July 23, 2021

By Ellen Buikema

The road to writing is rocky.

What motivates people to not only write their stories but to send those book-babies out into the world?

Many people have a book in them to write. Thoughts roll through and around the mind, nudging to get written. Sometimes the words find their way to paper or screen. Other times the desire to write a manuscript is just a fleeting whim that goes nowhere.

After a discussion on bicycles—of all things—the answer hit me like flying road debris. The desire to tell a story laced heavily with stubbornness provided the perfect vehicle.

When I was in the early grades, about eight years old, I asked for a bicycle—a plain old or new two-wheeler. I didn’t care what it looked like or whether or not it had a bell or basket. I wanted the freedom to get out and about.

The request received a weird answer. “Sorry, Elle. If I buy you a bike and God forbid you get hurt, I’d never forgive myself.”

Apparently, if someone else bought the bike then it didn’t matter. A few months later a much older cousin donated his two-wheeler to me.

I beheld the behemoth with a mixture of joy and fear. The heavy, twenty-eight-inch rust-brown and tan Schwinn was way too big for my tiny self. I had to learn to ride standing up because when I sat on the seat, even when it was at the lowest possible setting, my feet dangled far above the pedals.

After many scraped knees and elbows, I finally learned to balance on my super-sized bike and rode happily up and down our street. Then came the horrible news. If I wanted to ride, I had to keep it in the basement and push it up the steps to use it. I begged to keep it outside. “No. We’re too close to Harlem Avenue. Someone will steal it and you’ll have nothing to ride.”

Our basement was a creature all unto itself. It was dark, dreary, and the setting for many of my childhood nightmares. But I really, really wanted to ride this bicycle.

Stubbornness kicked in. Since the adults weren’t being helpful, I would help myself. I never weighed the bike but I’m fairly certain that I outweighed the Schwinn by fifteen or so pounds. In order to lift the bike up the first few stairs I had to use momentum. With much pushing and slipping backward, I finally figured out the most successful way to extricate my bicycle from the clutches of the basement of horrors.

The freedom provided from many hours of riding that bike justified every scrape and sniffle.

This is how I feel about writing. Getting that story out of my mind and into the hearts of others is worth every emotional scrape - and sometimes very real tears. A good glaze of pure stubbornness helps.

Why write?

Creativity

Some writers love the writing process, enjoying the work involved in perfecting their poetry or prose. For them, it may be the writing journey that matters more than the end.

Winning

Beating the competition, gathering prizes, standing out from the crowd, and high sales ratings can be highly motivating.

Impact On Others

Great satisfaction may be gained from inspiring others through writing. It’s a way to leave your mark on the world.

What can hold us back from writing?

Perfectionism

If it isn’t perfect, I can’t let it go.

Write. Revise. Write. Revise. A cycle that won’t end because the writing isn’t good enough. This has happened to me with writing as well as painting. I wrecked a lovely head of hair (done in oils) because I kept playing with it. Thankfully, oils are very forgiving.

Being Overly critical

If my world-building isn’t as good as J.R.R. Tolkien, why bother?

Setting sky-high goals is self-defeating. Great world-building doesn’t happen in a few days, or a few years. Mr. Tolkien worked on The Hobbit for at least six years, and thought about it a good deal before setting pen to paper.

Impatience

I have to get this book out there as soon as possible.

A fantastic book cover will get you part of the way there but it’s what’s inside the covers that counts. Editing your own work is important and so is other eyes on your work. Multiple revisions are normal and to be expected. Fine editing makes the difference between good and great.

Here are 52 quotes to help you stay motivated and keep writing.

Why do you write? What motivates you? Is there something that occurred in your life that you see as a turning point in your writing journey?

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About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, Parenting: A Work in Progress, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon, a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are: The Hobo Code (YA historical fiction) and Crystal Memories (YA fantasy).

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

July 21, 2021

by Sudha Balagopal

As a writer straddling continents, I am fascinated by authors who inject foreign words and phrases into their English fiction. I believe these international words and phrases help lend credibility to a story. They embellish the narrative, bring authenticity and help transport the reader.

