On Writing Unforgettable Secondary Characters – With Ianto Jones

Hello gentle reader,

Today I’d like to talk about how to write unforgettable secondary characters. To do so I will use the example of Ianto Jones, a supporting character in the British Science-Fiction Drama Torchwood (played by Gareth David-Lloyd). Fair warning: here there’ll be spoilers, so stop reading now if you haven’t watched this great show which ended in 2010.

Ianto Jones Portrait

Why Ianto Jones, you ask? Because when Ianto died in the fourth episode of the series’ third season in July 2009, fans were so overwhelmed with shock and grief they created a shrine for him in Cardiff. Yes, a shrine.

Ianto's Shrine - Cardiff

Photo by crimson_bride from Save Ianto.Com

So how did the writers of the show made us care for Ianto so much that his fictional death broke our hearts, and what can we learn from this for our own writing?

1-      The audience can relate to him

The Torchwood Institute is a small team of alien-hunters in Cardiff, Wales. All the main characters are clever and charismatic heroes who are excellent at saving the world and the day. And then you have Ianto.

Ianto Jones - Gwen's wedding dress

“And this is Ianto Jones. Ianto cleans up after us and gets us everywhere on time.”

Ianto is not a hero. He makes coffee, sweeps the floor, drives the car, gets takeout food and occasionally helps the heroine buy her wedding dress. He is stuck in a dead-end job and feels inadequate. And yet, in this part-of-the-background kind of way, the audience gets used to him. And starts to wonder why he’s here…

2-       He has a personality

From the start of the series, Ianto has defining characteristics that make him real and present in the audience’s subconscious. These are details, but they help flesh him out: his clothes (a three-piece suit, his earpiece), the stiffness in his posture, his dry sense of humor… Ianto is a 3D character.

Ianto Jones Official Promo

3-      Somebody loves him

The best way to make the reader/audience care about a character is to show him loved by another beloved character. In this case, it becomes clear in the 2d season of the show that the hero Jack is falling for Ianto. And the fact that Ianto means something to the other protagonists makes it easier for the audience to love him too.

Ianto Jones - Jack Harkness

4-      His actions are motivated (even if it’s not clear at first)

Ianto’s presence in the Torchwood’s team is not accidental. The audience doesn’t know it at first, and finds out about it as the series progresses. And looking back, you’re able to understand why Ianto accepted this dead-end job, why he acted the way he did in each episode, and why his death is simply a tragedy.

5-      He is flawed

Ianto Jones is not a hero. He is a normal bloke who makes bad decisions, can be a coward in the face of danger and has dubious judgment. He has layers. And you can only love him for it.

So next time you’re creating a secondary character, ask you yourself how you can make him so real, so mutli-layered and so easy to identify with your readers will build him a shrine when you kill him off.

How do you make secondary characters unforgettable? Share your tips in the comment section below!

And here are a few links you may find useful:

On Writing Memorable (Minor) Characters
Creating Memorable Secondary Characters
10 Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting Characters

ROW80 Check-In 3: On the importance of being a good beta-reader or critique partner

ROW80 Logo

Hello gentle reader,

It’s Sunday, and it’s time for my third ROW80 Check-In of this round. My goal this round is to write every day and this week I managed 5/7 days. I’m getting more organized as weeks go by and I’ve almost settled into a routine, which means I’m hoping for a 7/7 next week.

The reason I didn’t hit my 7 writing days this week is that I had to give priority to my critique partners in their hour of need…

Back in July 2012 I wrote a blog post about The Importance of Feedback and Beta Readers. I explained why it is essential for writers to have their work read and critiqued before they send it to an agent or a publisher. But there’s another side to this process: the part where you, the writer, give feedback on someone else’s Work In Progress.

As it happens this week, I spent a good amount of time thinking about how and why we should thrive to give helpful feedback to other writers. First I beta-read the full manuscript of the very talented Rachel. Later in the week I helped out the ever-awesome Jessica revise her first chapter then deal with negative feedback from another writer on her first pages. I also read this Conversation between Critique Partners on the Publishing Crawl blog and this blog post about How To Break Up With Your CP by Kat Ellis.

