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!


Communicative Language Teaching

It has been a long, long time since I posted about teaching — though with good reason. I’ve been on vacation for the past two and a half months! But now the long winter is coming to an end, and I’m planning my classes for next Monday. Determined to promote communicative English better than I was able to last semester, I pulled out my old textbook and am currently reminding myself of the correct methodology.

All tips following in this post are extracted from Rod Ellis’s book, “Task-based Language Learning and Teaching,” which I highly recommend to all aspiring language teachers.


The Basics

CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) and TBLT (Task-based Language Teaching) have both been around for a while and seem to have a semi-decent foothold in the west, but unfortunately don’t exist in most Asian classrooms. Here, the focus is on Grammar-translation and rote memorization — methods useful for learning isolated vocabulary and grammatical theory, but not much else.

Well, except for scoring high on those standardized tests that are apparently more important than life itself.

The main idea behind CLT is that students learn through interaction with other people, rather than lists and flash cards. This means real language, with context.

TBLT takes this a step further with the theory that new grammar and vocabulary should be integrated within tasks that mimic real life. This way, the student can navigate real-world situations in the target language. TBLT also makes it easier for students to notice the gaps in their knowledge, recognize the usefulness of the target grammar, and be motivated to acquire what they need to fill in those gaps.


TBLT’s Three Phases

Pre-Task Phase: The preparation phase. This can consist of many different activities, including explanation or demonstration of the task, planning time, class dictionary searches, topic discussion, brainstorming, vocabulary worksheets, etc. Grammar does not necessarily need to be addressed here, as it can be explained in the Post-Task or left out altogether.

During-Task Phase: The meat of the lesson. This is an assignment, whether oral or written, that requires students to perform a task they are likely to encounter in the real world. The assignment should result in an achievement (Outcome) of some kind, including physical Outcomes (completed worksheets/writings/maps/food/art projects), new non-linguistic skills (learning something via English instructions), or solving a puzzle (murder mysteries, Taboo). Successful navigation of a scenario (a doctor’s visit or job interview) can also be considered a valid task Outcome.

It is important that students believe the goal of the activity to be the Outcome, even though it’s actually to produce relevant language at the appropriate level. As long as students believe this, they will complete the task successfully. But if they believe the goal is to use language, “there is a danger that the learners will subvert the aim of the task by displaying rather than using language” (Ellis, 8).

Yes, I just threw bookquote at you. Because you want your students solving the problem, not showing off their awesome language skills. (“Let’s see, how can I work the word ‘logarithm’ into a scenario about asking directions to the cafe?”) TBLT is focus on meaning — the point is not flawless grammar and nuanced vocabulary, at least not at this stage…

Post-Task Phase: This is the present/review/reflect/clarify phase. Students should be made to repeat the task (present their answers or reenact their discourse) before the rest of the class. Language production is usually more accurate the second time, as they no longer need to strive for meaning and can now focus on form. Teacher feedback is very important here, as it is the optimal point for either oral or written encouragement and suggestion. You can choose to address common errors or points of confusion from the During-Task Phase, or explain the rules of the lesson’s target grammar — which students should have already noticed patterns for while completing the task. But, as stated above, explicit grammar instruction is not a necessary component of the lesson. Students should also have the chance to reflect on their own performance of the task.



This is all just the very basic components of TBLT, and I’m sure a lot of it sounds confusing if you’ve never studied this methodology before. But once you’ve written a few lesson plans following this three-part structure, it really does become second nature and you start to notice the difference in your classroom.

One great thing about TBLT is the flexibility of it. Some teachers prefer to cut away everything but the task itself, never explicitly explaining form. Others merely supplement other methodologies with short task tie-ins, which is called Task-supported Language Teaching. It’s really up to you how you use it, but I highly recommend adding it to your classroom routine in some way.

For more information and sample lesson plans, check out this page.

For a personal essay on how a self-implemented communicative approach can help you become fluent in a foreign language, check out my friend’s awesome blog post here.

If you want me to just stop advertising links and answer all your questions, leave a comment below.


Ellis, 252

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. ; )

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!

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. XD

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!

The Art of Time Travel

Or, “How I ‘Find’ the Time to Write”

A friend of mine recently heard that I’m only three or four chapters away from completing my current novel, and immediately asked, “Where do you find time to write a novel during grad school? I swear it’s like you’re hiding a time vortex from me.”

No, I’m not hiding it. I’ve got it parked at the meter. 😉

Obscure Doctor Who references aside, this is a pretty good question. Most writers I know personally — pretty much all of them, in fact — have to prioritize school or work or both. Many, like me, are working toward their Master’s degrees. At one point I was a full-time grad student, working 27 hours a week as a teacher and a tutor, AND the president of a student organization. This also happened to be the time I was applying for the JET Program and the Fulbright ETA, as well as learning how to maintain a long distance relationship across thirteen time zones.

Yeah, looking back on it, that wasn’t much fun.