Some writers explain the meanings of non-English words, either in-text or in a glossary. At times foreign expressions are used sparingly, at other times more generously. Some authors repeat phrases for consistency, or as a matter of style. Regardless of their methods, when expressions from another language are used in description or in dialogue, they leap out at me.

Take the case of the inimitable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s enduring Belgian detective. When I was in high school, he taught me French expressions like mon ami and mon cher. Athough I had no knowledge of French, uttering the words made me feel clever and witty.

Agatha Christie expertly used foreign expressions in creating Hercule Poirot. The detective is often overlooked and dismissed he is non-English, and she used his manner of speaking as a tool to develop his persona.

‘Mon cher, am I tonight the fortune-teller who reads the palm and tells the character?’

‘You could do it better than most,’ I rejoined.

‘It is a very pretty faith that you have in me, Hastings. It touches me. Do you not know, my friend, that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desires and attitudes? Mais oui, c’est vrai. One makes one’s little judgments – but nine times out of ten one is wrong.’

-- Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies (Hercule Poirot, Series #9)

Appropriate dialogue is a powerful instrument to lend fiction the flavor of a culture or a place to your story. Using the right words makes dialogue sing. Look at how E. M. Forster makes use of Indian words in his book A Passage to India.

The first, who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away.

“Mrs Lesley, it is a tonga,” she cried.

“Ours?” enquired the second, also seeing Aziz and doing likewise.

“Take the gifts the gods provide, anyhow,” she screeched, and both jumped in. “O Tonga wallah, club, club. Why doesn’t the fool go?”

Go, I will pay you tomorrow,” said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off, he called courteously, “You are most welcome, ladies.” They did not reply, being full of their own affairs.

-- E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (Chapter 11)

We may gather from the dialogue that a tonga is a vehicle, a tonga wallah is one who drives the vehicle. A subtle power play also reveals itself here. The last name reveals that the ladies are English, and Aziz is not.

All this is inferred from a short piece of dialogue!

Not everyone espouses the use of words from another language when writing fiction in English. In his article, Say ‘Non’ to Phrasebook Foreign Language in Fiction, Daniel Kalder writes:

“Either you render the language in English, or you render it in French. And if your readers are English speakers, then, I dunno, you should probably render it in English. Chucking in a few phrases of first-year French adds nothing in terms of meaning and is just daft.”

Granted, Agatha Christie was not Belgian and E. M. Forster was not Indian. But what if the author writing in English is reflecting a part of their own heritage, representing who they are as a people and as a culture?

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is set in Sri Lanka. She uses terms contextually, a natural exclamation here, a term there, which means the reader connects with the cultural milieu even as the story advances.

The two Tamil words she uses in the lines below lend authenticity and adornment to the dialogue.

Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, “Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head.” And only filial devotion keeps him from replying,” Machang, you should see her at home.”

(Part One, Chapter 1)

Foreign expressions are used in descriptive text as well. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who uses Igbo words in her narrative. She brings Nigeria to us, her skill making the prose come refreshingly alive.

The goats wandered a lot around the yard, they wandered in, too, while we cousins bathed, scrubbing with ogbo that my grandmother made from sun-dried coconut husks, scooping water from a meal bucket. We bathed near the vegetable garden, in the space enclosed with zinc left over from the last house refurbishing. Mama Nnukwu would shoo the goats away from the vines of ugu and beans that crept up those zinc walls, clucking, clapping her hands.

-- Recaptured Spirits, Notre Dame Review, Number 18, 2004

The reader doesn’t need to know exactly what ogbo is, or ugu. We comprehend the scene. The author has sprinkled just two Igbo words into the paragraph to make it shine.

Junot Diaz takes it a step forward, knitting dialogue and text and sprinkling his Spanish into it. He mixes the ingredients as if tossing a salad, the sweet and the sour, the crunchy and tangy, the veggies and the berries. His scenes come alive, because of the use of his Spanish terms. The reader is instantly drawn into the vividness of his narrative.

