You know those characters that are constantly referred to so smart or so capable or so sensitive (etc. etc.) by other characters or in the narration? And every time it comes up you find yourself shaking your head or rolling your eyes because the character in question either is as bland as boiled potatoes or constantly acts in ways that contradict those claims without explanation?
That’s what is commonly called an “informed trait”. You’re told the character is a certain way (or has a certain ability), but there is more or less nothing in the text to back that up.
It goes the other way around, too, with informed flaws that are supposed to make a character more relatable or interesting – think almost every romantic comedy leading lady who is supposedly “shy” and “clumsy”, but in a cute, endearing way that only ever comes up when the plot asks for it.
It’s frustrating, distracting, incredibly dull and at times downright insulting to the reader to encounter a story where one or more characters have a bad case of this, but unfortunately, it’s a pretty common weakness even in otherwise strong, well-written stories with interesting and complex character concepts.
Since characters and how the reader feels about them (whether they are supposed to relate to them, look up to them or feel repulsed by them) can really make or break a story, informed traits are an easy trap to fall into and many a writer’s Achilles heel.
So, how to avoid them?
This is where the trusty old “Show, don’t tell” comes in. You have most likely been told before that it’s usually better to go for subtlety and leave something to the reader’s imagination than to spell it out, and that is true.
It’s challenging to imply something without outright saying it. You have to get creative with the details you want to put into your story to get a point across by relying on your audience’s ability to read between the lines, and while it’s absolutely worth it to go the extra mile, you also run the risk of making your narrative too stilted and contrived instead.
However, there is a fairly simple trick to make your characterization feel more natural and insert it into the story smoothly:
Stop thinking of your characters as possessing certain traits and start thinking of their personalities as a collection of habits, preferences and specific abilities.
It might not sound like that big of a difference, but it will make translating your character traits into text much, much easier and save you a lot of trouble while editing.
- A “smart” character
This can mean a lot of things. You could have a character who is booksmart, learns quickly, reads a lot, can retain information easily and access it when needed, but has trouble applying theoretical knowledge in real life, someone who entertains their friends by telling them about weird facts and trivia, someone who can still recite poems they had to learn by heart when they were ten, someone with a tendency to talk in such complex run-on sentences they frequently forget what they were talking about half-way through.
Or you could have a character who is good at problem-solving instead, who likes puzzles and riddles, who gleefully obsesses over odd problems to find even odder solutions, but thinks so far out of the box in order to remain engaged in their current task they often miss the forest for the trees.
- A “brave” character
Try to instead make a character who can never resist a challenge, who is a thrill-seeker and went bungee jumping about a dozen times already, who enjoys dragging their friends on the most dangerous looking rides in an amusement park and endlessly teases them about how pale they went afterwards. Make someone who simply cannot stand by when they see someone else get bullied, someone with a collection of scars they wear proudly and a story to tell about each one.
- A “shy” character
Forget about characters who blush prettily when spoken to and that’s it. Instead, write about a character who can’t make eye contact without forcing themselves to, who stumbles over their own words when talking to strangers, who is afraid of wearing bright colours because it might draw attention to them, someone who is humble and polite, but distant and comes across as cold or uncaring because they have tendency to hide their insecurity by retreating into themselves, even though seeming rude is the last thing on their mind.
Insert these habits into the story wherever they fit best. Be consistent in the portrayal of your character’s behaviour, even as character development kicks in. Adjust deliberately, but reasonably. After all, old habits die hard, so having your character break with one, however minor, can be a powerful moment with just as much emotional resonance as a flashy, dramatic scene meant to convey the same sentiment, and any “big” scenes will likely feel more organic if the reader has already seen traces of the necessary character changes before.
“Stop thinking of your characters as possessing certain traits and start thinking of their personalities as a collection of habits, preferences and specific abilities.”
THINGS WRITERS SHOULD DO TODAY:
- Straighten their backs
- Celebrate their victories
- Write anything
- Take the empty cups out of their rooms
- Seriously. Stop overthinking and just write
Just do it.
