From The Writing Life

How to Make a Character Readers Actually Char About

You see what I did there, right?

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character in your story must have a desire, “Even if it is only for a glass of water.” When I read stories submitted to the literary magazine I edit, or when I read student work for the creative writing classes I teach, the most common character mistake is that there is a total lack of desire. People go to a lot of trouble to create a person on the page. They think hard about their character’s taste in music, his favorite food, her darkest fear. They answer questionnaires and fill out all the little boxes of a character’s resume and life. They search baby name books for just the right name.

But then they don’t DO anything with all that information.

It just sits there, like a turgid pile of information, a giant paragraph on the second page or a long, long flashback that loses track of the main action. Or even worse, they do all this research and creation, and then they don’t use any of it. They know what a character’s darkest fear is, but they just show the character eating and sandwich and going shopping. Where’s the part where the fear comes to life?


The way to make your character not only feel multi-dimensional but also worth caring about is to give your character a desire. It can be very simple. This character wants to make it to the wedding on time. This character is hungry. That character wants that character over there. Or the desire can be complex, contradictory, multi-layered; that character wants the approval of her parents. That character wants to be loved but also wants to be left alone. We need to feel that desire from page one of your manuscript, because it is that desire that moves the engine of the story forward. We’re not able to care about the events of the plot unless we understand what the character wants, and we begin to feel that want to.

That’s part of what makes great stories so seductive; even if the character’s desire is something we would never want for ourselves, we can cheer that character on and feel oddly invested in his quest. Think of Satan’s fervent desire to foul up things in Eden in Paradise Lost. Think of gangsters and criminals who just want to get away — and we are rooting them on. It’s desire that moves scenes and stories forward, and that gives scenes tension. Without that desire, no matter how eventful your scenes are, it will just feel like one thing happened after the other, a series of things happened to your character. But we need to see your character make choices and take action, and that can only begin with desire.

So here’s an exercise: look up some random photographs of faces on the internet. Try assigning a desire to each of those faces. Start simple; start with Vonnegut’s suggestion. This character wants a glass of water. Why does he want a glass of water? Why is he so thirsty? What’s going wrong in his life right now? And what’s between him and that glass of water? You’re halfway to a story already.

The 80-20 Rule Explains Why Your Story Isn’t Getting Published

I’m currently in the middle of moving in to a new apartment. One of the rooms is still Boxland; the others are starting to come together. I worked feverishly for the first week to get things organized. But as I neared the finish line, approaching Okay but not Great levels of tidiness, I lost motivation. The boxes sat around in Boxland for another week. 

“It’s because of the 80-20 rule,” my friend explained. 

“What’s that?” I asked.

He explained: the 80-20 rule was one of the rules of thumb about life, like Murphy’s law. The 80-20 rule stated that the last 20% of any task was as difficult as the first 80%. It was relatively easy to get many projects 80% done — you know, mostly done by most people’s standards — but it took tremendous effort to get that last 20% done.

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Does Fiction Need a Moral Imperative? Or Does Morality Just Get in the Way?

The previous article I wrote, about guilt, the homeless, and The Brothers Karamazov, got me thinking about what role morality has to play in the world of fiction. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite novels of all time. No matter how many years go by, when I re-visit the work, I feel delighted, challenged, and inspired all over again. I remember hidden layers of depth that I had forgotten. I feel deeply for the characters. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, readers. It’s one of those books that really has the power to change a life.
And yet…it’s not without its problems as a novel.

The Brothers Karamazov is a big, gloriously messy book. A tremendously messy book, in fact. It goes one direction and then another; it swings wildly from joy to despair and back again. And it wears its heart — and its religion — on its sleeve. A devout Christian, Fyodor Dostoevsky had an awakening experience midway through his life that marks a sharp division between his fiction before and his fiction after this event. Sentenced to death by the Czar for his revolution-sympathizing works, he was marched through the streets of St. Petersburg on the morning of his scheduled death. Later he wrote of this day. He remembered walking with the other political prisoners through the streets of a square, and seeing the morning light touch a golden dome. The image was so beautiful, he wrote, that he would never forget it.