You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo.

--The Pura Principle, New Yorker, Mar 22, 2010

Foreign expressions are connectors. But more than that, they enrich us. Through them, the English language elevates itself, becoming a vehicle to understand other people and cultures—helping us accept differences and celebrate similarities.

To authors who incorporate them I say: may you continue to do so.

Do you like it when authors sprinkle foreign words into their English narratives (assuming they do it sparingly and well)? Who have you seen do this the most successfully? Please share them with us down in the comments!

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About Sudha

Sudha Balagopal's recent short fiction appears in Fractured Lit, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Splonk among other journals. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can't Tell Amma, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction in July of 2021. She is the author of a novel,  A New Dawn, and two short story collections. Her work is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, 2021 and is published in Best Microfiction 2021.

More at www.sudhabalagopal.com

July 12, 2021

by Lisa Norman

We've all heard that writers need a website, but why?

When I ask writers why they want a website, they say:

  • so I can look professional
  • so I can get a book deal
  • to sell more books
  • because my coach/agent/publisher said so.

When we don't know why we need a website, it is hard to use it effectively. A website isn't supposed to be something you put on a shelf and dust off occasionally. A website is a powerful sales tool that helps move an author toward success.

Let's start with an understanding of how marketing works. Most people show these stages as a funnel, but I'm thinking they work a lot better as a wheel.

Marketing Wheel for Authors

Discovery

Marketing starts with discovery. No one will buy your book or become your fan if they don't know you exist.

Websites are only a tiny piece of the discovery stage of marketing, but they still play a role.

A potential fan is thinking, "Hmm. What should I read today?" They're probably a little bored, looking for something distracting.

Maybe they find a blog post you wrote on a topic that interests them. Maybe a friend shares something on social media. Maybe they see your ads.

However they find you, they either go out and buy your book directly from a vendor or they come to your website to learn more about you and what you have to offer. Either path can generate sales and a following for you.

Consideration

Here is where your website starts to show its power.

At this stage, our fan is thinking, "I wonder if this writer is any good?"

They're looking for your style promise.

How will they find that on your website? Your writing style shows up in your blog posts, your About Me page, and even in your privacy policy! You may have a downloadable short story on your site that they can read and get intrigued. You may showcase fantastic covers that will catch their interest and drag them to your sales pages. You'll have awesome blurbs.

Your style promise is a key part of your author brand.

Something important: you want to show your style and your brand in all of your sparkling glory. If these folks aren't going to be your true fans, they should know it right away and leave. Don't waste their time or your marketing dollars on people who aren't going to be fans.

You don't need to appeal to everyone. You want your website to scream what you are about so that your people will be attracted and those that are not your people will be filtered out.

This consideration stage should lead them to your sales pages.

Conversion

Conversion is a marketing term that just means they buy the book. Bonus points if they read it.

Conversion can also be signing up for your mailing list.

In this stage, the potential fan is becoming an actual fan. They are interacting with your writing and deciding that you are someone they want to know more about.

They like what they see in your writing, and they want more.

Relationship

As a fan finishes your book and closes it, they are thinking, "Wow. That was really good. I wonder..." They will bring their questions to your website.

Hopefully, they'll find their answers!

Ideally, they'll find not only answers, but an invitation to connect and become a true fan.

You want to clearly invite these fans into a relationship.

Technologically, this means they sign up for your newsletter so they can be notified when your next book comes out. They may also follow you on social media, but don't forget to get them on your mailing list!

Your newsletter (also called your "list") is the most important sales tool you have.

Statistics show that more books are sold through direct emails than through any other channel. You want to fill that list with true fans. You want fans that will be so excited about your new book that they'll race to pre-order, tell their friends, and then eagerly leave reviews.

A side note about mailing lists: it isn't the size of the list that controls the power. A small mailing list with loud, true fans can outperform a huge list with bored people who aren't actually your fans. This is why giving away a Kindle or some other prize can build a list that then doesn't generate sales. You want true fans who love you on your list.

