Tag Archives: characterization

Sassy Does Not Equal Strong

1 Mar

by Savannah J. Foley


I confess to you guys so much I might as well be a Catholic school girl and you guys are my priest. Well, get into your confession box because I’ve got another one: I hate sassy characters.

I don’t know when the myth that strong female character = sassy began, but I’m here to stop it.

First let’s define sassy so that we’re on the same page:

Dictionary.com: fresh, impertinent, impudent, overbold, saucy

Merriam-Webster: impudent, vigorous, lively

Of these words, I’d like to pull out saucy and impertinent. When I think ‘sassy’, I think of someone who is really sarcastic to the point of rudeness. She is primarily defined by her ‘attitude’, and her mouth is always turned up in a smirk. She rolls her eyes a lot. She had demeaning nicknames for authority figures. In real life we’d call her a raging brat, but she seems to get a pass in the world of fiction.

I get that there might have been a point in time where girls weren’t usually sassy, so to see a sassy character come along and kick butt was unusual, and enjoyable. But in today’s society no one’s keeping girls down (as much), and sassy, to me, comes off as unnecessary. Cynical, sarcastic MC who goes off on long, internal asides dedicated to hyperbole about a hypothetical outcome of her current situation? Boring and exhausting. I cringe. I’ve just seen it so much, and I don’t find it interesting any more.

But maybe that’s just me. I’ve never really been one for sarcasm, so maybe it’s a matter of personal taste. Here’s my real problem: Sassy automatically gets a pass as a ‘strong female character’. If your girl talks back to an authority figure, BAM! Sassy! Vocal! Strong!

Therefore, I think that a lot of young writers might lean towards sassy characters in an effort to shortcut their way into a ‘strong character.’ But strength doesn’t lie in the causticity of a verbal sting. Strong characters are always developed through their actions.

You’re probably heard of Active vs. Passive characters. Active characters propel the story, while passive characters are pushed through the story by external events. If your character smarts off while getting dragged around against her will by another character, she’s being passive (even if her mouth isn’t).

I googled to get an accurate picture of what everyone else thought were strong heroines, and I came up with the following list of books that star strong heroines:

The Secret Garden

The Bean Tree

Clan of the Cave Bear

Jane Eyre

Memoirs of a Geisha

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

Ella Enchanted


Island of the Blue Dolphins

A Wrinkle in Time

Does anyone see any ‘sassy’ characters? And yet these are all very popular books with very strong heroines.

I’m not saying sassy can’t be done right. But sass (and its sister sarcasm) are like very powerful seasonings – they can make a dish, but too much can break it. And most of all, beyond her sassy personality, your heroine should be active in creating her own destiny. Then she can make a few snide remarks about it 😉

Happy writing!


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Nameless  is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here.

The Grieving Process

21 Feb

by Biljana Likic


Sadness can be tough, I find. It can be hard to see when you’re going overboard. And since everybody handles grief differently, it can be tricky to suspend disbelief so much that everyone reading believes in the sadness, and not just the people that would react similarly. For example, if somebody found out their pet had died, and they went into the kitchen and blindly broke every plate and glass, an animal lover who’s been in that position before might understand why they did it, but somebody who hasn’t known that type of relationship might not. Personally, I would consider it an overreaction, but how can I judge the bond between pet and master when I’m not an animal person, and don’t have any conception of what the pet meant to them?

So the first thing to do would be creating a deep connection between the griever and the thing lost. If the reader doesn’t believe that the lovers love each other, when the woman dies and the man throws himself off a bridge they’ll think it’s contrived and silly. You need to show throughout the story that what they have is special, and I find one of the best tricks for doing this is subtle repetition. This means keeping the woman in the man’s thoughts. If you can have him naturally think about her, you’ll remind the reader about all the things he sees in her, which leads to a subconscious understanding that he loves her and that losing her could potentially crush him.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

He walked through the crowd, hands in his pockets, and the sun warmed his face when he stepped out of the shadow of a building. Fiddling with the keys, he crossed the street to his apartment and slipped sideways between two parked cars. His eyes followed a blonde briefly before remembering that she was out of town for the day. Letting himself into the lobby, he called an elevator and tapped his shoes against the carpeted floor.