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Why Writers Are All Looking for the Loch Ness Monster — and Why We’ll Never Find It

My favorite part of writing a story might be the moment right before I begin writing a new story. I’ve been mulling over an idea, sometimes for weeks, before I ever let pen touch paper. I’ve been planning and shaping and pushing characters this way and that. And all the time I’m thinking, this is going to be my best story yet. This is going to be the special one.

In my mind, the “special story” is that Loch Ness monster I’ve been trying to capture for all my writing life. It’s the mythical story out there that is The Perfect Story. None of my flaws and failings as a writer have crept into it. It’s punchy and vivid and not a word is wasted. It’s haunting and lyrical and deep, but not too long. It’s the misty vision of a perfect story that I think so many of us writers have in our head. 

And then, full of optimism, we touch pen to paper — and what happens? All the usual failings come creeping in. First one cliché wiggles its way into a sentence like a worm into an apple. Then there’s another one. We let it go because the imperative of the story is pushing us on right now; we can tolerate those cliches, we can fix them later. So we write on. Somewhere around page three or four or five, I begin to realize that this story is not going to be the Loch Ness monster. It’s not going to be that fabled perfect story. It is already disappointing me, already quietly telling me to quit. Give up, my sad little story whispers. Even my handwriting on the page starts to look silly and childish, preoccupied with immature things. 

The problem is that just like those poor dreamers, the seekers of bigfoots and Yetis and Nessies, I’m chasing a fantasy. I imagine the process of writing to be eventually putting perfection down on the page. And while we can polish and polish and make things truly excellent, we can’t let the idea of The Perfect Story stop us from writing any story at all. Too often I become discouraged halfway through writing a story and I decide to cast it away rather than go through the hard work of finishing it and making it work. I’ve got a folder full of disappointments, and all of them began as Loch Ness Monsters, as creatures that I thought could become unique and perfect, could rear their heads up through my writing life like nothing anyone had seen before. 

Does this mean I’m settling? That I can’t write well and movingly? Not at all. I know there’s a seed of talent in me, but it always takes more work than talent to draw something out of its rough husk. To chase after the Loch Ness monster is folly — and it distracts you from all the wonderful realities out there that can be reached. I don’t want to toss back my next story the moment I realize it’s not going to be the mythical story. I’d rather hold on to that fishing line, very patiently, and slowly, painfully, reel in what’s actually there.

The Book is Dead. Tweets Are All We Should Read.

You didn’t think I was serious, did you?

Sometimes I feel like I have to get my students’ attention when I tell them how important reading is for our lives to be rich, full, and well-lived. I’ll make fun of how they tell me they haven’t read a book from cover to cover in years. If you aren’t reading, then the book is dead, I’ll say. Why do we care about all these dusty old tomes if you, the young generation, the people of the future, aren’t reading? Maybe we should just be scrolling through people’s witty tweets. Maybe that’s all we really need to read anymore.

By this point, even the most reluctant readers in my class are usually reading. Come on, they say. We know tweets aren’t really the same. And they’re right; there’s something missing in our lives if we give up on immersing ourselves in a story that’s longer than a few dozen words. We lose the sense that our own lives are narratives that it is our job to shape. We risk forgetting that there is a longer arc to our lives than simply the narrative of the past few frantic days, the twenty-four hour cycle of scandal, sensation, outrage, and loss of attention. If we lose that long perspective on things, we risk forgetting what makes a family last or a marriage succeed; we forget how justice and opportunity changes in a nation and how people learn lessons and become wiser as they get older. 

