Six Basic Character Traits

August 15, 2013

Readers want characters that are believable, and it’s your job to create characters readers will understand. How do you build characters? Start with these six basic traits.

  1. Biological–Whether human, animal, machine, or something else, first figure out what your character is. Add gender, age, ethnicity, etc. Note that your supporting characters typically only need the first layer of this trait to complete their function in your story.
  2. Physical–Besides appearance, include quirks, mannerisms, etc., but use these sparingly as they are like seasoning in a good recipe (too much isn’t good, but just a little makes all the difference). Again, supporting characters only need one or two physical traits identified, but your reader will want to “see” your main characters.
  3. Attitude–Although this trait is intangible, how your character walks, talks, and responds to people and things offers your reader deeper insight into the character. Characters can be optimists or pessimists, quick- or slow-tempered, energetic or lazy. Attitude is often the basis for motivation and for decision-making. As a general rule, your supporting characters need only one attitude trait revealed to your reader.
  4. Motivation–There are three levels of motivation: subconscious (instinct), semi-conscious (emotion), and conscious (deliberate). As your characters’ wants and needs are revealed to your reader, so is motivation, and that’s critical to your plot. Characters with multiple layers of motivation are deeper, more human, and more believable. Use motivation as your base for conflict (both internal and external).
  5. Thinking–There are only two levels of thinking: ethical and expedient. Ethical deals with right and wrong, while expedient deals with survival. Revealing what your character thinks lets your reader inside the character’s head as he or she struggles with the human condition.
  6. Action–Action, not thinking about action, keeps the reader turning the page. Action provokes conflict and creates complication, crisis, and climax.

You might want to create a checklist template of these six basic character traits and use it to help you get to know your characters better. For every trait, create a scene that shows that trait in action so you can link the trait to action in your story.

Avoid overloading all your characters with all these traits. Instead, highlight the traits that matter to the story. If you’ve worked with characters at all, you know they take on lives of their own and you often find yourself following their lead. That’s fine, but you’re still the author, so hold them accountable to the six basic character traits. You ultimately decide which ones work in your story and which to save for another time.

Happy writing!

Frequently Misused Words

August 9, 2013

Writers write in their own voices, but that doesn’t mean they should write like they talk. Oral communications can be fleeting, but words committed to the page can last for decades, if not centuries. Therefore, it’s important you watch for word usage errors in your writing that you might not watch for in your speaking. Here are some frequently misused words.

Affect/Effect–Affect means to alter. Effect as a noun means impression or result and as a verb means to cause.

Among/Between–Among is used when dealing with more than two. Between is used in connection with two things/people.

Continual/Continuous–Continual refers to action that occurs with pauses. Continuous refers to action that occurs without pauses.

Disinterested/Uninterested–Disinterested means showing no preference or prejudice (impartial). Uninterested means lacking interest (bored).

Eager/Anxious–To be eager is to be enthusiastic. To be anxious is to be worried due to apprehension.

Farther/Further–Farther refers to physical distance. Further refers to extent or degree.

Imply/Infer–To Imply means to throw out a suggestion or hint. To infer means to take a suggestion or hint.

Lay/Lie–Lay means to put or place. Lie means to rest or recline.

Less/Fewer–Less is used when talking about quantity. Fewer is used for things you can count. (My favorite example of misusing these words is the express checkout line in stores that post written signs saying “10 Items or less.” We have one store in our area that does have it correct, however, with signs that read, “10 items or fewer.”)

Stationary/Stationery–With an “a,” stationary means fixed or still. With an “e,” stationery means letter paper.

This list is by no means all inclusive, but it’s a good start to increase your awareness of word usage.

Happy writing!


Build Your Home Office Library

August 6, 2013

Most writers keep a home office (even if it’s just a corner in the bedroom), but with today’s technology, most writers use the Internet as their research library.

That’s fine, but I suggest you build a home office library to keep materials you’ll refer to often. Here are some tips to get you started (or to help you organize what you’ve already started).

  1. Keep your library simple. Organizing by  subject comes naturally to many people, so consider trying that first. You can create a number list for your categories if you like, or you can simply use words and organize alphabetically. If you choose a number list, try something like: #1-Writing tips, #2-Quotes, #3-Plot, #4-Characters, #5-Dialogue, #6-Photos, #7-Graphics and Illustrations, #8-Publishing (Periodicals), #9-Publishing (Books -non-fiction), #10-Publishing (Books-fiction). My point is you create your categories and assign numbers to them so you can mark each item quickly (see next tip).
  2. Use identifying marks on your library materials. For example, if you print off one of my blog posts to file in your library, decide which category you’ll file it in, then write that category number at the top of the first page so you can re-file it in order to find it again another day.
  3. Consider making hard copies of things you really want to have available. Computers get viruses, web pages change or, even worse, disappear. As useful as technology is, there’s still a place for hard copies of valuable information you want to keep.
  4. Keep your library diverse. One of the most attractive things about writers is their insatiable curiosity about life and the world they live in. Keep a variety of articles and books, but also keep brochures, notes, and other references in your library.
  5. Keep your library current. Writers love information, but not all information serves them well. Learn to purge material that’s outdated or no longer useful.
  6. Be willing to review your library periodically to see if the system you set up still works for you. My point is you want your library as a resource, not a hoarder’s dream. Your writing career will evolve and so should your home office library.

These few tips are meant to get you started building your home office library.  The library you build is meant to help you in your writing career, so do what works for you.

Happy writing!