How to Create Strong Characters: 3 Writing Tips

I’ve noticed that a lot of advice on how to create strong characters tends to start with a character questionnaire. (Here’s an example of a pretty good one if you want to give it a shot!) While these questionnaires have some great things to consider, they never helped me to create strong characters.

I always felt like it was a little too much too fast. I used to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to consider. So much so that I would try to power through these question without really digging in and getting to know my characters like I needed to. So instead, I created some questions of my own.

I developed this process pretty organically. I learned what I needed to get excited about my characters and truly bring them to life. Now it’s what I use as the basis for ALL of my major characters. I’ve never seen anything that looks like my initial approach online, which is why I’m sharing it with you!

Here are the three big areas I think about any time I want to create strong characters:

1) What happened to your character before your book starts?

When I first come up with an idea, I tend to have some loose details of what happened to my characters before my book starts.  Before I do anything else, I take the time to really develop these thoughts. Most importantly, I want to know what happened in my character’s past that defined them. What shaped them into the person they are at the start of the book?

For example, when I started planning the Raven Files, I knew it was going to be a book about a girl who was kidnapped by an enemy spy agency when she was eight. I also knew she would be eighteen when the book starts. So before I started writing I sat down and thought about what it would be like for my character to be taken from her parents so young, what her training was like, what her life was like at this enemy spy agency, and what some of her defining missions were.

All of this not only gave me a seriously strong sense of my character, but it also got me really excited to think about the story I was planning to tell.

2) Who is your character at the start of the book?

Now that you know what shaped your character’s past, it’s time to think about how those events truly impacted them and made them into the character that they are at the start of your story. Did events of the past traumatize them? Or do they find themselves anxious in certain situations because of something that happened to them? Are they less talkative than they used to be because of an event?

Go through your character’s history and ask yourself how affected your character would be by each of their key life events that happened prior to the start of the book. Then ask yourself how your character deals with or shows that impact. Every single event may not have a lasting effect, but finding the ones that do can be key in understanding who your character is at the start of your story. Once you know who they are, you can figure out how they develop.

3) Who do you want your character to be by the end of the book?

I also like to think of this question as, “what should my character to learn by the end?” but that might be too specific for you. The idea is that once you know what you want your character to learn or who you want them to be, you’ll be able to develop a reasonable path to help get them there.

For instance, in the first book of the Raven Files, I knew my main character came from a traumatic environment. She was raised to trust no one and fight for her life on a daily basis. The biggest thing I wanted her to learn by the end of the book was how to trust other people and let other people help her. With that in mind, I was able to plot out a variety of situations where she would first be forced to rely on other people and trust them. Then she could begin to make the choice to trust them. Knowing where I wanted my character to end up made plotting believable development so much easier than it would have been had I not known where I wanted my character to grow by the end.

I hope this helps you create strong characters!

I kickstart all of my characters by figuring out these three big questions. I’ve found it not only helps me develop my characters, but it also makes me really eager to write. I hope this helps you as much as it helps me!

Now it’s your turn: What approach do you take when you’re trying to create strong characters? What big questions to do you ask that you’ve found to be really helpful? Let me know in the comments below. You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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4 Easy Ways to Create Conflict in a Novel: Writing Tips

Easy Ways to Create Conflict in a NovelKeeping a book consistently interesting is hard! One of the best ways to keep readers engaged is to create conflict in a novel. This probably not news to you, but that doesn’t mean fresh conflict is always easy to come by.

Here are four failsafe techniques that I always circle back to when to I need to create conflict in a novel:

1) Make your characters disagree

I know this seems obvious, but it’s so often overlooked! The easiest way to create conflict in a novel is to make your characters disagree. This applies to your main characters too, not just your protagonist and antagonist/villain. Traditionally when we create secondary characters, their purpose is to support our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean they have to agree with our protagonists all the time. Tension between the characters we’re rooting for not only makes the story more interesting but also more realistic.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a crime novel and your core characters are gearing up to go after your bad guy. It’s nice for your characters if they’re all on the same page about their plan of attack, but isn’t more interesting if they disagree? And doesn’t it add more uncertainty if readers have to wonder if the character(s) who disagreed will stick to the plan going forward?