This is a relationship that you will honor and protect. Give gifts to your fans: short stories, drawings, sneak peeks. One of the most amazing gifts that you can give your fans is the connection to you. An email from a favorite author can make someone's day. If they reach out through comments or reply to an email, do your very best to respond.

Don't know what your fans want? With a relationship like this, you have the ability to ask them. Give them what they want.

Retention

Fans who feel respected and valued want to stay around.

Everyone is busy. If you send out a newsletter that doesn't have anything in it for a true fan, they'll unsubscribe and spend their time watching Netflix. Never bore your list!

Engage with these fans, build a following, and they'll want to interact with you and your books more. Better yet, they'll want to bring their friends to the party.

Want to find more fans? You want more people like the ones you have. You may not know those people, but your fans do!

Showcase fan fiction and fan art. Create polls to give your fans a sense of connection to your next book. Bring them into the process. Make them feel valued and cherished.

A fan at this stage is not just thinking, they're speaking. They're telling their friends, "Hey, I found this great author you should check out!"

And that is how retention leads back to discovery.

Get this wheel spinning and it will become self-sustaining.

Why your Coach / Agent / Publisher wants you to have a website

People who are invested in your career, especially those whose income is tied to yours, want to know that you understand marketing and are ready to become more than just a small part of the process. They want you to show them that your brand is going somewhere!

I was at a convention, sitting next to an agent who was drooling over the website samples I had on display. He said, "If I could convince my authors to do one thing, it would be to build a website like these."

Own Your Space

One last tip about websites. Only on an author's website do you have complete control over the content and your customer interactions.

Social media companies can change the rules and interfere with your interactions with your fans. Sales behemoths can control your access and ability to advertise.

But on your website, you are building a home for your fans, a gathering place. You can lock out the trolls. You make the rules because this is your home on the internet.

Make it welcoming. Make it entertaining.  Make it yours.

Do you have an author website? What do you like and dislike about it? Do you have any questions for Lisa? Please ask them down in the comments! (And we hope you're as excited as we are that Lisa is one of our new regular contributors!)

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About Lisa

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.

Upcoming Classes

Top Photo by Marcel Friedrich on Unsplash

July 9, 2021

by Jenny Hansen

Earlier this week, Karen DeBonis did a post here at WITS about finding your writing process. In the comments, I confessed that finding mine took a long (LONG) time. I’ve tried a gajillion tools in my quest to get a book off the ground and finishedFast DraftW-PlotSnowflake Method. . .and I have a confession to make. They all helped me be a better writer, but none of them got me to "The End."

The only thing I've found that can get me to the end of a story is to embrace my inner scene writer and let her lead the way. This post describes what that actually means.

What is a scene?

First, you have to understand what a scene really is. I love how Margaret Dilloway says it in her amazing post, How to Outline a Novel: 60 Index Cards Method. She explains it like this:

Each scene is an event that changes the character’s situation in a meaningful way.

  • Every scene needs something to happen.
  • Each scene produces a change achieved through conflict.
  • Each scene shows how the character responds under pressure.

If the scene does not meet these criteria, take it out.

Note: I love my plotting and pantsing pals equally! The linked article above explains how Dilloway outlines using a 60 scene method. There is wiggle room in the number - think 60 to 100.

What does it mean to be a "scene writer?"

All those cool linear "big picture" methods I mentioned above aren't forgiving enough to help me finish books. My busy brain says, "Ooooh...GLITTER!" And I'm off doing something else, instead of writing those 60 scenes that make up a book.

Basically "confessions of a scene writer" and "the angst of a slightly ADD writer" aren't very far apart.

The only thing that gets me to "The End" is putting my butt in the chair and writing one scene at a time. The scenes don't even have to be in order, they just have to be finite. If I don't stay completely immersed in the moment and the scene, it's an open door for "Ooooh...GLITTER!" That's the way busy noggins like mine work.

Most scene writers make a list of all the things we know, create a loose structure, and then write to it. Writing a book this way is a little bit like a to-do list.

