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Writing Fiction: The Keys to Characterization

writing fiction characterizationSerious music students practice their scales, learning the notes by rote before they ever play a piece of music. They play the same piece over and over, receiving correction from a teacher until playing at a satisfactory level. Likewise, a writer who uses a spelling, grammar, and plagiarism checking tool to review a piece can learn from the corrections, improving her finished product. The writer who studies her craft can learn to play symphonies, while the writer who shuns formal learning and relies solely on instinct may find herself stuck playing “Chopsticks.”

What is Characterization?

Talent and learning must come together to produce great writing. Like spelling and grammar, characterization is a skill that can be learned. Characterization is, simply defined, the process by which the author reveals a character to the reader.

Details like mannerisms, dialogue, and physical appearance all contribute to the building of the character in the reader’s mind. The reader gets to know the characters through the process of characterization.

Characters, like people, reveal themselves through various means. Dialogue, appearance, speech, and the effect a person has on those who already know him all play a part in forming our assumptions of a character. Characterization can be either direct or indirect, and both types fall into one of several categories.

Direct & Indirect Characterization

Direct characterization should be used sparingly. Description of a character’s appearance, mannerism, personality, or habits is direct characterization. A common ploy, especially among new or inexperienced authors, is to have the character studying himself or herself in a mirror. The technique, when the writer uses the opportunity to simply describe the physical characteristics, results in the impression of a narcissistic character obsessed with his or her appearance, unless the physical description is secondary to the character’s thoughts and feelings about his or her appearance.

In Piers Anthony’s book Ogre, Ogre the main character, Tandy, examines herself in a mirror:

She was nineteen years old, but she looked like a child in her nightie and lady-slippers, her brown tresses mussed from constant squirming, her blue eyes peering out worriedly. She wished she looked more like her mother- but of course no human person could match the pretty faces and fantastic figures of nymphs.

From this short paragraph, the reader learns that Tandy is childlike, with brown hair and blue eyes, but far more of Tandy’s character and current state of mind is revealed than her physical statistics. The reader sees a troubled young woman, the child of a mythological creature who is slightly insecure in her own emerging womanhood.

Characterization with Dialogue

Actions may speak louder than words, but in writing, speech is the primary tool for revealing a character to the reader. Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of conveying not only information that moves the story forward, but details about the speaker.

Grammar, word choice, dialect, accent, tone, and delivery all come together to paint an indelible picture in the reader’s mind. Dialogue may be spoken (external) or written (internal). A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Well-crafted dialogue will paint a picture in the reader’s mind, revealing clues about age, education, social status, attitude, worldview, and bent, that would take pages of pure description to create.

A Character’s Effect on Others

The effect a character has on others is another subtle yet important tool. The character who commands an air of respect is likely the hero, while the one who inspires sneers may be the villain or the underdog. Lemony Snicket, in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, used the children’s first impression of Count Olaf to strongly influence the reader’s view of the villain:

They wondered … whether, for the rest of their lives, they would always feel as though Count Olaf were watching them even when he wasn’t nearby.

The Effects of a Character’s Name

What’s in a name? A character’s name can be an indicator of their basic personality. Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape both have memorable and sinister-sounding names that fit their personalities. Bilbo Baggins sounds like a respectable sort of individual from a long line of stolid ancestors. Huckleberry Finn is the ideal handle for the delinquent child of a drunken vagabond. By employing a combination of direct and indirect characterization techniques, the writer can create characters that come to life on the page.

Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.

51 Gift Ideas for Writers

Last year’s gift idea post was a hit, so I thought I’d update the list for 2013! Here are 51 more holiday gift ideas for writers. Buy that special writer in your life something cool, or reward yourself for being awesome.

