Your plot can be amazing – full of twists and turns and brilliance – but if nobody cares about your characters, it doesn’t matter what happens to them.
This is something I’ve been struggling with in my current WIP. My main male character is strongly defined but the female is not, for a number of reasons somewhat related to trauma suffered as a result of the plot. This is part of why I’ve been through so many rewrites – her character isn’t satisfying to me. She falls flat on the page and I don’t care about her as I write her so I know nobody will care about her as they read her.
Last week I spent some time explaining some of these issues to a friend and I finally stumbled upon this character’s motivation. With that in place, I realized a major part of her character involves paranoia. I wanted to share a book I had received a couple of years ago with my friend and when I looked it up, I was delighted to find the authors had released two more related books this past fall! I ordered them immediately.
Today, I’m sharing with you three of my favorite fiction writing reference books:
All three are by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. If you’re only going to order one, get the first. But I’d save yourself the trouble and just order all three right now. You’ll thank me later.
I’ve received The Emotion Thesaurus as a gift for Christmas a couple of years ago. If you have a friend in your life who writes fiction? BEST GIFT EVER!!!
Here’s how it works – you look up a trait. Let’s go with “paranoia” as our example. The first thing you see is the definition. Next, a list of physical signs, internal sensations, and mental responses. Finally, cues of acute or long-term paranoia, related emotions it may escalate to (cross-referenced with handy page numbers), and cues of suppressed paranoia. Each section ends with a handy writer’s tip.
How do you use this information? Under physical signs, about 20 items are listed, including insomnia and startling easily. Internal sensations include a racing heartbeat and sensitivity to touch and sound. Mental responses include mental fatigue from not getting enough sleep and hearing things that aren’t there.
Throw that together with some of the long-term cues like anxiety attacks and the inability to maintain long-term relationships and we’re starting to put together quite the character, right? Those physical and mental responses give some great methods to overcome the number one rule of writing: show, don’t tell.
Enter The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Turns out “paranoid” is an entry there. In addition to a definition, this book includes possible causes, associated behaviors and attitudes, associated thoughts, associated emotions, positive and negative aspects, examples from film, overcoming this trait, and traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict.
There’s some crossover with the other book, of course, but also some additional information. However, I’m going to switch to the entry for “evasive,” which is another trait my paranoid character exhibits.
Possible causes include having something to hide. Associated behaviors include telling half-truths or lies, using light manipulation to keep the attention away from oneself, and self-soothing gestures like stroking the hair or rubbing a sleeve. The positive aspects bring up something interesting – people may see this person as a good confidante because they aren’t a big talker. Our example from TV is Patrick Jane from The Mentalist. I’m going to sing the praises of ANY book that uses my man Patrick Jane as an example. What if I want my character to overcome this flaw? They suggest realizing how hurt loved ones are by the inability to share might push them to explore the cause of the evasiveness. And one of the most helpful bits of information – characters that will drive my female MC batty include those that are curious, controlling, nosy, perceptive, and suspicious.
Now, here’s where I admit something about me. I’m having trouble figuring out what to do with The Positive Trait Thesaurus. I know characters have to be likable. I know they have to do nice things in addition to being paranoid and evasive.
So far, I’ve come up with “responsible” as a possibility for my female character. This book contains many of the same sections as its negative counterpart.
After the definition, there are similar attributes, possible causes (facing a situation where survival depended on one’s ability to care for oneself), associated behaviors (feeling remorse, regret, or guilt when one’s choices have let someone else down possibly), associated thoughts and emotions, positive aspects, negative aspects, examples from tv/film (Frodo Baggins!), traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict (flaky, impulsive, selfish, lazy), and challenging scenarios for the responsible character (having a compulsion or bad habit that makes it difficult to be responsible, being responsible for an objective one doesn’t believe in).
Not a perfect fit, but there are parts that resonate. Clearly I need to spend more time with the Positive Traits book.
Or a therapist.
When I put all of this together, my paranoid and evasive yet responsible female main character keeps to herself, deflects personal questions by turning the conversation back to him, and fiddles with her bracelet, all while trying to suppress a yawn because she doesn’t sleep at night. And why is he asking so many questions, anyways? Is it really because he likes her or because he knows about the money? She may not know where it came from but she realizes it isn’t hers, which is why she’s working at this stupid job, trying to replace what she used for a security payment on her apartment. It’s not like she used it on something ridiculous like the $400 shoes her coworker bought over the weekend on a whim.
I’ve just discovered these books also have an affiliated website full of helpful blog posts, links, and other resources so be sure to check that out as well – it’s called Writers Helping Writers.
I hope this post has been an adequate introduction to these amazing books for you. I can’t stress enough how helpful they are when giving depth to your characters and seeing how thinking about how they should be interacting with each other.
Please consider adding them to your personal reference library immediately. They’ve been worth every penny I paid. (Note: If you use the links above, it costs nothing extra to you and I make a few pennies to offset my book-buying habit.) And if you have any questions about them, let me know. I’d be happy to look up a word for you as a bit of a trial run just to give you a tiny taste.