In my presentations to students and authors, I am repeatedly asked, “How do I make a character believable?” or “How do I develop a strong character identity?” It’s an interesting question because, initially, I didn’t have a consistent response. I hadn’t really considered what it was that enabled me as an author to write well-developed characters. I just listened to what they (the characters) said to me and wrote their words.
Nowadays, my answer to the complex question is quite simple, really. Motivation. The best way to write a compelling character is to analyze that character’s motivation. What do they want more than anything? What are they willing to do to achieve it? What are they willing to say to those who support and oppose them? How badly does that motivation propel them?
Consider the fictitious character Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride. For those unfamiliar, Inigo Montoya—in the movie version—is portrayed as a Spaniard who excels at fencing. Although he initially acts as henchman to Sicilian criminal Vizzini, he eventually comes to respect the book/movie’s protagonist and joins his ranks. Despite his loyalties however, Inigo’s motivation, his purpose, remains consistent throughout his criminal pursuits and adventures: locate the six-fingered man who killed his father.
After witnessing his father’s murder, Inigo trains for years in fencing with the hope to avenge his father. This leads him to duels with strangers and general waywardness as he feverishly hunts the man. When he realizes it is unlikely that he will ever find his father’s murderer, he grows depressed and becomes an alcoholic. Only when the protagonist, the Man in Black (Wesley), sparks some life back into him via a rambunctious fencing duel does he regain the willpower to continue his search.
Inigo even goes so far as to tell Wesley what he will say the day he crosses paths with his father’s killer: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” If you’ve not heard this famous phrase, well, now you know where it comes from. SPOILER: Inigo eventually meets his father’s murderer, Count Rugen, and defeats him in decisive combat.
Inigo’s motivation directed the paths he took in life. His determination to avenge his father made him pursue study under some of the best fencing instructors of the time, earning him the title of “wizard,” an esteemed rank greater even than “master.”
When writing characters, it’s okay to simplify their motivation. After all, a complex array of reasons can create a purpose. So, keep it simple.
Naruto Uzumaki wants to become Hokage.
Jeff Winger wants to earn a degree to replace his fake bachelors and get out of Greendale.
Michael Scott wants to be the best boss ever.
Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister from the Reaping.
Veralidaine Sarrasri wants to find a job to help her escape the backwoods where she grew up.
Create a motivation. What does your character want more than anything? Give your character direction and purpose. Once you have that, they’ll tell you what lengths they’re willing to go to pursue that goal. Their personality will take shape; how they talk and address others will follow.
Give them a foundation. Everything else will take root soon after.
It hits the best of us—writer’s block. No matter how many times you reread previously written sections or muse over next steps, you simply can’t see how to escape the corner into which you’ve placed yourself. This can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, the emergence of writer’s block signals a need to further flesh out a story’s plot. Other times, inspiration just vanishes. You could have your entire book planned and plotted and then--poof! Suddenly, you’re not vibing with it anymore. It seems jaded, boring even.
So, what’s a struggling writer to do?
Make a list.
If you’ve reached a crossroads of sort in your young adult fiction novel, make a list of actions your characters could take or things that could happen to them. Start with the mild (perhaps boring?) ideas you have considered. Write those down. Then, keep going. With each new bullet point, create a more fantastical series of events.
Assume your young female protagonist (Lisa) is stuck in a love triangle and her prospective partners (Jon and Sam) have decided to confront her, asking that she choose her heart’s desire. What’s a writer to do? Make a list! Below is an example.
Notice that as the list continues, the ideas become more fantastic, wild. But they maintain some realism. While your book might not lend itself to accommodating ROUS, something of similar madness could occur.
Now that you’ve got your list (it can be as long as you want), go through your ideas and really ponder on them. You perhaps don’t like the idea of Lisa et al being attacked by megamoles, but perhaps a different type of attack occurs. Maybe a riot breaks out between political groups congregating nearby. A terrorist attack destroys the local post office. An ambulance swerves to avoid pedestrians and crashes into a series of nearby cars.