And I shall try to summarise the outcome of my little brainstorm below:

  1. Nothing and no one forces you to beta-read or critique other writer’s WIP if you don’t want to. Although it’s customary to swap WIPs, there’s no rule saying you should always reciprocate the favour. The way I see it, it’s more of a “pay-it-forward” process. I read Rachel’s novel but didn’t ask her to read anything for me. However I asked Juliana to read a short story for me and I have never beta-read any of her work.
  2. If you accept to beta-read or critique someone’s work, make sure you have the time and right frame of mind to do it. Comments should be honest but presented with a positive spin. The last thing you want to do is discourage the writer, even if her WIP needs tons of work. When commenting, you should always follow the THINK rule: is your comment True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind?
  3. Make sure you’re clear on what the other writer wants from you. Prior to reading the WIP, agree on a timeframe, and on the type of feedback you’ll give (line-editing, overall feelings, etc.). An experienced writer and a newbie will be likely to have very different needs, be sure to understand what they are.
  4. Don’t try to make the story your own. Don’t try to change the writer’s voice or to tell her how her characters and her plot should be. She wrote the story, it’s hers. You’re just here to help her make it stellar, not turn it into your work.
  5. Keep the conversation going. When beta-reading or critiquing for someone, communication is key. And if it takes 5 emails or a 1-hour phone call to make sure the writer understands what you mean, it’s worth taking the time to avoid confusion.
  6. Last but not least, use the time you spend reading other people’s work to ponder on your own writing. See what works, see what doesn’t, marvel at other writers’ talent. Learn from them, from their mistakes but also from their achievements.

What is being a good Critique Partner to you? How did you build a productive relatonship with other writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

And don’t forget this is a blog hop! Here is the Linky for the other check-in posts. How are you other ROW80 writers doing?

M.LIN snow

Snowy UK this week, by my friend M.LIN

ROW80 Check-In 2 – Starting a Novel from Scratch by Toni Kerr

Hello gentle reader,

if you’re here to enter my Dreaming of Books Giveaway, click on the image below:

dreaming hop

And if you’re here for my ROW80 Check-In, keep reading!

ROW80 Logo

So my goal for this round is simply to Write or edit every day.

I have to admit, I was a bit all over the place, this week. Here in southern England we have had a lot of snow, which means this has affected my personal and professional life (cancelled trips & the like). In terms of writing-related activities, I sent out a new batch of queries, beta-read a friend’s manuscript, started working on a new Secret WIP, read one book and handled an inbox full of old emails. So, that was my week.

Now let’s move on to an inspiring story to keep us motivated for the week to come. This week I’m sharing YA author Toni Kerr’s advice on starting a novel from scratch. I read this post on the Operation Awesome blog and I strongly suggest you check this blog out if you haven’t already.

Toni Kerr

“A blank slate can be just as overwhelming as a landscape of laundry and clutter on every surface. But instead of shielding my eyes and pretending it’s not there, I’ll explore the empty space with baby steps!
 
Why am I suddenly faced with a blank slate? Because I’ve invested 100% into one series—one set of characters with a fascinating set of circumstances that I absolutely love. I can’t stand walking away from that, but right now, while I wait for the editor’s letter, I have nothing to edit, nothing to revise, and nothing waiting in a file somewhere.  
 
I’ve accepted the fact (to some degree anyway) that I need to start something new, even if what I write never sees the light of day. I need to because I’ll go insane if I don’t (and certain writing friends would smack me upside the head).
 
But planning a novel from nothing is a new concept for me. My first novel ran without boundaries or guidelines. Not that I’m complaining about that, but I’m sure some pre-planning will save me countless hours and many many rounds of editing.  
 
And so, as with anything that seems overly daunting, I’ve broken my task into itsy-bitsy baby steps to help me get started. I haven’t written that first line yet, but now I know my genre. I have five strong characters and know exactly what makes them tick, how they relate with each other, and I know where they need to start and finish emotionally. I sort of know my theme, but I’m leaving wiggle room for change  as the story reveals itself.   
 
I’m sure there are as many ways to start a novel as there are writers, but from what I know now, that I didn’t know then… here’s what I’ve done to break it down.
 
Baby Step #1
Research Genres—to refresh your memory on definitions and basic word count expectations. It’ll save you from having a novel that doesn’t fit in a defined category, and from having to cut 40k because it’s way beyond a healthy range.
 
