Paula Writes

Paula Puddephatt – Author

People Watching as a Fiction Writer — July 13, 2019

People Watching as a Fiction Writer

people-watching-writers

In a recent post, I discussed the subject of basing characters on real people.

In general, I wouldn’t suggest basing your characters entirely upon people you know in real life. However, being inspired by actual people, and incorporating some of their personality traits into your characters, is fine.

If done well, this can make your fictional people significantly more believable and interesting.

But here’s the thing: Strangers can provide as much, or more, inspiration, than people you know.

People watching: It can help.

As long as you manage to people watch without appearing to be some sort of crazy stalker, that is.

The fact that you don’t know someone forces you to invent almost everything behind what you see on the surface.

But a snippet of conversation, or an interesting personality trait of any kind, can provide the spark your imagination requires.

And that’s what, as writers, we’re always searching for: sparks. These are the added ingredients that can elevate an okay character to a good character – or, better still, a good character to a great one.

 

So, stay alert. People watch to your heart’s content.

And hopefully, you will find some ideas that will assist you, as you develop your characters, and create more characters, in the future.

 

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Characters and the Role of Pets — May 22, 2019

Characters and the Role of Pets

characters-pets

Does your MC have any pets?

How about your other characters, starting with major characters? If not, why not? And did they ever have pets?

And let’s be as specific as possible.

Two dogs, yes. But try two Labradors. Okay, one Black Labrador, and one Chocolate. Names?

Dog people. Cat people. Someone with a house full of parrots. The fact is that animals are important in many of our lives.

A pet can even become, effectively, another character.

At any rate, the relationships between our fictional people and their pets can speak volumes. It can help from a character development point of view.

If your MC has a pet rabbit and you yourself never have, research pet rabbits, as if you were planning to buy one yourself.

It might not seem necessary, if the rabbit doesn’t actually play a significant role in your story, but knowing such details about aspects of the character’s daily life does matter.

The more effort you put into these areas, the more you will ultimately connect, and come to understand, your protagonist, and other main (and even minor) characters.

In conclusion then, do take the time to consider pets.

This seemingly small tip is one that can actually make a significant different, if you’ve created characters, but they feel somewhat distant, or like cardboard cut-out archetypes.

Pets can give characters the edge, and transform them from names, ages, and traits, into actual people: people readers can believe in, and care about.

Basing Characters on Real People: Okay or Not? — May 21, 2019

Basing Characters on Real People: Okay or Not?

real-characters

Characters need to feel like real people. They need to be believable and relatable.

But feeling like a real person, and actually being based upon somebody real, are not the same thing.

Even if we don’t consciously set out to base our characters on actual people, it tends to happen that they contain elements of ourselves, and of others we know. Ideas must arise from somewhere, after all.

Sometimes, the sources are more obvious to us than they might be on other occasions. I personally feel that there are elements of myself in each of my characters. But, of course, elements of other people do find themselves into some of the characters, also.

When it comes to including other people, who really exist, in your fiction, you obviously have to be careful about libel, and ethical issues. But these aren’t the only potential hazards.

In truth, real people don’t tend to make great characters, for a few reasons.

We don’t, and can’t, thoroughly know people in real life, however close, and therefore, can’t entirely understand their motives. For this reason alone, we can’t effectively use real people in fiction, and would probably end up resorting to invention, to some degree.

The ideal solution is generally to mix it up.

Some of our own traits can blend with others from people we know, and then we can add a few more elements, from pure imagination. You know how things blur together in dreams? Reality and fiction intertwine, and the result can potentially be fascinating.

 

I wouldn’t, in conclusion, recommend basing any character, in all aspects, on one specific real person, in a work of fiction.

And I certainly don’t suggest doing what I used to, in some of my childhood stories: making a character name start with the same initial letter as the person the character is modelled upon – or using another name you strongly associate with the person, such as a middle name. Not good. For tips on choosing character names, take a look at my post on that subject.

Sometimes, incidentally, strangers can prove more inspirational than people we actually know. I suggest reading my post about the benefits of people watching for writers, in which I talk about exactly this.

 

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Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid in Your Fiction — February 2, 2019

Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid in Your Fiction

fiction-mistakes-problems

Many mistakes that writers tend to make in their fiction are very common. I’ve already written about some of these, but thought that it would be helpful to give an overview of a few of them, in a single post.

So, here are some common writing mistakes, frequently made by fiction writers.

The primary focus here is upon mistakes often made by novelists, although some will also apply to short stories, novellas, screenplays, and so on.

Underdeveloped characters are extremely common.