Little things like this happen to everybody. You have a girl or boy on your mind and suddenly everyone with the same hair colour could be them. But you have to use this in moderation. In real life our thoughts move too fast for them to seem repetitive about stuff like this, but written down they’re painfully obvious if you overdo them. Hence, subtle repetition.

So they’re in love. But now she’s gone.

How does he find out? Is he at work? Does he hear about it the next day because his cell phone ran out of batteries? Does he watch her die? Did he have time to kiss her one last time, to say goodbye, hold her hand, believe that it could still be her on the sidewalk by his apartment?

Then there’s his reaction. His devastation, numbness, denial, whatever fits his character or stream of events best. It’s something that should come naturally. If you don’t know what his reaction should be, maybe he doesn’t know either. Maybe he flounders in a desperately emotionless void until those around him think he’s inhuman. Maybe that’s followed by inexpressible anger at everybody who dared imply that he didn’t love her, and general fury that she left him in the state of things as they are. Perhaps he starts analyzing the day of her death; if he’d convinced her to stay for coffee, the car would’ve just driven by. If he had noticed her fever, he could’ve gotten her to a hospital in time. If he’d realized how icy the sidewalks had been he would’ve forced her out of the heeled boots.

A person can drive themselves insane with if only’s. And notice how each one puts the blame on his shoulders.

Underneath everything though, there is a constant, aching sadness. The numbness is just the mind trying to protect itself from the acute sense of loss. Behind it all there’s the knowledge that something was taken away forever. Even if he finds it again in another person, it won’t be the same. And that’s where the deepest grief comes from.

But the most soul-stirring part, for me at least, would not be his anger, or his tears; it would be his acceptance. The strength he would need for this isn’t something that can be put into words, because accepting loss doesn’t mean forgetting it. It means continuing life, adjusting where he can. It doesn’t mean learning to live without her, but admitting the pain of loss, allowing himself time to mourn, but not letting it control his life. With acceptance comes the gift of being able to breathe without the air hitching in your throat, and being able to think about the future without the grip of total fear wrapping itself around your heart.

If the man can grasp that, or even just give us the hint that he will, the story is complete. Grief comes around full circle and the reader reaches a forlorn closure. But most importantly, they’re given the awareness that the man will go on. That it’s possible.

Along with the sadness, the reader is given hope.

That’s something I don’t mind walking away with.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.

Profound doesn’t even begin to describe it.

26 Jan

by Biljana Likic


Think back to an old crush; maybe the first boy or girl you really felt something for. The way they made you feel when they smiled at you, or accidentally brushed your hand. The way that sometimes, when they needed a pencil, they’d ask you for one. No matter that it was because they sat beside you in class, and you were the closest and most convenient person to ask. They asked you for a pencil, and you felt your heart soar.

Until you saw them kissing someone else during recess.

Your heart plummeted and when you went home, maybe you cried, maybe you accepted it without tears, maybe you got over them that instant. Or maybe, you went on liking them even though you knew they’d never like you back, and whenever you thought of them it made your stomach hurt how much you missed them. Oh, you’d still lend them that pencil, but maybe with more sadness than usual. The pencil has lost meaning to you. You’ve realized you’re just a convenience.

And then months later, when you’re over them, you see the situation for what it was: an infatuation.


But it wasn’t trivial while it was happening.

Puppy love and crushes make you do stupid things for people that sometimes don’t even notice you exist. And they have a crappy reputation. First because you often make a fool of yourself when the vulnerable situations you’ve been thrown in crumble against you, and second because, let’s face it, nobody takes them seriously. Even if you swear you’ll jump off a bridge for somebody, hardly anyone over the age of twenty will be concerned. They’ve already deduced that you are not in love, but that you are infatuated. And because you are infatuated, and not in love, that means your condition is a bit of a joke; something you’ll be embarrassed about in a year or two when it’s all in the past.

But the truth is, when you’re infatuated, to you it feels like love. To you, it’s not a joke. You really would try to give them everything. And while you’re in this phase there’s nothing more you would like than being with the person of your affections.

The reason I’m bringing this up is for the sake of all those teen protagonists that like the cute classmate but can’t approach them. More specifically, it’s for the sake of the readers that sympathize. I’ve talked to people who snub YA because the problems of the characters aren’t big enough. They don’t want to read about puppy love. They want to read about the love that makes your gut twist with longing and your heart feel full to bursting; that takes residence in your chest and presses down with the constant worry of what would happen to you emotionally if your loved one died.