Baby Step #2
Theme—this might come later, but think about it now. There are many blogs and writing sites listing popular themes—some fit certain genres better than others, and they do spark a few ideas. Having a theme will keep the story on track.
 
Baby Step #3
Basic Plot—Sadly, most novels can be boiled down to these: overcoming the monster (be it society, some sort of evil, or another person); rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. Even romance falls into these topics…
Baby Step #4
Brainstorm for Ideas! I didn’t love Nathan Bransford’s query formula when I was trying to write my query, but I was amazed by how simple the plot should be (according to his formula). I swore that for my next novel, I’d write the query blurb first, just to keep my plot THAT simple (I’ll of course let it grow from there). So here’s his formula:
 
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
 
Keep playing until one or two actually sound workable. Next, we need characters for whatever the great idea is.
Baby Step #5
Character’s Photo ID – I love sifting through Google images for characters. If I know the sex and age of my character, I usually start by searching hairstyles. For example: teen girl hairstyles. A search like this generates nice headshots, which I find most useful when I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for—a spark in the eye, maybe some attitude. I save images for every character as I find them, even though I might find something better later. If nothing jumps, I’ll alter the search. Such as ‘Emo girl hairstyles’, or, if I have more information, such as wanting red hair, I might try ‘Irish girl’.  
 
Baby Step #6
Give the characters a life – Start a new .doc for all your characters. I like to keep them all in ONE document, separated by section breaks. That way, when you need a very specific detail that you swear you wrote somewhere, you won’t have to search through multiple files to find it. (Been there!) Insert each character’s image and fill in the personals. Age.. goals.. interests… biggest regret.. and what’s keeping from reaching their biggest goal? The information will depend on the genre/age of the character. There are character sheets and interview forms available all over the place (gotta love Google!). I usually combine what works for me. I also like to add a few paragraphs about how each character relates to all the other (main) characters. Interesting facts come out of these relationships, whether they are used in the story or not. For example, if character #1 and #3 were a hot item long before #1 and #2 start dating, it might explain why there is such a bitter tension between them. What if they belong together? I’ll bet that would make an interesting thread…    
 
Speaking of threads….
 
Baby Step #7
Outline! My first novel was not outlined. I had no idea where the characters were taking me, but I went along like a good little typist and didn’t get in the way. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to get it streamlined? This time, I’m trying Martha Alderson’s plotting system, and so far, I think it’ll work great. My scenes are not fully formed yet, but I know where I want to start, the point of no return (end of the beginning), and the final climax. I’ll let the characters work out the rest. The good news is, I should be able to keep them heading in the right direction.”
How do you go about starting a brand new manuscript? I’d love to read your tip sin the comments below!
And don’t forget this is a blog hop: visit the other ROWers here.

On world building and how to avoid the “info-dump”

Hello gentle reader,

It’s Friday, let’s talk about writing and Fantasy, shall we?

Before I started querying my novel The Last Queen, I researched agents and the reasons why they reject A LOT of High/Epic Fantasy manuscripts. Most of the time, their verdict is: too much info-dump in the first pages. It means that instead of artfully weaving the secondary world into the story, the writer buries the reader under a heap of information. Agents and readers? They don’t like it, especially if your novel is intended for young adults.

series-of-unfortunate-events-2

We are bored.

So today, I’d like to help you avoid painful rejections or reviews by sharing a few tips on world building and how to eliminate the dreaded “info-dump” in 3 steps…

Step 1: Recognizing the “info-dump”

Let’s say you’ve been told your novel is “plagued by info-dump”. It’s not nice to hear, but we’re here to learn and make our stories better, aren’t we? So how do you recognize the signs of “info-dumping”? You ask yourself the following questions:

–          Does your Epic Fantasy novel include long descriptive passages where absolutely nothing happens and whose sole purpose is, well, to describe stuff?

–          Do your characters have conversations about things they already know? Is the sole purpose of these conversations to give information to the reader?

–          Do you explain your world to the reader instead of showing it to him?

If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, then you’re guilty of info-dumping. But fear not, gentle reader! You can FIX THAT.

series-of-unfortunate-events

I don’t see how this situation can be fixed.