No matter how amazing your plot and setting might be, you can’t afford to neglect character development.

Creating believable characters is essential.

In fact, some degree of weakness in other areas can actually be forgiven by many readers, as long as you have strong characters.

White Room Syndrome is another common writing problem.

It occurs when writers provide insufficient descriptive details of the physical locations, in which their scenes take place.

I recently wrote a post about White Room Syndrome, so I would suggest reading that, if you need more information.

Telling, instead of showing – or showing, instead of telling.

This is another subject covered in one of my recent posts. It would be hard not to have heard the standard advice: “Show, don’t tell.” It’s quoted, online and offline, everywhere that writing tips are quoted.

And yet, over-telling still remains an issue, for so many writers.

But what is less often mentioned, is that over-showing can also be a problem.

Take a look at my post about showing and telling, for more details.

Backstory overload.

Yes, backstory is important. You need to know about your characters’ histories, and the more information, the better.

But your reader probably only needs to know a tiny percentage of this background information. And modern readers are not patient.

It’s your job to weave the backstory into the main story, and keep the plot progressing, at a decent pace.

In short, don’t info dump. I address this somewhat in my post about common first chapter mistakes, since the start of a novel is often the place where info dumps tend to occur.

Descriptions involving characters looking into mirrors.

This is often seen in first person narratives, but is regularly encountered in every POV.

Of course, it’s not easy to convey physical descriptions of viewpoint characters, so a mirror can seem like a tempting option. But it’s been done to death, and tends to be the hallmark of amateur writing.

And, before you start considering alternative reflective surfaces – no, not okay.

In my first completed (shelved) novel, I had multiple viewpoint characters, but focused more so on Richard, who was basically the main viewpoint character, in a third person story.

And I cringe to remember my description of Rich, checking out his own reflection. Something about the window of Boots the chemist “doubling as a mirror” – and I even remember liking that part.

The character definitely came across as vain, which wasn’t my intention, and wasn’t appropriate.

I do discuss the subject of “descriptions via reflections”, in the post about first chapter mistakes, that I mentioned, and linked to, earlier.

Trying too hard to avoid the word “said”.

Said is far from dead, as I pointed out in my posts Writing Believable Dialogue and Creating Realistic Dialogue: Additional Thoughts.

So, please: less exclaiming, and more simple “saying”. It sounds so much better.

Similar character names.

Similar sounds. The same initials.

In the space of an entire novel with a large cast, you don’t need to take this tip to extremes, and to do so would be difficult. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, so of course some of your characters can have names that begin with the same letter, or sound similar.

But here’s the thing: Yes, it’s realistic to have friends called Julie, Julia, Emily, Emma, and Gemma. But this is fiction, and we can make fiction less confusing than real life – so we should, for the sanity of our readers.

For more tips on naming characters, read my post on that subject.

And, still on the subject of names – be aware of the natural tendency to overuse names in dialogue.

Many, if not most, writers do this, on occasions.

It’s an issue that can easily be resolved at the editing and revision stage, however, so don’t over-think this one.

Starting your novel – or particular scenes – in the wrong place.

The most common problem is starting too early. You need to cut to the chase, and lose any boring build up elements.

The first chapter mistake post, again, does cover this subject, because it’s an issue often associated with the beginning of a story.

Unnecessary prologues or epilogues.

And, no – not all prologues or epilogues are unnecessary.

But some are.

And some aren’t, but they do become unnecessarily long. My post about epilogues should provide further clarification, and much of the advice can equally be applied to prologues.

 

Hopefully, this post provided a useful overview of many common problems, experienced by fiction writers.

I encourage you to explore the other articles mentioned, if you need additional advice on any of these common issues, and how to fix them in your writing.

 

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Author and Character Voice in Your Fiction — January 17, 2019

Author and Character Voice in Your Fiction

voice-fiction

When discussing voice, in connection with writing fiction, we need to distinguish between author and character voice.

Author voice refers to the style of the author.

This can include word choice and tone. Author voice will be somewhat consistent, although there may be variations between voice used in one work and the next.

Consider your favourite authors, and what it is that appeals to you about their particular writing style. When you read their work, you just know it’s that author’s work, right? Even if the writer in question writes in multiple genres, there’s something that marks each story out as being their own. Daphne du Maurier comes to mind for me, personally.

All writers, then, have a voice – but should you consciously develop that voice?

Such as, intentionally focus upon absorbing the styles of other specific authors, so that this will influence your own?

As with most other aspects of being a writer, this is an individual choice. Most of us like to at least have some degree of awareness, when it comes to our personal writing styles.

