Hello, dears, and welcome back to the Megalodon’s writing advice column. The topic this time around is a little bit of a throwback to Aaron’s “Opening a Novel,” but it’s often a problem writers run into somewhere near the middle of the writing process. Most fit into two different categories when they begin a novel:
The Systematic Story Teller, or the Passionate Plotter.
The notion that plot and story are synonymous is untrue once you get down to the nitty-gritty of the writing world, but luckily, it’s a notion that is easily rectified. You see, a story is a basic line of events. When readers hear a clear story, the questions they ask are “And then?”
For example, “A typhoon wiped out Atlantis.”
“And then?” asks your enraptured reader.
“And then the whole city sunk.”
That’s a story. Something that catalogs events and not much more. The plot, however, looks at the “Why?” of a narrative. Whether it’s why a character behaves the way they do, or why Atlantis’ support beams failed. A single-story can even breed many kinds of plots. For example “Why did Atlantis sink?”
“The man at the weather alert station meant to warn the city was at his son’s recital.” Or, “The beams built to support the city hundreds of years ago were eroded by a chemical spill.”
You get the idea.
There is no wrong way to begin a novel, and often writers will flip flop between the two, depending on how they feel. If you wake up with a character in your head that feels so real you want to create their own world, you’re going to be plot-focused. Do you daydream about a war-torn planet on the brink of peace that you know is going to end in exactly 48 hours? You’re going story all the way. The only danger comes from when you don’t balance the two equally. If you focus too heavily on one and not the other, you might be finding yourself with a perfectly coherent timeline, but dry characters that lack spontaneity, or vice versa.
If you’re here, however, don’t fret! Right now is the perfect time to add the things you see are lacking. Novices and even masters have a hard time being balanced from the get-go. For the future, remember to be observant to which side you lean to so you can prevent the midway struggle, but for now, rejoice! You have so many ideas and so much inspiration at your fingertips, jumping into a plot or story won’t be as monumental as you think it is. If your world and your character is near perfect, you should already feel the call of plot or story hiding behind the Tab key. In the end, my best advice is to trust your instincts. Every writer has them, and it guides us through the hiccups like the reins on a horse. More importantly, always remember that a first draft is not a perfect one.
If all you take from it is a single character, then they’re worth finding a story for.
--Chaunti T. Hatchett
Do you have specific questions about antagonists and character flaws that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 1/10 may not be included.
Questions from “Imagery Dos and Don’ts”:
When writing from a first or third person limited perspective, what aspects of imagery description should be influenced by the narrator's personality?
In a first or third person limited point of view, sight and touch should be integrated in imagery with influence from the narrator. A person’s memories and background will influence how they compare the textures of different objects, as well as how they view certain things. For example, someone from Hawaii and someone from Russia describe the sun very differently. Furthermore, someone who lives in New England and someone who has never seen snow will describe snow differently.
Before I get into the nitty gritty aspects of imagery, here are some common phrases that are often frowned upon in the literary world:
When writing, it is important to keep in mind all five senses, touch, smell, hearing, seeing, and tasting. Many writers only take into account the visual sense, but the other senses are just as important. As a guideline, having about three senses included in your piece is a good starting point to having well-developed imagery. When the reader is looking at a scene, in which multiple actions are occuring, they need to visualize it in order to understand what is happening. For example, if you are writing a scene in which a house is on fire, and all you describe are the yellow-orange flame engulfing the house, the reader cannot visualize themselves there, thus making them lose interest. But, if you describe the smell of burning wood, the echoing cries of the owners of the house, and feeling little ashes fall on your shoulders, then the reader can be engrossed into the piece.
Imagery, according to its definition, is meant to add depth and perspective to the author’s literary work. While it is encouraged to include as many of the five senses into your work as you can, do not add unnecessary details, or ‘fluff’. Every description you use should have a purpose in the story. You should also include details that are not already known by the audience. For instance, if you are describing the morning sun on a summer’s day, do not simply say it is yellow. The reader already knows this, so include something else. Maybe describe how the sun’s vibrant rays strike through your room window, or how you squint your eyes looking in its direction due to its prominence. To put it simply, do not restate the obvious. Having more ‘fluff’ will not make the piece more interesting, it will only take away from the piece’s main idea and could confuse the reader.