Step 2: Fixing the “info-dump” problem

The key here is to avoid the aforementioned issues by making your world building integral to the plot and having it emerge as the story unfolds. Your readers need to be slowly immersed into the world you created, not banged on the head with it. How do you do that?

–          You focus on the plot and the action. Instead of spending a chapter describing the Big Castle, you have your Hero escape from said castle and, as he is being chased by the Bad Guys, you include a few details that give the reader an idea of the setting, through the MC’s eyes.

–          As a result, you can’t describe everything. Because you only include the few details that your hero sees as he runs through the corridors of the castle, you can’t tell the reader about all the castle’s turrets and secret passageways. And it’s fine! Because even with only the few details you give him, your reader will be able to imagine the rest. Trust him.

But as you delete all the info-dump and replace it with a few chosen details, how do you know what to focus on?

Series-of-Unfortunate-Events-3

I’m listening.

Step 3: Focusing on the details that matter

So you’re building your secondary world by showing it as the story unfolds, awesome! But what to focus on? You focus on the details that matter for the specific scene/action you’re writing. And there’s so much to choose from, it’s easy to find something that will be a nice touch of world building in your scene without appearing to be world building to the reader. Here is what you can mention in passing and that will help you build your world:

–          Natural elements: flora and fauna, rocks and animals, bugs and creatures…

–          Political elements

–          Cultural elements: religion, mythology, language

–          Historical and geographical elements

–          And if all else fails, as we say in England, mention the weather.

Hoping this helps, feel free to leave me your comments and questions below! (This blog post was sponsored by A Series of Unfortunate Events. Or not.)

And if you want to find out more about this topic, here are a few useful links:

Juliet Marillier talks about creating Fantasy Worlds…

World Building: In the Beginning… by Raewyn Hewitt

How to Dump Info without Info-dumping– Writing Lessons from Inception by Shallee McArthur

World-Building 201: How to eliminate the info-dump by Hayley E Lavik

On originality and writing a book that doesn’t already exist

shakespeare-in-love

Hello gentle reader,

Today is Thursday and I thought a post about the writing process was in order.

 I was actually inspired by this post written by YA author Aimee L. Salter on 19th November 2012. In her post, Aimee made a list of all the good reasons we writers have to read other people’s books. Among other things, she mentioned the importance of knowing the competition and of understanding what works (or doesn’t work) in other books.

On that same day, Epic Fantasy writer Jeff Hargett published a blog post in which he admitted to having just realised his book (which he has been working on for ten years) was very similar to the TV show/movie Airbender and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book series.

It reminded me of another blog post I read in February 2012. Back then, YA author Elizabeth May published a great post entitled The Unfortunate Case of the Book that Looked Just Like Someone Else’s, in which she confessed having written, edited and queried a manuscript that was extremely similar to a published book that she bought later on Amazon. When she found out about it, she felt embarrassed and she shelved her manuscript, feeling that she had somewhat wasted her time and the agents’ time.

So what’s the moral of these stories? Listen to Aimee’s advice and READ. If your story is derivative of other works, you need to be aware of it and it needs to be intentional. Being derivative by accident is the worst thing that could happen to you as a writer.

Secret Window

Let’s face it. If you live in the US, Europe or Down Under, chances are you are influenced by the same things that other writers are. We all watch the same movies and TV shows, we all hear about the news from around the world and we have all read the same books as children. This means that it is likely we will write stories that remind us of other stories.

And it’s fine, AS LONG AS YOU ARE AWARE OF IT.

Discovering that the book you’ve worked so hard on already exists is crushing. To avoid it, read the books that are already out there. Read books in your genre and category. Read publishing news and newly published books. Agents do. Publishers do. You won’t have the excuse of not knowing once you try to get your own story published.

I’ll finish this post with my own little experience in the matter: I finished writing the first draft of THE LAST QUEEN in the summer of 2011. Then I heard about a series of books entitled THE SEVEN REALMS (by Cinda Williams Chima). The blurb goes like this: “Times are hard in the mountain city of Fellsmarch. Reformed thief Han Alister will do almost anything to eke out a living for for his family. Meanwhile, Raisa ana’Marianna, princess heir of the Fells, has her own battles to fight. Her mother’s plans for her include marriage to a suitor who goes against everything the queendom stands for.” My heart dropped. This sounded A LOT like THE LAST QUEEN. Especially the Princess Heir part. So I bought the book, read it (loved it) and realised that this book had nothing in common with mine. Cue sigh of relief.

