Emotional Investment: Writing Characters Who Matter

Work on The Quest for the Crystals #2: The Book of Earth is going pretty steadily. The core novel’s been done for a while, since 2014 with a basic rewrite in 2016. I’m ears-deep into further second draft revisions now (yay!) and there’s a lot of fleshing out to do (naaaaay!) in terms of story beats, character development, and overall flow/continuity.

What’s fascinating about this whole process – editing and revising – is just how much the characters are affected. When we discuss good writing, and the classic structure of “The Hero’s Journey”, it’s natural to expect our characters – especially the protagonist – to go through arcs of personal development. They’re different people by the end of the story from who they initially were on page one.



A page out of  the “Book of Earth” section of “The Quest for the Crystals” production log


Sure, as a reader, this developmental journey is and should be apparent. It’s expected. All good stories revolve around challenge, struggle, triumph, and failure. All physical things in life are temporary, except for change. Change is constant. But what’s interesting to me as a writer and world-builder is just how much these characters grow and change behind the scenes; how they become different people by the story’s publication from who they initially were in the first draft.

At the risk of coming across patronizing, let me be real. If you’re not an author, writing a book sometimes looks as easy as spitting over a bridge. Coming up with all these great ideas and characters, the flowery sentence structure and (sometimes) perfect dialogue – it’s like we think it up and, snap!, magic happens on the page. A lot of really great authors make it look that easy! And there are some who do pull it off. Lawrence Block, Stephen King, those guys can bang out first drafts like instant Pulitzer winners, and then another three in the same year. It’s crazy amazing. But for the average writer, it’s not that simple.

Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers.

Writing relatable, “human”, characters can be a real pain in the ass. Any amateur can write a story about a dystopian future where impoverished kids are forced to kill each other to entertain the rich minority, or a story about a secret magical society where fledgling witches and wizards attend a far-away boarding school of sorcery. But if the characters are flat, speak like they’re completely out of touch with believability, or carry on through the plot without flaw nor obstacle – then, well, no matter how amazing the overall story potential is, the reader is gonna check out and move on to something else hopefully more satisfying. We’ve all done it.

Good stories are made great by fully-fleshed characters. It’s the characters that carry the story, not the other way around. Very rarely does that actually work, and when it does, it’s been achieved in a more visual medium, like film (But that’s a whole other blog post).

I’m what’s called a “pantser”. I write by the seat of my pants. No outline, no story bible, no deep knowledge of who my characters are, or their motives. Just a vague idea, a phoneful of brief notes, and a tall mother fucker of a steeping tea. I generally have the title first. I sort of know where the plot will go and how the story might end. But everything else is up for grabs. Production logs are developed all throughout the drafting/revision process.

If you’re following Regina’s adventures in The Book of Wind over on Wattpad, it’s clear she’s a skunk who’s been dragged through hell to where she currently is – and that journey still isn’t over. Regina is severely flawed in some fundamental psychological ways. She’s sensitive and intrinsically nurturing; she’s got a brilliant mind, and isn’t afraid to voice her opinions —  however, she’s held back by post-traumatic stress. She watched her parents die. Her village burned to the ground. Canines slaughtered her friends and neighbours and Regina was left buried beneath piles of the dead and dying. This all happened her,  a seven-year-old previously sheltered from the dangers of reality, who doesn’t quite understand the world as it truly is. Regina’s fucked up for life.



“Well, you don’t have to be so rude about it.”


My biggest struggle writing Regina’s character, however, was getting her to act and respond to the events and environments around her. Things would happen and Regina would react, while the characters standing by would pick up the slack. The world made its decisions for Regina, and she simply went along for the ride, despite how much she protested.

That’s not how a strong protagonist is written, and it’s obviously stated. But at the time, Regina was that way because she was a character struggling to find herself in a world that did her no favours.

She was afraid of change and afraid of standing up for herself. So she became reactionary and stood at the sidelines quivering while the secondary protagonists stole the spotlight out from over her. Yes, in a way Regina’s character was a semi-accurate portrayal of someone who’s never been able to really overcome trauma, and ended up letting it define them. She was passive and afraid, but too afraid to do anything to change her situation.

But Regina is supposed to be the heroine, right?

In retrospect, I feel Regina’s inability to find herself in the world was my own projection of insecurity – what the heck do I do with her?? Every other character felt grounded, going through the motions of their own stories and subplots, and Regina is quite literally dropped into the middle of the overarching narrative. It was like – emptying out a box of jigsaws, nabbing a random piece, and trying to force it into place within an entirely different puzzle board. Even in the initial drafts for Book of Wind, Regina’s story began with her stumbling into someone else’s story. That scene is still in the final book, mind you. It just happens much later.

Regina Lepue wasn’t a fractured skunk who was fully developed, and because of this flaw in writing, The Book of Wind suffered. Beta readers and my editor Jeannette maintained it was still a good book – but without that extra kick – without Regina being forced to make decisions and take action – The Book of Wind fell flat in the places where it needed to take off in order to resonate with readers.

Forcing Regina to step up and take responsibility for herself forced the other characters to meet her halfway and respond, causing a chain reaction that strengthened everyone’s overall personalities and development.

Book of Wind was a novella I wrote and initially e-published in 2012, and subsequent revisions (and drafts including Book of Earth and Book of Water – as well as trying to stay afloat and sane during the final year of college) delayed an updated publication. The “final version” of Wind was supposed to be released in December 2015. Revising Regina’s character (and subsequently adding a number of new scenes and chapters to explore and accommodate her needs and growth) delayed Book of Wind’s publication by another year.

Due to pantsing, I’m kind of a slow writer as it is. I tend to blow through the first draft, and all the really great ideas and jigsaw pieces come together little-by-little during the revision stages. And that takes forever because I’m an over-thinking perfectionist who happens to lack discipline and motivation, and takes constructive criticism and feedback very seriously.

All of Wind’s delays and revisions naturally brought on depression, frustration, resentment – all that fun stuff creative people go through when their WiPs are uncooperative and out to kill them. But the long and daunting slog that was Book of Wind was worth it, because Book of Earth is coming together at a slicker pace.

Because of the extra time and effort, I know the characters better. I have a greater understanding of their personal stories, their motives and desires – who they are and who they are not. I have a greater grasp of the overall plot and the beats the narrative must take in order to get to the end. The characters interact far more naturally than they did in initial drafts, and they carry the plot and unfold new subplots and consequences from their own actions – not because the story needs them to these things.



Artist’s rendition of struggling with delays, circa 2017


Lots of folks equate being an author to being godlike – that it’s the author who’s in control of the story at all times. But being an author is more akin to parenthood. As a good parent, you lay the groundwork for your kids, and they hit the ground running, scuffing their knees in the process. You stand by, watching proud and worried as your kids take responsibility for their new lives, carving monumental victories and making damning mistakes along the way. You’re there for your kids when they come back to you needing guidance and advice – when things are dark and start to stall, when everything’s a mess and nothing makes much sense.

And if you’re a good author, you confer with your fellow writers, your beta readers, and your editor, before going back to your kids with the help they’re looking for. Because as parents, we’re too close to the problem at hand. Sometimes we can’t see it from all sides and figure out what our kids really need. Despite the rumours, writing isn’t a solo job. The right advice will set things in motion again, get the wheels back on track.

And when the right advice sticks, we have to step back and let our kids go off to figure out how to use this new information, waiting for the next time they need our help. A good parent guides their children without interfering. Ultimately, this story we give to our kids is theirs alone to tell.

When a good author puts in the extra effort to write good characters, the characters take over. That’s just how it is. Ask any fiction writer, and most of them will tell you the same.

That’s because despite the massive ego trip writing a whole novel or series provides, the truth is it’s the author who’s along for the ride, not the characters. And when an author is impacted by the stories told by their characters – you can be sure the readers who matter will feel emotionally invested the same way.




The Art of Vulnerability

Image credit: “Face Time Canvas 05, 2015”, by Studio Various & Gould

Last November, we talked about the art of self forgiveness, taking ownership over the life-long decisions you make as an artist. Claiming responsibility for most everything that happens to us isn’t an easy task – most notably when doing so bares the ugly truth that we aren’t as golden-gleaming as our delusional mind and memories would like us to believe.

Coming to terms with our own faults and assumptions and seemingly colossal fuck-ups isn’t easy, either. But finding room in our hearts for self forgiveness is one of the single most important lessons we as artists – and human beings – can take away from the universe.

Maybe as a student you once romanticized your chosen industry, and the stress of post-secondary education caused you to abandon your dreams and go into a field that just seemed “easier”.

Maybe as a child you had a grandiose idea that should have reached millions of fans, but now you’re a resentful middle-aged barista, brewing lattes for young purpose-driven millennials, with nothing to show for your rampant imagination but a few dusty-moldy sketch books in a box somewhere in your parents’ basement.

Or maybe a minor disagreement between you and your business partner blew totally out of proportion, and now the dread of dangling bridge ropes haunts you from the other side of a great emotional chasm.

You’ve allowed your heart to recognize the sober realization of your situation, and now it’s time to move on. You want to move on. You want to take control of your situation and try again. But you might feel lost. Afraid that the same mistakes will trip you along the way. You might have a vague idea of what you’re supposed to do, where to go – but the path looks long and winding, dark with uncertainty, and overwhelming.

But you’re not alone. In fact, there are people out there who want to help you – who want to see you succeed. These are our supports. These are our mentors.

Part Two: The Art of Vulnerability

“Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Watch for patterns. Work like hell.”

-Scott McCloud

What do Walt Disney, George Lucas, Stan Lee, J.K. Rowling, and Dr. Dre all have in common?

If you said they were some of the richest people in their industries – well, yeah, you’d be right! But what else? Sure they worked hard, yes, they never let the world beat them into the ground. But steadfast determination can only go so far. Come on, you read the title of the article! You already know the answer!

Vulnerability. Vulnerability to let go of control, to open your heart to those around you who are like-minded and wish to see you succeed.

That’s the key.

It is nigh impossible for anybody to strike success all on their own. Many amateur artists are convinced that the journey of their craft is a lonely one, but by pure nature in and of itself, human beings are social beings. Very rarely does the lone wolf make it on his own. It is through cooperative teamwork that success is born.

As artists, we need a team of people to push our limits and keep us accountable. People who will help us, be they your podunk town’s little painter’s circle, or business associates involved with your influential social media blog. By letting these people into our lives, sharing our work with them, and vice versa, brings not only strategic feedback, but also invaluable perspectives that will broaden your own.

To put it bluntly, you can’t spell “art” without “heart”. Yes, you read that correctly – it wasn’t a punch-drunken typo. Listen, we get so absorbed by our work that it’s easy to miss the obvious (and sometimes glaring) flaws. Your support group is your second pair of eyes. They are the “pre-release” consumer, if that makes sense. The beta market. The test audience. The “DaVinci’s Inquestors”.

It’s downright scary to be so wide open when it comes to sharing our art. Everything we create bears a glowing piece of our souls (like a horcrux!). However, by shutting yourself away, hoarding your art from the world convinced of a “one-man army” mentality is an honest disservice. Your art will not grow, and neither will you.

In conclusion, Dr. Brene Brown says it best: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. … Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”



Forbidden Fruit: The Great Debate of Said Bookisms

So, this past Tuesday I am reading a piece from my latest work to the members of one of two writer’s circles I kind of frequent. This piece, I feel was quite strong – one of the few scenes I’d written in a long time that I am truly proud of.

At the point where I read a particular line, “What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed under his breath, one of the guys next to me withdraws his laptop from his bag and boots up his word processor.

My first thought is, “Oh, shit! This is boring! I totally lost him!” but I shrug off the anxiety that is a writer’s bruised ego, and finish reading.

After a few compliments on my piece, the fellow beside me says, “Look at this.” He gestures my attention to his laptop screen. There, written in the centre of the word processor is one of the quotes from my piece:

“What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed.

I look at him, confused. This guy is a script doctor and teleplay writer for some pretty major productions. He is kind of a big deal in the TV industry, and I totally respect the guy, because he’s been around the block and offers really intelligent critical advice. Anything with that quote could be wrong. Internally, a number of thoughts bash around, like tiny metal pinballs in a cheaply-made plastic hand-held from when my dad was a kid.

Was it because I wrote “What the hell’s A matter,” as oppose to “what the hell’s THE matter”?

Was the subject-verb agreement twisted into stark amateur oblivion?

Literally anything could have been wrong with that sentence.

“Hiss that,” he instructs me.

Hiss that? I blink. The quote, he means.

“Hiss that,” he says again.

Of course, I’m dumbstruck, and my inner introvert decides to make its ugly presence around the table, uttering an embarrassed, unintelligible sound, not unlike “Durrr … uhhh?”

“You can’t,” he tells me. “You can’t physically hiss that. There aren’t enough sibilants to.”

He was right, there was no possible way anybody could utter that sentence as though a snake would. A snake wouldn’t be able to utter that sentence as though a snake would. But that wasn’t my intention when I wrote the piece of dialogue.

But if J-school has taught me one thing, it’s to see an angle from all sides. Today’s post is not written out of spite or vindication to appease whatever broken ego I have about my unpublished works of pulp horror and fantasy. As I said, I deeply respect the fellow at my group, and take whatever words of wisdom he has with enthusiasm. I am, by no means, as temperamental as an Aaron Sorkin or a Harlan Ellison (nor as successful – but one can dream!). I am merely curious, and am willing to poke the bull with a red-ribboned spearhead.

To me, when a character hisses a piece of dialogue, that character says those words with a harsh whisper, laced with venom. That’s what I imagine, and that’s how it was supposed to come across in the scene that I read to the group.

But clearly, that hadn’t been the outcome, and as a result, the nine or ten of us transitioned to an interesting discussion of dialogue tags (aka, said bookisms) – he said/she said, vs. creative descriptions, such as demanded, inquired – and hissed.

It wasn’t the first time our writers circle had had this discussion, nor was it the first time I had been in the middle of such a debate with a group of writers. What is kosher among the world of fiction? The basic “said,” or something with a little flair? It’s a question, along with others, I find often asked by fledgling writers who want to be more than writers. Writers who want to kick down the door of a traditional publisher and get their name in official print right then and there. The same writers, I find most of the time, who attend more writing-related conferences, seminars, and workshops than they do actually sit down and WRITE.

I’ve read and been told that to end any line of dialogue with anything other than “said” or “asked” is deemed amateurish on the author’s part – that to do so is a mortal sin that will forever chain a fledgling writer to an editor’s slush pile (the same goes for the use of adverbs and adjectives).

The argument here is that using descriptors such as “yelled”, “exclaimed”, “whispered”, etc. take away from the strength of the dialogue, and thusly break the reader’s flow of immersion (who would otherwise unconsciously skip over “said” and “asked”).

Whether this is true or not, I guess, really depends on the reader. But in the long and the short of it, how accurate of a notion is the above? As literary bloggers Anne M. Marble and W.H. Dean point out in their own differing opinions on the matter, many renowned published authors litter their works with said bookisms.

In her article for Writing-World, THE USE AND ABUSE OF DIALOGUE TAGS, Marble writes: “In most cases, the word ‘said’ would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue. … These words make it sound as if you have fallen in love with your thesaurus.”

She continues with, “If the dialogue is strong enough, ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ will do. If the dialogue is not strong enough, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said bookisms to bolster it.”

But again, on what grounds do these opinion stem? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt distracted when a character “hollered” or “sang” or “murmured” something. In fact, I felt drawn deeper into the intensity or emotion conveyed on the page – and as an author, it’s something I wish to replicate for my own readership.

In journalism, “said” and “says” just makes sense in the hard news world, as current events should be reported as clear and concise as possible. In J-school, I was always taught to leave the fancy descriptors at home, unless I was writing a magazine feature. To write that Joe Blow “feels” something, or that Joe Blow “thinks” something, is to assume Joe Blow feels or thinks something when maybe he doesn’t – and if he does actually say he feels or thinks, to write that Joe Blow said/says he feels or thinks.

In his article for Plato’s Head, DEFENDING SAID BOOKISMS? “SAY IT AIN’T SO!” HE ASSEVERATED, Dean writes, “Sixty years ago … it was common to find more colourful dialogue tags and it’s not entirely uncommon today. And I would argue that it’s still not a defect; the defect is the not the choice of words other than said, it’s the misuse of words other than said.”

Now, there’s something that makes sense to me: the misusage of creative dialogue tags, versus creative dialogue tags themselves. Dean uses the example of a character INSISTING they are ill – which makes no sense, unless said (ha) character is in an argument in regards to their state of health.

