characters. I threw them into a Spotify playlist for you. The order goes: Yarrow, Bray, Ko-Jin, Arlow, Peer, Chae-Na, Vendra.

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Lamentation of the Marked Sneak Peek

Hello, everyone! Release day for Lamentation is tomorrow, so to celebrate I did a quick video of myself reading the first scene from the prologue. Hope you enjoy it! (Particularly the weirdo glasses I’ve had to wear to stop my eyeballs from itching from screen fatigue). The full text is also included below.

Lamentation of the Marked

Prologue

Vendra sensed light and motion beyond the veil of her eyelids. Her unconscious mind stirred. Signals zipped between synapses like messages along a telegraph line. It was a pull as inescapable as gravity, but still she resisted. She clung to the respite of sleep, filled with the vague yet certain sense that rousing would be painful; that wakefulness would be loud, confusing, fuzzy-tongued.

Her cheek was pressed into the grain of a wooden board, and a nailhead poked at the flesh below her left eye. From nearby, there came a thunderous outcry. Despite her efforts to remain asleep, the din intensified in her ears, and the peace of slumber slipped through her mental fingers.

Why is it so loud? she thought.

Where am I? she thought.

Quade? she thought.

The roar shifted, individual voices resolving into a unified chant.

“Dispatch her,” said a cold-voiced man.

Vendra’s eyes flickered open. Her temples throbbed, and she tried to swallow, but her mouth was coated in viscous saliva—common side effects. She hefted her head up from the planking and gazed out over a massive crowd. Her brow puckered in confusion.

“YOUR DEATH WILL BE AS TRIVIAL AS A BEETLE BENEATH A BOOT,” the assembly boomed.

The central square of Accord teemed; its usual bare cobble-stoned expanse was instead packed with bodies. Why? She had only imperfect, half-memories. A hazy sense of purpose lost.

Vendra’s head swiveled, sweeping leftwards. Beneath nine empty gallows, a cluster of Elevated and civilians brawled. She blinked at the knot of violence—the flying limbs and tumbling bodies—uncertain of its origin. Nine nooses swayed in the breeze.

From amidst the tumult, the shape of Quade Asher emerged, crossing the stage with black strides. Vendra’s heart thudded in her breast at the sight of him. His form, so sure and straight, always made something deep within her ache. His dark beauty was her greatest addiction.

Her mouth opened to call his name—look at me, see me. He turned, and when she saw him the sound died in her throat.

His face…

It was his, and yet it was not. The shapes and colors were true, but stripped of their allure. His aspect was, all at once, repulsive to her. Foul. His eyes were the blackest, coldest holes she had ever beheld. The sight of them sent a shiver through her spirit, like a web of minute cracks racing across a pane of glass.

She wanted to avert her gaze, to deny the evidence before her, but she couldn’t manage so much as a blink. She had loved this man for all her adult life—had lived for him, killed for him—and yet, somehow, she had never seen him.

A streak of motion came from above, and an arrow bloomed in Quade’s shoulder. He fell to his knees, a snarl escaping his thin lips. And then their former captive, Peer Gelson, charged into view. A sword flashed in his hand.

Vendra’s stomach clenched, and she was uncertain if she more feared or desired Quade’s death. It mattered little. Before the killing stroke could land, her lover vanished with a hollow pop.

She slumped onto her bottom and hugged her legs close to her chest. Lucid for the first time in nearly two decades, countless memories flitted through her mind’s eye. Wounds only now perceived, sins only now recognized. And it was too much, all too much.

Her shoulder blades hit the planking, followed by the back of her skull. Her mind went blank. She stared up at the sky and watched the clouds drift from east to west. The day’s light dimmed, to the tune of her uneven breath. Flurries swirled like ash on a breeze—ash, fire.

Her nose and cheeks grew icy. The clamor of the crowd dwindled until, at length, no sound remained but the gusting of the wind.

