Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!


Rivals, Villains, and Nemeses

VillainFond Husband and I were talking the other night about antagonists. We’re both way into speculative fiction, but our tastes can vary pretty widely on what we like and don’t like. Therefore, I wasn’t too shocked when I learned that he doesn’t like a sympathetic villain. Personally, I love it when I feel like I can understand the bad guy, when I know exactly why they are the way they are and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could have walked that same path in those same shoes. (Note: I am not a sociopath. Honest.)

One thing we did agree on, though? Neither of us likes it when the antagonist is just contrary to be contrary. The mustache twirling villain tossing hapless maidens onto train tracks for the heck of it isn’t really our thing. Evil for evil’s sake is kind of lame. (And just to be clear, we’re talking about physical antagonists, not abstract ones. None of this really applies as well for a storm, or racism, or whatever.)

So I sat down after our chat and wrote up a list of the things that I feel like every believable antagonist needs, regardless of whether or not we can sympathize.

Background A protagonist can’t exist in a vacuum; neither can the antagonist. What made them this way? How did they get where they are? Just as a protagonist’s background sets the stage for them, so does an antagonist’s.

Personality Every character in a story should have a unique voice, little ticks and quirks and patterns that make them their own person, rather than just another place holder. I feel like this is especially important in the main characters, which I would definitely count the antagonist as.

Motivation This is huge huge huge for me. The antagonist must have an understandable goal. Even if it’s just to stay in power, despite the efforts of this punk protagonist, I have to know why the villain does what they do for me to feel like this is a real character. Cardboard does not have motives. Characters do. I feel like this is especially important in cases where the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil, like when the Lawful Good cop is trying to arrest the sketchy-but-heart-of-gold protagonist or whatever.

Menace This probably doesn’t really need to be said, but let’s say it anyway. An antagonist should be menacing. Readers should harbor some serious fear that the antagonist is going to really mess things up for our beloved protagonist, whether that’s ruining prom or enslaving humanity. Within the context of the story, stakes need to be high, and it needs to look like the antagonist just may tip them in their favor.

Power A power imbalance must exist between the antagonist and the protagonist in order for the protagonist to go through the kind of struggle that makes a good story. The story’s bad guy should stand on a higher power rung in some way (wealth, an army, powerful connections, whatevs), but on the other hand, they don’t need to be some über-powered demigod. Therefore, they also need…

Weaknesses Sauron’s tether to the Ring. Swarm’s entirely understandable difficulty with insecticides. The Emperor’s acceptance of a Death Star that has a design flaw you could fly an X-Wing through. If a powerful antagonist doesn’t have a weakness, it can make any ending where they lose feel implausible, and therefore a cheap plot push on the author’s part. So give your antagonist a weakness that is believable given their background, not so outrageous that they wouldn’t have taken care of it, and just enough of an edge that your protagonist can use it.

In closing, do you notice anything about this list? It’s pretty similar to the sorts of things that go into making a protagonist. In a lot of ways, the villain of the story is a lot like the hero; the two can be the flipsides of the same coin, even at times sharing remarkably similar features, but having simply made different choices. Because, after all, the antagonist is the hero in their own story.

Of course, there’s a lot more that can go into the crafting of a believable antagonist, but this is hopefully enough to get you started on a shiver-worthy baddie.  Happy writing!


Wanna dive deeper? Here are a few links to other articles about antagonists! Enjoy!

Ken Miyamoto’s 15 Types of Villains Screenwriters Need to Know– all about the different tropes that most evil-doers fall under

Literary Device’s Antagonist– terms and definitions within the broad umbrella of, you guessed it, antagonists

Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know about Antagonists– it’s, uh, what the title says it is

Conference Lessons: Character Creation


Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:


The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!

Status and 3D Characters

Information for this blog post came from Steven James’ breakout session, How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters. He’s quirky, fun, and talks with his hands. Go check him out!

StatusA woman is slumped on a couch; a man stands over her, glaring at her with folded arms. Who has higher status?

