Calle J. Brookes

Romance Novelist & Freelance Editor

For Writers

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Two Legs of Strong Stories: Characterization

Posted by [email protected] on September 7, 2011 at 2:25 PM Comments comments (0)

What do you remember about “Gone With the Wind”? “Harry Potter”? “Catcher in the Rye”?

Chances are probably good that you thought Scarlett, Harry, or Holden.

The characters.

Stories stand on two legs—plot and characterization. There is a debate in the writing world about which is more important, but in my experience both are equally needed for strong, effective, remarkable books.

So how do you create characters that are capable of supporting a remarkable story?

There are five ways of developing characters within your story.

1. Indirect/Authorial Interpretation: This is one of the quickest methods of creating a character. In it, the author tells the reader pertinent information such as the characters height, age, personal history, career, motivation, etc. Indirect characterization allows an author to move the story to a more important point while delivering necessary information to the reader, but it runs the risk of becoming an ‘info-dump’.


2. Speech/Dialogue: Characterization through speech and dialogue does not mean accents only. Every person has a unique way of speaking, based on education, region, culture, and idiosyncrasies.  The rhythm of words, word choices,delivery—all play a part in creating a character who’s speech gives readers insight into who they are.


3. Action: Characters are more remarkable when they do things! Actions should be realistic for the character involved. A grandmother from Ohio is not likely to be able to diffuse a bomb beneath the Brooklyn bridge with little effort or thought.  Action in characterization also involves gestures or movements that are particular to that character. A certain tilt of the head, or raising of an eyebrow, or shuffle in a step can help flesh out a character into someone who is whole and believable for readers.


4.Appearance: A character’s dress can tell a reader a lot about him or her. The type of apparel can indicate class,history, time period, cultural affiliations, and even occupation. The personal appearance of the character such as personal grooming or outward continence also gives the reader information about the character without the author telling this information.Just be sure it's not overdone.


5. Internal Characterization: A character’s internal thought gives a reader insight into a character quicker than any other method. Thoughts are based on history, culture, morals, education, and other factors—showing a reader what a character honestly feels on a subject tells us who the character is and sets him apart from other characters.

These methods of characterization when combined will create interesting and dynamic characters—especially when conflicts between two or more characterization methods are introduced. Characterization conflicts can include a disheveled character wearing ripped and stained clothing speaking with perfect English about the stock market or the political outlook of a foreign country.

Creating believable characters is only half the battle to a strong story. Come back next month for information on Plotting.

Filtering in Fiction

Posted by [email protected] on August 22, 2011 at 2:20 PM Comments comments (1)

Do you filter? Do you? As a writer, do you even know what this means?

Many don’t.

Filtering refers to the use of words that separate the reader from the action, forcing the reader to look at the events rather than through them. The reader is thrown out of the story briefly. Filtering is a common fault of new writers, and even those who are more experienced.

Another way to describe it—using words to create an extra (unneeded) step between the reader and the story.

Confused? Don’t be. I’ll explain further.

Janet Burroway first coined the term in her book “WritingFiction”—the most widely used creative writing textbook in the US. I used it in all of my fiction classes at Indiana University—and I have three copies floating around my house. Filtering was once my biggest weakness.

 Burroway speaks about filtering as “a common fault and often difficult to recognize—although once theprinciple is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing.” Burroway goes on to add that “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers  to step back and observe the observer—to look at rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

Burroway is saying here that when you use filtering words you are doing exactly that—asking the reader to step back and watch the character do something. And who wants to watch something? A reader would much rather be a part of the action than sit back and merely observe it.

Why is filtering bad? Because a reader who loses focus on the story—even for only the time it takes to read the filtered passage—may lose focus on the book and put it down. And not finish; which translates into not buying another of that author’s books.

Take the following two passages from a piece of my writing, a short paragraph from a romantic suspense WIP--both say the same thing, but which do you think is sharper writing?

