Get to Know Your Characters: Do the Madeleine

Sometimes novels grow organically from inspiration, and every character you create feels like a real person who has been living in your brain for decades; they come complete with back story, personality, and a visual.

Sometimes we create characters because the plot requires them for some reason, and they show up to the story as robots, sans personality. Sure, they can pull their plot levers as programmed, but they’re not very fun, and not very interesting. As the writer, it’s up to you to get to know them a little, so you can make them interesting.

If you’re not sure how to do that, steal a page from Marcel Proust.

Or Ratatouille, if You Prefer

If you’re unaware of Proust and his epic masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past (a.k.a., In Search of Lost Time), shame on you. It’s more than 4,000 pages long, so there’s no shame in admitting you haven’t read the whole thing—but you should at least read the “episode of the madeleine,” which is deservedly famous. The short and soulless summary is that the narrator eats a type of cake he hasn’t had in years, and the taste transports him into his past and the specific sensations tied to the experience of eating one.

It’s essentially the same thing that happens to Anton Ego in the film Ratatouille when he takes a bite of the titular dish and has a flashback to his simple, joyous childhood. And you can do something similar with your characters as a way to get to know them.

Start with something appropriate for the basic character as you’ve envisioned them. Would they eat cakes? Cookies? Or is it a slug of whiskey, or a sip of beer that brings them back to the day their father gave them their first taste, or the last time they drank before going into AA? A cigarette that brings them back to their schooldays? It doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as it’s a sensation that evokes a response. Then, build out that memory. Explore it. See what details it reveals to you.

Just be prepared to crave a lot of things after you’re done.

Choose Your Own Adventures

No one ever said plotting is easy. Telling a story that has truth and power as well as internal consistency and logic is something that every writer fails at more or less constantly; it’s part of the job. Your first, second, and possibly tenth draft of a story may not necessarily be airtight when it comes to plot and plot holes—or even coherent.

Sometimes what happens, of course, is that you reach a fork in the old plot and you have to decide what happens next. And this is where more than one talented writer has paused for several years or even decades, frozen in terror, because the next step in your plot might destroy all that has gone before if you’re not super careful about it. You have plenty of ideas, each of which takes your story in a different direction. But which one is right? Which one to choose?

Here’s a thought: Don’t choose. Write them all.

Pick-a-Path

You might have encountered a “pick-a-path” adventure book, otherwise known as “choose your own adventure” books. These tell a story that pauses at regular intervals to let the reader choose the next plot event. At the end of each chapter the reader has a choice: open the door, turn to page 34. Answer the phone, turn to page 109. Set the place on fire and hum a Van Halen song as you slow-walk away from the fireball, turn to page 344.

Sometimes the choice put you on the path to a “good” or “bad” ending. Sometimes it killed you. Part of the fun was trying to make your way through all of the possible plots—but the point is, the hard-working authors of those stories had to come up with all possible plotlines. So why not do the same?

If you’re having trouble seeing the next step in your story, you can Plot your way through it, Pants your way through it—or go with some Extreme Plotting and literally develop every possible branch of your story, all the way down to the ending. This can be a clarifying exercise that reveals the hidden weaknesses of some of your ideas, and it can also lead you to some surprising brilliancies that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise.

And if it still doesn’t help you get to the end, you can always set the place on fire and walk away humming a Van Halen song. Personally, I recommend Running with the Devil.

 

Try the Microburst Approach

Time, as they say, is one thing no one’s making nay more of. Well, they also say that about land, but as a sci-fi guy I’m pretty certain someday we’ll either terraform another planet or find one we can live on, so that possibly won’t be true forever. Time? Well, we might find a way to slide along the timeline a bit, sure, but at some point the Heat Death of the Universe is going to arrive and that’s all she wrote.

Writers know the icy touch of time better than most, because we’re almost always struggling to find time to work on our genius fictions in-between a day job, raising a family, staying out of jail on bogus public urination charges, and other annoyances like eating and sleeping and playing video games 16 hours a day. Writing a novel within one normal lifespan is hard enough. Writing more than one is mega-difficult, and writing novels on a regular basis, especially if you’re under contract, can be maddeningly difficult.

Writers try a lot of different approaches to achieve the disciplined productivity that requires. I’m always dismissive of word counts, of course, though I freely admit that forcing yourself to write a certain number of words every day works for a lot of people when it comes to productivity. My complaints about word count are out there; let it drift. Here’s another strategy that works for me: Microbursts.