Literary Art

Literary Art

Dead Writers Perfume

Dead Writers Perfume

Library Book Necklace

Library Book Necklace

storytelling dice

Storytelling Dice

Vintage Typewriter

Vintage Typewriter

Writer's Journal

Writer’s Journal

Writer's Remedy Magnetic Poetry

Writer’s Remedy Magnetic Poetry

Writer's Block Motivational Cube

Writer’s Block Motivational Cube

Writer's Toolbox

Writer’s Toolbox

The Writer's Journey

The Writer’s Journey

2014 Writer's Market

2014 Writer’s Market

Writers on Writing

Writers on Writing

Novelist Warning Sign

Novelist Warning Sign

Writer's Dream Kit

Writer’s Dream Kit

Vinyl Writers - Shakespeare

Vinyl Writers – Shakespeare

Vinyl Writers - Twain

Vinyl Writers – Twain

Vinyl Writers - Woolf

Vinyl Writers – Woolf

Cult Writers Badge Set

Cult Writers Badge Set

Words Are Magic Print

Words Are Magic Print

Sylvia Plath Poster

Sylvia Plath Poster

Ernest Hemingway Poster

Ernest Hemingway Poster

Oscar Wilde Poster

Oscar Wilde Poster

Grammar Police T-Shirt

Grammar Police T-Shirt

Fountain Pen Cuff Links

Fountain Pen Cuff Links

Word Warrior Luggage Tag

Word Warrior Luggage Tag

Shakespeare Emroidered Towel

Shakespeare Emroidered Towel

Writing is Hell Bracelet

Writing is Hell Bracelet

Writer's Block Soap

Writer’s Block Soap

Write Bookmark

Write Bookmark

Digital Recorder

Digital Recorder

Espresso Machine

Espresso Machine

Writing Desk

Writing Desk

Finding Forrester

Finding Forrester

Writer's Shoulder Bag

Writer’s Shoulder Bag

Writer Charm Necklace

Writer Charm Necklace

Patron Saint of Writers Necklace

Patron Saint of Writers Necklace

Emily Dickinson Print

Emily Dickinson Print

Shakespeare Mug

Shakespeare Mug

Kick-Ass Writer

Kick-Ass Writer

Poets & Writers Magazine

Poets & Writers Magazine

Neck Wrap

Neck Wrap

Fingerless Gloves

Fingerless Gloves

Personalized Journal

Personalized Journal

Monogrammed Glass Pen

Monogrammed Glass Pen

Writer's Year Calendar

Writer’s Year Calendar

Appointment Calendar for Writers

Calendar for Writers

Word-A-Year Calendar

Word-A-Year Calendar

Personalized Pencil Pouch

Personalized Pencil Pouch

Novel Writing Templates

Novel Writing Templates

Final Draft Software

Final Draft Software

Authors Card Game

Authors Card Game

How Google+ is Changing Search Results & How Writers Can Profit

Google plus logoEvery writer longs for the coveted top spot in Google search results—the one that everyone will see and, most importantly, the choice that will receive the most “clicks.”  You’ve composed stellar content, tried to figure out the rules of search engine optimization, but your articles still inhabit pages 8 through 10—the veritable internet no man’s land.  Well, stop banging your head on that wall.  No, really, it’s quite distracting.  There is good news for writers, thanks to Google+.

Here are some ways that Google+ is making life a whole lot easier for writers and bloggers.

  1. Pictures = Clicks

By linking your blog posts to your Google+ account, you will create a search engine result that sets you apart from the rest.  It will have your profile image, and everyone knows that the inclusion of a visual prompt makes it more eye appealing.  And if your eyes are drawn to it, your mouse will likely follow.  Simply put, a professional headshot and a link to your Google+ account will increase your blog’s traffic and readership.

  1. Bios = Clicks

Thanks to Google+, people now have the chance to click on your name, exposing them to a portfolio of your works.  It’s like having your own Google search engine.  And all of the results lead back to you!

Now, potential followers will be re-directed to other posts that tickle their fancy—making them much more likely to join your readership.  If you install a “Google+” recommendation button on your blog, it will also increase your Google+ rankings, which will push your blog further up the search engine results.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

  1. Good Writing = Rewards

Illiterate hacks will not be rewarded by Google+, but literary masters and rapier-witted humorists will.  If someone clicks on a page, but only stays there for a blink of an eye, nothing happens.  After all, the visitor moved on, unimpressed with what they found.

If, however, said visitor stays for a few minutes, captivated by a blogger’s clever prose and sharp intellect, this blogger will reap the rewards for a post well done.  When the visitor presses the “back” button, they will see that your search result has changed.  Beneath the original text, they will see a line that says “more by [insert your name here]” with the links to more of your works.  Yes, your reward is more “clicks” and increased traffic—and that is exactly what every writer hopes for.

  1. Original Works = Rewards

Google+ enables Google’s search engine to verify authorship.  This means that a post by the original author will be much higher in search engine rankings than a copycat’s hack job.  After all, it is your creative property, so you alone should receive the applause.

  1. Separating the Smiths

If you were blessed, or in this case cursed, with a very common moniker, you are likely tired of having your works confused with those of other “Jim Smiths” or “Jennifer Joneses.”  Thanks to Google+ authorship, you can now mark your masterpieces as your own—and set yourself apart from those who only wish they had your talent.  Google’s search engine will finally be able to recognize you as the unique individual that you are—and so will potential followers.