They don’t want to read about something trivial.

But aside from constancy, which can’t be proven without the test of time (which books may not have), the only thing this adult love has over puppy love is the retrospective view of the situation. When it’s all over, you can look back on love and think, “It was beautiful while it lasted.” You can’t always do that with an infatuation. In fact, more often than not, you’ll end up thinking, “I can’t believe I used to lend them my pencil.”

The point I’m trying to make is that what’s trivial later in life may not be trivial in the moment. People don’t think it’s funny when they tell somebody about how they cry themselves to sleep every night. Later they might feel stupid, but while they’re crying, all they feel is a yawning black hole where their heart used to be.

So when you write about love, whether it’s infatuation or the real thing, never, ever undermine it. Never make it about how when she’s twenty-five and married to somebody else she’ll look back and flush with mortification. Don’t ever let the character know that when he’s over her, the oceans that remind him of her eyes will be easy to look at again. That’s not what the story is about. And it’s certainly not something your character is likely to believe.

Give infatuation the respect it deserves. It can be as dangerous as love, if not more so, because it’s selfish; you won’t be happy if they’re happy with someone else. You’ll keep doing whatever it takes to get them to love you. That pencil will be given away. She will never find a bridge too high. And the oceans will always look like her eyes.

And he will always be willing to drown.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.

Building Plot from Character

17 Jan

by Susan Dennard


Last Friday’s QOTW was about avoiding a contrived plot.  At the time, I took this to mean a copy-cat plot, but the responses of Mandy and Julie made me see what the question could have meant: how do you avoid a forced plot — a turn of events in the story that doesn’t feel natural.  Julie said, “if a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by a character conveniently having an ability that was unknown before the crisis moment, the solution feels contrived.” Mandy mentioned “it’s the decisions the characters make that effect how the plot plays out.”

I wanted to take both of these fantastic answers a step further.  To avoid that feeling of “what a coincidence!” or “this feels out-of-character“, you can focus on building your plot from a character.  Whether you a plotter or a pantster, it’s important to keep in mind that in most stories character dictates plot.  Even the most plot-driven stories are affected by the heroes — think of Indiana Jones or Lord of the Rings where quests are the main force behind the story but characters also affect how that quest plays out.

Ultimately, convincing stories boil down to the decisions and actions a character takes feeling natural to that character (just like Julie and Mandy said).  The best way to show what I mean is to use my favorite stories as examples.

Plot-driven Stories

How would Star Wars: A New Hope have differed if Luke were a different type of person?

Luke is a reluctant hero — though he wants excitement and change, he’s unwilling to leave behind his family on the whim of his old pal, Ben Kenobi.  In fact, Luke is kind of a whiny baby.  For him to have willingly accepted Ben’s request to face Darth Vader from the beginning would have felt wrong.  Why?  Because it’s not in his character to actually face excitement and change fearlessly.  It’s not until his family is killed that he decides to set out on his quest and face the major nasty, Darth Vader.

What if Luke had been a braver, more aggressive character?  He’d have been gung-ho over facing Darth Vadar from the get-go.  We’d have found it weird if he’d been reluctant.

What if Luke had been a downright coward?  Well, no way in hell he’d have joined Ben Kenobi — dead family or not.  The quest just wouldn’t have happened.

The plot has to fit the characters.

Character-driven Stories

How would Napoleon Dynamite be different if Napoleon were a different type of person?

Well…you wouldn’t even have the same story!  If Napoleon didn’t call home for chapstick or draw hideous portraits of his prom dates, you simply wouldn’t have the same movie.  In other words, everything in a character-driven story is decided by the main character.  To have even the slightest out-of-character action is much more obvious, and to force plot events on a character will instantly alienate readers/viewers.

Again, the plot has to fit the characters.

How to Build Plot from Character

I foolishly messed this up with my first draft of The Spirit-Hunters — I made up a series of events I thought were über cool, threw some random characters in to act it out, and BAM!  I had a completely wretched story that was utterly unconvincing and took a year of heavy revisions to salvage.

Mandy offers great advice in the QOTW: “This is why I always reccomend that if you have a book idea, the first thing you do is figure out what kind of character would create the most conflict– whether that means a bossy Type A character who loses control, a fashoinista who ends up stranded in the woods, a socially awkward girl who ends up in high society, etc. If you truly think about what kind of characters will naturally create the most conflict, chances are the plot won’t feel forced.

