The Surprising Secret to Creating Believable, Engaging Characters Your Readers Will Never Forget

We all know a good story when we read, watch, or hear one. But do you have a clear idea of what makes one story better than another? We could likely create a long list: vivid descriptions, compelling conflict, evocative emotional landscape, intriguing storylines, and much, much more. And while all of these are necessary for a good story, what’s the one thing that if it were missing there would be no story?

Character.

Many people are moved to write stories because they seek to make meaning of this crazy, beautifully confounding thing called life. And they’re compelled to explore the human condition, which means delving deep into the kaleidoscope of human motivation and behavior. This is why creating believable, engaging characters that your readers will never forget is essential. It’s also an art.

Constructing an interesting storyline that satisfies your readers’ need to know the answer to “what happened next?” is important, but when all is said and done, if your readers go away wondering “why?” did that character do that thing, they’ll go away frustrated and unsatisfied.

We want to understand why we do the things we do, and we look to characters for those answers. There’s a way to get to the core of that inquiry. We can study the ancient chakra system, which will help us begin to drill down inside a character’s core to unravel all her hidden desires and fears. This will better inform our creation of her, and it will help our readers embrace her as a flawed, yet lovable, character that they become emotionally invested in.

Stay tuned for more about how we can use this ancient, esoteric system as a practical application to writing deep, profound characters that come off the page and stay with our readers long after they’ve put our work down.

To get you moving in that direction, call a character to mind. Maybe it’s one from an in-progress short story, novel, or creative non-fiction piece. Or maybe you want to make one up for this exercise. (Think simply if you’re creating one: gender, age, physical appearance.)

Put your character on a plane or a train (or some other mode of transportation) en route to visit family for the holidays, and answer this question: What tacit agreement does this character have with her/his family?

Now write at least two pages about what unfolds as the character approaches, or arrives, at her/his destination.

Then either share your piece of writing or let us know what that process was like in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Am I a hypocrite?

Am I a hypocrite?

Some days it feels that way…

While I’m over here posting on my social media sites with the intention to inspire others to focus on their passions and put their writing first or organizing for my next workshop, or talk to do the same, I find that I, regularly, have very little – if any – time to write.

Because I’ve almost always been in a position of being the navigator – both in my personal life and at work – I think I have an underlying belief that I always have to look like I have it figured out to be strong and supportive and inspirational for others.

In the interest of transparency and authenticity, this post is a bit more personal than most, and I’m writing to share what my days are like – struggles included – so that you know you’re not alone and so you know that your being on the receiving end of my posts, newsletters, and all else makes a difference.

I’ve been acutely aware recently of a nagging feeling that I’ve lost my way, to a degree… not with my desire to create a life around writing and helping others write, but with the minutia of my day-to-day life.

As many of you know, I’ve been a college professor for many years now, and things have changed. Higher education is not held in high regard as it once was, and many students view their educations as a commodity they’ve purchased. Respect for professors seems to be a thing of the past. This reality creates a drudgery that morphs into a kind of ennui that I just can’t shake. (There are, of course, students who are exceptions to this, and they are the ones who make my showing up still feel worthwhile.)

I’m also a copywriter for a company that rents vacation homes, and as I know is true for many of you, the grind of an hourly paying job has worn on me. Yet, while it’s past time for me to move on, I’m not quite in a position yet to let the job go. That said, though, I have made a promise to myself that by the end of this year, I will. One bright light is that I will be cutting back my hours to half as of May 1 for health reasons. (More about that in a minute…)

When I’m feeling discombobulated, one of the things I do to clear my head is to visit Portland Art Museum. There’s an ongoing, rotating exhibit on the lower level called Object Stories. Currently, the exhibit is about disabilities. There are four exhibits, each focusing on an individual and her/his plight with some sort of disability. And there’s the interactive portion of the exhibit. One wall is filled with stickie notes where people have written down their disabilities. It’s a little overwhelming but mostly touching and poignant.

Another wall contains buttons that viewers can take and wear to spark conversations about disabilities. Oftentimes, many people with disabilities operate much the same way I mentioned above regarding my perceived “need” to feel like I’m appearing “normal” or on top of things – the beacon of light, the strong sail in the wind – or just merely a desire to seem like everyone else.

I know this because I’m one of them. I took two of the buttons. One reads, “I have a neurological hidden disability.” The other reads, “I have a physical hidden disability.” I’m still getting used to using “I” and “disability” in the same sentence, but both of these statements are true. (I’ve yet to wear them in public, though, because, to be honest, I dread the well-meaning advice and illl-informed questions. And while I know this is the point… it feels like one more thing to juggle and manage.)

And so, this is yet another obstacle in my path to live the kind of writing life I want, to grow a business that allows me to do that, and to fulfill my passion and purpose to help others tell their stories.