But, yes – voice comes naturally, and will develop simply through the fact that we write and read, and live in general.

Character voice is also “exactly what it says on the tin”.

Each character in each story should, ideally, have a clearly defined voice – although it can be challenging to achieve in practice, and a common writing problem is that multiple characters, within a particular story, seem the same, or very similar, in terms of voice.

Character voice is distinct from author voice, although paradoxically, it’s also an element of author voice.

The extent to which author and character voice merge into one, definitely varies. The general tendency would be for character voice to blend most with author voice in a first person, single viewpoint narrative. However, this is by no means always the case.

The concept of character voice does tend to refer to viewpoint characters, but it’s worth remembering that it applies to other characters, too. But, if a character isn’t a POV character, we’re going to be relying upon dialogue exclusively, to convey voice.

 

As I mentioned, author voice does tend to take care of itself, but it can’t hurt to be aware of our own developing styles. And, when it comes to character voice – that’s definitely an area on which many of us need to focus.

 

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Exploring Your Characters’ Motivations — January 15, 2019

Exploring Your Characters’ Motivations

your-characters-motivations

I’ve discussed characterisation in various posts, and have always emphasized my personal belief, that strong characters are the heart of compelling fiction.

Whilst other factors, including plot, are undeniably important, weaknesses in these areas can often be forgiven, provided that the reader is sufficiently invested in the characters.

I’ve written posts about character creation, and aspects of character development, and would like to focus right now, on character motivations, in particular.

It’s vital to understand the why behind your characters’ actions and reactions – and to communicate this, via your story’s events, to the reader. I always return to the importance, as I see it, of character development, and exploring character motivations is very much a part of this.

With the possible exception of minor characters, it’s usual for each character to have an arc – a definite pattern of change in that character, from the starting point of the story to the climax.

Sometimes the change will be drastic, and sometimes, very subtle, but there will almost always be change, of some description.

Events in real life shape us, and alter our perspectives, and it’s the same way for our fictional people.

So, in terms of needs and motivations, these will shift and change accordingly, as the story moves along.

Your plot will be influenced by the actions and emotions of the various characters, and these actions and emotions can’t be understood without knowing what motivates the characters, on multiple levels.

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, represented by a pyramid. Human needs range from the most basic survival – life or death – needs, to the highest human need, for self-actualisation.

At different times, and in different circumstances, our needs will change. When we’re fighting for mere survival, we aren’t focusing upon any need higher than that.

So, there may be times, during the course of your story, when your characters are literally fighting for their lives, and at these times, many of their usual priorities, hopes, and dreams, will fade into insignificance.

But there’s more to it than this, of course. Desires, goals, dreams – all change over time, even outside of life and death situations. True for all of us, and same applies for our characters. Motivations will be consistent, and yet, evolving, also.

The motivations of one character may be in direct conflict with those of another.

This is excellent, from a storytelling perspective, because conflict is essential, in order for your plot to progress, and remain interesting.

The timespan of your story is another consideration.

In my own case, my WIP begins in 1983, ending in the early 1990s. My protagonist, Lucy, is seventeen, at the start.

The epilogue takes place in 1993. The change between a girl of seventeen, and a twenty-seven year old, who has been through the novel’s various events, will obviously be significant.

Many of Lucy’s motivations and needs will be very different. These will have changed gradually, over the years, and the challenge is to not only understand these developments ourselves, but to communicate them effectively, and skilfully, to the reader.

 

There’s so much more to say, on the subject of character motivations, and character arcs, and it’s difficult to do justice to such a vast, and important, subject. But, for now, these are some thoughts on character motivations, which will hopefully be of interest.

 

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Creating Realistic Dialogue: Additional Thoughts — November 20, 2018

Creating Realistic Dialogue: Additional Thoughts

dialogue-thoughts

In this post, I’ll be expanding upon my Writing Believable Dialogue post.

I would, therefore, suggest reading that first, if you haven’t already.

I can’t emphasize enough that believable characters are the heart of great fiction.

Other elements, such as story structure, are important, but strong characterisation is essential. And, without convincing dialogue, you won’t have believable characters. That’s why I consider this subject sufficiently valuable to revisit.

It’s important, in general, to avoid exposition in dialogue.

Many writers will attempt to convey backstory via dialogue, but this rarely comes across as natural.

However, there’s one circumstance in which this can actually work: arguments. It’s important to include conflict in your stories, and although not all of this conflict will be in the form of rows between your various characters – well, arguments are bound to be in the mix, right?

In real life, arguments are very much a time when accusations are flying:

“And what about what you said, on Julie’s wedding day?”