The instant you’ve got your Shiny New Idea, sit down and sort out the best character for it — be it the kind of person who will create the most conflict (a reluctant Luke Skywalker) or the kind of person most likely to be up to these sorts of challenges (an always ready Indiana Jones).  If you’re writing a romance, what traits in the hero will most conflict with the heroine?  Thinking about characteristics and the conflict that can arise from such personalities will let you tap into a whole new (and convincing!) slew of plot events!

Have you made this same mistake in your own writing?  Have you seen it done in any movies/TV/novels?  Or can you think of a story that would be totally changed if the protagonist were a different sort of person?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.


4 Jan

I’m making the slow and sometimes rather painful transition from a full-on pantser to an outliner. The changes aren’t just about the outline, though. I used to be on much more of a need-to-know basis with not only what was going to happen in the book, but with the back stories of my characters and my worlds.

Sometimes, I’d start writing an entire book with no more forethought than a single scene. A single conversation. Hmm…. Okay, so there’s this boy hidden in a tree, trying to keep quiet as this mass of white-hooded figures glide through the woods below him, moving to some unheard music. Suddenly, one of the figures stops moving. It’s a girl, snapped out of some kind of trance. She begins freaking out, trying to push out of the mass of humanity around her. The boy watches, mystified and helpless…and that’s it. I know nothing else, not even the character’s names or why they’re in the woods or what the heck is happening with the girl or the white-hooded people.

It was a fun way to write, and I loved learning about the story as I wrote it, developing the plot and the characters as I went along. But it was a tangled process, and more often than not, I’d get caught up in one mess after another, write myself into corners, and realize that I don’t really know the motivations behind my character’s actions or the laws of my world.

I was sort of doing things backwards. Instead of cause and effect, I was writing the effect first and then scrambling to figure out the cause. Sometimes it worked out great. Other times, not so much–especially if the world was complicated.

Enter the world-building document. I’d had “random notes” documents before, and moleskines are always handy, but I’ve recently put together my real world-building document. Now, I didn’t even start working on it until I was well past my first draft, but my second world-building doc is for an unfinished WIP.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about making a doc like this. I like to write about worlds unlike our own, so I start out by outlining all the important history of this world. Basically, what has happened in the past that leads up to events in your books? This section doesn’t directly mention my characters, only the world they live in.

I then have sections for each of the main characters and write their backstories. What has happened in their lives to make them them? What motivates them to perform the actions they undertake in the novel proper? How did they get to be where they are?

I don’t know about you, but I actually adore this kind of stuff, so I can go on for 10k just in the world-building doc alone. I never thought it would be so useful–not only for checking up on facts to make sure they stay straight in the book, but just to make things more concrete.

I had nebulous ideas about much of the history and backstory included in my world-building doc, but typing it all out really helped me see where the potential plot holes lay and where I needed to strengthen motivation or some such. Plus, it was so much fun!

I highly recommend it 😀


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


It’s All In the Name

27 Dec

By Sammy Bina


I feel really horrible for my future children. They’re probably all going to hate me because there is no chance of them having a normal name. Absolutely zero. You won’t see any Sarah’s or Elizabeth’s or Katie’s here. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had this fascination with unique and unusual names. Samantha’s pretty popular and commonplace, so I’ve always wanted my kids (and pets… and electronic devices…) to stand out. I figure they can thank me when they’re adults and can better appreciate the individuality I helped cultivate.

That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

Writing a novel is kind of like having a baby. One of the first things expecting parents do is pick out names, and you can’t really begin writing without one. As soon as you know whether your MC is male or female, it’s time to start thinking about what you want to call them. If you’re anything like me, you spend hours (and I’m not joking. I mean HOURS.) searching for the perfect name. I’ve got loads of baby name books and websites for just such an occasion. I’ll pull them all out, along with a sheet of paper, and jot down any that catch my eye. Here’s a list of my most used resources:

20,000 Names
Baby Names of Ireland
COOL NAMES by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
BEYOND JENNIFER & JASON, MADISON & MONTANA by Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz
100,000 PLUS BABY NAMES by Bruce Lansky

However, I recently ran into a snag using this method. My current WIP revolves around a girl whose name I ended up making up myself. When I got the idea for the story, I felt as though I already knew her. I understood her personality and motivations, and knew how she’d react in just about any situation. Knowing those key aspects of my character made it easy to come up with an appropriate name. The problem, however, came with her love interest.