You can use this technique at any point in your book that feels flat–not just the end. The level of disagreement can be up to you and based on your story’s needs.

2) Secrets and Lies

For the most part, everyone has a reason to keep a secret and everyone has a reason to lie. No matter how big or how small, secrets and lies are almost always guaranteed to shake up your plot. Once the secrets and lies are revealed, you’ll have characters who are likely to feel betrayed and/or your plot will be thrown into a new direction based on the new information.

This is a good technique to use if you need your characters to learn new information at a specific point in your plot. It also makes the liar/secret keeper a much more interesting character. And by doing so, creates conflict on both a plot and character level.

3) Add Family

There’s an endless pool of conflicts for families/family members. Even ones who get along well (and even more for ones who don’t).

Maybe your character is the member of their family that no one likes. Or maybe the family member no one likes has shown up asking for something. Or maybe the family member everyone likes, shows up on the run with a dark secret. Pull from your real experience or make something up. Script Mag has some tips on creating realistic family conflict.

Side note, I think this conflict is especially fun with a character who’s more private. A family member can reveal a lot about a character just by existing in a scene, which will make your private character uncomfortable and cause conflict from the start.

4) Give your characters exactly what they don’t want

This can be small or large, depending on the size of the conflict you’re looking to create. The principle is the same either way; if there’s something your character desperately wants to avoid, force them to confront it.

For something smaller, it can be a simple as they have to go to a party they don’t want to go to after a bad day. Maybe their bad mood will force a too honest conversation. For something larger, maybe some of the parties guests include people who tormented your character in high school.

This is another option that’s pretty open, but the cool thing about it is that by taking the time figure out what your characters don’t want, you also add a layer to them and get to know them better.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how to create conflict in a novel!

I like these conflicts because I think they can be used in any story to shake things up, push your characters, and keep your story interesting. They’re the perfect go-tos when you find a scene or entire section of your book that needs a lift. Also, in order to make these methods work you have to really understand your characters, which means you get to know them better as you work. If you’re looking to take this to the next level, check out this post on how to write a tight scene.

Now it’s your turn: How do you like to create conflict in a novel? Do you have any go-to conflicts to share? Tell me all about it in the comments below! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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7 Effective Writing Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

7 Tips to Beat Writers BlockOne thing I get asked the most for is how to beat writer’s block. Unfortunately, it tends to have a complicated answer (at least it does one it comes from me). I think the best approach to overcoming writer’s block is going to depend a lot on your style, writing process, and the type of block you have. What I’d suggest if you have absolutely no idea what comes next in your story is going to be different than if you do know what comes next but can’t figure out how to get there.

But either way, writer’s block is essentially a mental block, so I put together my top seven tips to give your brain a break and find your way back to your work in progress. Try them individually, or mix and match to find the formula that works best to reignite your story!

Here are seven tips for overcoming writer’s block:

1) Take a break

I think a lot of writer’s block related problems stem from being too close to your work. Time away can give you some distance and perspective.

I  recommend watching TV, reading a book, spending time with friends and family, or do whatever you need to do to take your mind off your story. These activities not only give your mind something else to focus on, they may also give you some unexpected inspiration.

2) Go outside

One trick to overcoming writer’s block is to take a walk, spend the day in a park, or just take an hour to sit outside without your phone/computer/device. Studies have shown nature can help your mentality. This article from UC Berkeley speaks specifically to how nature can help with creativity in point #3. It even explains the science behind it, if that’s your kind of thing. The bottom line is that nature can help your brain recover from mental fatigue and a handful of other problems that tend to play a role in writer’s block.