Since 2005, I have struggled with a chronic illness no one could name. After seeing numerous doctors, not being believed, being dismissed, and ultimately, sent away in frustration, I have found two doctors who – at long last – believed me when they heard my story, knew what I was talking about, and are helping me sort it all out.

I’ve had a diagnosis of fibromyalgia (in the past), a possible diagnosis of mast cell activation syndrome (in the more recent past), and have discovered that I have a problem with Sulphur toxicity (my body doesn’t process Sulphur but creates a gas, which has been, basically, poisoning me). We’re still unraveling this 13-year clusterfuck, but at least I’m feeling hopeful.

Part of my reason in cutting back my hours at one of the jobs is to give myself some time to breathe, heal, and get my legs… So far, the plan is that I’ll soon be starting home injections (B12) and a series of IV treatments. Specifically, I’ll be undergoing UVBI treatments – Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation. And it’s just what it sounds like, my blood will be irradiated with ultraviolet light.

Being one who always looks for the beauty, benefit, and best outcome of every situation, the idea of having my blood irradiated with light makes me smile. Maybe when it’s all said and done, I’ll sparkle a little more than I have in a long time. And maybe having the decreased hours will actually allow me more space for work I love and more time for what matters to me the most… my own writing, growing my business and clientele, and satisfying my deep desire to help people get stories outside themselves. Because I believe that this act alone – sharing stories – is what heals us, others, and the world.

So please know that over these next few months, when you see prompts, inspirational quotes, articles, and anything else I might share with you about writing, that even though I might be struggling to create the life I want, knowing that you’re on the receiving end keeps me focused, putting one foot in front of the other, and believing I can do the work I’m here to do.

We’re all in this together, folks, so let’s support each other. If you want to voice your struggles and obstacles with writing and/or creating your ideal life, please feel free to post them on the closed Writing Through the Body Facebook page. It’s a page focused on writing, yes. And it’s also a page for writers, who are people living in a culture that doesn’t value creativity and tells us that endeavors like writing are frivolous – a luxury. There’s power in numbers, so let’s stick together, support each other, and make our desires a reality.

Thanks for reading, for following my circuitous path to realizing my dreams, and for believing I have something to offer you. It keeps me going, and I appreciate it ever so much.

Sending you tons of love and mad writing mojo…

Best,

Johnnie
XXXXX

 

 

7 Things to do When You’re Stuck in a Scene

When you feel like you’ve stalled out on a scene and/or your character isn’t responding the way you’d like, here are seven ways to help you move the scene forward.

Backstory / Setting

Revisit her backstory. Is there something about your character that, if you knew it, you’d understand why she is resisting? In the past, has she encountered a situation like the one you’ve put her in that might inform the current one? Write about the ways each scenario is different and the same.

Change her location. Where is she? Try putting her in a different setting and see how it changes her motivation and behavior.

~ * ~

Description

Make sure he can see where he is. Does your character have enough information about where he is? Give him a more detailed description of his surroundings and scenario. We function better if we know where we are.

~ * ~

Characterization / Character Motivation

Check to see if she’s having an identity crisis. Have you given her enough information about who she is so she knows how to behave? Write about: 1) what she’s trying to accomplish in the scene, 2) why she wants it, 3) what part of her (what trait) can make it happen, and 4) what part of her (what trait) is afraid to do what she has to do to accomplish it.

~ * ~

Antagonists / Protagonists

Think about her support and obstacles. Does he need outside help in this scene, whether that be an antagonist (obstacle or enemy) or a protagonist (support person)? (Keep in mind that either can spur a character on to action.) If there’s no antagonist in the scene, introduce one. If there’s no protagonist in the scene, introduce one.

~ * ~

Dialogue

Give her something (or something different) to say. Is she speaking in the scene? If she is not speaking in the scene, introduce a spoken conversation, whether it means bringing another character into the scene or putting the character on the phone. If she is already speaking in the scene, make the conversation be about something that isn’t related to the scene.

~ * ~

Internal Monologue

Let him think. Has his world and surroundings become so busy, loud, and/or chaotic he can’t do or be what you want? Stop the madness, put him in a chair looking out the window and let him daydream. Write down his thoughts in whatever form they present themselves.

~ * ~

Point of View

Let her have a different perspective. Is the scene occurring from her perspective, another character’s, or from an omniscient narrator’s? Change the Point of View in the scene: If you’re writing in first person, shift to third, or vice versa. Or try second person just to cast a new light on the scene and get her moving again.


Try one or all of these when you’re feeling stuck in a scene and leave a comment below about what you tried and how it worked.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Johnnie
XXXXX

7 Things to do When You’re Stuck in a Scene

When you feel like you’ve stalled out on a scene and/or your character isn’t responding the way you’d like, here are seven ways to help you move the scene forward.