Let me explain.

Originally I’d chosen a name for this boy based on the fact that I liked it. That was all. I’d wanted to use it for a while, and this project seemed like as good an excuse as any to whip it out and slap it on someone. So I wrote half the book using it. I loved it, and knew my MC did, too.

And that was fine and dandy until I really started to get to know the character. When I first started writing, I had pictured him one way, but the more I grew to understand him, I realized the name I’d chosen was all wrong. He’s a soft-spoken guy who learns to become more outspoken and challenge authority, and the name I’d given him was a horrible fit. The more I used it, the more cringe-worthy it became. I knew it was time to hit the drawing board.

Two weeks later and I still haven’t found a replacement, but I’m working on it. So, in the meantime, I thought I’d give you a list of things to consider when it comes time for you to name your characters, so you don’t get stuck in the same boat as me!

1. Personality: When I was a kid, I used to hate the name Samantha. I spent years begging my mom to let me switch my first and middle names so everyone would have to call me Nicole instead. Then I grew up and realized my personality didn’t match the name Nicole at all. Think about your best friend – if they wanted to change their name, you’d probably tell them it was a stupid idea. Not necessarily because the name they preferred was lame or weird, but because it didn’t match their personality. When you have a baby, you obviously have no idea what they’re going to be like when they grow up, but with characters it’s entirely different. You’ve already got an idea of how this person is going to behave. That makes your job at least a little bit easier!

2. Sound: Does it sound okay when you say it out loud? How about when you say it in conjunction with your character’s love interest (or companions, if the story isn’t a romance)? For example, Sammy and Benedict doesn’t sound nearly as good as Samantha and Ben. The first sounds kind of clunky, while the second has a pretty good flow. Keep in mind the syllable count and vowel sounds. You probably don’t want to name your main characters Dan and Jan, nor do you want to go with Cleopatra and Elijah. It’s one of those weird balancing acts. Look at some of your favorite fictional characters (books or movies will do) and see how their names have been combined. Most of the time, they’re a pretty good example.

3. Pronunciation vs. Perception: I’ve always had a thing for Irish names. The spellings are a bit strange in comparison to the way they are pronounced (for example, Niamh is pronounced “neev”). When picking an unusual name, you don’t want to pick something a reader is going to stumble over. Science fiction is full of oddball names, but something like Klasdpjklasdj isn’t a good choice. Similarly, the way you pronounce a name may not be the same way your readers are going to. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume Niamh is pronounced “nee-am,” and I’d say that in my head every time I came across it. Case in point: Hermione. When the Harry Potter books first came out, I think every single one of my friends pronounced it differently. Luckily, we had the movies to set us straight. But basically, unless you want your readers spending a lot of time fumbling over your name choices, it’s best to stick to those that are unique, but easy to figure out.

Obviously there will probably be other things to consider, depending on your story and its characters, but those are some pretty basic guidelines that I hope will get you on your way! Godspeed, expecting writers!


Sammy Bina is in her last year of college, majoring in Creative Writing. Currently an intern with the Elaine P. English Literary Agency, she is taking a break from querying to work on a new project, a YA dystopian. You can find her on twitter, or check out her blog.

Modeling Protagonists After Real Life Heroes

21 Dec

by Susan Dennard


Heroes.  Real, genuine heroes — the people who live and breathe like the rest of us, but somehow stand apart.  Stand taller.  Earn our admiration and respect.
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass starts off by asking you to list your heroes.  Why are they are your heroes?  What about them is heroic — what qualities do they possess?

Then he goes on to tell you to try to infuse your story’s main characters with these qualities.

Can you do it?  Can you name your heroes?

These are mine:

  • Isaac Asimov
    • He devoted his life whole-heartedly to the things he loved: writing and science.  He wrote over 400 books, was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, and paved the way for sci-fi writers of today.
  • Gichin Funakoshi
    • He was the father of modern karate.  He devoted his life to “being a better human being”, to raising his family, and to developing Karate-do. (His autobiography is AMAZING, by the way.)
  • My parents
    • They’re generous, warm, and believe 100% in following your dreams.  Mom & Dad are both devoted to doing the right thing and living their lives with happiness and love. (I know you’re groaning that I’ve listed my parents.  But for realz, they’re cool people.)

