Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: One Stop For Writers

So I contacted Kristen awhile back and asked her if I could hijack her blog and she graciously said Yes. Because of this lapse in judgment outpouring of generosity, I’m going to try and forget that sarcasm is my love language and, instead, be professional. I’ve just launched a book and am feeling absolutely giddy with freedom, so this is easier said than done. But we’ll give it a go.

I’ve been thinking lately about something that Angela and I touch on in all of our books: The Mirror of Real Life. It’s this idea that something in our stories is like a mirror for readers that reflects back to them something of themselves. When we portray the character as this mirror, it draws readers in and encourages empathy because they recognize a commonality with the character.

In today’s world, where there are roughly a gajillion books your readers could be buying, it’s super important to pull readers into YOUR story. You want them staying up way too late finishing your books, thinking about them after they’re done and running to the computer to see when the next in the series is coming out. While there are a number of ways to encourage this fascination, one of the strongest methods is by writing characters that resonate with readers on a personal level. So I want to talk today about common elements that, when applied to our characters, increase our chances of engaging readers.

Fears

I’m not talking about surface phobias like Brussels sprouts and spiders (though, please, both are icky). I’m talking about deep-seated, debilitating, life-altering fears: rejection, failure, betrayal, physical harm, the death of a loved one. These fears are so great that they become drivers for our behavior, leading us to do and not do things that we believe will keep these painful events from happening. Inflicting these on our characters is cruel and probably makes us as authors horrible people, but they do serve a solid storytelling purpose: they tap into common experiences that readers understand. When readers see the character struggling with a familiar fear, a connection is forged, and empathy is born.

Traits

There are many contributors to the formation of a character’s positive and negative traits. Fears can be a factor: Mom is proactive, observant, overprotective, or paranoid because she’s afraid something will happen to her kids; Joe worries about rejection, so he tends to be withdrawn, abrasive, or cautious. Upbringing can be instrumental, along with the caregivers who raised the character, positive experiences and successes they’ve had, their ethics and values—even genetics can play a part.

Regardless of their origin, when a character’s dominant traits mirror those of the reader or people in the reader’s life, the character becomes more interesting. Traits like stubbornness, optimism, fairness, and impulsivity act as tags that say, “Hey! This guy’s just like you, or Grandma, or that jerk kid who lived down the road who used to shoot you with his BB gun.” Giving your character flaws and attributes that are common to the human experience can be the most straightforward way to bridge the gap between readers and your cast.

Human Needs

This one takes us back to Psychology 101 (which is farther back for some of us than others) and good ol’ Uncle Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The premise of his theory is that there are five basic categories of needs that all people must have in order to be wholly realized. When one of these is missing, we become compelled to fill that void, and we do this through adopting new habits, thought patterns, and beliefs that align with that purpose. These needs are universal, meaning that even on a subconscious level, we all share them. So, for example, when readers see a character whose safety and security has been compromised, they understand what that’s like and why it’s so important for the character to get it back. Boom! Connection.

Story Goals

And how does the character regain that missing need in their life? Through an overall goal. To paraphrase Michael Hauge in Writing Screenplays That Sell, every plausible story idea can be explained with a simple formula:

It’s a story about A (the protagonist) who wants B (the story goal) because Y (the missing need that will be filled through the accomplishment of that goal).

Getting the girl, escaping an alien invasion, winning the court case, avenging oneself—we see the same goals repeated from one story to another because they’re tried and true ways that missing needs can be met. Why does he need to get the girl? Because he’s missing love and belonging. Why does she want to win the court case? Because it will provide the esteem she’s been lacking for so long.

Story goals resonate with readers on two levels. First, they’re goals the reader personally has pursued or have seen others pursue. Secondly, they recognize, often subconsciously, that achieving that goal will fill the need; they know that getting B is vital to the character’s happiness and success, and they want the character to win. Give your character an overall goal that not only makes sense for the story but also meets that internal need, and you’ll increase the chances that your reader will relate to the character.

Self-Growth

We may not verbalize it often, but we all are on a journey in this life to improve ourselves. We don’t want to be the same people ten years from now that we were yesterday, and we all hope to leave the world a better place than it was when we found it. When readers see characters on this journey of discovery and self-growth, they get it. They’ve been there. And they want the character to succeed because if the character can do it, then there’s hope for them too.

