Category Archives: Writing Advice

Writing Advice 2: Get Good Characters

I’m just after teaching my creative writing class and I’ve been thinking a lot about character.  I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Horror for the MFA and I’ve been seeing a lot of shitty characters.

So I chatted with the students and we thought about character and what makes a good one and I’m going to make a few suggestions today.

Defining Traits:

A good character will have at least five defining traits. This was tough to wrap our heads around.  We spend a good deal of time struggling to separate motivation and goal from character.  Do we love “Life of Pi” because it’s about a boy in a boat with a tiger or do we love Pi because he is a resourceful and optimistic Indian boy?  Is there a difference.

I’m pretty sure I would read a short story about an entitled rich racist in a lifeboat with a tiger (for purely fantasy fulfillment), but to hold the novel Pi needs too be a rich character.

The traits could be emotional, behavioral, or physical.  But most of us could come up with a fairly complete list of three to five for our favorite movies/films.

My go-to example: The Batman!

  • Intense desire to see criminals brought to justice
  • Intense desire to save people
  • Dresses as a bat
  • Intelligent
  • Extraordinarily athletic

Notice how those traits can contradict themselves (Batman can’t kill The Joker because he badly wants to save him).  If a writer finds himself unable to write a list of five traits or sees too many synonyms or physical traits popping into the list, it’s probably a sign that more work needs to be done.

To use a personal example, in my novel Evasive Love, I have a character in a steampunk society who is 1) an intelligent scientist, 2) a repressed homosexual, 3) entitled and 4) used to a high standard of living, but 5) an essentially good person.

To see how all those traits impact the character, here’s his backstory. Elliot’s sexuality puts him in conflict with his society (Victorian ideals) so he loses his wealth and privilege.  He gets back to his standard when he uses his intelligence to design drugs for his boyfriend, a wealthy criminal.  The boyfriend starts using the drugs to kill and poison people and Elliot can’t morally allow this to go on so he uses science to destroy boyfriend’s business and flee.

Character and Archetype

We also hit on using stereotypes and archetypes to access characters.  This was tied into creating writing prompt which involve an adjective, a noun, and a scenario.  The noun tended to be an archetypal noun.  So we had a cocky warrior, a loving mother, a stuck-up hobo entering into scenarios.

While this approach seems a little mad lib in the idea generation. It’s actually very useful in developing a character. If you can identify the archetype your character fits you can play to the type, play against the type, or play inside of the type.

  • Play to type (a hard-boiled detective in a noir murder mystery)
  • Play against type (a hard-boiled detective who is works as a janitor)
  • Play inside type (a hard-boiled detective who is a deeply romantic woman)

Like most things in writing, there’s no hard fast rules, or right and wrong. So a character could be playing with type, against, and inside at the same time.

For example, The Batman!

Batman falls neatly into The Hero archetype. He is motivated to do justice.  His traits are goodness, intelligence, drive lead him to go fight bad guys.

Batman plays against the trend of superheroes by being obsessed with the darkness, dressing as a bat in black instead of in bright colors, being fairly violent and gritty.  (Now-a-days, we call that an Anti-hero, but Batman also holds to his no-kill rule, usually so… still predominately good).

But some writers have also attacked Batman from a different archetype.  If you apply The Orphan to Batman, you show his vulnerability and his longing for a mentor.  If you apply The Mentor archetype to him, you can show a different side of him working the Robin.  All of these conflict and compliment the original archetype of Hero in interesting ways.

No matter how original your characters are, they are going to fit into some archetype.  So why not bring that eventuality into the foreground and use it to make rich characters?  Be aware of the type and work with or against it.

My one warning in creating characters this way is you end up with stereotypes not archetypes. Stereotypes are bad because of their specificity and predictability.  A dumb blonde is not an archetype.  Innocent is the archetype and you’ll notice it had nothing to do with gender or hair color. Ditto to black thug vs. warrior.  While it’s possibly to write a deep and interesting character that matches the stereotype (we live with them every day after all), a good writer will be aware of the stereotypes are work against them.  For example, Legally Blonde plays against type by making the blonde ditzy and fashion conscious but wicked smart.  The Wire plays with type by giving us the interior lives and struggles of a depressed and violent community.

Some links we shared:



Character, Goal, Motivation, by Debra Dixon

Writing Advice 1: Get a Good Community

I am not an extrovert.

At the end of any day where I’ve spent time with people, even if it’s friends or family, I am exhausted.  After a four-hour game DnD session, the next day I usually sit by myself in silence for about the same length of time, often writing. When I worked in an


office, I would regularly get stress headaches not from the work but from teamwork, client calls, and every day meetings. My partner has even observed that some days he just needs to leave me in the house by myself to recover from a social-overload as if I can only

take small doses of people, even the ones I love.

But if you know me, especially if you’ve met me in a writing group, you probably think I’m an extrovert.

While I’d love to say that my passion for the craft has raised me from my pit of self-doubt and anger (my breed of social-anxiety trigger the fight, not the flight response), that’s not true. I’ve spent years learning how to interact in polite company so I could learn more about the craft. I knew I would have to take criticism from publishers, editors.  I wanted to share my writing with other writers in critique groups, and I could not wait for the perfect combination of special waterfall princesses to mollycoddle my quirks and phobias.

So I actively searched out writer’s groups and threw myself in, forced myself to engage, and tried to be pleasant. In some ways, it was anti-Disney, I always felt like I’m not being true to myself. But what I’ve realized since – now that I can walk into a room and not feel like everyone wants to attack me, now that I can smile an interact with a stranger without worrying that I’m going to hurt them – is that I faced some demon in my and changed what was true to myself.

In exchange, I found the amazing reward of writing communities.

I don’t care if you’re starting out or if you’re a published writer, there is nothing as rewarding as sitting around with a group of other writers and talking about the craft. It is electrifying to hear other people who’ve had characters come to life and dictate their adventures.  It’s uplifting to find that other people get stalled and doubt the time and effort they just spend writing that ten thousand words. And when you start to know more yourself, it’s immensely gratifying to encourage someone who needs support, someone who needs only to hear the words ‘yeah, that’s happened to me too’ to find the courage to finish the rest of that story.

I’m writing this now because I was reminded in force of this yesterday when I went to a NaNoWriMo write-in in Philadelphia.  Now I live on the Jersey Shore, but I used to live closer to Philly and I’ve met some of these people before.  Since I was going into the city on other business and I thought I’d go early to participate with this group.

I’ve found my waterfall princesses.

There was around sixteen to twenty writers in the same library basement for about four hours writing or talking about writing depending on whether or not a writing sprint was going on.  It was gratifying, uplifting, electrifying everything you could ask for when you meet with other kindred spirits.

It took me about two hours to join in the conversation.  I did end up making some people nervous and offending other because I forgot to check my crazy.  But the community still accepted me, invited me back, linked with me on twitter, too interest in my craft.

I feel inspired not by the work, but by the need to work. I know that there are others sitting at their laptops or writing by hand on notebooks also doing this crazy thing of writing their stories and it makes me want to be part of them, to have something to share and talk about when I meet some of them.  Maybe not in Philly, maybe in Ocean City, NJ where I’m going to another write-in today.

nanowrimo-logoNaNoWrimo, national novel writing month, is a perfect time to meet other local writers. There is no judgement if you don’t make the word goal of writing a novel in a month.  There is no sharing of the stories if you are nervous about the quality of your stuff or the content.  It’s just other people trying to write together.

So my best writing advice to you, especially in November, is to go out and find a community to support and encourage your writing.

It’s lonely to write, don’t go it alone.



– My third novel will be released soon. Follow me on Twitter or on this blog to learn more.