Float Like a Butterfly

The Microburst is grabbing any extremely short period of time and writing. Five, ten minutes, scattered throughout the day. Sitting on the bus to work. Waiting for the boss to arrive at a conference call. Waiting on friends to arrive, or your coffee to be served—basically, using all those wasted moments that everyone’s life is cluttered with. We all get robbed of moments throughout our day, empty spaces in-between the bigger tasks. The Microburst approach simply makes use of those small periods of time to get a sentence, two sentences—a paragraph!—written.

It’s worked for me in the past, mainly in the zero-draft stage when having a 100% coherent plot isn’t always required, because it does mean there’s no time for reading back and checking notes. You find yourself with five minutes before lunch, you dive in and write whatever comes to mind for five minutes. If you pause to check your notes for the spelling of that character’s name, by the time you’re done your five minutes are gone.

It can be a hectic, crazy way to write, but that energy sometimes translates into the story, giving it a crackling sense of urgency otherwise lacking. And during periods where finding a solid hour or two to write involves staying awake for 72 hours straight and realizing everything you’ve written appears to have been poorly translated from the secret language you invented as a child, the Microburst approach adds up. Think about all the wasted time in your day, and whether it might just combine into a solid hour of writing.

Or, if you’re me, you might realize that more writing time probably just means less drinking time, and then you get sad.

The Art of Finishing

I have a lot of trouble leaving things unfinished. I’m not sure where it comes from, but once I start something, I have a low-level compulsion to finish it, whether it’s my dinner or a bottle of wine or a novel.

This is great when it comes to home projects, because all I have to do is literally put one brushstroke of paint on the wall and I am locked in to painting the whole fucking house no matter what. No. Matter. What. It’s not so great when I over-order lunch and grimly force myself to eat all three hamburgers because by god I do not leave things unfinished.

It’s also great for the writing, because I finish all my writing projects, which makes for a lot of material. This is a good thing, and something more writers should engage in, because finishing a novel or story is a skill that will serve you well.

Marathon, Not a Sprint

Here’s the thing: Just about every creative project you ever engage in will lead you to a low point where you want to abandon it. The novel will get messy and you’ll wake up one night convinced that the premise is stupid and you’re screwing it up anyway. The story will lose its forward momentum and the brilliant twist ending will seem less and less brilliant as time goes by. Your rhyme scheme for the epic poem about your cats will sound harsh and uninviting to your ears. That sort of thing.

It’s soooo easy to give up. So easy to just close the file and shrug—oh well, it didn’t work out. And this is occasionally backed up by the times your writing is effortless, which happens for me sometimes. Sometimes I go from idea to completed novel in a few months and it’s like a dream. And when that happens it’s easy to imagine that’s how it should always happen.

Except, it doesn’t, really. Writing is usually gonna be hard work, and so learning how to force yourself to finish things is a skill you’re gonna be happy to have. And getting that skill starts right now: By finishing that crappy novel you’re ready to give up on even thought it’s 40,000 words and almost coherent. Get back in there and begin training yourself to finish stuff. It’ll pay off.

Practice Makes Perfect

A few years ago, my wife The Duchess, tired of my complaining, bought me a guitar and some lessons. I’d been saying for years that I wanted to learn how to play an instrument simply because I like to take on new challenges and learn new skills, and the whole guitar thing is something we white guys born somewhere between 1945 and 1995 have burned into our genetic code. When we’re 15 we very much wish to be in a rock band, and for those of us who never managed it as kids, it’s something that haunts us.

So, I learned to play the guitar, and to this day I play every day, for myself. I even make songs! That you can listen to! Though you probably shouldn’t.

You can learn about writing from playing guitar. Part of learning how to play involves practice. Playing scales, learning how to play songs, fingering exercises—you do these things every day in order to master the instrument. And you should be doing similar things with your writing.

I Got Blisters On Me Fingers

Yes, of course, most writers try to write every day. But we’re not talking about working on your novel or stories or epic poem about video games. We’re talking about exercises. Quick shots of skill-building work that keep expanding what you feel comfortable with. One example I always trot out is my habit of writing a short story every month. A lot of these stories aren’t great, but they keep me generating ideas, teach me how to end a story, and allow me to practice whatever I need work on. So, if I’m feeling rusty working with a first-person narrator, say, I can work on a story with that POV.

Maybe you need to work on dialog, so you should spend a week writing conversations. Or you need to practice world-building, so you should write some quick setting descriptions or histories. Only you know what you need to work on, but once you figure that out you should work on it every day. It doesn’t have to be in the context of a larger story—in fact it’s better if you break it out as a short practice bit you can get through very quickly.