Notice that all of my heroes have one thing in common: DEVOTION.  Their lives revolved around what they believed in.  They were productive and never gave up.

When I set out to write my own heroes (usually of the “heroine” persuasion), they always possess that one quality.  No matter what, my protagonists will not give up.  They are devoted to their goals, and they will keep trying, keep acting, keep working despite the obstacles before them.

In The Spirit-Hunters, my main character, Eleanor, is in waaaaay over her head.  She’s a sheltered, high-society girl who’s spent most of her life chaperoned.  Now her brother has been kidnapped by a necromancer, walking dead are lurking in Philadelphia, and she has no idea what to do to make this all okay again.  But, she’s devoted to her brother; she’s devoted to rescuing him; and she’s devoted to doing whatever needs to be done.  And because of that one quality, she’s a hero.

Who are your favorite heroes in novels?

You can look to your favorite story characters for inspiration too.  You can no doubt guess that my favorite heroes/heroines are the ones that are devoted to TAKING ACTION!  While I enjoyed Twilight, Bella Swan’s passiveness was not my style…  All the same, the girl was 100% devoted to Edward!  Now Katniss from The Hunger Games — that’s my kinda hero!  Devoted to her family and to protecting the weak.

Of course, the protagonist needn’t be a tough-tamale like Katniss to appeal to me.  One of my favorite heroines of all time is Anne Elliot from Jane Austin’s Persuasion.  Anne is a soft-spoken sweetie, but she’s devoted to doing what’s right and being true to herself.

What about you?

Tell me your heroes — both real life and fiction.  What qualities make them heroes?  Do your own protagonists have these qualities?

The Write Way to…

2 Dec

I used to have a Way I Write, and I was more or less proud of it. I was not a plotter, I wouldn’t touch an outline with a ten foot pole, and I never separated my story into chapters until the entire thing was finished. I also wrote my stories out of order, writing the scenes I could picture perfectly at the moment and then going back later to connect them and flesh things out.

Well, the last bit is still true, anyway. The others have slowly but surely changed over the last few months.

I’ve seen posts encouraging people to find their own way of writing and to not ever let someone else telling them they’re doing it wrong. In many ways, I agree. If it works for you, go ahead and do it. I love hearing about different people’s ways of planning and executing a story simply because they are often so very different.

But I think we need to remember, too, that just because you have a Way to Write now doesn’t mean it can’t change. I know I got so caught up in defining the ways that I write that I didn’t let myself explore other people’s methods as much as I could have. Who knows? You might find a new way of writing, one that works even better than the last.

Here are some methods I’ve encountered. I don’t use all of them, but I’ve tried most of them!


  • Outlining using flash cards, one scene per card
  • Outlining using colored sticky notes, one scene per note. One color for plot events, one color for character development milestones, etc.
  • Outlining chapter by chapter in summary form
  • Outlining like an ADHD goldfish with a love for shiny things (scribble down a three page outline. Realize three pages into story that you are going to be diverging from your outline. A lot. A lot a lot.) …in other words, how I do it 😀

Character development:

  • Fill out character forms (Adventures in Children’s Publishing has some great, very detailed ones) <— I love the idea of this, but have NO patience for it…
  • Write up tons and tons of backstory that fills up entire binders and is longer than the book itself
  • Interview your characters (I would do this, but my MC for HYBRID would clam up and my MC for the wip would look at me like I was crazy and then just…leave)
  • Write 1st POV snippets from all your character’s POVs, even the minor ones (I do this for characters who don’t have the POV but need to have their voices fleshed out)
  • Write present tense biographies for all your characters and read them in your head with all the solemnity of those History Channel guys with the deep voices (guilty)


  • Stare at a blank page and write down, stream of consciousness, whatever comes to mind that’s even vaguely related to the story (it works, too!)
  • Read other books in your genre until you’re inspired (done and done)
  • Bug your CPs on gchat until they agree to brainstorm with you. You’d be surprised how the ideas start flowing more easily once you’re talking to someone else about it (*raises hand*)
  • Write where in the story you are at the top of a blank page, write where you need to get at the bottom of the page, and try to build a bridge of events from one point to the other (works even better if you get fancy and start doodling actual bridges)
  • Watch TV and vegetate (heck, I’ve done just about every kind of brainstorming there is to do!)