Emotional Wounds

I saved this one for last because, when it comes to mirroring real life, nothing has the impact of an emotional wound. We’ve all experienced terrible things in our lives—singular events or repeated situations that were so emotionally and/or physically painful that we don’t want to ever go through them again. Readers can relate to those experiences and their devastating effects. As a matter of fact, when you take the effort to explore your character’s backstory and unearth this formative event, it enables you to incorporate all of the aforementioned elements, resulting in a character that reads as true-to-life and utterly relateable. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

Something awful happens to your character (emotional wound). They become afraid that it or something similar to it will happen again (fear). So they adopt emotional shielding to keep them safe in the form of new characteristics (traits), behaviors, and false beliefs about themselves or the world. But instead of protecting them, this shielding ends up creating other problems, such as keeping others at a distance or limiting their ability to successfully do what they love (human need). To fill the void, they either knowingly or unknowingly set out to accomplish something (story goal) that they believe will meet that need. But they’re unable to succeed because the wound is hobbling them, holding them back. It’s not until the character is able to face that wounding event and come to grips with it (self-growth) that they can distance themselves from the past and move forward into the future.

Basically, the wound is the Alpha and Omega of reader-character relatability. It supplies the starting, middle, and end points for a story structure and character arc that will offer many opportunities for readers to see themselves in the protagonist and the story. And once readers care about your character, they’re going to want to keep reading to see if he or she overcomes.

If this process seems oversimplified, it’s because there’s only so much information that can be crammed into a 1400-word blog post. For more information, the topic can be explored to its fullest, most in-depth, most ad-nauseum-est extent in our latest book: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.

BIO:

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels, including the latest member of the family: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writersa powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Today I have two very special guests. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are here to talk about a more advanced concept in fiction—symbol. Take it way, ladies!

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We all want our writing to be layered. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. In stories, this depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, I think symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.

Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.

Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful in representing what you’re trying to get across in your story; readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean.

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But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute, but as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize it for what it means.

So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer of depth to a character or story. But where do we find these symbols? How do we choose which object or thing should represent the important theme in a story? Well, it may not be the first answer that comes to mind, but…

The setting is actually the perfect place to find symbols—because they’re built into every location.

Sometimes, the setting itself can stand for something. Kristen touched on this in her excellent post last week, where she used Shutter Island as an example. The prison is a prison, yes, but it also represents the guilt that keeps US Marshall Teddy Daniels locked away inside his own mind.

Other setting symbols?

A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary. A church could symbolize either hope or corruption, depending on the prevailing culture or the character’s experience. A city, a business, a natural landmark—whether you’ve chosen a rural or urban setting for your scene, the location can often represent an important idea that you want to reinforce for readers.

Sorry, couldn't resist….
Sorry, couldn’t resist….

But more often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.

For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live in another town or thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize.

Choosing something closer to home within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.

Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.

Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently.

In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.

As you can see, whatever settings you choose for your story can be mined for emotionally charged symbols and motifs. Sometimes it can be tough to figure out which one to go with, though; the good news is that symbols can be added at any point in the writing process.

If you know beforehand what your theme will be, consider choosing settings that could reinforce that idea. If your theme emerges organically as you write, you can bolster it by adding motifs later with objects that naturally inhabit the locations you’ve chosen. Either way, if you need a little help coming up with symbols for your story, you can always check out the “Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus” at One Stop for Writers, which explores a boatload of popular themes and possible symbols that can be used for them.

The setting is such a versatile tool that most of us frankly underuse. Make it pull its own weight by unearthing the symbols within it. And for more information on making your setting work harder for your story, see our latest books, The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces.

BIO:

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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Thank you Angela and Becca! remember that comment love for guests counts double for my ongoing contest.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

So You Want to Write a Novel THIS FRIDAY!!!!!

June 24th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

July 6th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

 

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea
Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

I love to think of myself as having a special eye for talent, and when I find gems like Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, it just makes a gal go “SQUEEEE!” I’ve been following these ladies for a loooong time since they were relatively new in their careers.

These days?

Back up because they are a powerhouse and they offer up some of the most excellent writing instruction in the business. They are the authors of the legendary Emotion Thesaurus which eventually gave rise to stacks of other writing tools (I recommend and use them ALL) and now they are launching something truly special.

And, since they are rockstars, they have given me, the W.A.N.A. Mama a very cool deal to share with you guys at the end of this post. This is HUGE! This is the new state-of -the-art-site every writer needs. One place for all the tools we use, and Becca is here to tell us some more about how One Stop will help you reach your dreams and how to get it. You need this. You deserve it. NaNo is coming. You will thank me later 😉 .

But, the best editors will always say, show don’t tell so this isn’t simply a sales pitch. Becca is here to talk about how story elements must work together and then use that to introduce how One Stop helps make that happen (and then the super sweet deal) …

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Take it away Becca!

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When it comes to writing a successful story, people tend to think in terms of two elements: plot and characters. Obviously, these are incredibly important, and if you want to write a story that readers will appreciate, you’ve got to get these two pieces right.

But there’s so much more to a good story: setting, symbolism, theme, emotion, voice. And as important as it is to do all of these things well, it’s just as important that they fit together.

Look at The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Characterization is a huge part of this story—particularly for the hobbits. The opening scene is Bilbo’s birthday party, and we see right off that hobbits in general are fun-loving, laidback foodie types who like their tankards almost as much as their pipes.