I know it doesn’t seem like great advice, the same as ‘just rip the bandaid off’ doesn’t always seem like great advice, because it ignores all the nervousness, the hard work, the actual writing and then the posting, but if you don’t just do it, then you’ll get up in your own head and never go through with it.
And that would be a shame.
RelenaFanel’s 101 on Fanfic Writing: ADVICE, not RULES
(keep in mind that my very first fic was posted in 2001 that’s how long it’s been since I started, so I’m going to base this on what I’ve learned in my advanced age. there’s also a tiny bit of these feelings when you start a new fandom)
1. Think of something to write. I love writing AUs, but usually the fandoms I end up writing AUs for are ones that need them. So, you can look at fandom and see what it is that you want to put into it, OR you can acknowledge the many-cake theory and just write what you WANT and love. So Bucky in the Steve Rogers Problem tended to scope out fandom for gaps, and I do that too, but it’s not the only way.
2. Sit down and write it. Maybe scrap it and start something new, maybe not. This step is extremely personal to what will turn out to be your writing habits, so I’m not touching it. It turns out individuals treat an activity like writing as personal, so if you want tips, there are a ton of writing guidelines out there, but don’t take any of them as YOU MUST do this.
3. Get someone to read it over for you to check for plot inconsistencies, typos, etc. I advocating getting a beta reader, but I know a lot of people have trouble with this step and I’m 0% help. So, if not, get someone you know irl to do it. I started with my BFF.
Also: remember that you’re the author and so you have final say over what your beta suggests. This isn’t me telling you to ignore all their help, this is me telling you that you know what your intention was. So if they say ‘no this doesn’t work’ but you think it’s important, consider that maybe they picked out clunky phrasing or something else that would hinder the reader.
4. NOW YOU’RE READY TO POST YAY. (this is all assuming Ao3, and honestly gets a little tl;dr)
Pick a title. Look, picking a title sucks a lot. If you’ve noticed mine have started looking like clickbait articles, and I’m ok with that. A funny title fits my writing. Honestly, go ahead and use song lyrics or poetry lines, or maybe a reference to the fic. Life is short and you could spend half of it thinking up titles – JUST, don’t use something common. Like, if *I* can recognize it as a line from Hamilton or Mumford and Sons, maybe don’t use that one. Ppl don’t pay that much attention to the title unless there’s no title there to pay attention to or if they’ve seen 8 fics in the last week with the same title.
Your life will be happier when you don’t really give a shit WHAT the title is. It took me until like 2015 to reach that point, so… *shrug* Just make sure to call it something.
Write a summary. This also sucks a lot and I haven’t entirely mastered it, but DO NOT admit to anyone that your summary sucks. “summary sucks, just read”? dooonnnn’tttt. If I see that line I’m going to assume the writing in the fic also sucks. Most of the time the summaries aren’t that bad until you get to that line, so just own your summary, no matter how awful you feel it is.
Sometimes you can get away with a line / para from the fic. I try to reserve that for shorter fics that don’t need a lot in terms of summary.
You’re trying to convey what the story is about and make it interesting. So, go look at some summaries for similar tropes and see what people are doing. Just read the summary, this isn’t the point you’re looking at reading the fics. If there’s something you like, copy the style of it (but not word for word).
Also PROOFREAD. Summaries with typos are also something that tends to repel discerning readers.