I didn't really know how to describe my writing process until one of my crafty relatives said, "Hey, you're a story quilter!" It turns out, she was right. Each scene is a piece of the pattern and it all gets stitched together later.

It was Diana Gabaldon who shined light on scene writing as a possible writing method.

I read some articles about Gabaldon and how she wrote the Outlander series. She sees the story as a movie and re-constructs that movie in her head, scene by scene, until everything is on paper. Then she shuffles them all together into the books we know and love. While I won’t pretend to be anywhere near Gabaldon’s league, we both do books in short little pieces. Perhaps it has to do with being a busy mom.

When I read about Gabaldon, a light went on in my head. I finally accepted the truth.

I’m a scene writer. 

I stopped trying to write from beginning to end like all my friends and accepted that I'd be walking a different path. Some of us are "story quilters" and that's the way we're made. (The very thought of it gives my organized linear pals hives.)

My scene-writing process in a nutshell

1. Like many writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene to get it out of my head and onto the page. I keep writing until all the initial scenes are out of my head. Usually, there are between 5-10 scenes that come with the initial idea.

2. Near the beginning of the process, I bat some ‘what if’s’ around with my writing peeps and decide on the overriding theme for the book and the internal and external conflicts for the main characters. I might be wrong, but it gives me a place to start.

3. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. At the very least, I take time with my critique group to discuss what I think the turning points are to see if I’m remotely on target and if it all sounds believable.

4. I make a list of all the scenes I know and I write whatever I can see clearly until they're all done. If I get stuck, I just go down the scene list. If I get really stuck, Margie Lawson gave me the brilliant idea of writing scene prompts down on slips of paper and picking the day's scene out of a hat. She's so smart.

In my old life (that's the life of creating unfinished stories that taunt me) whenever I'd get stuck, I'd stop. I'd stare at the page, clean my kitchen drawers, come back to the page and stare some more. Sometimes there was crying. Almost always, after a few weeks, I'd give up and start another story.

Now I just pick a new scene and write it and the pantser half of my brain works the problems out. Most important, this method lets me keep writing. That immersion is what keeps most writers engaged with their story.

5. When I'm deep in story mode, I try to write at least five days a week as it keeps my brain open to receiving new scenes. When I let more than a week go by without visiting my story, I start to lose focus.

6. I use a timer. My deal with myself is I have to do at least 30 minutes of work on my fiction for those 5 days a week. While it doesn't sound like a lot, it really makes a difference. If I'm digging it that day, I go way longer than 30 minutes. If I'm not digging it that day, I know "I only have to do this crap for 30 minutes."

Must-Haves for the "scene writing" approach

You don't have to have every one of these mastered, but it really, really helps if you at least have the first one. I use them all, especially in the editing process.

You must have a good grasp of 3-Act Structure.

Otherwise you end up with a pile of scenes, or "story blocks," you can’t use. It also helps to know the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey. Here’s a great link I’ve found on the hero's journey. I work with 3-Act structure because I can keep track of it better in my head.

Two words – Conflict Lock.

If you don’t have a conflict lock, you don’t have a story. So says Bob Mayer, author of Warrior Writer and co-founder of Cool Gus Publishing. Here’s a blog from Shannon Curtis to tell you more.

Scene-dissecting tools like Margie Lawson's EDITS system.

If you don't have tools like the ones Margie teaches you, it's difficult to figure out where you missed with a scene, especially if you're a pantser. Invest in yourself with classes or lecture packets from Lawson Writers Academy...you'll be glad you did.

Understand your story's DNA (theme) before you get too far.

I think hard about theme pretty early in my process for an important reason. If you have a strong visual of your story's underlying message, you automatically write to it. That story DNA will inform every scene choice you make because it has to. John August, the screenwriter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, says it much better than I do in this post.

Pros and Cons of Scene Writing

And yes, these are all going to be completely subjective. However, if you're on the fence about your process, I thought it might be helpful to see why you might like or dislike this writing method.