But I keep reading YA High Fantasy books. For my pleasure, to know the competition, and to make sure no one has already written and published a book similar to mine.

What about you? Have you had that kind of experience? Have you written a book then found out it was similar to another book? What did you do? I’d love to read your comments!

ROW80 Check-In 8: 5 Writing Tips from Laini Taylor

Hello gentle reader,

It is already time for another ROW80 check-in! My goals for this fourth round are as follows: Write or edit every day

This week I was waiting to hear from my beta readers on The Last Queen after my latest round of edits, so in the meantime I did something which has nothing to do with my Darklands trilogy. I dug up an unfinished first draft and added some 5000 words to it, and it was a lot of fun. I also worked on my query and researched agents. Finally I worked on a Super Secret and Super Exciting Project (code name TADA): you’ll find out all about it on 1st December!

Now, on to an inspiring story to keep us going this coming week. Today I’m sharing Laini Taylor’s writing tips. The following article was published on the Publishers Weekly website on 16 November 2012. In case you’ve missed it, here it is:

Laini Taylor‘s Days of Blood & Starlight (the follow-up to Daughter of Smoke & Bone) is filled with dazzling writing, not to mention fantasy, suspense, and a page-turning story. Take notes, because Taylor’s sharing her 5 writing tips.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a small child, but I was thirty-five before I finished my first novel, because I have issues with perfectionism. It took me a long time to learn to finish what I start, and I’ve developed a lot of tools and tricks for keeping myself moving forward through a story when a big slice of my brain wants nothing so much as to stop and rewrite everything I’ve already written. It can be exhausting, but the upside is that I love to revise. The main thing I’ve learned is that we all have to learn to work with—and appreciate—the brain we’ve been given, and not waste time wishing things were easier.

1. Know what you love. Try imagining the book that would light your heart and mind on fire if you came across it in a bookstore—the one that would quicken your pulse and keep you up all night reading. What would it be? Details, details: when, where, what, who? Think it up, imagine it fully, then bring it forth. That’s the book you should be writing.

2. Never sit staring at a blank page or screen. If you find yourself stuck, write. Write about the scene you’re trying to write. Writing about is easier than writing, and chances are, it will give you your way in. You could try listing ten things that might happen next, or do a timed freewrite—fast, non-precious forward momentum; you don’t even have to read it afterward, but it might give you ideas. Try anything and everything. Never fall still, and don’t be lazy.

3. Eliminate distractions. Eliminate Internet access. Find/create a place and time where you won’t be bothered. Noise-canceling headphones are great. Hotel-writing-sprees are even better if you can make that happen every once and a while: total dedicated writing time. During my second draft pass on my last book I made 20,000 words happen in a week, which is practically supernatural for me, and it would never have been possible without three nights in a hotel in my own city. It’s an incredible splurge, and a huge liberation, and you might just deserve it!

4. Get your characters talking. Dialogue is the place that books are most alive and forge the most direct connection with readers. It is also where we as writers discover our characters and allow them to become real. Get them talking. Don’t be precious. Write dialogues. Cultivate the attitude that every word you write need not end up in the book. Some things are just exercises, part of the process of discovery. Be willing to do more work than will show. The end result is all that matters. Be huge and generous and fearless.

5. Be an unstoppable force. Write with an imaginary machete strapped to your thigh. This is not wishy-washy, polite, drinking-tea-with-your-pinkie-sticking-out stuff. It’s who you want to be, your most powerful self. Write your books. Finish them, then make them better. Find the way. No one will make this dream come true for you but you.”

How are other ROWers doing? Here is the Linky to support each other!

ROW80 Check-In 7: Tamora Pierce on finding ideas & dealing with writer’s block

 

Hello gentle reader,

It is already time for another ROW80 check-in! My goals for this fourth round are as follows: Write or edit every day 4/7

This week I finished my current round of editing for The Last Queen. Unfortunately I didn’t do this every day but I did get a lot more done than last week. I’m hoping to get back to writing every day next week. Also this week my blog reached 200 followers and I have a giveaway to celebrate. Feel free to enter to win YA books!