But did it stop me from writing? Admittedly, it did, occasionally for a week or more at a time; nonetheless, writing did get done, without too much sacrifice to my other priorities.

Some of the following suggestions overlap a bit with an earlier post (How I (usually) Manage Not to Procrastinate), but some new additions and a bit more detail make this list a bit more useful than the other, in my opinion.

Anyway, before I ramble any more, it’s time to present May’s 5 Tips for Time Travel!


1. Make an outline.

This one I’ve said before, and will say again. If you want to save time in the writing process, know where your story and characters are going.

Yes, some write better by pantsing; the thrill of writing without a plan can allow a writer to tap into vats of inspiration which might be lost when following a more familiar road. To be honest, I always start new projects this way, and don’t really see any other way to go for that initial spark. HOWEVER, I don’t think pantsing is conducive to writing on a tight schedule. Let’s say you finally get an hour to be creative in the middle of a busy day. It’s all going well the first twenty minutes — your characters do their thing, it’s interesting and unique and poetic. You finish a paragraph and hit “enter” to start the next one — and can’t think of what to write. The scene that had flowed so perfectly until now just dries up.

No big deal; you make it a new scene. But of what? More dialogue? Or is it time to jump into the action? What would work best here? Now you get sidetracked thinking about all the possible things that could happen. Which is more likely for your characters? Maybe you feel that option A is more natural for your hero. But are you sure? Who is your hero, anyway? Beyond “brash, stubborn, and fatally clever,” you don’t really know much about him. In fact, up til now he’s basically done nothing but be an ass to everyone he encounters. How do you turn that into plot?

And just like that, your hour’s up. Lunch break is over, the customers are waiting, the kids need to be picked up from school.

An outline, contrary to popular opinion, does not need to have a lot of detail. Sometimes just knowing how you want the story to end can help a great deal. Of course, filling in the gaps little by little until you do have a lot of detail works wonders.


2. Have a writing tool (paper, laptop, phone, napkin) with you at all times.

And I mean ALL times. Minds tend to wander as we go about our daily routines, to the point where ideas pop up when we’re in the shower, brushing our teeth, eating, walking/driving to school, sitting in important staff meetings… It’s only recently that I’ve started remembering to carry an actual notepad around that is specifically dedicated to my current WiP. Before that, and actually even now sometimes, my notes would wind up in all sorts of places: on class notes, handouts, restaurant napkins, the back of my hand, sometimes even on my laptop or cellphone (go figure). I also carry a thumb drive so I can use a school computer if I have to. Unfortunately, though, I can’t really trust those any more because my last one suddenly died, taking about five chapters worth of outline with it. After that happened, I started using a program/app called My Writing Spot. I’ll admit that the interface isn’t that great; it’s kind of like Wordpad in its simplicity. But it’s convenient because I can sync everything I type between my laptop and my iPhone with the touch of a button, meaning all of my data is backed up on multiple platforms.

3. Make every minute count.

It’s easy enough to say “I’m going to write a thousand words every day this week” and then barely write ten because of a busy or unpredictable schedule. For me it’s now an unconscious habit to take out my notes when it looks like I won’t need more than 50% of my concentration on something. Even if I end up writing nothing, I have triggered a mental state of preparation — which we all know is half the battle. For example, when I need to attend a staff meeting:

(My notebook and pen are out and turned to my most recent page of notes.)
Boss: Blah blah blah students blah blah policy blah blah final exams.
Me: *I wonder how Character A feels about staff meetings. She’d probably bring in her code-cracking stuff and get wrapped up in it. Character B would… Actually, B would never get invited to a staff meeting. Too many documents he might set fire to.*
Boss: And these kids from Country A are ridiculous! They go around saying “Teacher, you please raise my grade!”
Me: *I should totally have a character from Country A.* (cackles)

And so on. Often I come up with ideas entirely unrelated to my focal WiP.


4. Learn to Deal with Distractions.

I know the trauma of wanting (or needing) to be creative and just not being able to focus. Maybe the A/C is too cold and you can’t control it, or your workspace is crowded and noisy, or your chair is too hard. Maybe you’re annoyed because the waiter brought you oolong when you asked for pu erh…

Letting these things get to you can kill your writing time. Granted, sometimes it’s just impossible to get past a certain distraction and it must be rectified before any progress can be made. But if we keep focusing on this and then that and then the other thing, we may feel better at the end of it all but our novel/story/poem feels neglected.

Over the past ten years, I’ve learned to work in noisy public places because sometimes, there’s just nowhere else to go or not enough free time to get there. “But May, you have an office now! You don’t have to work in those other places any more.” Actually, I have prioritized even my distractions: since I’m used to noise, I’d rather have to put up with that than the icicles hanging in my office! 😉


5. Screw inspiration.

I’m sure everyone’s heard the saying “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.” Out of everything on this list, I think this is the most important factor to keep in mind: sometimes, you will be able to write pages and pages without pause or effort, the words leaping from your fingertips as though by their own will.