Of course, if you listen to my guitar playing you likely have much less respect for me now, so forget I said anything.

Never Discuss Cincinnati

Noodle Incidents are one of the most powerful world-building tools you have at your disposal. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a Noodle Incident is a never-explained event in the past that the characters of a story refer to but never, ever flesh out. The term originated in an old Calvin and Hobbes comic and has been appropriated for literary technique discussion ever since.

Noodle Incidents are fantastic, because they have no limits, no shape, no beginning and no end. You refer to them with a cool, hilarious name, and you let the reader do the heavy lifting of filling in the blanks and shading the corners. Letting the reader do the work is actually the main benefit of Noodle Incidents, as the soaring imagination of your reader will always do a better job of fleshing out your half-baked Noodle Incidents then you will, and peppering your story with them gives the back story and world-building a mysterious, expansive boost you can’t match no matter how good a writer you happen to be.

Once you start using them, however, you have to stick to one Gremlin-like rule: Never explain them.

Day Old Pasta

The power of the Noodle Incident is in its mystery. The urge to explain them grows proportionally to the length of your story, the complexity of your universe, and how long you’ve been writing about a particular group of characters. In other words, the more you write about characters and their environments, the more desperate you can become for new material. And after you’ve told all the main stories, and even the side stories, the Noodle Incidents can start to look an awful lot like whole new veins of story material.

Except, because you’ve invited your readers to imagine them for so long, no matter what you come up with will never be as good as what they’ve come up with. You will lose that war, and losing an imagination war with your readers is not a good look. Let your Noodle Incidents do their work, and find another way to expand your story.

 

Of course, Noodle Incidents exist in real life. All of mine involve my pants, or lack thereof.

Let ‛Em Chat

Dialog is one of the most challenging things for writers to get “right,” mainly because “right” is a moving target. Dialog can, after all, accomplish a task—exposition, say—and yet be a Fail because it sounds unnatural, or feels forced, or obviously exists solely to convey information and not as something that real people would actually engage in.

Sometimes even if you’re relatively comfortable writing dialog you get into trouble because your characters only speak when they’re conveying information. This is an easy trap to fall into because it feels concise and efficient, when in fact it’s weird because people love to chatter. Anyone who has ever tried to avoid conversation in an office setting, or when walking home through their neighborhood, knows just ho much people like to chat. No matter how good you are at dialog, if your characters only ever talk about Plot Things, it’s going to be a little uncanny for your readers.

One solution to this is to imagine you’re listening in on your characters chatting while they’re getting to the next scene.

Don’t Skip, Delete

The whole “skip the boring parts” writing advice is excellent stuff, but it’s often more useful to go back and delete the boring parts instead of skipping them in the first place. For example, writing the entire twenty-block car drive that your characters engage in between chapters 2 and 3 might seem like an obvious boring spot to skip—after all, who wants to read about two people driving ten minutes to their destination? But, what if you tagged along on that ride and let your characters chat. No Plot Things, just chatting, relaxed conversation about whatever your characters might be interested in.

It may well turn out to still be a boring part, in which case you delete it in revision. Or, maybe parts of the conversation your record there is actually interesting and fun, and so you keep some of it, or most of it, and delete only the truly boring stuff. Even if you wind up deleting the whole sequence, you will likely have learned something about your characters in the process.

In fact, any time your characters aren’t actively fighting vampires or seducing each other or robbing banks, have them talk. Have them talk a lot. About anything, about nothing, because that’s what real people do, and it can be incredibly useful when fleshing out characters and a universe. The true super power isn’t skipping stuff you assume will be boring, but deleting stuff that has proved to be boring.

Of course, if I’m following the Boring Rule, entire novels I’ve written might be deleted. Shut up.

The Obvious Mystery

One of the easiest mistakes a writer can make in just about any genre, but especially in any story that features a mystery, is to assume that your mystery has to be mind-blowing and convoluted.

The fact is, most mysteries, once revealed, are pretty pedestrian. What makes a mystery work is that the author knows the solution and the reader doesn’t, and that gives the author incredible power. They can mess with the reader all they want. They can deceive, dissemble, and misdirect. And, most importantly, they can heavily imply that the mystery is a brilliant knot that only their weary protagonist can solve, when the mystery itself is actually pretty obvious once revealed.

Even in the most celebrated mysteries of all time, like the Holmes and Christie stories, the solution is usually a bit of a let down. Oh, they all killed him, you say? Oh, it was a poisonous snake placed in the room, you say? I’m not saying these aren’t clever, it’s just that once you know the secret the mystery is usually something perfectly rational and even obvious.