Now, on to an inspiring story to keep us going this coming week. Today I’m sharing Tamora Pierce’s tips to find ideas and fight writer’s block. When it comes to YA fantasy, one doesn’t really get more successful than Tamora Pierce. She has been writing since the 1980s and she is most famous for her Song of the Lioness quartet.

“Where do you get your ideas?

Some I stumble across: watching his nature programs, I decided British naturalist Sir David Attenborough would make a cool bio-mage. Watching my mother and sister produce blankets from balls of yarn and crochet hooks, I thought of it as a kind of magic, and wondered what all could be done with thread magic. Wrestling with my best friend’s dove gave me the ideas for Kel’s relationship with the baby griffin in SQUIRE. Pictures in magazines also give me ideas, as do stories in the news.

Other ideas come from my past obsessions. From the time I was six or seven until I was ten, I read anything and everything I could find about knights, the Crusades, and the Middle Ages. My next area of interest in knighthood was in the fantasy novels and Arthurian legends I read in middle school.

Another way I get ideas is from people: my Random House editor, Mallory Loehr, my agent Craig Tenney, my husband Tim, my friend Raquel…

Current events and history are also fertile ground for ideas. Keep a file of events and figures that interest you; it might prove useful one day.

The best way to prepare to have ideas when you need them is to listen to and encourage your obsessions. Watch and re-watch all the TV programs and movies you have a need to; read and re-read all the books, magazines and comic books; visit all the museums, zoos, galleries, concerts and wilderness areas; and listen to all the kinds of music that interest you. If you get a sudden passion for anything and everything to do with, say, gang warfare, starling behavior, painting frescoes, or jousting, go with the urge. Find out all you can. Even if you can’t use it right away, it’ll go into some holding zone deep in your brain, and surface when you need it. All creative people–not just writers!–expose themselves to as much information, in as many forms, as possible, in the hopes that it will be useful down the road, or even right now. You never know what will spark something new!

 

How do you deal with writer’s block? Here are some fixes I use when I get stuck:

  • Introduce a new character, a strong one with an individual style in speech, dress and behavior–one who will cause the other characters to review their own actions and motives to decide where they stand with regard to the new character.
  • Have something dramatic happen. As Raymond Chandler put it, “Have someone come through the door with a gun in his hand.” (My husband translates this as “Have a troll come through the door with a spear in his hand.”) Machinery or vehicles (cars, wagons, horses, camels) can break down; your characters can be attacked by robbers or pirates; a flood or tornado sweeps through. Stage a war or an elopement or a financial crash. New, hard circumstances force characters to sink or swim, and the way you show how they do either will move things along.
  • Change the point of view from which you tell the story. If you’re doing it from inside one character’s head, try switching to another character’s point of view. If you’re telling the story from an all-seeing, third person (“he/she thought”) point of view, try narrowing your focus down to one character telling the story in first person. If down the road in the world you’ve created someone has written a book or encyclopedia about these events, insert a nonfiction-like segment (that doesn’t give the important stuff away) as a change of pace. Try telling it as a poem, or a play (you can convert it to story form later).
  • Put this story aside, and start something else: letters, an article, a poem, a play, an art project. Look at the story in a day, or a week, or a couple of months. It may be fresh for you then; it may spark new ideas.
  • If you have an intelligent friend who’s into the things you’re writing about, talk it out with him/her. My husband often supplies wonderful new ideas so I can get past whatever hangs me up, and my family and friends are used to mysterious phone calls asking about things seemingly out of the blue, like what gems would you wear with a scarlet gown, or how tall are pole beans in late June?
  • Most important of all, know when it’s time to quit. Sometimes you take an idea as far as it will go, then run out of steam. This is completely normal. When I began to write, I must have started 25 things for each one I completed. Whether you finish something or not, you’ll still have learned as you wrote. The things you learn and ideas you developed, even in a project you don’t finish, can be brought to your next project, and the next, and the next. Sooner or later you’ll have a story which you can carry to a finish.”

How are other ROWers doing? Here is the Linky to support each other!