Make the tags. So for tags you want to remember a few things. Only tag the main relationship in the fic as a courtesy. Then start broad and then narrow in on more specific. So start with whether it’s au or canon. Then the tropes in the main theme. Then some of the tropes that aren’t as important but are present. If you mention something once and it has no bearing on the fic as a whole, there’s no need to tag it. Also be aware of what possible triggers are involved, and conversely what things you might tag so people can find it. An example of this is with sex scenes and whether one of them bottoms. I want the people who love that to be able to find it. I am, as a person, a lot less concerned with people who might find that specific example triggering, but they do, so also be aware of that.
also, be aware of your tags as a whole message. If you write a 5k adorable coffeeshop au that has one line where someone inappropriately comes on to a character, don’t dedicate 5 tags to that line because it’s disproportionate to the contents of the fic. This, ofc, depends on the gravity of the thing, but you could honestly just explain the contents in an author’s note instead of using the tags to explain. If it’s a fluff fic, most of your tags should reflect that.
And honestly if you have a fluffy fic with some major grim or dark themes, then maybe it’s not a fluffy fic?
Also, once I’m done with that I sometimes add some funny or clever tags, but if you’re into the funny and clever tags, remember to make sure the important ones are included so Ao3′s tagging system can work to your advantage.
FINALLY as a specific nitpick of mine that I think is also good advice, don’t admit it’s your first fic or your first fic in a while. It feels like you’re lessening your own culpability, like saying “this is my first fic be gentle” means you’re admitting it might suck so you hope people will be gracious, but in my experience what you’re doing is telling people “be slightly harsher judging this because it might suck” – whether they do it on purpose trying to be helpful or whether it’s subconsciously. It does the opposite of what you mean for it to do.
So, in general, don’t show weakness. Fake it til you make it. The whole process is scary and sometimes it makes us feel better to say something like “oh god this sucks idek” (yes, including me) but it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to your own anxiety. Feel it in your brain, but resist the urge to put it in the post, because what readers see isn’t your ball of anxiety or ‘what if ppl don’t like this?’ panic, they see an author who doesn’t like their own work, and so why should they? They see an author who says ‘this sucks’ and since they’re the authority of their own work, they believe it.
So don’t sabotage yourselves my dears.
5. Authors notes and Posting. You can put any details you don’t tag in the authors note. Usually, I also include a link to my tumblr in the end note because I want people to find me. Learn the html here.
Then, hit that post button.
6. Advertise yourself. You’re your biggest advocate. So make a tumblr post (if you have one and didn’t anon me because you don’t) and tag it with the common tumblr tags within the first 5 tags. This isn’t as important, but it helps. If you do this, make sure to include the link to the tumblr post in your Ao3 notes. You want people who like it to pass it on.
7. Be kind to yourself. As a final point, I don’t know how to approach this without sounding like an egotistical dick, but don’t ever compare your fic to mine and allow my kudos/comments to make you feel bad. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing fanfic since 2001, I adapted early on Ao3 and have had a ton of time to build up subscribers. I’ve been around for a long time, ok, and so you can absolutely strive for the popularity and put the work in for it, but don’t torture yourself over comparing your work to mine.
It’s not a fair comparison.
You know what is a fair comparison? Compare your second fic to your first. Did it do better with kudos/comments? Worse? What’s different between them? Maybe it’s a less popular trope, which you can’t control (unless you write for popularity, in which case make note of it). How can you improve? What do you want to try next?
Play the game against yourself. I promise you, the results are better and you feel a lot less bitter and downtrodden. It’s ok to emulate other authors you admire as a way to work on your writing and find your niche. Don’t outright steal, but work on copying tone as a writing exercise. Keep in mind the fics that you love and ask yourself what you love about them. Tone? Characters? Dialogue? Description?
Hold the nice comments you get close to your heart. Did someone love your description of a certain scene? Love that you’re good at description and keep writing descriptions until you’re better at them. Until you’re the description master.
Did someone leave you a not-so-nice comment about your characterization? Ok, first of all, it’s ok if your first thought is ‘screw you’ because yeah! you stand behind your fic! (maybe don’t answer back ‘screw you’ and if you have the ability to stomach it, instead ask if they mind being more specific in order to help you improve – I have never had that skill, I’m a sulker under negative feedback). But also, if you’re going to internalize their criticism anyway, then use it to your advantage and start paying a little more attention to that part when writing.