3) Take the pressure off and free write

I suggest doing this with pen and paper–especially if you’re typing the book you’re writing. There’s something organic about writing by hand that seems to stimulate creativity–at least it does for me. Look at where you are in your story then try taking ten to fifteen minutes to imagine a different direction your project could go in and write about it. Then when that time is up, think of another new direction. Nothing is off limits and the more outlandish the better. If a direction seems so absurd to the point that you’re sure you absolutely won’t use it, write it down anyway! If it crosses your mind you should take the time to explore it. Even if the absurdity doesn’t make it into your book, you never know it might unlock in your mind.

Do this for as long as you need, but I would suggest at least an hour. When you’re finished, see if there are any ideas you like, or if there are a few you might want to combine.

4) Talk it out

If you know a fellow writer, critique partner, or friend who gets your work, give them a call and tell them where you’re at. This has helped me in overcoming writer’s block repeatedly. I can’t tell you how many times one of my crit partners or my sister has solved my problems by either asking a question I hadn’t thought of or throwing out a “what if X happens?” type of question. I often spend more time explaining why I’m stuck than they spend fixing my issue. The power of a fresh perspective is real!

But! You have to be careful with this one! Make sure you’re talking to people who get your writing and get what you’re trying to do. You might have a friend who is a GREAT writer, but if they don’t get you and your stories they may end up making your problems worse. You need someone who will get you writing again and not feed into your block.

5) Give yourself permission to be incomplete and imperfect

In fact, give yourself permission to be downright terrible. One cause of writer’s block is often a need to get the story right. Sometimes it can be debilitating if you aren’t 100% sure what you’re writing is the right thing to write, or if you’re afraid you’re not conveying exactly what you’re trying to convey. This is your internal editor holding you back. It can be tough, but I recommend doing everything you can to push forward.

Tell yourself that it’s okay if what you’re writing is bad. It’s okay if what you’re writing is half developed. It’s okay if you skip scenes or chapters entirely. I’ve found that sometimes, you may also have to finish your story before you fully realize how to make the connection you’re looking for. If it helps, I have a critique partner who is famous for sending us pages with

If it helps, I also have a critique partner who is famous for sending pages with [insert exciting action scene here]. Sometimes, you just have to get from A to B. So do whatever you have to to keep writing. “Good” can come later. “Written” has to come first.

6) Work on another project for a little while

This is something that helps me A LOT. So much so that I almost always have two projects going at the same time. I’ve found that walking away from project #1 and putting my full focus on project #2 is one of the best ways to clear my brain of whatever issues were weighing project #1 down. Ninety percent of the time when I go back to my first project, I have a fresh perspective and a clearer head, and the problems practically resolve themselves.

I’ve operated this way since I was in grad school, but I’d never known anyone else to work this way until 2012 when I found this article detailing how Joss Whedon took a break from editing The Avengers to film Much Adu About Nothing. He calls it a creative shift. If you want to know more about how creative shifts can be beneficial, check out this post!

7) Take a look at your writing process

If writer’s block is a recurring problem or a serious obstruction for you on a regular basis, then you might want to take a look at your process. It’s possible your problem is in your approach, not your work in progress.

I used to get seriously blocked–to the point that I wouldn’t write for months. But that really doesn’t happen to me anymore. I learned that I don’t do well when I have to think about the story and write the story at the same time. If I didn’t know what should happen next, I’d get stuck and stop writing. So now I plan everything before I write so I always know what happens next. It’s not a flawless system, but it’s enough to keep me going.  If you notice a pattern or frequency in your blocks, take the time to understand the deeper process issue. Once you do, you can work to modify your process and avoid putting yourself in that situation. Overcoming writer’s block gets so much easier when you remove the blocks before they even happen!

I hope one of these strategies (or some combination of them) guides you to overcoming writer’s block!

Now it’s your turn: Have you struggled with overcoming writer’s block? What helped you beat it? I want to hear about it in the comments! Or if you’re still struggling, share that too! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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5 Awesome Writing Tips for Writing Your First Book

Five Tips for WRiting Your first bookThe idea of writing your first book can be seriously intimidating. Maybe even intimidating enough to make you stop before you start. In my experience, a lot of that overwhelm comes from focusing on too much at once–especially for the first draft of your first novel. The reality is, there’s A LOT you shouldn’t be focused on at this stage. To help you get away from some of those sources of intimidation, I put together my top five things you don’t need to worry about.

So with that in mind, here are five things NOT to do:

1) Don’t focus on the end result 

The big picture concept of A Finished Novel (and all of the work it would take to make that happen) can be one of the more intimidating hurdles to get passed. The whole idea gets so much more manageable if you keep your focus on what you can reasonably accomplish within a single day. If you can write 100 words, do that. If you can write 500, go for it. Be reasonable and focus on today’s task only. It may not seem like much now, but every word you write gets you a step closer to completing your book.

2) Don’t focus on how long writing your first novel will take

There’s a quote by Earl Nightingale that I love: “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.”

I think this is particularly true with writing a book. It’s a massive undertaking and it will most definitely take time. It might very well take years. But seriously, so what? So what if it does take years? If this is something you want to do, why does it matter how long it will take?

Even if you only write for fifteen minutes a day on your lunch break and it takes you two years to finish a draft, you’ll have a finished draft in two years! Those two years are going to pass whether you’re writing your book or not. If writing a book is something you’ve always wanted to do, not writing isn’t going to get you closer to that goal. Writing for fifteen minutes a day will. And if you start today, you’ll be one day closer to the finish line.

3) Don’t try to make your first book perfect

I get it. Staring at the blinking cursor when you have a story to tell can be daunting. You want to make sure you’re picking the right words and saying exactly what you mean.  But those expectations are enough to hold you back when you’re writing your first novel. I challenge you to give yourself permission to be imperfect and just start writing. Put your characters on the page and let them run. Have fun with your story. Your only concern at this point should be to put words on the page. They don’t have to be the “right” words. You can find those later. (For more on this, I’ve got a whole post on Why Writers Should Embrace Imperfection in Writing.)

And while you’re at it, don’t feel like a chapter has to be perfect for you to move on. Your only goal of a first draft is to finish it. Don’t let yourself fixate too much on what you’ve already written. Once you finish a chapter move on to the next. If you don’t like a chapter or section, make note of it somewhere, but don’t try to fix it now. That’s a revision problem, not a drafting problem.

4) Don’t think of your readers

Another super intimidating element of writing is the idea of someone actually reading what you write. Your readers should certainly be considered and there will be time for them down the road. But now is not that time. Now is the time to be selfish. Think about yourself. Don’t write to be read, write to be happy. Write to tell yourself a story you want to experience. Odds are, if it’s a story you want to experience, there will be readers out there who like the same things you do and who will love to read it. But don’t worry about them now. Worry about yourself. Write for you. Write to be happy.

5) Don’t put pressure on your first book

It can be hard to get started if you’ve decided you need to write the next Harry Potter or Girl on the Train. You may start writing, read over what you’ve written, decide it’s not either of those stories, then delete it all and try again another day (or not).

Not only does that make it difficult to write, but it’s also squashing your voice. I would argue that the highest compliment isn’t to have your work compared to anyone else but to create work that others are compared to. In order to make that happen, you first have to let your voice exist on the page. So allow yourself to write with no pressure or expectations.  Write the story your heart is begging you to tell. It doesn’t have to be anything while you’re writing it. It just has to get written.

Bonus tip: Repeat regularly and build a habit.

Books get written when writers show up at their computers or notebooks on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how bite-sized your daily goals are or how limited your time frame is. It’s all progress, and progress adds up. So start writing your book today. The sooner you type those first words, the sooner you’ll reach THE END.

I hope this gets you writing!

Now it’s your turn: Got a tip that helps you start writing? Tell me all about it in the comments below. You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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