But it’s difficult to define this people-group without also referencing The Shire.

Their passion for this place, their organic connection to the hills and rivers and trees: Tolkien didn’t just pick a setting out of thin air. He created one that fits with the characters like a missing puzzle piece. The characters and the setting go hand in hand; you can’t imagine one without the other.

Which is why, when evil arrives, Frodo’s decision to take it far away and preserve the Shire is a no-brainer.

I find it interesting that the symbol for evil is a gold ring: something that really has nothing in common with the hobbits or their home. They’re simple people; yes they have whole rooms devoted to clothes and they’re proud of their residences, but gold and silver and coins aren’t a huge deal to them.

Tolkien could have used anything to represent evil in his story, but he chose something that had nothing whatsoever to do with The Shire. In doing so, he showed the Shire’s goodness and wholesomeness and the need for its preservation.

I could go on about other writing elements and how they all fit together to make a beautiful, resonant whole, but I think you get the picture. Very likely, none of us are present-day Tolkiens, but his work is the perfect study for how various elements aren’t only successful in isolation; they’re amazing in the way that they work together.

So how do we do accomplish this in our own writing?

Choose Thoughtfully

When it comes to the various elements of a story, it’s tempting to go with the things that excite us as writers: settings we’ve visited, character traits that we embrace, symbolic trinkets and knickknacks that speak to us. And while those things may work, they probably won’t be the best choices for our stories. When it comes to any writing element, don’t choose randomly. Ask yourself: What makes sense for my character and the story? This is the way to make sure that the elements you choose are the best possible fit.

Start With Characterization

I know, I know. Not every author or story is character-driven. But if you’re looking for ways to tie your elements together, the main character is a good starting point.

For instance, let’s say you’re trying to figure out the setting for an important scene. You could just pick one at random—a restaurant, the school cafeteria, an old barn, etc.—but your scene will have more impact if the setting ties in with your character.

Narrow down the virtually endless set of options by asking these questions: What locations have special significance for my character? What setting is emotionally charged for him or her? By choosing a setting to which your character is already connected, it comes with the potential for tension and high emotion—both of which are good for sustaining reader interest and building empathy.

Symbolism is another element that can be tied to characterization for added effect. In Great Expectations, the stopped clocks in Miss Havisham’s house symbolize her abandonment at the altar—the moment when her life essentially stopped.

Dickens didn’t choose a random, external object for this; he chose a specific time, down to the minute—an intensely personal symbol to represent the most formative event from Miss Havisham’s past. This is a great example of how choosing symbols that are personal to the character can add oomph to a story.

Know Your Characters Well

If you want to bring all the story elements together and you’d like to use a character as the centerpiece, it’s imperative that you know that character well. You don’t have to know every little thing about her; but you do need to have a clear understanding of the important parts of her past so you’ll know not only the kind of person she is in your current story, but also what objects, settings, ideas, and events are going to move her.

For a number of resources on building and understanding your character’s backstory, check out the Writers Helping Writers Tools page.

Bringing all of these elements together can seem daunting. But if you start with a solid working knowledge of your character’s backstory and who he or she is today, you’ll be able to move forward from there.

Once you’ve got that basic knowledge down and you’re ready to bring it all together, you might consider visiting One Stop For Writers. This new online library, dreamed up by Angela Ackerman, Lee Powell (creator of Scrivener for Windows) and me, is full of one-of-a-kind resources to help with various aspects of storytelling.

Its unique thesaurus collection covers symbolism, character traits, emotions, physical features, settings, and more—and it’s all cross-referenced and searchable, making it easier to tie all of these pieces together in a way that makes sense for your story and will resonate with your readers.

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Most of us probably don’t aspire to be the next Tolkien or Dickens. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their brilliance. Know your characters well. Choose your elements thoughtfully, and whenever possible, tie them in with your character and your story. If you can do these things, your work will be much tighter and will ring true with readers, which hopefully will lead to more people finishing your books and spreading the word about their new favorite author.

THANK YOU, BECCA!

All right, so last time we talked about channeling that inner Bad Girl (yes, this works for the guys, too 😛 ). No more Mr. Nice Guy. Take some time for yourself. You are important. Your writing is important and people like Becca, Angela and I have worked hard to give you what you need. Now, all you have to do, Sunshine is suck it up and WRITER UP! Give it a try!

Curious about One Stop For Writers? Register to check out the free version and get an idea of what it’s all about, OR take advantage of this sweet launch-week deal: 50% off any first-time subscriber plan—1 month, 6 months, or 1 full year. This deal is only available until October 14th, (6:30 PM EST), so if you’re interested, shake a tail feather and get on over to Writers Helping Writers for all the juicy details.

Bio:

Author, Blogger, Coach Begga Puglisi
Author, Blogger, Coach Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is a speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via her newest endeavor: One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.