The trick is, your reader doesn’t know that.

The Obvious Child

That means that you really shouldn’t spend too much time trying to come up with a mind-blowing mystery that will shatter people’s psyches. The trick is, any crime becomes mysterious and enticing when it’s not explained. Start with a simple murder—say a husband killing his cheating wife—and then work backwards, erasing clues and coming up with coincidences. By the time you get to the beginning of the story, the mystery will be pretty thick and you’ll be able to sell your reader on its difficulty simply by dint of it being obfuscated.

The simple fact is, 99% of all mysteries are let downs. Once you see how a trick was done, it’s kind of disappointing. The joy isn’t in the solution, it’s in the journey—so stop wasting time trying to be too clever by half, and just work backwards.

Plus, make your detective a ventriloquist. There’s never been a ventriloquist detective. It’s genius. Like Jay-Z says, I’m just trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.

It’s Okay to Not Know Everything

One of my least-favorite things is when a reader asks me a question about my work that I can’t answer. This is usually in terms of worldbuilding or character back story, and the questions are usually incredibly detailed or thoughtful, which, hey, I get it: I do the same thing. I sit there and watch Twin Peaks and I spend a truly shameful amount of mental energy pondering the meaning of disappearing windows on a jet plane, and part of that is this innocent faith that David Lynch actually has a master plan, actually knows what all these things mean, and could clearly articulate it all if he had to.

But man, I usually can’t answer the questions. Because it’s okay to be the writer and not know every little thing about your universe, your characters. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s beneficial.

A Little Nonsense Now and Then

On the one hand, yes, you are correct: I created these worlds, these people. I am the god of my fictional universes and if anyone is going to be able to explain to you why a character wears a certain hat or makes certain life choices, it ought to be me. But the fact is, I usually don’t, because when I’m writing I tend to focus on the details that I need for each scene. I don’t worry about the Known Unknowns, because that knowledge is on a need to know basis, and I simply don’t need to know.

Until I do. And that’s the key here: Even if it never makes it into your draft, fixing every detail of your universe and character can tie your hands later—sometimes later in the same manuscript, sometimes later in the series. The fact that I don’t know exactly what my characters were like as kids, or what the story behind their tattoo is doesn’t mean I’m a lazy, dumb writer (although, of course, I’ll stipulate that I am pretty dumb and lazy). It means I’m leaving my options open for inspiration later. If I haven’t defined that tattoo today, I won’t have to retcon something next year.

Finding the balance between the right amount of iceberg under the surface when it comes to world building and character development isn’t an equation. It can’t be taught. You just have to play with the levels until you get it right. And then get comfortable admitting you have no idea why your character has that tatt. Yet.

Making Fiction Out of Nothing at All

Very often, what should be the easiest aspect of this writing thing is the most difficult. The moment you tell someone that you write novels they will ask you where you get your ideas. This will 100% happen every single time, and you will have to resign yourself to people demanding to know where you get your ideas as if they suspect there’s an Idea Store somewhere making drone deliveries.

The assumption is that ideas are plentiful and easy. The reality is, we’ve all sat in front of a blinking cursor or blank page and had zero ideas. Zero. It drives some of us to drink. Because the reality is ideas are cheap, and ideas are everywhere, but you have to combine your idea with that mystical energy (for once I’m not referring to whiskey, although it helps) that gets the creative energies focused on that idea. Without that thrilling sense of excitement, even perfectly good story ideas will sit there, inert and mocking.

The good news is, coming up with ideas to write about is easy enough. One of the easiest ways is plenty effective: Just answer a question.

Forty Two

There are two ways to go about this.

The first is to ask a question and then provide the answer. It’s important to note that we’re not looking for actual answers—in other words it’s okay to ask a question that has an answer but to ignore that answer in favor of something more fanciful, impossible, or insane. For example, maybe you wonder why UPS trucks are brown. There’s a real-world answer to that question, but fuck it: Maybe they’re brown because the wormhole technology they use to shift freight around the world reacts badly with other colors.

The second way to approach this is to come up with an answer and then wonder what the question is. If the answer is putting birthday cake into the dryer, figuring out the problem that solves is gonna be fun. It might not lead you to a coherent story, but it’ll get the juices flowing and for the moment that’s all we care about.

Don’t get chained to reality and the actual answers that exist. Plenty of stories have ignored easily observable reality in favor of crazy bullshit. The crazy bullshit is always more entertaining. I should know; at this point the local cops arrest me for public intoxication mainly for the stories I tell to explain my nudity.