“You can’t be staying here,” a male voice said, shattering her trance.

The form of Peer Gelson loomed above her, his breath exploding like steam from his mouth. She had the strong impression she should feel remorse in his presence—whiff of gunpowder, a pained bellow.

“Are you…?” he trailed off and cleared his throat. “It’s cold and gettin’ colder. People’ve been gathering up at the palace.”

He extended a hand to help her up, then seemed to think better of it. He jammed his fist into his coat pocket and rocked on his boots. “Come or not. I won’t be carryin’ you.”

She lacked both the will and the desire to rise. If she stood, she would still have to be herself. She would still have to live within her own mind. This numbness could not last, and it was the only thing keeping her intact. If she moved, she would surely disintegrate.

I’m in shock, she thought.

My pulse is rapid, she thought.

I want to die, she thought.

“After I murdered your friend,” Vendra said, locking eyes with Peer, “you swore you would kill me. You swore.”

He transferred his weight from one foot to the other. “And?”

Something large and empty was opening inside her—a crater in the fabric of her being. “Do it,” she whispered. “Kill me.”

He squatted beside her, resting his forearms on his thighs. “No.”

“He was a good man, was he not? Your friend?”

“He was.”

“And I shot him.”

“You did,” he said. She watched the lump in his throat bob. Snowflakes peppered his sandy hair. “Live with it. I’ll not be doing you any favors.”

He stood and strode away, leaving her colder than she had ever felt in all her life. She scrambled to her knees, dizziness causing her vision to swim. “Wait!”

He paused and half-turned, but didn’t meet her pleading gaze. “You can’t be stayin’ out here. It’s freezin’.” And with that he departed, his shadow merging into the night.

Vendra trembled against the wind. She glanced around the square, surprised to discover that she wasn’t alone. There were young people—Quade’s Elevated—standing, sitting, and kneeling in various states of shock. They looked like frosted sculptures, misery whittled into form.

She experienced a brief surge of guilt upon seeing them. But that feeling was soon snuffed out, like every other sensation. She stared down at a nail that stuck unevenly from the stage, stared until it was no longer visible beneath a layer of fresh snow.

She wondered how long it would take to die if she just sat there, exposed. Perversely, she thought of Quade. She longed to feel him beside her, to be wrapped in the warmth and comfort of his presence—flick of a blade, blood.

A hand came to rest on her shoulder, and she jolted. She whirled, expecting to see him, Quade—his visage appearing as it did in her memory. Beautiful. But these were not Quade’s eyes studying her with such concern.

“Vendra, can you hear me?”

She blinked, taking in a wrinkled brow, a bristling white mustache.

“Grandfather?”

Dedrre dropped to the snow and pulled her close. She pressed her face into the wool of his overcoat and breathed in the familiar smell of him.

“You’re frozen to the core; thank the Spirits he told me…” he said, rubbing hands up and down her arms.

Before she knew it, she was weeping. Her chest heaved and her throat ached and she shuddered under the power of her shame and grief. Hot tears burned against her numb cheeks.

“Shh,” her grandfather soothed. “It’s over now. I’m here now. Shh.”

She burrowed into his warmth. “It’s not over,” she said, voice muffled. “Not yet.”

Not ever. Not for me.

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Lamentation Pre-order and Book Trailer

Lamentation is off for its first pass with my editor, currently. I am so excited to get this book finished and out to my readers. The book will be available on all platforms on July 3rd. It is up for pre-order now. I’ve set the pre-order at $3.99, as a thank-you price for those who have been patiently waiting (and not forgotten me!). It will be raised to $4.99 after release day, so make sure to pick it up while it’s on sale! There are buy links at the bottom of this post.

Some fun facts about the book: it is the longest in the series, at just under 130,000 words; it has 7 perspective characters (Division had 2, Elevation had 5); half of it was written in Korea, half in the US (split between Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Florida).

Check out the trailer:

Order your copy now!

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