The woman finally closes her book and looks up at him, clearly annoyed. He puts his hands on his hips and starts complaining about all the ways she’s messed up today. She frowns, unimpressed, and says nothing. Who has higher status now?

The man tells her she needs to shape up or find a new apartment. The woman leaps to her feet, waving her arms and screaming. She flings the book across the room, and the man shakes his head and leaves. Now who has higher status?

There are many different kinds of status. Relational status is a character’s status in personal relationships (family, friends, that one guy from high school biology that you just can’t stand). Positional status is a character’s status in a professional setting, such as her position at work. Situational status is the status of your character against whoever she happens to be interacting with at that moment; if three strangers show up in your living room with knives, chances are pretty good that they have higher situational status.

What makes characters interesting is variable status. Maybe your character was no doubt the snappiest dresser at last Friday’s sock hop, but she then has to go to work Saturday morning for a squeaky-voiced misogynist who makes her stay after hours to clean the floors on hands and knees. But then she goes home and gets the royal treatment because she’s the only one keeping bread on the table since Grandpa retired and Joe got laid off. Varying status in varying situations is what keeps a character interesting. Without these dichotomies and contradictions, characters can feel one dimensional and unrealistic.

“Turning the tables” happens when a character with seemingly low status suddenly claims the higher ground. Say the three guys with knives charge into the living room to find an aging man sitting on his couch eating a bowl of ice cream. The three men seem to have the higher status- they’re in a larger group, they’re armed, they have the element of surprise. But then the man pulls a fully automatic rifle from under the couch and calmly tells them, “Kids, you’ve got about five seconds to get out of my house.” Who has the higher status now?

Control always boosts a character’s status. A character can manifest control internally (keeping her temper in check), externally (stopping the bomb before it blows up the White House), or interpersonally (calming his raging daughter with a few quiet words and a hug). The way a character stands, how long she holds a gaze, how cool she is in a crisis- all these things convey control, or lack thereof.

Let’s go back to the sample characters at the beginning of this post. They actually swap higher status back and forth. In the first segment, the man is using physical presence to attain higher status- the fact that he’s standing over her with folded arms is a very dominant position. But when he’s whining about everything and the woman keeps her silence, unimpressed, she has higher status because she’s clearly the calmer character. But that gets thrown out of the window when she starts ranting and throwing things. Stillness is power. A lack of stillness shows that she can’t even control herself.

The two most important characters you will write in your story are your protagonist and your antagonist. Both of these characters need to have high status, but they can have high status in different ways. For example, antagonists usually have very high positional status (such as Lucas’ Emperor Palpatine or Goodkind’s Darken Rahl) while protagonists often don’t (Luke Skywalker, Richard Cypher). But protagonists usually have high relational status- they’re loved and trusted by their friends- and situational status- people, powers, or tools, show up to aid them in their quest; they also always have the moral high ground. But no matter what kind of high status they have, it’s very important that neither protagonists nor antagonists lower their status through their own actions. If they lower their own status, they come off as weak, stupid, or otherwise unworthy of their counterpart, and the final clash in the climax is less tense as a result.

Protagonists need opportunities to be heroic, to be noble. They need to sacrifice for the good of others. They need to stand up for the oppressed. They need to place the best interests of others ahead of their own.

On the other hand, antagonists need opportunities to be dastardly. They need to be seen as scary, as wrong, as the kind of person that needs to be taken down. Evil for the sake of evil is boring, so they need motivation and intention that leads them in that direction. As Steven James said about all characters: “Action without intention distances readers- What are they trying to avoid, obtain, or overcome?” Your antagonist’s and your protagonist’s motivation and intention should be clearest to readers, so make sure it’s clearest in your own mind first.

Remember, “realistic characters: are consistent and reasonably predictable; are caricatures, not stereotypes; act only when motivated or caused to do so; and are believable and interesting.” If your characters are lacking in any of these respects, take the time to remedy that! Make sure you understand what motivates your characters, why they make the choices they do, how they move through their world. Understand how their status changes from person to person that they interact with, and use those actions to propel your protagonist to greatness.

 During the class, Steven James shared a beautifully concise list of character actions and behaviors that indicated higher or lower status. I’ll post that Friday, because ‘tis the season.  See you then!