Still, there are an awful lot of people out there who aren’t doing a lot of meaningful reading. Do you read more now or less than you did before? Do you spend more time with your eyes on a phone or on a book? Do you think more about what book you’re reading or about checking your email? If we’re perfectly realistic, even the most readerly among us spend a lot of time not reading. There are just so many demands on our lives. But there’s always hope; there’s always a way to carve out time for reading. Toward the end of a busy semester I always get thinking about this. It’s at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one that I tend to throw myself back into reading. Maybe it’s a good time for you to do it too. Because what I tell my students is true; if you’re not reading, then the book is in the process of dying. The book dies with you; it’s up to you to keep it alive. Will you keep it alive?

Your Story Isn’t Brave Enough. Here’s How to Make it Roar.

As a creative writing teacher, I see a lot of beginner stories cross my desk that have very similar problems. One of the most common problems stories have is that they don’t go far enough; they aren’t bold enough; the writers simply aren’t being brave. It’s understandable, of course; writing is scary stuff. It’s difficult to put all your deepest emotions and most deep-seated fears on the page. But if you don’t invest anything of yourself in the story you write, you’ll end up with a story that is cowardly. Here are the most common ways that beginner stories run and hide in a corner, and here’s how to make them brave.

1) They hide behind cliches and old plotlines.
It’s easier to think of a storyline that relies upon cliches than to think of a realistic story of your own. So that’s why I see spy/thriller stories, serial killer stories, and weepy relationship stories all the time. These storylines aren’t necessarily bad, but when we can predict every twist and turn, it means the writer hasn’t been brave enough to throw a wrench into the workings of the cliche.

To be brave: Disrupt the played-out storyline. Have someone betray the main character in a way we wouldn’t expect. Or better yet, write a story about your own life, with all its twists and turns. If it’s real, it’s guaranteed to be original, because only you have lived your life!

2. It hides behind stereotypes.
Sometimes it’s too hard, or too scary, to imagine an inner life for a person who is different from ourselves. So we end up with shallow, stereotyped characters. Of course the girl is dumb and blond and spacey; of course the guy is jockish and unemotional, or nerdy and unemotional. We know how harmful and untrue racial and gender stereotyping is in real life, and it’s no less harmful and untrue in fiction.

To be brave: Write a character of a different race, or gender, or sexual orientation, and try imagining him or her as a fully-realized human being, not just a cartoon character.

3. It hides behind perfect characters.
It can be scary to make the character you love have flaws. But it’s the flawed characters that we love the most in fiction. Without being brave, we end up with dull, two-dimensional characters. We writers have a name for this kind of character: the Mary Sue. Mary Sue always gets good grades, and is the smartest kid in class but doesn’t flaunt it. Mary Sue has a handsome boyfriend and they never fight. Mary Sue is wealthy and generous, kind and forgiving, popular and artsy all at once. And Mary Sue doesn’t exist.

To be brave: Be honest about what flaws you have, and give your characters some of those flaws. Make them impatient or irrational, prone to anger or prone to laziness. Show them at their best and their worst.

How to Win at NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again, writers: National Novel Writing Month has presented its challenge to us! I’ve written before about Why I Said No to NaNoWriMo. But don’t let me stop you; who has taken up the gauntlet? Who will try to write an astonishing 50,000 words in just thirty days? Can it even be done? Of course it can — if you’re smart about it. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want to win at NaNoWriMo — and have the pride, honor, and accomplishment that comes with having written a novel.

1. Bank extra words when you can.
The daily word average you must maintain is about 1600 words in order to reach 50,000. But there’s a problem with just telling yourself, “Hey, I’ll just write 1,600 words every day!” The problem is that day when you come home from school exhausted, or when you have a night flute lesson to go to, or a party out on a weekend night. Suddenly the 1,600 word goal doubles and triples. That’s when it becomes impossible to keep up. So you’ve got to work smart by banking more than the average on the days when you’re on a roll. Write 2,000 words whenever you can, and then you’ll have a little cushion of words to fall back on.