Take elements of your ideas and mix and match! If, after spending time trying to flesh ideas out, you find yourself still stuck, then your list isn’t long enough! Keep going! Make your ideas crazy, outlandish. Perhaps as Lisa deliberates, Jon steps backward and slips into a wormhole! Maybe Sam determines that her love for Lisa isn’t as romantic as she thought; perhaps it’s more platonic or maternal!
Don’t be afraid to explore seemingly irrational ideas.
Working on a military sci-fi thriller but never served in the military in any capacity? Or perhaps you’re writing a nonfiction book regarding WWII but have little to no idea how to address officers? You’re not alone!
Authors should approach military ranks (fictious or not) in the same way they do titles like president, director, chairman. When immediately preceding a personal name, titles are capitalized.
President Joe Biden
Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
But if a title is not present before an individual’s name, it is never capitalized. Consider the examples below:
Joe Biden became president of the United States in 2021.
The longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch is Elizabeth Alexandra, queen of the United Kingdom.
Justin Trudeau is a Canadian political who was elected prime minister in 2015.
Naruhito is the 126th emperor of Japan.
The exact same rules apply to military ranks.
Captain John Smith
General Rob Stark
First Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye
In formal prose and other generic text, titles are lowercased. Thus:
The captain appeared gloomy, sullen.
Ashton looked at the general, his mouth agape at the man’s decision.
“Where are you going?” asked the first lieutenant.
You’re ready to have your manuscript edited so you visit a prospective editor who asks, “I can’t provide an estimate without knowing what service you’re looking for. What type of editing are you looking for?”
“Uh… the normal kind…” you reply, bewildered. Was there more than one kind?
“Well, do you need your book to just be proofread, or do you want it copyedited?”
You stare at your computer screen, sucking on your lip in thought. If only you knew what the difference was!
Let’s pretend your manuscript is a microscope slide. Holding it in your hands (or viewing it on your own) you find minor mistakes, but overall, it looks pretty straightforward. Concerned you’re missing something though, you hand it off to a scientist (an editor) who takes the slide and slips it under a microscope.
Without zooming in on it, the scientist sees it has some issues. It’s got some typos, tense mistakes, inconsistencies in names – you know, basic stuff. This is proofreading.
But you’re curious now because those are things that you missed. What else did your eyes skim over? You want the scientist to really examine it, to copyedit it. The scientist fine-tunes the microscope, setting the objective lens and adjusting the illuminator. Now they can discern the flaws of the manuscript. These include problems with syntax and semantics, illogical content, poorly formed paragraphs, and style. They can see all the typos and misspelled words too, but now that they’ve really zoomed in, they can gain a better understanding of what needs to be done. This is basic copyediting.
Deciding that perhaps you missed quite a few things, you decide to ask the scientist to go all out – examine the manuscript to learn all its dirty little secrets. The scientist agrees and moves your manuscript to a powerful electron microscope. They adjust it and then peer through the eye piece. Not only can they see – and subsequently address – all that they’ve found thus far, but they can now perceive discrepancies in plot and character development. They can now discern weak scenes, dialogue that sticks out or doesn’t make sense, and rearrange pieces of your book to streamline its flow. This is developmental copyediting.
Now, go forth, Author, and find an editor!
The International Standard Book Number, more commonly known as an ISBN, is a numeric commercial book identifier unique to each book. Originally ten numbers long (prior to 2007), ISBNs are now comprised of 13 numbers.
While paperback and hardback books require ISBNs, ebooks do not as the primary purpose of the number is to identify the book in a commercial system. Ebooks are not commercial or physical items and are not tracked in the same manner. Therefore, authors usually only need one ISBN for the purpose of self-publishing.
How you attain that ISBN is up to you.