Backstory / Setting

Revisit her backstory. Is there something about your character that, if you knew it, you’d understand why she is resisting? In the past, has she encountered a situation like the one you’ve put her in that might inform the current one? Write about the ways each scenario is different and the same.

Change her location. Where is she? Try putting her in a different setting and see how it changes her motivation and behavior.

~ * ~

Description

Make sure he can see where he is. Does your character have enough information about where he is? Give him a more detailed description of his surroundings and scenario. We function better if we know where we are.

~ * ~

Characterization / Character Motivation

Check to see if she’s having an identity crisis. Have you given her enough information about who she is so she knows how to behave? Write about: 1) what she’s trying to accomplish in the scene, 2) why she wants it, 3) what part of her (what trait) can make it happen, and 4) what part of her (what trait) is afraid to do what she has to do to accomplish it.

~ * ~

Antagonists / Protagonists

Think about her support and obstacles. Does he need outside help in this scene, whether that be an antagonist (obstacle or enemy) or a protagonist (support person)? (Keep in mind that either can spur a character on to action.) If there’s no antagonist in the scene, introduce one. If there’s no protagonist in the scene, introduce one.

~ * ~

Dialogue

Give her something (or something different) to say. Is she speaking in the scene? If she is not speaking in the scene, introduce a spoken conversation, whether it means bringing another character into the scene or putting the character on the phone. If she is already speaking in the scene, make the conversation be about something that isn’t related to the scene.

~ * ~

Internal Monologue

Let him think. Has his world and surroundings become so busy, loud, and/or chaotic he can’t do or be what you want? Stop the madness, put him in a chair looking out the window and let him daydream. Write down his thoughts in whatever form they present themselves.

~ * ~

Point of View

Let her have a different perspective. Is the scene occurring from her perspective, another character’s, or from an omniscient narrator’s? Change the Point of View in the scene: If you’re writing in first person, shift to third, or vice versa. Or try second person just to cast a new light on the scene and get her moving again.


Try one or all of these when you’re feeling stuck in a scene and leave a comment below about what you tried and how it worked.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Johnnie
XXXXX

The Power of Slowing Down to Create

We creatives can easily get caught in the belief that we’ll get to our writing when all the other “important” obligations have been taken care of. We all have a perpetual and long list of To Dos, and many days the obligations and commitments feel never ending.

As a creative person who teaches other people how to realize their dream of creating through writing, I have to walk my talk when it comes to slowing down and making time to let the creative process happen. And this applies to us all, I think, because we’re all creating, all the time.

Some days slowing down might feel like a lofty ideal, a fantastical dream. How are all those must-dos on the To Do list going to get done if we don’t maintain our nose-to-the-grindstone M.O.? The good news is it doesn’t take much to reap the benefits of a seemingly negligible shift in the day-to-day. Small actions go a long way. And the slowing down that’s required to allow for the creative process also leads to an inner vitality that can infuse our lives and our writing with a kind of intentionality necessary for continued health and success.

Here are six of my favorite ways to slow down and allow space to create so I can maintain a clear and persistent focus on my life and my writing.

Gratitude
I resisted this one for a long time. It felt too smarmy, too touchy-feely, and to be honest, I didn’t believe in its power. But two years ago, I decided to embrace it because I had nothing to lose. Literally. I was a few months into my move back to Portland after leaving two years before to travel around and house sit for long-term vacationers – my solution to having my teaching load drastically cut and no Plan B in place. (I didn’t see it coming.) I sold all my belongings – except for what would fit in my car – and I hit the road.

Fast forward to two years ago when I was back in Portland, still looking for steady work while I created content for my business and tried to wrap my brain around how to move from where I was to becoming a business owner. I had my clothes, a couple of pans, a plate and one set of eating utensils, pictures of my kids, a few books, and camping gear. I moved into an artists’ community and slept every night on a camping pad with a hole I couldn’t locate. This is where the gratitude practice comes in.

Was this the life I had envisioned for myself? Not by a long shot. But because of my decision to fully embrace a regular gratitude practice, I learned to feel sincere gratefulness for that camping pad and the blanket my son had bought me for Solstice the winter before. Every morning before I rolled off that half-deflated pad, I went through my list of (at least) five things I was grateful for that day and why. I embraced the idea that, despite having no evidence things were going to change, believing that they would and being sincerely grateful for everything in my life – small and large, easy and difficult – would make the difference. That’s when my life started to change.

Having a gratitude practice leads us to a higher level of self-love, which, in my mind, generates a kind of inner vitality that can’t be diminished. Learning to love ourselves like no one else ever has, ever can, or ever will is a halleluiah moment, and when we master it – integrate it into our being – we can begin to practice gratitude on a whole new level. This synergistic relationship between gratitude and self-love is magical. Each one feeds the other.

