Writing Characters as Paradoxical People

People are paradoxes. Choose any real person you know and try to describe them, and you’ll likely come up with a pattern like “very x and y, but surprisingly also z.”

When I’m having trouble developing characters, I sometimes go as far back to basic as possible. That means taking a list of dozens of character attributes and more or less playing roulette with them. If I want to start off simple, I go with three traits: two that complement each other, and one that seems to mismatch completely.

For example, let’s say I need a supporting character and all I know is I want someone snarky. What complements snarky? Lots of things: witty, fun, abusive, clever, crass, critical, pessimistic. I think I’ll make this character critical of others, which comes across in his snarky comments. Now, what trait would be totally unexpected in a critical, snarky person? I’ll take the exact opposite of one of my complementary terms: optimistic.

That seems like a difficult combination to pull off, right? May, you’re some kind of writing masochist.

But characters who fit too nicely into a personality mold aren’t interesting. More importantly, they aren’t real. I’d rather read about a critical, snarky optimist and find out why he’s like that, than read about a critical, snarky pessimist whose past is basically spelled out in his scowl.

Sure, May, but how exactly do you write someone like that?


I clung to the cliff face, heart pounding, though hell if I knew where all that blood was going since I couldn’t feel my fingers. Jork  dangled above me, staring down into the abyss as though wondering, of all things, where in that darkness his cigarette lighter had fallen.

“You could look a bit more worried,” I said. “Or angry, or you know, anything other than calm.”

He shrugged. “You want me to tell you how you effed up? How you somehow managed to get tricked by a little girl with a bag of dynamite who obviously wasn’t the coconut seller she claimed to be?”


“Cuz I’d be hanging here all night if I did that.”

“How is it,” I asked through clenched teeth, “that you can be so negatively analytical about everything else and then have no logical response to falling off a cliff?”

“Just because I don’t trust people doesn’t mean I don’t trust in the universe to get us out of here.”

I tapped my forehead against the rock. “In one direction or another.”


Written in roughly five minutes, but you get the point. 🙂

For some help coming up with personality traits, here’s a handy generator from a site with many other handy generators.

Got a paradoxical character? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Don’t Forget the Wheels

Yeah, maybe I should have leapt on the bandwagon to write a New Year’s post, but it’s all about world-building for me right now. Since the second novel in the Scod series focuses on Zalú, I need to flesh out every detail that I overlooked while writing the first book. That means adding to the map, adding new cultures, expanding the history, — and finally biting the bullet on the technology.

In Zalú, much of the land is a special kind of “wasteland” thanks to volcanic activity and frigid winters. Nothing grows there, so no animal life can be supported either. Which means travelers have to get across and into a more functional biozone before they run out of supplies. And with a war going on, speed is even more important.

I couldn’t have them floundering in ash and sand. They needed vehicles to bear the weight of the supplies and products to be sold. And those vehicles needed terrain-appropriate wheels.

I think there are two trains of thought that my readers just leapt on: 1) Well, that’s a somewhat gratuitous detail, or 2) Of course you need special wheels! Did it really take you until the second book to work that out?

In response to those on line 1 bound for Skeleton Prose, it might seem that way if you, say, designed every aspect of every vehicle and described them in mind numbing  Tolkien-esque prose. I’ll be the first to admit that too much world building is possible and detracts from the plot and characters if overdone. But.

Details are the very life spark of your invented world. Not only do they make it more believable, they’re what your readers are looking for in the first place. Readers of fantasy and science fiction all love a good story and good characters, but if that were enough for us we’d be content with realistic fiction. What we crave is the imagination, the impossible, the wondrous. We are greedy. We don’t just want to see the stars — we want to feel their glow on our faces, smell the stardust in our hair, bite down on them like hard diamond candies.

(Sorry, I’m in the middle of a sugar craving.)

In response to those on line 2 bound for Over-saturated Description, yes it did.

Details can also be really, really tiring. There’s so much to think about, SO MUCH. I’ve been filling out a questionnaire that I found online for the past few months. So far, I’ve finished about eight pages.

There are seventy-four all together.

This questionnaire asks me to contemplate such things as population density, imports, exports, the legality of magic, political alignments, common jobs, hierarchies… and that’s just in one section. It is highly thorough, and extremely boring.

That’s not to say this isn’t a useful tool for me. On the contrary, I’d be lost without it. And the details that you need not being fun doesn’t mean that you can’t add fun ones in as well. I mean, that’s why we all started writing, isn’t it? ; )

But again, there comes a point where you just stop needing so many details, and can even bog down your writing by adding them.