A lot of this stuff gets so intuitive that you probably won’t be consciously thinking about it.
Most importantly of all: have fun.
hey betty! one thing i hear a lot in Writing Advice is ‘have faith in your story’ and ‘your voice matters!!’ and while i do wholeheartedly agree, i just. idk, do you have any Words of Wisdom on /why/ your specific, individual voice matters? (especially when you’re a teenage girl writing fanfic, and everything seems kind of- frivolous? Not Good Enough? idk man. i know most of that rhetoric is misogynistic bs, but some days it just feels pointless.) hope you’re having a good day!
this took me forever to respond to in part because i’ve been thinking a lot about how best to answer. this is definitely one of the most challenging writing asks i’ve ever gotten.
i keep coming back to Audre Lorde’s “the transformation of silence into language and action.” specifically the line:
Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.
your voice matters because silence is not the default state of being. you have to speak, and more importantly, you have to be heard. it is a fundamental tenet of existence.
we are sad lonely humans trapped in cages of our singular sentience, and the only means of connecting our brains is to share our experience through language. so saying your voice feels frivolous and not good enough is the machine grinding you into dust. if you find meaning in something, YA or fanfic or sitcoms, other people will too. and if someone else doesn’t like it, or looks down on it, well, it wasn’t written for them. it was written for people who are invested in your perspective. who share and find truth, meaning, relief, and joy in your voice. and would you really want to deprive them of that?
some days, the bad ones, i let the machine grind me into dust. i make myself smaller and smaller until i don’t take up any space at all. i think, though, there is some freedom in non-space. if i am so small that no one can hear me, i’m free to scream without recourse. it is when i am small that i write my biggest risks, my largest truths, because i believe no one could, should, or will ever read it, and then later, when i start to take up space again, i have a piece of writing that is daring and weird and that no one else could have made. and to me, that’s when it feels like my voice matters most.
on all the other days, though, i practice self-aggrandizement. generally we assume our own averageness; we take our success in school and jobs and relationships, lift it up to compare with others, and go, “i guess i’m just like everybody else. if i were exceptional, i’d know by now.”
but what if that’s not true?
what if you’re truly exceptional, one of the best writers in the entire world – in all history, even – but you’re just not there yet? what if you only need to get down a million more words of practice to write the book that inspires an entire generation of writers that come after you?
“that doesn’t seem likely,” you might say.
no, it’s not likely. but we’re not talking about averages and probability and likelihood. we’re thinking in terms of exceptions. and you can only write exceptional work if you believe you have exceptional things to say. if you believe you have a perspective to offer that no one else could write the way that you would write it. you have a truth to show the world that no one else knows.
octavia butler wrote her affirmations on the back of a notebook:
this is a good practice to get into. you don’t need to believe the words in order to write them, but you do need to write them, if for no other reason than to see what you want staring back at you, to make your potential real.
you cannot sabotage that potential because you believe you’re the rule rather than the exception. your future self deserves better than your present doubt. you might think you need to be humble about your skill and realistic about your chances. this is not true. practice telling yourself, “i am the exception.”
another voice might come back with, “what if i’m not?”
and you should answer, “i should give myself the opportunity to find out.”
Really, the most important thing for keeping writing on track – doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction writing, essay writing, game writing, whatever – is not to let stuff live in your head. If all you’ve got is one decent sentence, even if you have no idea what could possibly lead up to it or where it could possibly proceed, write that one sentence down. A text file full of disjointed phrases is better than nothing – jot them down now and worry about how they fit together later.
I’m sorry: I am not a good person to ask this question, since “how did you start writing” for me is “I learned the alphabet and got to work.”
Write every day.
Go grab something like FocusWriter and set the daily goal to 500 words or so, and then grab a random prompt from somewhere like this and just crap out a bunch of garbage. But hit those 500 words. Try to do that for a week.