DIY Writing Prompt Generator

DiceYou’ve probably all known me long enough by now to know that I’m pretty much a dork on a multitude of levels. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.) And so it was that, in the name of good dorky fun, I set out to create my own writing prompt generator! Whee!

So after kicking around the idea for a couple weeks, I had a list of a few features that I knew I wanted. I wanted it to have an element of randomness. I wanted it to deal with various parts of a story instead of just one. (So, it might prompt me on either setting or inciting action or characters, rather than just one of those things.) I also wanted it to be practically infinite- it wouldn’t be just cycling through the same handful of prompts every time. And despite all these things, I wanted it to be about as basic as I could make it. Because, as has been manifested many times in many ways, complicated things- mostly in the form of technology- frighten me. (For those of you who hadn’t picked up on that yet, check out any of these posts.)

And what could use randomness and be less complicated than a die? I considered using a d20, but didn’t want to do that much work (see point on basicness), so I stuck with the classic six-sided die. Everybody has a d6 laying around!

If you too would like to make your own random prompt generator, all you need is a die (or dice! You can do as many prompts as you want!), a writing utensil, a piece of paper, and your fantastic brain. And fantastic hands for writing with. And maybe a hard surface to write on as well. Anyway, you get the point. Dice, paper, pen.

Number one through six (or however many faces your die has). Then decide what elements you want your rolls to prompt you on. If you want this to be even simpler, you can do them all about characters, or settings, etc. I wanted to incorporate more than one element, so my list looked something like this:

  1. Object
  2. Inciting Action
  3. Setting
  4. Character
  5. Opening Line
  6. Inciting Action

(This really doesn’t have to be complicated. Skip this step entirely if you’d rather, and just write a bunch of random stuff. Because random!) After you know what topic you want each face of your die to represent, flesh it out a little further.

Think of a prompt regarding each element that is simple enough to make sense in just about every context with which you use it; is broad enough to be open to a variety of interpretations; and has the potential to be different each time it is applied. For example, here’s the generator I came up with:

  1. Walk into the adjoining room. What is the first physical thing you notice? Put this item in a story being used in a nonconventional way.
  2. Look at the newspaper/go to an online news outlet. What is the main headline? Without reading any more of the story, write a story based on this premise.
  3. Text the person you last texted and ask what their favorite show/book was as a kid. Write a story based in that world.
  4. Look out the closest window. What is the first moving thing you notice? Write a story from his/her/its point of view.
  5. Turn on the radio and listen for one complete sentence. Use that line as the first line of a story.
  6. Go into a nearby bathroom or closet. If you knew you would be attacked in one minute, what would you use to defend yourself? Write a story that starts with that preparation.

I guess #2 is kind of Inciting Action/Character/SomethingElseEntirely, depending on what the headline is. But you get the point! Each prompt is designed to have the potential to be different each time, thereby making it (almost?) infinite. But they’re also each simple enough to be broadly applicable (can be used in nearly any situation you would typically find yourself in- might not work as well if you’re camping or in the middle of a global robotic takeover), and widely interpretive (can be understood in a variety of ways, thus adding to the number of possible stories being generated).

So after working all that out, the only thing left to do was to field test it.

I rolled a four! So I turned around in my seat and the first moving thing that I saw was a… raven! Darned things are everywhere! (At least this one wasn’t killing half my flock and then not even eating any of their remains besides just one of the heads. Seriously, raven, that’s creepy.) So I set about writing a short story from the POV of a raven. And here is the totally-unedited-don’t-judge-me-it’s-a-first-draft result! (Yes, I wrote this just before posting, haha. But I like it! Maybe worth cleaning up?)

All in all, this was fun. I don’t know how often I’ll use my little generator, but I felt more creative just after having made the thing. Got the writing juices flowing! Yummy! And most of the time, that’s all I really need. So, good job, writing prompt generator. I’ll keep you.

Let me know in the comments if you whipped up your own writing prompt generator! I’d love to hear about your prompts, or any stories that came of it. Happy writing!