Well, I think that’s enough for now. Hope some of these ideas catch your eye and help next time you need a new way to tackle a problem. Any other issues you’d like me to write up a list of methods for? 🙂

Any methods for tackling the above that work for you?


Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She has recently signed with literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.


Archetypes, not Stereotypes

11 Nov

by Julie Eshbaugh


In my post about the Hero’s Journey (which you can read here,) I mentioned a few characters, specifically the Hero and the Mentor, who fall into the category of archetypes.   Archetypes are a main tenet of the theories contained in Joseph Campbell’s watershed work, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.   Most writers are familiar with the idea of archetypes and many may be interested in finding out how archetypes could function in their own writing.

Yet, doesn’t the term “archetype” bring to mind the term “stereotype?”   How do we define the difference?   How can it be that archetypes are good, while stereotypes are bad?   And most importantly, how can you get all the benefits out of the use of archetypes without falling into the trap of using stereotypes?

One way to see the difference is to imagine an archetype as a base to build upon.   An archetype is a prototype of a character.   On the other hand, a stereotype is an overly simplified concept of a character, with overly simplified opinions or behaviors.   A stereotype is two-dimensional and generally stays that way.

An archetype works best as a pattern upon which an original character can be built.   Take, for example, the archetype of the Mentor.   In the HARRY POTTER series, Professor Dumbledore fits into this category, but so does Glynda the Good Witch in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, and Haymitch in THE HUNGER GAMES.   All of these characters have, at their foundation, the archetype of the Mentor.  Yet no one would ever confuse them for stereotypes of the same character.

According to Christopher Vogler, who took Joseph Campbell’s theories and applied them to the craft of writing in his book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, and Stuart Voytilla, who expanded on Vogler in MYTH AND THE MOVIES, an archetype can be imagined as a mask a character wears that fits the role that character is playing in the story.   Sometimes a character wears the same mask throughout the story, but not always.   For instance, Obi Wan Kenobi wears the mask of the Mentor through most of STAR WARS, but he must wear the Hero’s mask when he sacrifices himself to Darth Vader to allow Luke and Leia to escape.  Voytilla also uses another film reference to demonstrate the sharing of a mask between several characters.   In CASABLANCA, Voytilla points out, Rick is generally seen as the Hero.  Yet the mask of the Hero is originally worn by Victor Lazlo, then passed to Ilsa, who passes it to Rick.   In many ways, Rick would have been a much less effective hero had he not had the Hero’s mask passed to him through this progression.   (If you’ve never seen CASABLANCA, go add it to your Netflix list right now! You don’t know what you’re missing!)

A list of the most frequently occurring archetypes in fiction, and the roles they play, would include:

1. Hero                                                 “to sacrifice and serve”
2. Mentor                                            “to guide”
3. Threshold Guardian                  “to test”
4. Herald                                             “to warn and challenge”
5. Shapeshifter                                 “to question and deceive”
6. Shadow                                           “to destroy”
7. Trickster                                        “to disrupt”

When deciding how to use these archetypes (or any of the many additional archetypes) in your own writing, or which characters should wear which masks in which scenes, try asking yourself these questions:

• What is this character’s function on the Hero’s Journey?
• What is this character’s goal?
• What means will the character be using to achieve this goal?

Do you use archetypes in your own writing?   Have you ever completed a story and then recognized the presence of archetypes you hadn’t intentionally included?  Do you think archetypes are too limiting to a writer?  Please tell me what you think in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


Bad Boys vs. “Bad Boys”

19 Oct

By Sammy Bina


If there’s one thing I love, it’s a bad boy. I’m a sucker for stories where Lonely Girl befriends him and fills his horrible life with puppies and sunshine. I adore the push-and-pull dynamic of “good vs. evil” and their otherwise messed up relationship. I live for those scenes where Bad Boy reverts back to his badness and Lonely Girl is left feeling devastated until Bad Boy realizes his mistake and transforms into a knight in shining armor.

But you’ve got to admit, that’s pretty cliché. And as much as we love the stereotype, it isn’t very realistic.

Up for discussion today is #24 on my Intern Tips list: Black clothes, tattoos, and an earring do not a bad boy make.