Now, every morning, before I sit up and put my feet on the floor, I still do my gratitude practice even though things have improved substantially. I now live in an apartment I love, I sleep on a plush mattress under a luxurious comforter, and my life keeps getting better every day. And my list of things to be grateful for just keeps growing. From my experience, I’ve come to realize that constant gratitude ignites our inner vitality – our verve to live our purpose – and once we learn to harness its power, there’s no stopping us from accomplishing our goals, including our goals around writing. Because, as I always tell my workshop and retreat participants, writing is an act of self-love.

Meditation
As soon as I’ve completed my gratitude practice, I meditate. I do several short, guided meditations that I keep on my phone and that focus on a variety of themes. Other times of the day, I might do a more free-flowing meditation wherein I visualize outcomes I’d like to realize. I’ve often heard people say they don’t have time for meditation, but as the Zen proverb goes, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”

I’m convinced that meditation alters time. Or maybe our perception of it. For me, meditation expands time, so even if I have a busy day ahead, taking time out to meditate leaves me feeling like I have more time to work with. When we meditate, not only do we “create” more time for ourselves so we can write, we also infuse ourselves with an inner vitality that shines.

Reverie
Reverie is sort of like meditation but it differs in that rather than striving to go beyond the mind, we explore our minds. We daydream, and daydreaming is an essential tool to have and use as a writer. Consistently working this muscle will keep our imaginations alive and strong, a must for creating enticing characters and story worlds. When was the last time you let yourself sit, stare out the window, and nurture your wild imagination?

Naps
After living in Italy for a summer in 2001, experiencing the pleasurable practice of the afternoon riposo, and discovering the rejuvenating benefits of this practice, I’ve incorporated it into my life. In Italy in the afternoon, shops close and everyone goes home for an extended lunch and/or afternoon nap. Sometimes my naps last 15 minutes. Other times, they last an hour. And what they do for me is exponential. Not only do I feel more rested and clear headed, I feel I’m honoring myself and my body and its needs. And while I may not work in a nap every day, I practice this time-honored custom at least three days each week.

Psychologist, Dr. Sara Mednick says that naps “can improve brain functions ranging from memory to focus and creativity.” Naps can also rejuvenate our willpower and lower cardiovascular disease and inflammation in the body. Try it for a week to give your body and mind a rest and let your subconscious do its work. You just might get hooked!

Being in nature
When I feel I’ve been sitting too long, I get outside, even if it’s to walk a few blocks in my neighborhood. I live in the city, so getting an immediate nature fix isn’t always possible, but I’m blessed to live in a city with amazing parks and natural areas (something for which I’m very grateful). In Portland, we have Forest Park, Washington Park, and Mt. Tabor, to name a few. I can walk mere blocks from my front door and be in the forest or a beautifully curated natural area.

Taking a walk or a hike amongst the trees is a great way to slow down and connect with nature, which has its own pace. As Lao Tzu once wrote, “Nature never hurries, yet everything is accomplished.” The more we’re in nature, the more we can align with its rhythms and its slow but purposeful processes, and in turn, we can mimic its inherent and patient unfolding: a necessity when we’re working with the creative process.

Intentional food prep
After having been hit with some complicated health issues that include allergies and sensitivities to many foods, my eating habits have changed drastically over the past several years. Gone are the days of grabbing whatever is handy without any consideration of what it will do to my body just to stave off hunger pangs.

Now I have to shop for my food intentionally, I have to prepare it intentionally, and I savor it intentionally. (This is a great example of being grateful for a hardship that has led to me to more profound awareness.) I’ve learned that creating a relationship with my food is an excellent way to slow down and make room for creativity – not just from the nutrients I gain from it, but from the practice of giving thought to the food’s source (the people who grew it, organically, with intention) and the process of intentionally preparing food and cooking it, followed by the intentional process of enjoying it, slowly. (This is another thing the Italians have mastered.)

When we allow all of our senses to become activated around our food – the way it looks, smells, tastes, feels, and even sounds – we can’t help but slow down, savor the moments, and reap the benefits of better physical health and good digestion, as well as the self-honor that comes from knowing we’re treating ourselves well. What we put into our bodies affects our brains, so as writers, we want to feed ourselves with the best possible fuel we can find.

With slowing down comes an inherent intentionality – a certain kind of mindfulness – that can infuse our lives – including our writing lives – with calm vitality and gentle stamina that will keep us going steady and strong – just like nature – rather than producing through fits and starts of energy bursts throughout the day or week.

The tortoise and the hare come to mind right now, and we know who made it past the finish line. Whether our finish line is wrapping up the first draft of a novel we’ve been laboring over for months or simply getting a few pages out each day or week, slowing down to achieve a calm resoluteness is as essential for our own personal vitality as it is for the vitality of our writing practice.

What do you do to slow down during your day or week?


Heid, Markham. “You Asked: Is it Good or Bad to Take a Nap?” October 1, 2014. Accessed February 28, 2018.