Paper People: Adding that Third Dimension

Image from www.stampington.comI think the number of stories I have read with no characters is exactly… hm… zero. Maybe this is a thing, but I am yet to come across it.

The problem is, it’s hard to have an actual story without having any people. People are agents of change, shakers and movers, and, because of all this, they are interesting. (‘People’, of course, doesn’t have to mean ‘humans’. Go crazy.) As said by Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, “Stories are about people who are uncomfortable.” Meaning: No people, no story.

Without characters, things can still happen. You can have a completely people-free event (like, I dunno, an asteroid smacking a mountain), but there won’t be any story to give it context, meaning, and relevance. Changes may occur, but without them happening to characters we can identify with, they’re not any changes we care about. (It’s worth noting that, the moment I thought about this scenario, I started thinking about all the creatures that it would impact- plants, dinosaurs, monstrously huge insects, the world’s first mammals- and even anthropomorphized, imagining the agony of the shattered crust of the earth. I intuitively sought out a character to apply significance to the event. The thought that astroidal pummeling happens on, say, Jupiter all the time didn’t even occur to me until much later, probably in large part because I know of nothing there that would mind getting walloped by space rocks. No character? No caring.)

But how to make characters? How do we create people who are more memorable than the ink and paper they’re printed on? To do that, we look to real people and some of the features that grant them realistic depth and interest.

Real people:

Have Pasts. People don’t just blip into existence the moment you meet them. Nor should your characters. Know about their childhoods, their past relationships, their crime records. Even if most of this never makes it directly onto the page, it will still impact who those characters are and what decisions they make.

Have Wants. Everybody has wants, whether that’s being desperate for a better brownie recipe, unquestionable rule of the entire subcontinent, or just ten unbroken minutes to eat your Cup Noodles without your boss hounding you. People often have contradicting wants that lead to internal or external struggles.

Have Problems. We’re all flawed and we live in a flawed world. This creates problems for us. Give your characters a mix of large and small problems. Maybe Joe has an undeniable attraction to colored paper clips and his boss is tired of having to buy more paperclips all the time. And his dog likes his self-righteous neighbors more than him. And he just accidentally received a coded message about a nuke that’s going to land on Manhattan tomorrow and the cops won’t believe him. Poor Joe.

Have Emotions. Even those who work really had to keep them hidden or suppressed have emotions. Heck, even Spock has outbursts of them every now and then. Even characters that seem worlds away from us (the royal princess, the admiral of the intergalactic freight ship, the drug-addicted dock worker) are relate-able through their emotions. And while you can probably get away with an emotionless antagonist (smallpox, Skynet, an asteroid [hey! It’s back!]), readers expect to be able to connect emotionally to the protagonist.

Act. Real people act on their wants and needs. How they act tends to color our opinion on whether they are a good guy or a bad guy (or the comic relief). We struggle against what we don’t like, even against what seems inevitable, and this should be especially true of your characters as well. Real people can spend their whole lives flying under the radar. But a character who does that will be… well, pretty boring.

Surprise. Even people you know your whole life surprise you. (My kids surprise me all the time. Often at hall corners. And with sharpies.) People have secrets and people harbor contradictions. (For example, I like to <whoops! secret!> and I am a dairy-intolerant fromager.) Characters should surprise readers in how they address their problems and achieve their wants, while still maintaining a believable adherence to their core values and personality.

Change. Characters- and people- change. (A chief break-up insult is to tell someone that they never change, even if this isn’t strictly true.) The changes your characters make will mark their progress through the story. In fact, the story is all about the changes they undergo, changes that come about on their journey toward achieving their goals.

Now, you’ll note that there is quite a bit of room for overlap in these different arenas of ‘realness’. This, too, is another facet of reality. Blurriness. Overlap. Confusion. Your written characters should be every bit as complex- as messy and contradictory and terrified- as the people sitting next to you on the bus, buying pastrami on rye in front of you at lunch, checking out books at the library.  That’s how to write a realistic character.

Fill your pages with life and detail, and you will create the kind of characters that readers think about long after they close the final page of your book. Happy writing!