The advantages

  1. I never get writer's block. There's always another scene to write or edit.
  2. I'm able to write fast and stay immersed, because it's "only one scene."
  3. Scrivener allows me to store scenes separately and move them around.
  4. The story theme is naturally interwoven when you write this way.
  5. I'm able to move between fiction and non-fiction pretty easily.

The disadvantages

  1. I need objective eyes to tell me when the story is "really done."
  2. Continuity edits are a must for long works - I need to know that all the loose ends got tied up.
  3. Scene transitions bug the crap out of me (and I'm pretty sure I'm terrible at them). The story quilting method stitches those glorious scenes of yours together with those transitions, so if you're not good at them, run the work by other writers or an editor.

Final Thoughts

Before I close this out, I want to pause and reiterate something. Like underpants, writing process is personal. You'll find out what fits YOU the best by trying it on for size.

I'm only sharing my process here because several of our commenters asked me to. At the end of the day, the only writing process you have to care about it is your own, and the only writing process you need to embrace is the one that allows you to finish your stories.

Where are you at in your "process journey?" Do you have a method that resonates with you? What do you do when you get stuck? Please share with us down in the comments!

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About Jenny

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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

July 7, 2021

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Create unique character voices by varying how they communicate with other characters.

I’m one of those writers who needs to put my characters through a first draft before I figure out who they really are. Tossing them into trouble and watching how they wrangle their way out of it helps me get to know them. Their dialogue and voices are usually interchangeable at first. It’s more about what they say than how they say it, or even why they say it.

The voices usually come to me as I write, and by the end of the first draft, I’ve written snippets of voice that let me see and hear the characters. On draft two, I develop those snippets into fleshed-out characters. 

Since I don’t hear my characters first (like many writers do), I make conscious choices about their voices, and craft them same as I do a setting or the plot. Which keeps my authorial nose out of my character’s business, and lets them be who they are—not extensions of who I am. Characters who all sound like the protagonist or the author is a common first-draft issue for a lot of writers.

The author’s voice sometimes gets in the way of the character’s voice.

The characters themselves might be fully fleshed out and different as can be, but their voices aren’t. That’s only natural since the author is writing the novel. All their vocal quirks and mannerisms sneak in, which can lead to every character in the story sounding more or less the same. They all ask questions the same way, they react to trouble the same way, they greet each other the same way. If you took out all the dialogue tags, it would be hard to tell which character was which.

Character voices that reflect their personalities not only help readers remember them, it helps them connect to those characters as well. When a reader connects to a character, they care, and when they care, they worry what will happen to that character, and bam—you’ve hooked them in the story. Now they’re invested.

Here’s a five-step plan for creating unique character voices for your novel:

Step One: Pick a greeting that reflects their personality.

How a character greets people says a lot about where they grew up, where they live now, and how open they are toward others. A shy character might offer a soft “Hi,” while an always-the-center-of-attention character might shout, “The party train has arrived!”

For example, imagine one character is waiting outside a restaurant for another. When they approach, the waiting character greets them with:

  • “Good afternoon.”
  • “Yo, whassup!”
  • “Hey.”
  • “Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see you.”
  • “You’re late.”

Did you picture a different character for each of those greetings? Each greeting hints at the type of personality that character might have, from formal, to rude, to enthusiastic.

Step Two: Decide how they answer questions.

How someone responds to a question can tell you a lot about them. If you establish a character as a shy, introvert who has a hard time opening up, it might not ring true if they start giving speeches when asked a question. A non-stop talker is the right character to go to if you need to convey information to readers—just make sure they’d know that info so it doesn’t come across as an infodump.

But a character acting out of character can pique reader curiosity. A chatty gossip will raise eyebrows if they suddenly start giving one-word answers to everything. Why are they so quiet?

For example, what kind of characters do you picture based on these responses to… “Did you go to the movies last night?”

  • “Yep. Any pizza left?”
  • “I did. Jo and I went to that old art theater they just remodeled on Main. They’re showing these cheesy old westerns. It was a total blast.”
  • “Stay out of my business.”
  • Shrug. “Nothin’ better to do.”
  • “Oh dear, I should have called you. I’m so terribly sorry.” 
  • “Yeah, with Juan.”