Then go back and read what you wrote. YES, IT IS HORRIBLE. I hate this step. But it’s critical. Now you’ve got enough space between present-you and past-you that you can concrit yourself. Go back and read what you wrote, out loud if you can, and see what needs fixing.
Then try that for another week. Maybe come up with your own prompts this time, or think of a larger story you’d like to tell. Or maybe not yet, you just started!
The key, though, is to do this consistently. The more you write, the better you get at it, even if you never ever ever show anyone the garbage you wrote in your first week, month, year, decade of doing this.
Aw, now you’ve put a quarter in me.
As far as I am concerned, the only three pieces of truly universal writing advice are “read,” “write,” and “do not argue with reviewers.” (There are people who will tell you that only the first two items on that list really count. Those people are wrong. Unless a reviewer has misgendered you–I once had a reviewer assert that I was clearly a man, based on my failure to write what she considered a satisfying romance–or intentionally insulted you–another reviewer said that it was obvious my obesity had caused my brain to swell, thus resulting in my writing nothing but tripe–do not argue with reviewers. You will waste time and energy and you’ll never win. You’ll just hurt yourself.)
“Read” does not mean “read the classics.” It does not mean “read words of surpassing literature.” It means read. Do I think you should read within the genres where you want to write? Sure. But some people wind up creating genres. Some people read nothing but non-fiction and write the prettiest lies you’ll ever hear. The advice is only universal when you strip it down.
“Write” does not mean “write every day.” I understand where that’s coming from, I really do: I am someone who has always, without fail, written like I was running out of time. Every day, weekends and holidays, unless I’m at Walt Disney World (and sometimes even then). I make myself sick with writing. But that doesn’t make my methodology universal, or healthy.
“Write every day” is one of those phrases that can be unintentionally ableist and classist. It can cause people to say “I know I can’t write every day, so why bother trying?” How many amazing writers do we lose to “write every day”?
Look: you’ll get better faster if you write every day, because practice really does help. But if you can’t do that, because your job exhausts you, because your brain chemistry says nope, whatever, you’re still a writer. As long as you’re trying, as long as you’re forcing words into the world, I don’t care whether it’s 5,000 a day or 5,000 a month or 5,000 a year. Some of my favorite authors only wrote one book, because that was what they could do. They still changed my life, and helped me to become the author I am today.
“Write every day” is not a requirement, I promise.
Use these as prompts, reference, or whatever else you’d like. I had fun making this list.
Dialogue That’s Like a Love Letter
- “It was always you.”
- “Can you just hold my hand?”
- “I love you in every possible way.”
- “You are your own person. You are not mine. But I hope you will let me love you.”
- “I wished every day to hold you once more.”
- “You are a fountain of good fortune, my love.”
- “Seeing your face is like drinking water after a lifetime in the desert.”
- “There is something between us and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever felt.”
- “If I could stay here with you forever, I would.”
- “You had the deftness of a master thief when you stole my heart.”
- “You are the first thing on my mind, the last thought before sleep, and my truest love.”
Dialogue That Tugs at Those Heart Strings
- “You made me feel weak.”
- “I didn’t mean to love you so much.”
- “You were the only person I thought I could trust.”
- “You promised you wouldn’t forget me.”
- “I don’t have anyone else.”
- “I thought you still loved me.”
- “You never cared that you broke my heart.”
- “It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”
- “Please just stay with me. For one moment at least.”
- “You’re leaving now?”
- “You didn’t miss me at all?”
- “I can’t love you anymore.”
- “I wish I was sorry.”
- “All these years and you decide to break my heart now?”
- “Did I ever really matter to you?”
Dialogue That is Angry
- “Admit that you’re wrong!”
- “Do not compare yourself to me.”
- “My hate for you runs deeper than your ego.”
- “You left me!”
- “You will never know how I feel.”
- “I wish you were dead.”
- “You will regret this.”
- “Get away from me!”
- “I don’t know you anymore.”
Dialogue That is Sunshine and Smiles
- “This is my favorite time of day.”