The key is to find the balance. Seventy-four pages is a lot, but I’m trudging through it so I can err on the side of caution. Even with three books worth of world-craft, 80% of what I add will probably never see publication. But, if I ever do need those details, they will exist. And… here’s where I cheesily come full circle with an analogy… the vehicle of my prose will ride smoothly on its wheels of detail.

Warned you. ; )

Why I Started Hyperventilating in the School Staff Room

I’ll just cut to the chase here: I got my first manuscript request yesterday.

I was used to waiting two weeks or more, only to open my email and see a preview for a reply with words like “unfortunately” and “while we understand…” Polite words. Words that, however gently, began to scrape at my rejection-proof shell of determination.

So imagine my surprise when a response came only seven hours after I’d sent my query. But the usual words didn’t leap out of the preview panel. Instead, there were words my brain literally couldn’t register. It was like reading a language I’m not fluent in, or reading a dull passage in a book: you don’t see what you’re expecting/dreading and so you effectively see nothing at all. It wasn’t until I actually opened the email that synapses started firing again:

“I’d love to take a look at your manuscript. Please email it to me when possible.”

I sat at my desk for a good five minutes, unable to do anything but stare and hyperventilate.

To date, I’ve sent out exactly twenty query letters for my novel, Ciphers. Eleven of those received form rejections, while another five or so are assumed rejections (no replies for three weeks or more). I’ve written, I think, at least four completely different drafts of my query letter throughout the process.

But finally I have some proof that my hard work paid off.

No matter what happens from here on out — whether the agent offers representation or passes on my novel — I at least know that I have an eye-catching query. It’s enough to get at least a handful of partial and full manuscript requests. And at that stage, even a rejection is beneficial. If there’s a technical reason for the rejection, the agent will explain it. If they can’t explain it well, that just means it wasn’t their particular cup of tea — and someone else will surely like it.

Too Much Depth

If you’ve ever taken a class (or gone to a workshop, or browsed online articles) for writing advice, you’ve been subjected to the Laws of Character Development.

§ 18(2) art. 12: Thou shalt not have cardboard characters.

§ 327 art. 96: All characters shall have motivation for their actions.

§ 843 art. 2: No character is to ever have the name Bob, Bella, Mary Sue, or Vagastagnakor — unless it is a means of making their lives utterly traumatic or to bring the joy of irony to the reader.

No amount of awesome plot can make up for lack of character depth. No depth means no motivation, no sympathy, no interest.

Okay, I don’t need to repeat what innumerable others have already said. I’ll be hitting this topic from the opposite side of the field.

Some character-building worksheets go into excruciating detail. They want you to know your protagonist’s favorite brand of cereal, or what flavor gum they carry in their backpack. And while this is nice for discovering little attributes that you never would have considered otherwise, it can also lead you down a dangerous road of over-developing your character. Is knowing that Bridget likes watermelon bubble gum important to anything in the story? Is there even any reason why she should prefer watermelon over every other flavor?

Sometimes too much development, and hence too much depth, can actually… tangle up the story.

This is exactly what happened to me, even though at the time I wasn’t even consciously developing Bridget’s character. I had her strengths and her weaknesses; I had her flaws, her ticks, her dreams and hopes and fears. Her backstory grew organically from these; I realized only after finishing the second draft of Ciphers that I’d been hinting at a milestone event in her past all along.

As soon as this revelation occurred, however, certain actions of hers that didn’t stem from how this event changed her stopped making sense. I found myself thinking, “Why would she do this? True, I gave her this character trait early on, and it’s not like this trait and that one (the one influenced by that major event) are mutually exclusive in real people…”

Ah, in real people.

Real people are seldom defined by a single event in their lives; we take in millions of little influences every day, from friends, family, strangers, and celebrities. A thirty-second ad on TV can be the difference between going out and ordering in, as well as every little thing we’re exposed to as a result of that decision. Sometimes these little things define us more than the big things. At the very least they define us just as much.

Fictional characters don’t have the luxury of experiencing a ton of little things off-screen, or even on-screen really. So they can only be defined by the milestones: big achievements, big failures, traumatic events, the most influential people around them, like parents. And because we have this limitation, our view of them must be appropriately limited so as not to confuse the readers.

And trust me, if your character has a certain personality trait, there had better be a good reason for it — even if that reason is never fully revealed to the reader. As long as the author knows the character’s backstory, the readers will find hints to it in the writing, and they’ll still be able to feel like they can relate to the character.

But the character’s backstory, motives, and actions must be coherent. And coherency is easy to lose when you start bringing out personality traits that don’t fit in with the defining event of their lives, or vice versa. It can also disappear fast when there are too many defining events squeezed in, making for a set of traits that you may as well have chosen by throwing darts. Now, keep in mind that you can have multiple events if they all contribute, as a group, to a single set of traits. Or a secondary event sealing in the character a trait which the first one had only set to budding.