These answers do more than just answer a yes or no question. Many of these answers lead to more questions. Is character one trying to change the subject? Why does character five feel so guilty about not calling?

Step Three: Decide how they respond to problems and situations.

The true face of a character appears when things go wrong and there’s no time to lie or consider what they’re saying. How do they react? Do they ask questions or make statements about what to do? Do they try to help or shift blame? Are they naturally defensive or do they jump to resolve the issue?

If a character is thoughtful and analytical, their voice will reflect that, and their response to a problem will be thoughtful and analytical. A hot-head who never thinks before they speak will probably gush out all kinds of suggestions—often aggressive options—without thinking them through. Someone who doesn’t care might offer bland platitudes or the most obvious and generic solution.

For example, say a character comes to your protagonist for help. Their response might be:

  • “Okay, walk me through the problem. Exactly what happened?”
  • “Screw that—here’s what you do.”
  • “Just tell them you can’t do it.”
  • “I don’t have time for your crap.”
  • “Sucks to be you.”

The character’s personality will show in how they react to and interact with others. It’ll also show in how they handle their own problems.

Step Four: Let their vocabulary reflect their education.

Education plays a role in how we communicate. Is this character someone with a large vocabulary who likes to use it, or someone with a limited vocabulary who uses a lot of slang or clichés? Take it a step further and think about why they speak as they do. Are they self-conscious about their Ph.D. and purposefully try to sound dumber to fit in (or hide something), or are they a smart person who never got past high school and tries hard to sound more educated?

Maybe that boisterous greeter who makes statements instead of asking questions is really insecure about their lack of education and overcompensates by always acting like they know what to do or what's going on. Or the meek greeter asks questions because they’re not sure they really understand what's happening and doesn't want to appear dumb. Or the friendly greeter asks a lot of questions to determine the best course of action because they truly want to help and has the smarts to offer good advice. (See how these all build upon each other?)

For example, if one character makes a mistake, how does the character respond?

  • “Jeeze, ya made things worse.”
  • “Well, that exacerbated the situation.”
  • “Out of the frying pan and into the fiery pits of despair.”
  • Scoff. “Dumb f@#$.”

No matter what level of education or intelligence the character has, readers (and other characters) will make assumptions based on these different responses.

Step Five: Use words and mannerisms to reflect where the character came from.

Different regions have different dialects, slang, and terms. Saying pop versus soda, crayfish versus crawdad, everyone versus y'all. Where someone grew up affects not only what words they use, but how they interact with others.

A Southern genteel upbringing could mean the character is polite and sweet, yet aloof (cause good folks don't pry) or a terrible gossip (cause prying means caring, don't ya know), an inner-city survivor might take control of every room they walk into because that's what it took to survive. The suburban kid might do the opposite of what everyone expects because they’re tired of conforming.

For example:

  • “Sweetie, I don’t mean to pry, but you look sadder than a soaked kitten.” She patted the couch beside her. “Come now, tell me all about it.”
  • He squared his shoulders as he tread into the room, then met the hard gazes of each man at the table. No backing down. No looking away. He nodded once. “Hey.”
  • She tossed her head and her multitude of tiny braids swayed, free as branches on a tree. “You just don’t get it, man,” she told her mother, dressed in a suit that cost enough to feed a starving village for a week. “You can’t think in that designer strait jacket. I gotta be me. I gotta be free.”

Personality plays a large role in how a character sounds. Their voice will reflect that personality and color both their dialogue and internal thoughts.

Don’t stress over making it perfect early on.

Just getting the information down is fine for a first draft. It can take time to find the right voice for a character.

Play with word choice and how that specific character with that specific background and personality would speak and think. Odds are you have hints scattered in the manuscript to help guide you, so look for anything that feels like it captured the character—especially any positive feedback you received from crit partners.

For fun, follow these steps and share a snippet of conversation between two of your characters in the comments (or make up two new ones). If you’re stuck on what to write about, have them answer the “Did you go to the movies last night” question.

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About Janice

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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