Paige looked at the behemoth sitting at her desk. She saw her partner’s brother take a pen from the cup holder and click it repeatedly. Paige noticed that it was her favorite pen; she recalled the day that her best friend Carrie had given her the pen as a present. She remembered how she always used that pen for her paperwork and when she wrote lyrics for her band. She hated how Mikhail used it and discarded it without thought. She wondered if he treated his own belongings that carelessly. She studied his face more closely; it seemed to her that something was on his mind. Good; she hoped the Internal Affairs Agent had the worst day possible. A man like him deserved nothing better—every day.

A behemoth sat at her desk. Her partner’s brother took a penfrom the cup holder and clicked it repeatedly. Her favorite pen, a present fromher best friend. That was the pen she used for paperwork and writinglyrics.  It burned her that Mikhail usedit without thought. Did he treat his own belongings so carelessly? She studiedhim--something bothered him. Good; she hoped the IA Agent had the worst daypossible—and man like him deserved nothing else. Every day.

The highlighted words are telling words.  More importantly, they are filtering. These words draw focus to themselves and the words that follow, rather than focusing attention on the story.

So do you filter? Take a look through your manuscript, keeping an eye out for the following types of words (or forms of these words):

To see-hear-think-touch-wonder-realize-watch-recall-look-grin-smile-seam-feel-decide-which-that-because,etc. 

This list is not all inclusive, filtering words can come in many forms. These words are not necessarily bad, but when filter words are removed and sentences tightened appropriately, the writing is vivid, well paced, and strong.




First Steps in the Revision Process:

Posted by [email protected] on July 22, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Contrary to a growing belief, editors are not supposed to fix a story or rewrite it. I see this myth perpetuated by beginning writers on freelance boards and writing forums all the time. Editors are not book doctors. Book doctors are those who are paid by writers to fix a book’s problems such as story structure, characterization,and plot. Editors and book doctors—two different things.

Editors are most often hired by publishers to ‘clean up’ books and give author’s guidance in ensuring their work meets the house’s guidelines, and that the story is as strong as it can be. Editors don’t rewrite the book; they make minor changes such as punctuation gaffes or inappropriate word usage. They don’t add scenes or merge characters. They tell the author what needs done and the author is responsible for making those changes, while preserving the integrity of the story.

But many new writers think that once they have a decent story finished they can just send it out to publishers, who may accept it. After all, as long as the story’s good it will get accepted.

Wrong. The competition for book slots is fierce and overworked editors may spend less than five minutes reading through a story with significant problems or issues before they send it back to the author. And if the problems are so significant that the editor (be it an acquisitions, copy, or content editor) rejects it that quickly, chances are good a second story won’t be picked up by that publisher.Or that the first story will even make it to acceptance, let alone publication.

So how do you ensure your work doesn’t contain fatal errors? Errors that will get you tossed out of the writing game before you fully get on the court?

By editing.

Set your work aside for at least one month then start the editing process. Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Plot: Read the book as if you were a reader reading it for the very first time. Does it flow? Make sense? Does anything stand out as being illogical? Is there a clear story arc? Make notes of anything that you question. Is the storyline as unique as you can make it?


2.Characterization: Are your characters realistic? Are they too larger than life? Do they possess characteristics that your readers can relate to? Are they all physically perfect or do they have body traits that are normal? Are they named names that start with different letters?


3. Pacing: Is the story active? Does it move from plot point to plot point in a balanced way? (Some reasonable slow points countered by points of high energy or movement?) Is the timeline realistic? (No having characters doing 48 hours worth of actions in less than 12?) Does every scene, paragraph, dialogue, etc. move the story forward?


4.Dialogue: Is each character’s voice unique to the character? Realistic for the setting? Punctuated correctly? Is it clear who is speaking? Are the dialogue’s tagged appropriately, with action rather than generic ‘uttered’ or ‘countered’ type tags?


5. Writing/Structure: Is every sentence strong and effective? Is the punctuation correct? Are the paragraphs of varying length and composition? Are transitions between paragraphs, scenes, and POV’s clear? Is the document formatted correctly? Most publishers expect 10-12pt fonts, in Courier New or Times New Roman, and double-spaced.


Before you submit your story to anyone, ensure that it is the strongest and cleanest story you can make it. You will only be doing yourself a favor in the long run—and from us overworked, word-overloaded editors everywhere…we’ll say “Thank you!” in advance!