Option #1: Amazon KDP
Amazon KDP offers free ISBNs to all authors, no matter the subject matter or genre. The advantage of this is that authors do not have to spend hundreds of dollars purchasing ISBNs, nor do they have to go through Bowker’s tedious registration process. It is quick and easy to use. If you are going to promote your book(s) by linking it to the Amazon page, then this is a wise choice. This selection does not alter your ability to sell your books at brick-and-mortar establishments as all of Amazon KDP is a print-on-demand platform.
Conversely, the use of an Amazon KDP ISBN ties your book to the digital platform. Therefore, if you were looking to publish on IngramSpark or Lulu as well, you would be unable to since the ISBN belongs to Amazon.
Option #2: Bowker
The United States ISBN Agency is called Bowker. An ISBN ensures your book’s information will be stored in the Books in Print database. Once you set up an account with Bowker, your ISBNs will be added to your account to recognize you as the publisher of the book titles.
As of June 2021, Bowker charges the following:
ISBNs never expire. If at first you choose Amazon KDP’s free ISBN and then decide you wish to publish using a purchased ISBN, the correction can be made in your manuscript and on your author dashboard with Amazon KDP.
If you are looking to exclusively use Amazon KDP to sell your books, then you do not need to purchase BARCODES. Even if you purchase an ISBN from Bowker and publish using KDP, you do not need to purchase a barcode.
However, if you are taking your book to small printer or looking to submit it to another digital platform, then you will need both an ISBN and a BARCODE. As of June 2021, Bowker sells barcodes for $25. A barcode-ISBN combination is also being sold for $150.
Amazon KDP ISBN Bowker ISBN Bowker Barcodes
I’m sure you’ve heard of Young Adult fiction. It’s an enormous genre that caters to readers from 12 to 18 years of age and focuses on matters and topics that correlate with a reader’s age and experience. Its original purpose was to soften the divide between children’s literature and adult fiction by providing entry into more complex themes and subgenres. Older YA books – like Anne of Green Gables, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and The Giver – were (perhaps still are?) required reading in school. It wasn’t until the emergence of J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series that YA fiction really took root.
Other popular, more modern YA fiction include:
Holes by Louis Sachar
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Modern YA fiction can cover a variety of topics and themes that were once deemed taboo for the casual teenage reader. Concepts such as death, first love, individuality, friendship, problem solving, and courage are common themes within modern YA books.
But as readers grow and mature, they have a natural proclivity not to move on to adult fiction, but to cleave to the YA genre. I know plenty of adults well into their twenties and thirties (myself included) who adore YA fiction’s relevance, heartiness, and emotion.
The term New Adult (NA) fiction didn’t come around until 2009 when a printing press set out a call for fiction that was similar to YA fiction but that could be marketed toward adults. Thus, New Adult fiction was born! Like YA fiction, NA fiction encompasses the above themes (and more) but aims its content at those between the ages of 18 and 30.
But what does that look like?
NA fiction takes themes like first love or individuality and builds upon them, peppering in problems and dilemmas adults entering the work force might face. This can include discovering an individual’s sexuality, dealing with homelessness or drug addiction, navigating the mundanity of adult life, and more. NA fiction delves deeper into the psychology of the new adult protagonist, reflecting life lessons and trials with which readers might also identify.
Because the genre is meant for an older audience, explicit content becomes acceptable. Such matter includes vulgar language, sexual content, and graphic violence (all of which are frowned upon in YA fiction).
So, are you an adult between the ages of 18 and 30 in search of books that play to your heightened emotions? Then do I have a genre for you! Below is a list of NA fiction books:
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Rhys of Earth by Kara D. Wilson
Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
November 9 by Colleen Hoover
Remember Us by Lindsay Black and Layne James
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse
Commonly attributed to Voltaire, though it is said Voltaire took it from an old Italian proverb, this aphorism (n. A pithy observation that contains a general truth) sounds simple enough to comprehend. Only when it is put into practice does one realize its inherent difficulty.
All artists – painters, dancers, singers, thespians, craft gurus, woodworkers, and yes, writers – strive for perfection, strive to become better and to achieve more. When we see mistakes in others’ work, we assure ourselves, “Oh, I would never let that happen” or ask, “How could they have missed that?” In manuscripts of all kinds, errors are unavoidable. Even those books at the top of the New York Times Best-Sellers List are published with minor errors and typos.