Like you all, I’m a pretty avid reader. My book shelf is full of beloved YA novels that contain the stereotypical bad boy. And until recently, I thought nothing of it. I didn’t actually pay attention to the unrealistic portrayal of my favorite male characters. Instead, I was sucked in by my favorite cliché and never bother to look beyond it. It’s fiction, I told myself. It’s not meant to be realistic.

And while it’s true that fiction doesn’t have to be realistic, lately I’ve come to find that these stereotypes and generalizations just don’t cut it for me anymore. After all the submissions I’ve read, after all the books I’ve bought, and after all the blog entries and articles I’ve read, I’ve decided I want a realistic story I can get behind. I want a bad boy who’s actually bad.

But where do we draw the line between bad boys and “bad boys”?

Based on the reading I’ve done in the last few months (both published and unpublished), most “bad boys” seem to be labeled as such simply because of their physical appearance. They wear all black, or have a leather jacket. They have ripped up jeans and dark, brooding eyes. Their black, grungy hair tends to fall in their face, and an earring hangs from one or both ears. They might have a tattoo or six as well. But beyond that, they aren’t much of a bad boy at all. They’re just quiet or misunderstood. Maybe their home life isn’t so great. But, overall, they’re generally not bad people. You’d feel safe spending time with them, and to be honest, your grandma probably would too. Basically, the guy’s harmless.

But if your character really is an honest-to-god bad boy, you have to dig beneath the surface. Maybe they wear black, but it isn’t a requirement. So what if they don’t have tattoos? A true bad boy is all personality. They’re rude, they cheat on their girlfriends, and they get in fights. They’re uncomfortable to be around and bring your insecurities to the forefront. Maybe they drink excessively, smoke, or do drugs. Maybe all three. But, generally, they aren’t the guy you’d want to bring home to Daddy.

Need some examples?

I thought Patch from Becca Fitzpatrick’s HUSH, HUSH was a pretty believable bad boy. He was snide at first, rude, hung out in sketchy pool halls, got into fights, and was an overall mystery. There were times when I didn’t like him, or wanted to slap him just as much as Nora did. Sometimes I questioned his morals or his actions. And in the end, he may have redeemed himself somewhat, but the reader’s left questioning who he really is. Is he still the guy from the beginning of the book, or has he actually changed? Therein lies the mystery, and the reason he can still pull off his bad boy image. I have yet to read CRESCENDO, but I’m assuming the bad boy image carries over; it certainly looks like it, based on the synopsis.

Or how about Draco Malfoy? If you want a perfect example of a bad boy, look no further. He’s a hard-to-read asshole with unclear motivations. Frankly, most of the time you’re just wondering what the heck he’s up to. He’s generally a pretty awful fellow, and yet you somehow feel bad for him. He’s a sympathetic bad boy, and the very best kind. You want to believe he’s good at heart, but is he really?

But there are bad boys in published literature that I think fall short. In another take on the fallen angel story, I didn’t buy into Daniel’s character from Lauren Kate’s FALLEN as much as I’d have liked. Though the overall story is good, and I really enjoyed Luce’s narration, I just couldn’t get behind Daniel. The mystery that Patch presents is absent; Daniel’s motivations seem pretty surface-level. In other words, he wasn’t complex enough. The bad boy image was only skin deep.

And that, dear readers, is where I feel some authors slip up. They forget that some guys really do just wear black but are perfectly harmless. And that there are others, who might also wear black, that have killed someone, or sell drugs for a living. It’s all in the presentation. Your bad boy doesn’t necessarily have to look the part, but he does have to act it.

Also, you have to consider the redemption factor. As you may well know from real life, bad boys can be difficult to change. Girls like to think they can conquer his bad attitude and poor manners, but how often does that actually happen? You’re allowed to bend the rules in fiction – there’s no doubt about that – but make sure you aren’t bending things beyond a reasonable level of belief.

I still read books containing “bad boys,” but these days I pay close attention to the way the author has portrayed him. Maybe the unreliable portrayal of my beloved male character will ruin the story for me, but maybe it won’t. There are still plenty of authors out there who know how to create bad boys that behave exactly how you’d expect. And the closer we can get to that, I think the better off we’ll be.


Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior with a BA in Creative Writing. She is currently querying THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, an adult dystopian romance, and simultaneously working on two YA projects. She is an intern with the Elaine P. English Literary Agency, and can be found on twitter, or at her blog.