2. Make a plan and outline, outline, outline.
When writing novels, many published writers make an outline of where the story will go. They don’t plan absolutely everything, allowing room for spontaneity and imagination, but they have a general direction in mind, a final destination that must be reached. As you’re writing, you must keep that destination in mind, and make at least a few sketched-out notes of how to get there. Figure out where the characters should be on the final day, and bear towards that like a ship in the night heading for the lighthouse.

3. Don’t edit! Go, go, go!
NaNoWriMo is not a time for editing. In fact, if you stop to take a breath and examine your work, you’ll never make it! It’s essential to push on through the doubts and the self-loathing and just get words on the page. Follow your own momentum and let the sentence flow from your fingertips. Let characters clash how they will. And whatever you do, don’t stop!

How is your NaNoWriMo project going? Tell us about it on the Teen Ink newsletter forum!

How Do You Carry the Fire?

Candle light burning 1437374 mToday’s post title comes from Cormac McCarthy. In his incendiary novel The Road, his main character, an unnamed boy, keeps reminding his father that they’re “carrying the fire.” It’s an unexplained refrain with unmistakable spiritual overtones; the idea that they are keeping something of humanity alight within them. This is an old connection that many religions make between human beings and fire. We are the only species to keep and use fire, after all, and so we see it as our sacred duty to maintain it, to keep it alive. The Bible tells us not to keep our light under a bushel, and the Buddha tells us that all our lives, we are on fire, burning as if consumed by desire, and our bodies are the fuel.

There are many spiritual meanings for fire; it purifies, it protects, and it is a central metaphor for what makes us human. But in many cultures, fire is also a symbol of creativity. This quality, too, is fundamentally human, and yet it’s the only thing (or one of the few things) that elevates us beyond the plane of simple humanity. It expands the possibilities of what we can be. So in Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from the Gods; fire, and creativity, is a semi-divine thing, one that we nevertheless have the audacity to steal.

All this is my way of thinking about creativity as a kind of flame held within the glass case of our lives. Nowadays, creativity is one slender candle flame amid a teeming electric switchboard of lights; so many demands and worries and constraints and expectations compete with that light. It is very vulnerable as a result. So I’m wondering about the ways that you carry the fire of creativity within you.

What are the greatest threats to your fire? Is it lack of time, or family obligations? Is it exhaustion? Is it entertainment temptations, like television or the internet? Does it come from within? Perhaps your own doubts and anxieties pose the greatest threat to your little candle. If you’re going to keep the flame alive, the first step is to identify what threatens it.

Next, I want to hear about what you do to carry the fire — and what you intend to do in the future. Though sorely overtaxed this semester with my usual teaching load, I’m making efforts to find time for myself and my writing in between classes and before I get home from work.

I find that when I get home from a full day of teaching, my mind is ready to quit for the day; I drop my bag to the floor and want dinner and entertainment, not work. But if I stay in a cafe or a comfortable lounge area in the office for an extra hour before I go home, then I can write. I also find that in the long gap between classes on some days, I usually waste the time, goofing off on the internet or reading articles (not terrible, but not the only thing I want to do). I’m making an effort to use that time more wisely, by reading or writing, or using that time to grade papers so I’ll have more weekend time to myself. And finally, if I’ve used those slices of inbetween time well, then I have more weekend time to go to the library or a cafe, and think about my writing.

I don’t accomplish all of these things in one week. Some weeks the papers have come in for grading, or there’s a weekend event. But if I do some of these things, then it means I’m getting a little creative work done. The candle burns another week.

So how do you carry the fire? What advice can you give, and will you try finding slivers of your time to work?