Do you have specific questions about imagery that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will respond to it when our next entry is posted. Note: Comments posted after 12/13 may not be included.
Questions from "Making a Setting a Home":
How do you properly take inspiration from other cultures for your own world-building purposes while also honoring the original real-world sources?
One word: research. Do your research, do extensive research, take notes, find the details. The best way to find the facts from the culture is from an actual person, whether an interview or a blog post. Take multiple opinions, find the parts of the culture you’d like to integrate into your own world. But, most importantly, never forget that you’re honoring a culture. Make sure that your adaptation isn’t offensive through stereotypes, and make sure it isn’t taking away from the culture by omitting a necessary element to a tradition.
World building may not seem that important on the surface, especially if your piece takes place in our reality. If it doesn’t contribute to the plot or the character arc, then it must not be essential, right?
Wrong. Your world is what grounds the plot. It adds life to the story. It creates that longing we all have to be in this world, fantastical or real. Whether you’re writing the next Harry Potter or becoming the next John Green, your world is what gives your novel that next-level appreciation.
The general world doesn’t have to be completely and utterly detailed. You don’t need to know the infrastructure, the population, and the hierarchy of every single town. If you want to make this world flawless and go in-depth into the coinage and political status, then go wild. But for those of you who don’t have the time to develop three different religions practiced in the world, then you don’t have to. You can make a believable world through smaller details.
The physical setting is always the easiest. The landscape can be developed through simple imagery. Be sure to develop the scene through all the senses, but the visual scape is most important. Describe the greenery, the architecture, the color-scheme. Give the major details, then enough smaller details to make it unique.
But the physical setting isn’t all you need to flesh out your world. A world with just the main characters feels so barren. Adding in those background characters allow for the scene to be more animated. Pick out specific people in the crowd for off-handed details that help develop the culture. What are they eating? Are they playing a game specific to the region? Is there a specific greeting done by the locals? Let the culture appear through the people and their interactions.
And, finally, the setting should have a history. The world went on before the plot. Give evidence of previous life. In that high-school drama, flesh out the graffiti in the bathroom stalls and on the desks. Construction around the family-run restaurant being re-purposed for a McDonald's. The scratched keyhole from years of missing the slot. This not only helps to give culture, but also gives the physical landscape life.
Your imagery of your setting will get you halfway there. But you need to give your world energy and vitality. Never forget that life goes on outside of the plot, and that the plot affects life outside of your main characters. Let this be seen to your readers through those minor details about the landscape, the off-handed mentions of the crowd. This will allow your audience to be drawn in over and over again to the world you craft.
Do you have specific questions about setting that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Comments posted after 11/20 may not be included.
Questions from "Dialogue":
What do you recommend for writing dialogue for characters with a specific dialect? How do you portray that dialect without making the dialogue too confusing?
The first thing to consider is what kind of dialect the character has. Is it a well-known dialect in real life? A made-up one crafted for the story? Depending on your answer, you may need to define the rules in terms of inflection, pronunciation, etc. before you begin crafting your dialogue. Once you understand the rules, go through writing the dialogue as if there is no dialect. You want to make sure your dialogue is still forwarding the plot and not just an excuse to show off your fancy foreign accents. It should feel like an authentic tone suitable for the character. Apostrophes are your friend! A good example to look into is the dialogue by Hagrid from the Harry Potter novels.
If you’re worried about making the dialogue confusing and you have a made-up accent, consider whether there are rules for the dialect that could be removed to simplify things. Describing the accent before the character starts speaking in narration also does a lot in terms of getting the reader in the mindset of the dialect. When rewriting, ask others to read specific portions of the dialogue for comprehension, and take their feedback into account. If all else fails, consider whether the dialect is truly necessary to the story.
Dialogue is one of the biggest indicators of the separation between the amateur and professional writer. Too often in Wattpad serials or self-published novels, you’ll find numerous monologues where characters go on and on, revealing their deepest, most personal emotions to everyone in the entire world. It’s easy for anyone to look at these books, snicker to themselves, and snarkily say, “That’s not how people really talk.” But in order to find the root of the problem, you have to consider, “How do people really talk?”, and, more importantly, “How do characters really talk?”