So here are some new entries for that law book:

1) All major personality traits and motivations should be coherent with the character’s backstory.

2) Backstory should consist of one or two defining events.

3) Multiple events should serve only to reinforce the same set of resulting traits or motivations.


Thoughts? Questions? Rebuttals? Give me your words in the comments section!

Rejection Dejection?

This was my horoscope this morning:

The power of your positive thoughts can save you from a difficult situation today, yet it still might be hard to hold on to your dream.”

I knew right away, without a doubt, what it was referring to. Sure enough, I opened my email to find two new rejection letters, including one from the agent I’ve been dying to win over for the past two years.

To be honest, though, this wasn’t as painful as I was expecting it to be. Maybe it’s because this is the second book I’m querying for (the first one had no success) and I’m just getting used to rejection. Maybe it’s because I have faith still that Ciphers is good enough to catch someone’s interest. Or maybe it’s all those articles I’ve been reading online that insist that a dozen rejections are better than a dozen luke-warm agents expressing interest — because the only agent that should matter is the one who loves my novel as much as I do. Anyone else is a waste of time and, essentially, not right for me.

So what does that mean if no agent winds up expressing interest in my novel?

Two years ago, after one too many rejections for my first novel, Lavender, I gave up the ghost. Even to me, the plot of that first completed work was wishy-washy, almost every detail cliché, and the only reason I hadn’t shelved it yet was that I’d spent eight years on the cursed thing and couldn’t bear to let all that hard work go to waste. There was no way this wouldn’t be seen through in the query letter, but I had to at least try, right?

But because I already had those doubts, I stopped after only a handful of queries.

This time, I know my novel is publishable. I have a strong plot, good characters, and a fresh concept. My betas, all honest, constructive readers, tell me they enjoyed reading it. And okay, the manuscript can still use a little work. But there’s always something that can be better, and honestly if an editor said “let’s publish this just as it is” then I’d only be mildly embarrassed rather than mortified. (And considering one of my best friends once referred to my editing process as “sterilization,” this is no small detail.)

That’s why this time I’m not going to quit. If I query every single agent who represents YA fantasy and get nothing but rejections, I’ll move on to editors. If all the editors reject me, I’ll find another route. Self-publishing, in my opinion, should only ever be a last resort; but I don’t think it’s completely off the table, either.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, writers should believe in their writing. If you can’t, then scrap it; but if you can, then don’t give up. As long as there’s someone out there who can enjoy it, it’s your duty as an author to share it with them one way or another. Yes, I realize this is defending stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray in a roundabout way — and for the record I still think both series are crap and would never want my name associated with them in any way — but guess what? People enjoy them. This is a sad but undeniable truth. And both series are published, and both authors are now making more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Some bittersweet food for thought.

Moral of the story: Never give up!

Query Time!

(alternatively titled “Synopses Suck”)

With the second draft of Ciphers complete and safe (probably) in the hands of my five wonderful beta readers, I decided to pass the week with a focus on agents, query letters, and finally writing that dreaded synopsis.

You know how there are some tasks you forget to do in a kind-of-accidentally-on-purpose way?

Not all agents require a synopsis. For the initial contact, some want only a one-page query letter. Some ask for the first few pages of the novel along with that. But that doesn’t mean synopses can just be slapped together for those agents who do want one. In fact, if novelists had their own version of Dante’s Hell, one of the rings would surely have synopsis-writing as the punishment.

Okay, May. This won’t be so hard. At least, not as hard as with Lavender. Ciphers is only half the length, and of much higher quality…

Some synopsis-wanting agents will be specific about how many pages it should be, usually one or two. But if not you’ll just have to go by the general rule of thumb, as told to you by… Google?

Synopsis-writing Rule #1: There is no rule about length.

So what Google tells us is that you are squashing an elephant into a sardine can in the most artful way possible. Some authorities say one or two pages for the whole novel; some say one or two pages for every hundred novel pages. The other option is to trust that what holds true for some agents will hold true for others. From my agency webpage searches, synopses of “no more than two pages” seem to be preferred, when there is a preference stated. The danger in this is that every agent is different.

So, in the end, you might as well close your eyes and throw a dart. Personally, I wanted to stick with the two page limit and just hope it didn’t drive me mad. That will work fine for most agents, including several who specified two pages… Not so much for that one agent demanding a single page. Which means that regardless, I’m writing at least two variations of a synopsis.

As we say in Korea… 헐.

Once you’ve set your limit, it’s time to decide what to include. With a 200-page novel, there’ll only be room for the really important stuff — the plot skeleton, picked clean of any literary flourishes, details, and character depth. A cold outline serving no other purpose than to tell the agent/editor what happens, whether it’s interesting, and whether your plot carries through. Right?