“Well, how about what your mum said to my sister, last Christmas?”

“Aren’t you forgetting the time you…?”

Okay, you get the idea. Basically, people hurl anything and everything at each other, when tempers are high, so take advantage of this, as a writer.

In my Believable Dialogue post, I mentioned the overuse of character names in dialogue.

I still find myself doing this, and having to remove name tags, as part of the revision process.

One specific problem I find is that many of my characters are known by more than one variation of their name, used interchangeably. Some examples, from my WIP: Lucy/Luce, Catherine/Cath, Matthew/Matt, and Charlotte/Charlie. This tends to result, in my experience, in the inclusion of more name tags, in total.

There’s no obvious way to avoid this, other than limiting the number of characters, within any one story, who are routinely known by multiple versions of their names.

It really is worth paying attention to this. Listen intentionally to real life conversations, as these provide useful comparisons. It’s surprising how seldom we actually use each other’s names, during real interactions.

I mentioned this before, and will repeat: Said is not dead.

It’s time to get past this myth. I still occasionally come across infographics on Pinterest, providing extensive lists of “said alternatives”, most of which make me cringe.

Whilst there are some viable alternatives, less “exclaiming”, “confessing”, and “admitting” will make your writing sound more stylish. “Said” is an invisible word, and does its job.

Not every line of dialogue requires an attribution at all – particularly the case when a conversation involves only two characters.

Action tags can be useful but, as with every other device, some writers overdo these. They serve a purpose, and can be used effectively, but don’t use them too often.

If in doubt, keep it simple, and go with the functional, unobtrusive “said”.

 

Hopefully, these tips, along with those in my related post, will help you to improve the quality of your dialogue.

Creating realistic dialogue is vital, because without it, as I mentioned, you simply won’t have realistic characters.

But the good news is that it often only takes a minor tweak here and there, during the revision and editing process, to make a significant difference.

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Writing Diversity: Creating Working Class and Underclass Characters — November 1, 2018

Writing Diversity: Creating Working Class and Underclass Characters

address-class-issues-fiction

Most – although I can’t claim, all – writers acknowledge the importance of diversity, in general.

However, what do we think of specifically, when we hear and use the term “diversity”? Race? Sexuality? Age, even? Disability? These are all important, and we need to keep talking about all of them.

But how about working class and underclass characters?

Do you include “poor people” in your stories and, if so, how are these characters portrayed?

And yes, there can definitely be overlaps with some of the other issues. Race and poverty, and disability and poverty: It’s wrong to deny that there can be causal links. Social issues don’t go away by ignoring and denying them.

Poverty is a reality, and this is still very much the case in “wealthy” countries, including here in the UK.

Our NHS is a mess, before you even get into housing issues.

Families, such as my own, continue to treat particular members as “poor relations”, and shun and humiliate them, in numerous ways.

The benefits system is overwhelmingly difficult for many to navigate, and involves so much needless cruelty,

How often is any of this reflected in fiction? In my opinion and experience, not enough.

Rags to riches, and riches to rags?

Those have been done.

Yet, in reality, most people who are working class remain working class throughout their lives. Many go back and forth between working class and underclass, for various reasons. Let’s see more characters like these, and celebrate how strong many people have to be, simply to survive.

Some genres are particularly prone to the exclusive inclusion of privileged characters, especially as protagonists.

For example, romance and women’s fiction. Women who work as cashiers and toilet cleaners still have romantic relationships. Why, then, does almost every heroine, in such books, have to be either middle class or upper class?

Your cast is your own, but it’s worth considering these points, if diversity matters to you. And, in my opinion, it should. As for “not really knowing about people like that” – maybe you should learn, and not only for the sake of your writing.

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Character Development: Inspiration – Part 2 — September 15, 2018

Character Development: Inspiration – Part 2

character-inspiration-2If you haven’t yet read part 1, I would recommend doing so – ideally before reading this post, although afterwards would also work.

As I mentioned before, I regard character development as one of the most important aspects of fiction writing.

Other elements, such as plot, are important too, but without strong characters, plot isn’t enough. And some weaknesses in plot can actually be forgiven, once the characters have their place in our hearts.

I mentioned not being a fan of character sheets, and the whole “laundry list” approach to character creation.

It’s not so much that character profiles can’t be useful, but they don’t feel sufficient to me.

There’s usually a category, for example, about hobbies and interests.

I find this particularly difficult to complete, and do feel it’s one section, in which “for the sake of completing the box” type answers tend to appear. Does your character actually love cooking, rocking climbing, and badminton? Or did you literally just make that up on the spot, because it sounds like a good answer, and because you already used crochet and tennis for the last character?