It’s Supposed to Be Hard: why anything worth doing feels awful while you’re doing it

 Image by Christian Ferrari

In the never-ending quest for self-improvement, I started a modest exercise regimen this summer, of running increasing distances three times a week. Readers, I am not a runner. When I run, my entire body seems to protest. I wheeze and my arms flap, my heart pounds and my ribs heave. Particularly in the beginning, every workout felt miserable. The first few times I ran, I found myself stopping after a little while, gasping for breath. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” I kept asking my running partner. Patiently, he told me, it is, it’s supposed to feel like this. Somehow I thought I could magically get fit without actually trying hard. Just a few light jogs around the block, I thought. It will feel invigorating, and before you know it, I’ll be running marathons. Not so, readers. I learned a lesson this summer that is deceptively simple: when you’re improving yourself, or when you’re getting better at anything, it’s supposed to be hard.

I think this lesson could be eye-opening for a lot of us, and it can apply to our creative work as well. We write and write and write, and just don’t seem to get any better. It just seems so darn difficult to make every part of a story great. We always seem to be falling just short. The words just keep on disappointing us once they are fixed on the page. And because it’s hard, because it can feel downright miserable, so many of us give up. We stop, thinking that we just aren’t meant to be writers. We just don’t have the talent, the aptitude, for it.

But the secret is, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to feel tremendously difficult, shoving those words around until they’re in just the right order. It’s supposed to feel like we’re straining the muscles in our brains as we search for the right image or metaphor. And most definitely, it’s supposed to feel emotionally hard. It should feel like we’re tapping into the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. We should feel dismay at how honest we’re being. We should feel shame that we’ve ever been quite so selfish. We should feel afraid of what people will think. We should feel our hearts pounding.

It’s such a simple lesson, yet somehow I’d forgotten it this summer. I’d forgotten that great artists and writers make it look easy, but that’s only because of the hours and agonies they’ve put in. With my running, I somehow thought I’d be gliding along the riverbank the way all those dedicated runners seemed to do. As I improved, things did get easier; suddenly I realized I was finding a rhythm, sinking into the work of running. But that’s when I knew I had to run longer, push myself harder. It was time to keep making things difficult for myself.

So much of our lives are based on ease, convenience, and instant gratification these days, that I think we forget this lesson. My students get frustrated so easily if a story is hard to understand. They think reading is supposed to be easy. But plenty of stories that are worth reading are not meant to be read with ease. They’re meant to be labored over. With reading, writing, and running, we have to remember how essential difficulty and strife and struggle are to the process of growth.

Hold Your Breath Before You Begin

As regular readers of Writerly Life know, fall is my absolute favorite season. It’s all the cliched things that get me excited, from the special clarity to the air, to the violent richness of fall colors, to the various New England traditions that I love (Halloween, apple-picking). More than anything, though, the first week after Labor Day has always meant the start of a new year for me, full of opportunity, full of good hard work. I’m planning a large revision of my novel this season, as well as some new short stories that I’m very excited about. As a season of change, fall always has a measure of melancholy to it as well, though, and perhaps its that complex emotional mix that makes fall special.

Forget summer, with its straightforward luxuries and lazinesses. I end up hating the days where there’s nothing to do, because I end up wasting those days. It’s always better to have joyful work ahead of you, and fall can give me that. It’s also about the melancholy of the summer’s end, though, and all the changes and transitions that come with the new year. I’ve moved out of my beloved Cambridge apartment now, and I’m writing amid a sea of boxes, struggling to get organized in some temporary housing before I plan a larger move at the very end of the year. The entire fall will be a tricky transitional time for me this year; I’ll be between everything, from jobs to houses to cities. It can be hard to always be in the state of becoming and not of being, to bastardize a Fitzgerald quotation.

So fall has that extra complexity of melancholy, as I’ve said. Auden said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” I think that captures the way I feel about fall, and why I think the season is special. Being in a state of change necessitates being in a state of loss; it’s also a time of opportunities. It’s up to us as writers to capture the ambivalence of this state.

Are you in a state of flux this fall? What new beginnings and opportunities will you make for yourself? And what will all this mean for your writing?