“Maybe reading it this way will make it less boring.”

Synopsis-writing Rule #2: Your synopsis must convey plot, voice, and character development.

When I finished my first novel and learned of the wretched existence of the synopsis, I found a lot of advice on the web that told me to forget about everything except for the hard facts. “Explain what happens, caps lock each character’s name the first time you use it, and for god’s sake don’t finish with a teaser.”

Yes, explain what happens. Yes, spoil the ending. Erm, I don’t think anyone wants to see characters’ names in caps lock anymore. But make sure you have this perspective: agents and editors only have so much time to allot each submission. Therefore they have to limit what they see, and make a snap decision based on that little sample. You can have an engaging query letter and a sample of pages that scream with potential, but if the essence of your writing doesn’t carry through in your synopsis, whoever’s reading can and will forget about everything else that makes your submission great.

Imagine Terry Pratchett writing a synopsis that reads like a Tolstoy. The agent would probably think, “okay, this is the usual epic fantasy; but what’s with all these inappropriate place and character names?”

Ciphers is written from two main 3rd-person points of view: Siph’s and Bridget’s. Our hero is cynical, short-tempered, and articulate, while Brid is uncertain, stubborn, and loves lingo. Oh holy Hell how am I supposed to convey that in only a page or two? It would be nice if I could just state it; but then the synopsis would remain dry and lacking any real voice.

What the Internet would have me write: “Siph is a short-tempered cynic. Bridget is a tomboy. Siph resents having to observe Bridget.”

What will actually impress agents: “Siph is glad to finally be allowed outside headquarters; not so glad to be stuck with the idiotic Gard for his partner, or to be baby-sitting a tomboy with a skateboard.”

Much better… but look at how long it is!

This is where you fall into the Pit of Synopsis Despair only to land on the Giant Hamster Wheel of Cyclical Editing. Take your dry, voiceless words and pretty them up. Then it’s time to hack them down again to meet your page limit. By the time you’ve removed all the “unnecessary” words, it’s a skeleton again.

And you keep on dressing up and cutting down, over and over, for that little sliver of a chance that before you go mad you might look up from your work and find yourself with something presentable…

And that is why synopses suck.

Ciphers Update and the Importance of Character Motivation

Where have I been lately? Just the usual: recovering from pneumonia, getting shuttled all over Cheollanamdo for Chuseok, sinking to my knees in Korean mudflats in search of snails to fry up in their shells, chatting with my host mom’s good-looking 27-year-old brother, watching the family pull bee larvae out of their honeycomb and eat them, getting ready to move this afternoon…

I am a horrible blogger. 😄

But I’m trying not to be a horrible novelist. Once again, it is Friday afternoon and I find myself at Cafe Vill, working on Ciphers. I have just under two months until my self-appointed deadline of a query-ready manuscript, and while I haven’t been able to work on the novel half as much as I would have liked, I still have hope that I can actually make this deadline. Especially now that I’ve wizened up and remembered I have Writerly Tricks up my sleeve!

In a nutshell, my lack of productivity has been more due to being overwhelmed than anything. At first I thought the last six or so chapters of the book would need a horrendous amount of rewriting. I figured out a way to avoid that (which also happens to strengthen the villain’s character a lot) but have still been procrastinating because…

Monday: Ugh. Really? I’m too tired for so much thinking today. I’ll do it tomorrow.

Tuesday: Four classes. In a row. Sorry, novel.

Wednesday: What novel?

Thursday: Zzzzz…

Friday: Hey, I think I got this! Blog time!

I know, I know. But I promise this post is going somewhere!

Because there was a scene in there I REALLY couldn’t stand, in which one character used a kind of emotional hypnosis (“psychic persuasion”) to make another character do something. It was random, illogical, and — I realized — a total cheat. I was just avoiding letting the hypnotized character be responsible for his own actions, because I didn’t have a good reason why he would actually choose them.

In other words, I’d completely overlooked that character’s motivation.

And I couldn’t figure out a motivation strong enough to make him do what was necessary.

Solution: revisit this. My own plotting technique. I almost kicked myself for forgetting about it. Even though it’s such a simple guideline, it’s really an awesome tool for me because, as a scatterbrained author, I need the organization. Using this template forces me to break complex plot lines into individual events, and then break the events down into five very simple parts: task, motivation, method, obstacles, outcome.

I won’t get into more detail because that’s what the linked post is all about. But I will say that using the guideline I spent all of five minutes on my motivation problem before figuring out what would finally get the character to move, and exactly how that would affect the outcome.

Five minutes. After hours of dithering and weeks of cringing at that scene thinking “this needs to change” and then marking it to work on later.

In conclusion, don’t forget the motivation!

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: