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Your Ideal Reader

We all write for someone, whether we know it or not.

Journalists often choose or fabricate a very specific person when writing articles for a paper. The details of this person depend on the demographic of the paper. For example, the New York Times is generally known to write for a liberal man or a woman who is somewhat affluent and has cultural interests beyond the most prevalent pop culture of the day, and probably enjoys reading long articles or thought-provoking essays.

The same tactic is applied to magazines. The ideal reader for Cat Fancy is a middle aged woman who may spend a lot of money to get the proper care and grooming for her cats. The Escapist is written for a young man who is or wants to be tech-savvy and absolutely loves video game culture, and everything that references it.

You can also apply this technique to books. How? By answering a simple question: if your book was a person, what would he or she be like?

Make a list of personality traits–and even physical traits if those apply–and then take another page and divide it into two categories. Title the first half “What he/she is” and “What he/she aspires to be.”

Here you will identify two important markets for your book. Those that see themselves a certain way, and those who strive to be that way. Whether they strive to be prettier, richer, healthier, friendlier, more spiritual…the list goes on. This is just as true for fiction as it is for non-fiction. At the end of the book, the character grows and becomes better at something. The reader may aspire to be what the character has become; or maybe the reader is already there and appreciates the similarities of the journey.

Some would argue that writers shouldn’t think about their demographic, because it could interfere with the creation of art. Russell Smith from the Globe and Mail wrote this the other week in his column:


“Once you are in charge of your own promotion and sales, you cannot but help think of your audience as a market, and a market must be pleased. Writers should never think about their audience – they should never worry that their ideal demographic…won’t get the learned reference or will be nauseated by the torture scene. Art is not just a product like any other.”


While his argument has merit (and you should read the whole article), it’s hard to apply this to the indie author. It’s one of the opposing philosophies you take on when you become an author-publisher. If you don’t market yourself and you don’t think about your audience, your book may fly by unnoticed. However, if you spend a lot of time thinking about your audience and marketing and tweak your book accordingly, how will you stay true to yourself as a writer? The author-publisher must balance the needs of the writer and the needs of the marketer in order to succeed.

Tune in next time as I discuss more about the author and the marketer in you and how to better balance the two when it comes to writing and promoting your book.

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Great Villains

Writing villains is the best. You can bring out that little evil voice and make him or her do whatever you want, and it’ll be okay, because it’s all in the realm of fiction.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the nastier villains in literature and popular culture, and compare them with the Dungeons and Dragons alignment grid, third edition. For those not familiar with D&D, there are nine alignments that determine how your character’s attitudes towards the world and other characters.
They are as follows:


Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral True Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil


This system defines Lawful as someone who is honourable, obedient to authority, and reliable. Chaotic, on the opposite end, implies flexibility, freedom, and adaptability. Neutral is someone who feels no overwhelming need to obey authority or rebel against it.

We’ll be focusing on the last three alignments in this article. While this isn’t an exhaustive system (is there really one?), I think it’s a good tool to determine exactly what sort of “evil” your character is, without getting into too much philosophy.


Lawful Evil


A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard to whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules, but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but he is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises. This reluctance is partly because of his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped).

the D&D Wikipedia

Professor Moriarty

He was described by Sherlock Holmes as the “Napoleon of Crime” and implied that he is the only one with intellect equal to or greater than Holmes’. He ran a crime ring that included most of England’s criminals; in exchange for their protection, the criminals gave their loyalty and part of their profits. Although he was only in a few of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, modern portrayals of Moriarty give him a much more prominent status.

Professor Umbridge (Harry Potter)

She makes her appearance in the fifth Harry Potter book as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Although she’s fiercely devoted to upholding the standards set by the Ministry of Magic, she often goes overboard with following these regulations and issues her own form of torturous punishment for those who don’t follow them, such as carving sentences into students’ hands.


Neutral Evil


A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusion that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.

the D&D Wikipedia

Grima Wormtongue (Lord of the Rings)

Advisor to King Theoden of Rohan but falls in league with Saruman. It is hinted that he poisons the king to further confuse him. Saruman is an abusive master, however, and Wormtongue seems to have little loyalty to him. His general behavior is that of craven self-preservation. At the end of Return of the King, after the hobbits rebel against Saruman’s tyranny, Frodo has sympathy for Wormtongue and offers him a home. Saruman tells Frodo that Wormtongue was a murderer, and in a violent rage Wormtongue slits his master’s throat.


Macbeth is quickly shown to be a wholly self-interested character. While he does wrestle with the idea of murdering more than some neutral evil characters might, his lust for power ultimately wins the argument. More importantly, once he is in the seat of power, he has to continually resort to deceit and murder as a matter of self-preservation. The anxiety that he might be found out or killed by someone seeking revenge or justice leads him to kill his close friend Banquo, attempt to kill his Banquo’s son Fleance, and after a particularily grim consultation with the three witches, he has Macduff’s entire castle slain, including Macduff’s wife and children.


Chaotic Evil


A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can only be made to work together by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.

the D&D Wikipedia

The Joker

I think one of the more terrifying things about the Joker is that he doesn’t just do what he does for profit, for greed, or for lust. Remember the scene in the Dark Knight when he burns his pile of money? He does what he does because he loves chaos. He is practically uncontrollable because he is chaos personified, and is committed to spreading it to as many places as possible. Though this varies depending on the iteration of the Batman universe that you look that, there is generally very little known about the Joker’s past, which makes him more mysterious and frightening because his behaviour is that much more inexplicable.

Roger (Lord of the Flies)

While Jack Merridew seeks to lead the boys in an animalistic society, Roger cares not for order or any semblance of leadership. Rather, as the situation on the island spirals out of control, he becomes more and more sadistic, eventually abandoning any pretense of morality. He throws a stone at Piggy and kills him, thus solidifying his role as the torturer in Jack’s tribe.

You may want to try classifying your villains to see what their alignments are.

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Creating Believable Characters, Part 2

If you missed the first part of this article, see here.

It’s one thing to create realistic characters, but it’s another to make your readers care about them. If a reader isn’t emotionally invested, they might put down the book and not finish the story. Here are some of the reasons we come to care about the characters in fiction, whether they are in a book or on a screen.


The character is familiar to the reader.

While opposites attract, birds of the same feather fly together. We get along with people best who are most like ourselves.

Who is the target reader for this book? Sometimes the protagonist will mirror the target reader. Not always in gender, but occasionally in age. Young adult novels appeal to teenagers because the stories are about characters who are their age who are in extraordinary circumstances. Teens may see themselves in the character, and identify with them and their situation.

Take Harry Potter for example. Why is it so popular? While there are a variety of answers to this question, one could be that Harry Potter is relatable to children around the world. He’s bullied, he does all right at school, he wears glasses, he’s determined, stubborn–and he’s not perfect.

Same with Twilight’s Bella. Why is this strange paranormal romance (a mediocre book in itself) selling millions of copies? Bella could be described as a blank slate; she has very little personality, (aside from the fact that Edward is so dominating) so it’s easy to imagine yourself as her.

Having a character that is familiar to the reader can serve as an anchor, especially in science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s like taking the reader gently by the hand and guiding them through a world that is different from their own. Sometimes the anchor will comment on unfamiliar events transpiring in the book and ask for an explanation; it can serve as a pause in the narrative so that the writer can use the surrounding characters to briefly explain something going on. This “fish out of water” scenario is a common device in many popular movies as well, such as Percy Jackson, (also a book series), The Last Starfighter, The Matrix, and Avatar.


The character is a person they would like to be.


This flies in the face of the previous statement. Sometimes, rather than reading about people that are like ourselves, we want an escape. Romance novels often have tough and fearless heroines so that the reader can imagine herself as the lady that ends up lucky in love, or in a relationship that seems too perfect for real life.

One series of books that comes to mind as good example of larger than life heroes is the Sword of Truth series. It’s a fantasy series by Terry Goodkind that was (unfortunately) adapted to a TV series a few years back. It’s about a woodsman named Richard whose life is changed one day when he finds a beautiful woman named Kahlan in his woods, and she seeks his help to destroy the evil Lord Rahl who rules her land. Even though Richard starts as a guy with a simple life, it’s hard to pick out any character flaws. He’s handsome and ripped, has a kind heart, is intelligent, and respected by his village. Kahlan is fierce, wields a powerful magic, has beautiful long hair, is respected (and feared) as a leader and refuses to give up and refuses to stop loving Richard, even in the worst imaginable situations.

It’s hard to imagine these people in real life as they are, but it’s easy to wish that you were them.

What you have to be careful of with these kinds of characters is how they grow. You can only place them in so many situations before they become stale and repetitive. Remember, if you make someone perfect, they become boring. This is my personal opinion, but I stopped reading the Sword of Truth series after eight or nine books because there wasn’t a whole lot to do with Richard and Kahlan after all of those adventures. (Of course, then there’s the final three books, which have an interesting premise, but I’m unsure of the execution).


The character does things that the reader can sympathize with.


Your character could be a raging psychopath but can still do things that make him sympathetic. He might be working towards a goal that is the lesser of two evils, like the serial killer Dexter, who hunts serial killers.

The reader must understand why a character is doing what he does. If there is no understanding, there is no connection, and the reader will give up on the story. A character might make a decision that isn’t explained in order to create mystery–as long as it’s wrapped up in some fashion at some point, that’s fine. But if your characters are running around doing things “just because”, the narrative will become confusing.

Think about your own life. What drives you to do the things you love most? Try to narrow it down to one or two words. Now choose one or two words for each character you’re trying to develop. How are they expressing these traits in every action they do? Do this with other characters you see in the shows you watch and the books you read.

Who are your favourite characters and what traits make them memorable?

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Creating Believable Characters, Part 1

When you’re reading a book, watching a movie or playing a video game, sometimes we get so attached to a character that when he or she does something, we react emotionally. Becoming emotionally invested in a character is a sign of good writing.

But how does this happen? What goes into making an effective, fully-formed physical and psychological portrait of a character that a reader can invest in? In the first part of this article, we will discuss character building, and in the second part, we’ll talk about how to make the reader care about your characters.


Character Building


So, you’re building a person. Congratulations on your recent promotion to God.

In all seriousness, you can spend a lot of time outside of your scheduled writing time building a character. You could write pages and pages of background for a character. This may help you flesh out the people in your story, but it only helps if this character development shines through in the writing of the story as well.

Sometimes characters just come to us. Sometimes they’re a hybrid of people in your life, and other times, they’re a clear picture in your mind. But just because they “come to you” doesn’t mean that their personalities don’t need exploring.

Here are some elements to consider when developing your character.


Physical Appearance


It’s one thing to say that your character has brown hair and green eyes. That’s a very broad descriptor. Just search for that in Google Images and you’ll get a whole swack of people, of all ages, shape, and colour. Broad descriptors aren’t necessarily a bad thing – some readers embellish the details they want a character to have, while others only take away what is written directly in the text – so keeping your descriptions broad won’t always work.

What is the length of his hair? Does he dye it? How does he wear it?

What shape are her eyes?

What is his ethnicity?

What does his nose look like?

Does she have any distinguishing marks or scars?

What clothing does she like to wear?

Does he wear any jewellery?

You may want to create a separate document that holds this information for each character.

Be wary of overloading the reader with physical description, and be careful not to dump all of a character’s description into one page or section of your book. You do want to leave some things up to the imagination. Just give enough so that your reader could pick your character out of a crowd.




The nature vs nurture debate is classic and probably a bit obsolete these days. Both your genetics and your upbringing will determine what sort of person you turn out to be.

So ask yourself:
Who was your protagonist’s parents? Are they still alive? What was his or her childhood like? Who were his or her childhood friends? Where did your protagonist grow up? What ethnicity are his parents? Are they immigrants, or people who have lived in the country their whole lives?

Sometimes experiences from a person’s childhood can resonate with them for a lifetime, which leads me to the next element.




What we say or do at any particular time can affect how we live our lives. I’m not talking necessarily about the mundane choices of life, like choosing what to wear, or what to eat, but more important choices that could affect our careers and relationships. Do we decide to sit and watch TV all afternoon, or write a chapter for that novel? Do we take a chance and apply for the job with the higher pay, or stay where we are? Do we ask that cute guy or girl out for drinks, or chicken out?

Not everything is black and white, however. Maybe there’s an interesting documentary on TV that’s going to inspire you to write that chapter later. Maybe the job with the higher pay also comes with extra hours and unreasonable responsibility. Maybe the cute guy or girl has some other disgusting habit, or is already dating someone.

My point is to get you, the writer, to ask yourself what your character would do in everyday situations. How your character acts and responds in the world will form his outlook, and shape his experiences.

Try this. Open a new word document or get a fresh piece of paper and a pen.

Now pretend that you are the character you are going to create. What are they thinking right now, during an ordinary moment, as opposed to some high-drama point of tension in your plot? What would they be doing? What do they like doing?

Try making a journal for this person. It doesn’t have to be coherent, just write whatever you think of when you think about the character. You might be surprised by what you associate. Use this as a foundation for your character’s voice.




Think of voice not just in terms of dialogue, but the entire story. Every person has a particular way of speaking that is unique. Sometimes this voice is influenced by where a person is from and their experiences. Ask yourself where your character grew up. Do they have any words that they substitute? Do they say words in a particular way? For example, my grandmother’s father was Scottish, so she pronounces “food” as “fud”, because that’s how she was brought up.Take into account whether or not you will spell these types of exceptions phonetically, and what spelling you will use for other colloquialisms.

More importantly, does your character have good or bad associations with certain words? The attitude a character’s voice projects directly affects the tone of your writing. An excellent, recent example of this is the voice of the 5-year-old Jack in Emma Donoghue’s ROOM. Jack, an imprisoned and thus incredibly sheltered child, associates concepts and objects he has been told are not real with TV, (his one source of outside entertainment), and labels them as such by using TV as an adjective that substitutes for fictional or fantastical – for example, to him ice cream and other people and places are TV.

Make a note of these stylistic choices by making a style sheet–this helps keep you consistent, and saves both you and your potential editor work in the future.


Believable Actions


The previous elements serve as a backdrop to what your character does in your story. If your character does things that don’t make sense, either within the personality construct you have created, or within the normal realm of believability, you are going to lose the reader because of a lack of verisimiltude.

For example, the other night I watched Easy A. There’s a scene where Emma Stone’s character gets sent to the principal’s office for calling a girl a twat. The principal was played by Malcolm MacDowell. Instead of asking what happened in the classroom, he launches into a speech about how this was public school and it was his duty to “keep the girls off the poles” and “the guys off the pipes.” Emma Stone’s character hadn’t been to the principal’s office since junior high, and I highly doubt the principal knew who she was, since it seemed like a big school. He said that if he saw her in the principal’s office again, he’d expel her.


There was nothing that proceeded this scene that established Malcolm MacDowell’s character as a no-nonsense, hardass guy. Nothing prompted him to start ranting about his duty as principal. I don’t know about you, but calling another girl a twat doesn’t really warrant a warning of suspension in most public school environments.

My point is, because I was unable to believe in the character’s actions, or suspend my disbelief, I wasn’t able to get into the story. There was nothing real about him, or the environment he and the students lived in. If it was a book, I would’ve stopped reading.

So how do I make the reader care about the characters I have created?

Tune in for part two, when I’ll talk about making the reader care about the character you’ve created.

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How Do I Start Writing a Novel?

You can feel it. Maybe you can see it, like a movie, playing out in your mind, some characters more fleshed out than others, shining brilliantly and clearly as if you were watching them in HD. Sometimes it’s only a few key scenes: the middle, the ending, bits of the beginning. You know that the muse has chosen you to pen this epic tale, but where to begin?

It seems like a lot of effort just to sit down at the keyboard and start typing. What if what I write is bad? What if everything just comes out all wrong, even though it sounds good in my head?

I struggle with this because the answer is so obvious to me. Just write the thing, damnit! But not everyone has the initiative or can see the end of the project. Some people can only see the part of the project where you get frustrated and feel inadequate. Some people have romanticized the idea of writing a novel to the point where they don’t know where to begin. So here are some ways to help build your confidence and clear your mind when embarking on your writing project.


I know you’re inspired, but…


…you better learn this early. If you’re serious about writing, you have to learn to write on command. What I mean is that you can’t always wait for inspiration to strike. If you do that, it will take forever to get started or finish your current project.

Just sit down and write. The writing doesn’t have to be related to anything. Just open up that word processor and write the first thing that comes to mind. Sometimes it just takes a few hundred words to get the juices flowing. Writing prompts are a good tool: they usually ask a question that you have to answer in a few paragraphs. Try and do one a day if you’re having trouble getting started.


Tell people what you’re doing…


…but don’t just talk the talk. Encourage your family and friends to support you. You could say to your partner, “Don’t let me watch TV until I’ve written a page.” Like I said in my article about creating a writing schedule, I often don’t like to go to the bathroom in the morning before I’ve written something (this could be dangerous though and is not for everyone, only for those with bladders of steel like me!).

Create benchmarks for your word counts and announce them on Facebook. Knowing that people are cheering for you will motivate you to get more done. It’s also some very early marketing for you if you are self-publishing.

That being said…


Don’t wait for people to “approve” of your writing.


I mean this in two senses. There may be some nay-sayers who snidely ask, “Why are you writing that?” and “Why bother writing when it takes forever to get published?” Just ignore them and listen to your heart. If you’ve got a strong urge to tell your story, it’s going to happen, whether they like it or not.

You may also get the urge to show people your writing after only a few pages, to get feedback. I personally don’t like to show anyone anything until it’s complete. I do occasionally give teasers, or synopses, wordles, or word counts, but first drafts are usually pretty rough, and sometimes aren’t representative of a writer’s true potential.


Don’t start by…


…posting on forums asking: “Hi. I’m thinking about writing a book and I want to know how to get into bookstores.” Or: “Hi, I’m writing a book, and I want to know how to get published.”

Write first. Then publish. It’s good to think about marketability and the publishing process while you’re writing, but don’t think about writing and pitch editors and agents when your book isn’t ready. Not much is worse than hearing from writers who don’t write.

Writing is sort of like riding a bike. You’ve got to practice. The more you do it, the better you get, and the further and longer you can ride. It’s not something you’ll master right away–like Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of practice for a person to become an expert at any skill. It’s probably safe to say that the first thing you write isn’t going to be the best thing you can produce. But that’s okay. Why? Because things can be re-written.

Join us next Friday in our little writer’s segment as we talk about what makes a believable character!

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