This distinction is incredibly important. People in books and movies and TV shows don’t talk like everyday humans. Conversations in the real world often repeat, oversimplify, and wind like a backroad going nowhere. There are very few instances in life where these moments have weight and purpose. In stories, everything the characters say must have both weight and purpose.
Novel dialogue has a somewhat similar purpose to film dialogue. An easy way to think of dialogue initially is to consider it in the context of a scene. In scenes, there are two ways to forward the pacing: action and dialogue. Paired together, they take the scene, and the novel as a whole, from one point to another, whether positive or negative.
One of the best ways to enhance dialogue is to consider how different characters react to the same situation. Character traits always impact their word choice; you find it in the difference between someone saying the party is “huge” and someone saying the party is “overstuffed”.
What characters don’t say is more important than what they do say. When someone is having a bad day in a movie and their parents ask, “How was your day,” most of the time they won’t say, “Well, Mom, my girlfriend dumped me for my best friend, I flunked my geometry exam, the lasagna gave me food poisoning, and I stepped in dog crap on the way home, so all and all it’s been a pretty dreadful thirteen hours.” Instead, they’ll say something like, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or, “Same old, same old,” or simply, “It was fine.” It seems corny, but it’s true: less is often more when it comes to dialogue. Only in moments of extreme, well-earned catharsis will a character ever reveal their true emotions fully, but the reader can often infer how they feel through a combination of their actions and inner thoughts.
In short, dialogue is one of the most complicated and fascinating aspects of a novel. It requires more thought than many realize at first, and often takes draft after draft to refine and perfect. When done wrong, it takes less than a second to break immersion. When done right, however, it makes your world and your story more believable than ever, and proves to your readers that they are in capable hands.
Do you have specific questions about dialogue that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Comments posted after 11/12 may not be included.
Questions from "Character Part 2":
What is the best way to create an antagonist that is an understandable character yet also an intimidating force?
Something to keep in mind for this is a sympathetic character vs. an empathetic character. A sympathetic character is one you believe is truly in the right, an empathetic character is one where you can understand how they got to that point. Think Thanos: you can understand his fears of overpopulation and how he came to the conclusion that limiting every population will protect the ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean you believe his execution is the right way to go about it.
Give your antagonist empathetic motivations. Then give them flawed executions. Their goals and motivations should lie in the “right,” like fighting for a loved one or wanting to improve society. And then have their trek to their goals dive down the more evil path: corruption, manipulation, violence, doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.
How can I make a compelling redemption arc with my antagonist/flawed character without throwing away all the work I did to make them seem evil/very human?
Redemption arcs can’t happen overnight. They take time, they take effort. Characters with flawed outlooks have to completely rearrange their ideals in order to reach redemption.
Something has to first trigger their desire to be redeemed. Maybe someone near them gets hurt, or they have a challenge to their ideals that doesn’t match what they earlier believed. From there, they have to start second-guessing their actions. Were they in the right? What did they do wrong? What is right? Chances are the redeemed character will have a guide, someone to help them along their arc. It would be easy to make the redeemed character reliant on this guide, but there’s always a better way. Small actions get corrected, so the character starts to make their own “correct” decisions. Corrections get larger and larger scale until the climax of the arc arrives. Some big choice between good and evil, and they choose good. The stakes don’t have to be life or death, but they should be high.
As for retaining the evil aspect - they’ll still have to suffer the consequences of their actions. The rest of the world didn’t correct itself from a redemption arc. Even if a character changes, that doesn’t mean their characterization was for naught. Let that characterization have an effect on a wide scale.
What’s this? A columnist that isn’t Aaron Scott? It’s unheard of! Is this mysterious writer possibly Aaron’s evil twin? The antagonist to his story? No, but that is a wonderful transition into our topic today: antagonists and character flaws.
The antagonist is, as we’ve all learned each year since 6th grade English, the opposing force to the protagonist. But just being an opposing force isn’t nearly enough for an antagonist to be well written. Obviously, I can’t go into every twist and turn of your specific antagonist. So, instead, I will be focusing on the characterized antagonist’s motivations and humanism, as well as how a non-character antagonist would work.