So stop punishing your cranium and create a Google+ profile, instead.  Your writing career and online reputation as a master wordsmith will thank you.  And your landlord will greatly appreciate less holes in his walls.

What tips do you have for maximizing a Google+ following?  How has Google+ helped your career?

Kimberley Laws is a freelance writer and avid blogger. A relative newcomer to the land of “plussers,” she is thoroughly enjoying building up her following. Her Facebook account, however, is feeling rather neglected. She clamors for attention at http://theembiggensproject.wordpress.com/.

Stop Hunting For Better Clients

freelance writing burnoutI received the following email and thought it might help other freelancers to read my response. The author of the letter agreed to let me post the email anonymously.

Hello Emily,

I am a budding freelance writer. Truth be told I have been a budding freelance writer for more than three years now. I have spent a lot of time writing for low paying content mills, and to be honest I feel that I am pretty much burnt out from it. At the moment I am burdened with low paying clients, and I spend over 12 hours per day writing articles just to pay the rent and eat!

I am constantly reading that there are good paying clients around and I do not doubt that, but so far I have not had any success in attracting their attention or even finding where they are. I don’t think I am a bad writer, and I have a couple of decent clips on Yahoo, Blog Critics, and places like Hubpages.

I really don’t know what it is I am doing wrong. It seems to me that I am missing a piece of the puzzle. I know it all takes hard work and effort, and I am certainly not adverse to rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in. I have just wasted so much of my effort thus far digging in the wrong fields. I am worried I will be burnt out before I realize my full potential as a freelance writer.

Kind regards,
Burnt Out

Dear Burnt Out,

My advice for you is threefold: dump the content mills, stop searching for work, and stop blogging for other writers.

I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain.

I spent some time writing for content mills back in the day, and I’m not surprised you’re unhappy. It might put food on the table, but it’s uninspired work that pays poorly with unreasonable deadlines. My first piece of advice to you? Fire them as clients.

I know you’re dependent on freelancing for your income, so phase them out if you have to. But you can’t accept better jobs if you’re spending 12 hours every day writing drivel. You also don’t have time to improve yourself or your business with such a workload. When will you update your portfolio? Your website? When will you blog for your business?

You also can’t build an impressive portfolio if all your clips are content mill samples. The best writers still produce subpar work when they’re burnt out and underpaid.

My next recommendation is that you stop searching for clients at all. Do you know why content mills can make outrageous demands and pay so little for the work? Because writers keep applying. And the only writers willing to apply to them have convinced themselves they’re desperate for the work. Trust me, the mills know this and they’re all too happy to exploit it.

So change up your business model. I haven’t searched for a client in a few years now, because at some point I realized I was wasting my time. Instead I’ve invested time and money assisting potential clients in their search for me. I built a website and blog and made friends on social media so that when people searched for “Indianapolis freelance writer” they found me. Then they contacted me.

All I do these days is respond to the requests for quotes that land in my inbox and reach out to potential clients in my network. I don’t cold call anyone ever. I don’t scour openings on Elance or oDesk or Craigslist.

Back to the website stuff for a minute. I’m not a keyword expert and I don’t know all the ins and outs of search engine algorithms, but I have common sense and know how to improve my chances of being found online. I recommend you do the same using “freelance writer” or “content writer” with a local qualifier like your town, city, region, or country to bring in search traffic. That’s how they’re going to find you.

The next problem is: what will those people find on your site when they get there? When potential clients see you’ve been blogging to other writers or complaining about the horrors of content mill writing, they’re going to be confused. You need to be posting content for people who hire writers not for other writers. At least until you’ve established a solid client base.

It’s great to commiserate with people who understand, and I don’t know where I’d be without my freelance writer friends, but none of them are ever going to become my next client.

I recently separated my blogs. I have the professional blog for clients and this blog for writing whatever the heck I feel like. But I have a full-time job paying the bills at the moment, so I have some freedom in that regard. If you don’t have the time to run two separate blogs, writing to a client audience should be your priority.

Now, I’m not saying this next part describes you, Burnt Out. But it’s worth putting out there for all the struggling freelancers:

Sometimes I think new writers see talented, successful writers running classes and giving advice to budding writers and they think they need to mimic that behavior to be successful. Great freelance writers have freelance writer followers! Great freelance writers are mentors and give advice! I should do those things to be a great freelance writer too!

Unless you’re in the business of educating new writers right now, it’s not a profitable way to spend your time. If that’s something you want to pursue later, awesome.

I hope this helps you, Burnt Out. Let us know how things go.

Emily