And sometimes, everything you force out will feel wrong, look trite, and sound like literary nails on a chalkboard.

But the sad fact is that those awful, awful words and passages must be written. A writer who works only when inspiration strikes will likely find themselves going for days with little or no productivity, especially when life is hectic. As long as you make the effort to squeeze out at least a few words during those precious few moments you get, you’ll have at least a starting point that you can go back and edit any time you want.

Essentially, just get the words on the paper (or on the screen). Fix the crappy ones later, and don’t risk losing a good idea because of a misbehaving lexicon.

A Plotting Technique: Cause and Effect in 5 Steps

Today’s been a long day and I refuse to look at anything having to do with work right now. I’ve also been meaning to post this technique I came up with for a while now — ergo, productivity without the brain damage. 🙂

I’ve mentioned a few times here that for Smoldering, I forced myself to complete an entire outline before writing any further than the second chapter. And oh, it has made writing so, so much easier. There were still some points, however, that until recently had been giving me trouble, and one in particular that had gotten too convoluted even in the outline. For more than a week, this one scene had me at a standstill every time I tried to write. And when you have as little writing time as I do, that can get very frustrating, very fast.

Eventually I realized that the problem was cause and effect — character motivation and subsequent actions.

But there were a few more components to it than that.

After playing around a little (while waiting during my lunch break for a student who never showed up), I finally settled on five key subjects that can be addressed, with quite beneficial results. They are:


Task is what the character is supposed to do, whether by their own volition or because of external forces. This can be a decision they have to make or an assignment they must complete; something trivial or something important; something that’s over in a second, or something that takes the whole book to accomplish. Let’s say, for instance, that my character Cipher’s task is to observe candidates for his organization’s new linguist position. It may be more intricate in reality, but this phrasing captures the heart of the task.

Next comes Motivation. Why does he want to do it? Even if he’s not thrilled about babysitting random people, if he at least attempts to complete the task then there is some reason for it. Maybe your character has no other choice: they’re being threatened, or controlled some other way. In this context, that still counts as Motivation. In Cipher’s case, going out into the world for any purpose gives him greater freedom than he normally has — and if there’s one main thing Cipher wants throughout the novel, it’s freedom.

Once we know the why, we can look at the how. Method is, along with Outcome, the most elastic variable in the set. It can refer to a physical method (“with a gun and a good poker face”), an attitude (“nonchalant on the surface, stomach in knots”), specific actions the character does (“charging in blindly, almost getting killed, and finally bluffing his way out”), or any combination there-of. Depending on what you already know of your plot, Method might take up a line or a page. I prefer to keep it simple, myself, but it’s really a matter of preference. Since I already know that Cipher is just reluctantly tagging along with his partner, for the write-up I just added that his  attitude is “serious yet sardonic,” as revealed by their interactions.

I haven’t come up with a Task yet that doesn’t have at least one Obstacle staring the character down. (I see this as a good thing, indicative of strong writing, but that’s another blog post altogether.) Again, Obstacle can be as little as a single, insignificant vexation or doubt, or as complex as a dozen potentially fatal trials, just as long as it fits the Task. Poor Cipher’s Obstacle is that he’s got a pair of crazy, murderous twin stalkers after him, and they find him.

Last, we consider the Outcome. If we take everything that’s come before, and everything we know about the character, what must inevitably happen? So Cipher craves freedom and is even willing to play babysitter for a taste of it, he’s humorless and a little mean and is terrified because he already knows who is trying to find him. On top of that, his stalkers pop up just when Cipher and his partner are about to make contact with a particular candidate.

So what does he do?

This is where you need to be particularly careful that you’re not just writing for the sake of plot. If the Outcome doesn’t naturally follow the other four variables AND your character’s personality, then scrap it and think of one that does. Once I had all of these things organized for myself it was really easy to see that this very thing was the reason my inner writer’s voice had shut down: the Outcome I was working toward just didn’t make sense when considering the Motivation, in particular.

Even if it needs to be fixed, Outcome is very flexible in terms of how you can write it. Because it’s so open-ended, I’ve used anything from the binary “pass/fail” to very specific conclusions. Also, the Outcome of one set, unless it is the final event in your book, should naturally feed into the Task of the next. In other words, “Cipher is forced to escape, dragging Bridget back to headquarters with him” as an Outcome will have its own consequences and thus will set in motion the next set with something like “Task: pass the linguist exam and get officially hired” for Bridget.

While any more on that would be a spoiler, here’s the main example in its entirety, as well as a not-as-spoilery one for Bridget.

Task: observe and report on linguist candidates
Motivation: gets him out of the Hub (freedom)
Method: serious yet sardonic
Obstacles: the twins find him
Outcome: has to take Bridget back to the Hub

Task: get an internship with an applied linguist
Motivation: proving herself (to herself)
Method: paper application, all-nighters
Obstacles: the deadline
Outcome: failure

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