Physical appearance is another category, routinely included on every character profile list out there.

If I needed to write down that my main character, Lucy, has red hair, in order to remember this, it would be kind of bizarre. Minor characters, possibly – but surely we should know what our central characters look like? We should be able to “see” them.  Do you seriously write down your own sister’s hair colour, in case you don’t recognise her, the next time you bump into her?  To me, it would be equivalent.

It’s also worth noting that, although someone might have should-length, thick, wavy, light brown hair – maybe the reader won’t need that much information. This isn’t a problem with character profiles, as such – but just a point that’s worth keeping in mind.  Many writers who take the “laundry list” approach to character creation, have a tendency to include the entire “laundry list” in their stories, which generally doesn’t read well.  Being selective is key.

One of the most important aspects of character development is taking time to understand the various important relationships, in the lives of your different characters.

I’ve written a post about how to create believable romantic relationships in your fiction, and another that focuses upon friendships. But consider family relationships, those with work colleagues, and any other relevant relationships, also. Together, these relationships form an important part of who the character is – and, as such, they deserve time and attention.

I would say to look at any or all of the categories on any standard character profile sheet, if you wish – but really take the time to consider each question. Mechanically filling out the blanks is unlikely to result in deep characterisation. Get to know your fictional people over time, and enjoy the process. That way, hopefully, future readers will want to know them, too.

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Character Development: Inspiration – Part 1 — August 31, 2018

Character Development: Inspiration – Part 1

character-inspiration-1

I definitely consider character creation to be one of the most important aspects – if not the most important – of writing great fiction.

Even in genres generally considered to be more plot-driven, characters matter – and excellent characterisation will set your fiction apart, giving it a definite edge over any other novels or short stories out there.

I have previously written post about my personal character development process, and about how to create believable characters – as well as various related posts, covering topics, including naming characters, and writing realistic dialogue. I would definitely encourage you to take a look at some or all of these, if you haven’t already.

I have already mentioned not finding “laundry list” style character profiles to be particularly useful.

I used to feel almost guilty for not liking this approach, but have learnt, over the years, that many other writers feel the same way.

I think the problem lies in the fact that we’re required to, in effect, give our characters the third degree.  We may well end up “writing anything”, in response to some of the questions, simply so that we can tick the “completed task” box, with regard to character profiles.

In real life, we usually get to know people gradually, over time.

It’s a natural process.  You wouldn’t suddenly go up to someone in the street and start interrogating them: asking about their childhood, favourite colours, favourite foods, and political views. Even if someone was prepared to tell all, attempting to absorb so many details, at a rapid pace, would become overwhelming. You wouldn’t remember half of it, or take in its significance.

So, here’s what I like to do instead…

Gradually, intuitively answer questions, that may sometimes be quite random, and sometimes, more obvious and generic.

When people include lists of nine thousand questions to ask your characters, I actually feel kind of inspired. But only momentarily. The questions may well be amazing, but they aren’t much use to those of us whose heads are spinning, from even attempting to take them all in.

So, my solution. A *series of blog posts, each including a few things to think about – properly, and slowly, minus the dizzy spells. *December 2018 note: I originally planned to write several posts in this “series”, which is why I used to term. However, I ultimately felt that two were sufficient, using this precise approach.

Let’s start at the beginning: your character’s name.

Presumably, your main characters already have first and last names. If not, you should probably read my naming characters post – mentioned earlier.

But does your character have a middle name, or middle names? Most of us do. Mine is Michelle. Okay, some people don’t have one – but, if the character specifically has no middle name, you should know that, as a fact. It’s probably not realistic to give every character in your novel a middle name, but it helps, when it comes to the main characters.

Also, consider maiden, and previous married, names for women, where applicable.

Now, pets – because pets are so important in many of our lives.

Do you know whether your MC currently has pets? And how about previous pets? Know dog breeds. The number and colour of gerbils, throughout the years. And yes, names. Our pets all have them, right? Then for personalities…

I believe in being thorough. That’s why too many questions in one go doesn’t work for me.

But if you do want to decide upon something with a simple answer – try your character’s birthday.

Date of birth is more specific though, so let’s go with that. Give your character a date of birth.

Oh, and if your head is currently spinning, from trying to approach this my way – maybe try one of those extensive questionnaires.

Each to their own. Just because I find them dry, doesn’t mean that they can’t help many writers. They wouldn’t be so enduringly popular, after all, if many people didn’t find them invaluable.

See also: Part 2, for more on character development

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