The antagonist can’t just be evil for evil’s sake - they need a reason. Does your villain actively want to get in the protagonist’s way? Does the villain have connections to the protagonist? Or is the antagonist indirectly connected to the protagonist? Did their motivations just happen to collide? And, for all of these, why? What exactly is driving them? Is it monetary greed? Is it a hunger for power? Envy? Self-interest? Do they just really hate the protagonist? Or, perhaps, did they fall down the path of evil due to good intentions?
Always keep in mind that your antagonist is still human (or human-like, if you’re dealing with a non-human character). No character is just pure evil. The simplest way to give your antagonist humanity is through their backstory. What were they like before they became the villain? What led them to being that villain? A backstory may not flow within the content written within the story, but it should be kept in mind. Apart from the backstory, be sure that your antagonist is complex. The more complex an antagonist, the more compelling the character, the more compelling the story.
Chances are, an abstract antagonist won’t have a strict motivation. The “goal” will more than likely be destruction, either of a setting, a character, a society, or a relationship. Abstract antagonists should be overbearing, challenging to overcome. Think Joker: the antagonist is the society that abandons Arthur Fleck, and/or his own mental illnesses warping his perception of the world. In both cases, they’re overwhelming forces combatting Arthur, eventually breaking him down to become the Joker.
Character flaws are much less dense. I have just 4 rules when it comes to flaws.
A. Avoid the Mary Sue. Having no flaws whatsoever makes a character unbelievable, unrealistic, and just plain boring.
B. Avoid the Anti-Sue. This is a term less thrown around, but we’re all familiar with the concept. These are characters where every trait is a flaw. They tend to always be clumsy, loners, and have some mental illness. If your character sounds like a Wattpad protagonist, then you’ve gone into Anti-Sue territory.
C. A tragic backstory is not a flaw. A backstory will shape your character to have flaws, tragic or otherwise, but just having a tragic backstory is far from enough.
D. Flaws are best paired with a similar strength. People in general grow strengths from their flaws. If a person can’t cook, they learn which microwave meals are the best-tasting or the healthiest. If a character is overly trusting, they’re often a kinder soul. If someone is paranoid, they better know signs of imminent danger. These comparisons not only create a more realistic character, but they also allow for a more balanced character.
Do you have specific questions about antagonists and character flaws that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/31 may not be included.
Questions from "Character Part 1":
What is a good, easy to understand example in literature/film of a character that follows good indirect characterization and is not stagnant?
One great example of this can be found in the film Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The movie follows Andrew Neiman, a drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, as he attempts to become a great jazz drummer and earn the respect of his ruthless band instructor. Throughout the runtime, Andrew’s ambition and love for jazz is represented through his grueling practice sessions. He acts timid and scared when first meeting the band instructor, but also excited at the prospect of being an alternate drummer at a top band. After being promoted to top drummer, however, his attempts to keep his position lead to him drumming for hours until his hands bleed, leaving his girlfriend, and attacking his teacher onstage. When Fletcher, his former band teacher, invites him to play in his professional band with the intent of making him give up his dreams of being a jazz drummer, Andrew instead becomes confident in his abilities and performs an outstanding drum solo, finally impressing his instructor and achieving his goal.
What suggestions do you have to keep the protagonist from feeling cliche?
Knowledge is power. The easiest way to prevent your protagonist from being cliche is the same way you prevent the rest of your novel from being cliche; you learn as much as you can about what you’re writing. Spare no detail. Many authors use self-made questionnaires where they fill in as much information as possible about their protagonist. Places they’ve lived, what’s happened to them in their life, how it’s impacted them when the novel starts. Familial relationships, favorite foods, even underwear color. You must know more information about your character than you reasonably intend to use, because it’s far easier to leave information out than to try to include things you didn’t already know. Don’t be afraid to use conventions like an orphaned kid, a rugged loner, or a chosen one to your advantage as a way to subvert tropes in a unique and interesting way. It all comes down to the presentation of the character and whether they feel like someone who could reasonably exist when taking into account the world around them.