Perhaps a pronoun was supposed to read “she” but passed copyeditors and proofreaders as “he,” with its S dropped.
Maybe a gender-neutral machine or AI was mistakenly made a “him” instead of an “it.” Or suppose someone – the author or a copyeditor – had a brain fart and ended up typing “Hitch-pitch scream” instead “high-pitch scream.” Mistakes happen.
No matter how many times you or your editors review your manuscript, errors will continue to subsist. Humans are imperfect creatures, after all. They grow weary, they lose focus, they become distracted. An author could have ten different people review their manuscript and still publish with a handful of errors scattered throughout.
But I’ll just keep rereading my manuscript, you think. I’ll just keep reworking it until there’s absolutely no mistakes.
I often remind my authors of the above aphorism. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Don’t let your obsession to have a flawless manuscript keep you from learning from the experience and pressing on. Don’t keep spending hours combing through your work, searching for typos when that time would be better spent, say, marketing your book or researching your next topic. Yes, of course – do your best to create a book with as few errors as possible. But if that process requires you to continuously review your work over and over, stop.
Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good.
Where is Old Zealand?
Our ancestors weren’t exceptionally clever when it came to naming bodies of land.
Disappointment Islands, French Polynesia
Lonely Island, Ontario, Canada
Snake Island, Brazil
Easter Island, Chile
Great Blue Hole, Belize
Christmas Island, Australian Territory
Dead Dog Island, Canada
You get it.
Unsurprisingly, because our ancestors lacked creativity, there is also a plethora of “new” and “old” towns, cities, and land masses. Included in this list is New Zealand. But what makes it so new? In fact, what happened to Old Zealand?
Although the island nation has long since been populated by the Maori people who call their home Aotearoa, it wasn’t until the Dutch laid eyes on it that the nation was given its European name – Zeeland, which translates to “Sealand” in Dutch. But, because the Netherlands already had a province named Zeeland, they had to distinguish it somehow.
Thus, the name New Zealand was born!
If the “Number 2” pencil is the most popular and standard of all pencils, why is it still number two?
“Number Two” or “No. 2” doesn’t mean the pencil is in second place, nor does it denote it’s worth, contrary to what you thought in first grade – and might still believe. Actually, No. 2 identifies the pencil’s place on the HB graphite grading scale, the gage measuring the hardness of a writing/drawing utensil’s graphite core.
The higher the number, the harder the core which marks lighter on paper. The inverse is also true; the lower the number, the softer the core. Combined with the user’s pressure, softer cores leave darker marks on paper.
To fill out tests, specifically scantrons, it is advised to use the No. 2 pencil – not because it was demoted from first place, but because it is least likely to smear or wear.
Everyone knows the folk song “Jimmy Crack Corn” from their early nursery rhyme days, but, like many songs sung by children for their lyrical ease and rhymes, the song alludes to one of history’s darker themes – slavery. Published in the 1840s during the height of slavery, the song was written with a subversive meaning.
Using a catchy melody, the singer explains that as a slave, he was tasked with protecting his master – and his master’s horse – from insects while outdoors. Although an alternate title for this song is “De Blue Tail Fly” indicating that this was probably the most problematic insect, it is thought that the singer is referring to a type of horsefly whose bite is quite painful. The singer is unsuccessful in safeguarding the master’s horse and the steed bucks, unseating his rider. The master is subsequently killed. The master’s death is ruled an accident due to the blue-tail fly and the slave is exonerated.
So, where does the “cracking corn” part come in? It just so happens, that the idiom “to crack corn” was old slang meaning to sit around idly gossiping. And variations of the name “Jim” was given to slaves. Therefore, the final lines of the chorus imply that with the demise of his master, Jim – the slave – was able to sit back and relax.
“Jim crack corn, I don’t care! Jim crack corn, I don’t care! For [master] me gave away.”