Marble goes on to write about her disdain towards writers who use verbs such as laugh, grimace, cry, or frown as dialogue tags, as it is physically impossible for a person to “frown” or “laugh” words out of their mouths.

Here, I understand where she’s coming from, as this is one notorious finger wiggle-waggle I used to include at end of quoted dialogues (Heiress: The Master of Monsters is riddled with these). I’ve since evolved to …”Said with a laugh” or “said with a sneer”, but in my honesty, I don’t think it really matters all that much.

Of my beloved “hiss”, Marble writes, “The big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is ‘hissed.’ It’s used a lot, but quite often, it’s used where it’s unwelcome. We’ve all seen this dialogue tag abused. For example: ‘Get out,’ she hissed. OK, you try it — hiss that line. Something’s missing — the sibilants.”

She brings up the exact point my friend and mentor of the local writers circle mentioned. However, in my research for this blog post, I decided to root through some dictionaries, which led me to an interesting revelation:

[from dictionary.com]:
1. to make or emit a sharp sound like that of the letter s prolonged, as a snake does, or as steam does when forced under pressure through a small opening.
2. to express disapproval or contempt by making this sound: The audience hissed when the actor forgot his lines.

verb (used with object)
3. to express disapproval of by hissing: The audience hissed the controversial play.
4. to silence or drive away by hissing (usually followed by away, down, etc.): They hissed down the author when he tried to speak.
5. to utter with a hiss.

All right. And how about a list of synynoms via thesaurus?:

Part of Speech: noun
Definition: buzzing sound; jeer
Synonyms: Bronx cheer, boo, buzz, catcall, contempt, derision, hoot, sibilance, sibilation

“What the hell’s a matter with you?” Sybalski hissed.

The use of “hiss” is, admittedly so, a prime example of Dean’s misuse of word choice when it comes to said bookisms. My friend and mentor is right: “You can’t hiss that.” Literally, anyway. But metaphorically, of course you can. And that was the sole intention behind my use of the word.

Does the use of the word make me an amateur? Maybe.

Does the use of the word evoke an emotional painting for my reader? Yes.

And that’s what matters.

Taking a break from writing this post to have dinner with my parents, my dad told me something that perfectly summed up what I feel is the point of this entire entry: “The sole purpose of writing fiction is reader engagement. You write to entertain your reader, and whatever rules you have to break to do that shouldn’t matter, as long as you engage your reader.”

So should I worry so much about “said” vs. “exclaim”, or even “hiss”, or should I worry about telling a worthwhile narrative that draws people in and captures both their imaginations and their emotions?

Editors and literary critics who are too concerned over the misuse of dialogue tags (and even those who stress over the use of adjectives and adverbs) need to do some re-evaluating. If you’re going to slash thin hairs over “said” vs. “exclaim” in lieu of whether or not you have a great story that is otherwise well-written, someone needs to slap you some serious vacation time.

If you’ve found my blog as an up and coming author, or someone who is curious about the life of a writer, I’m not here to tell you how to put words on a page. Talk to some, and they’ll say I’m not even qualified to do so, because I’ve only published less than a handful of stories on the vastness of the Internet, not including a couple of school weeklies.

However, one thing I’ve come to learn in my literary journey as a novelist, journalist, a blogger, and even as just a human being, and that I hope to pass onto any possible reader of my website, is that no matter what you write, no matter what you say – hell, no matter what you do in general – people are going to compare you, criticize you, revile you, and maybe a thin sliver will even revere you. Those who mind, don’t matter – and those who matter, don’t mind.

But what I am getting at is this: Do you think John Grisham, Joanne Rowling, Stephen King, or even John Tolkien worried about grammar, adjectives, or creative dialogue tags? No. They wrote. They wrote, they worked their guts out, and they proved themselves through true effort and humble evolution. Even if some say they are not the most perfect of literary masters, it doesn’t matter, because the people who complain are not the people who they write for – and the same applies to anything.

Don’t worry so much about the rules. Rules, for the most part, are meant to be broken, analyzed, and remodeled – then broken, again. To be a writer is to express yourself fully, raw. To be an artist is to express yourself, fully, raw. Not to say that you should throw away all of the tools and resources that are available to help you evolve in your craft. I cannot enough stress the importance to read, read, read and to write, write, write.