- “Isn’t it beautiful?”
- “Feel it, it’s soft.”
- “He’s adorable, what’s his name?”
- “Let’s take the long way home.”
- “I know it’s early, but you have to see this sunrise.”
- “Paint with me.”
- “I love it. It’s amazing.”
- “Look at those stars.”
- “You’re absolutely fantastic.”
(This post assumes these characters are banded together in at least one large group and must work toward a similar goal.)
Let’s look at the main components that are important in large cast stories:
Teams and Sub-groups
The larger the cast, the more teams and sub-groups there are (or at least, the more there should be). These characters can find themselves in groups through a number of ways: similar backgrounds, random circumstances, matching beliefs/moral compass, etc etc.
Sometimes you can group them into categories that work well with tension, humorous effect, and character development. Some categories include:
- the selfish lone wolves that are forced to work together
- nerds who don’t communicate well
- the hero-types that can’t agree on anything
- long-term friends and their ragtag bunch of new allies
- honestly, just think about teams from the MCU
Sub-groups are typically a must for stories with a large cast, as it expands the plot, individual characterization/development, conflict, and clarification. It staggers introductions of each character, giving them proper significance within the story right off the bat.
This is a tricky thing to carry out. Multiple points of view are necessary unless you are absolutely sure you only want to follow ONE character the entire story, which is a feat in itself and probably ill-advised (but you do you). However, if you decide to use multiple POVs, you then also have to choose whether you want to carry that out through alternating first-person narratives or use third-person. First-person is going to require a more in-depth understanding of the characters’ voice and more decisions of who within each sub-group gets to narrate (as well as how reliable and involved they are). Both can be used in different ways to interconnect each group’s storyline. All personal choice.
Communication, within any large group, sucks. So now imagine there has to be communication between individuals, sub-groups, and the overall group. Everyone is going to have their own style of communication (or lack thereof) and each subgroup is going to have a different dynamic for it as well. Learning how (mis)communication, lying, personal details, and rumors circulate through individuals, sub-groups, and the overall group is important to the realism and storyline. It sounds daunting, but just watch Guardians of the Galaxy or any Avengers movie with this in mind and you’ll understand how to do it easily in no time.
Loyalty and Relationships
Two things easily complicate a large group’s dynamic: loyalty and relationships.
These things can strain or strengthen sub-groups and/or the team as a whole. It depends on who is involved, what they could be jeopardizing, and a bunch of other factors.
They’re good things to consider the repercussions and effects of especially if you have love triangles, brokens hearts, lost friendships, secret histories, and trust issues floating around the team.
Loyalty also directly corresponds with teamwork, another factor to consider.
How to use all this
- the members
- teams and sub-groups
- relationships within the group
- teamwork and overall dynamic of the group
- etc etc
No matter what the main conflict is, having a large group that must work together provides an endless amount of other conflicts.
- question of authority/leadership
- conflicting personal interest
- opposing beliefs
- etc etc.
In the end, having a large cast of characters that work together is a daunting task, but hopefully this post broke down some of the trickier aspects in planning the story. Best of luck on your writing journey!
First thing’s first: Your stories do not have to be long. Do not turn a story that only needs ten thousand words into a 200,000 word epic that has your readers bored and your editors ripping their hair out.
However, if your stories seem a little bare bones and sound more like a glorified outline than a story, then here are a few tips to beef it up:
(WARNING: These tips can help you or hurt you; if utilized in the wrong way, they can make your story seem cluttered and make it drag on longer than it needs to)
How to Make Your Story Longer
1. Add description
Adding description is the main way to bulk up a story. Describe the place they’re in if it doesn’t interrupt the narrative, add little details that really make the story shine.
If they’re walking into the room, give a few lines on what the room looks like. You don’t have to describe it down to the last minute detail, but the little bits of description that you do include will definitely add up and boost your word count.
2. Add dialogue
Dialogue can be used as a long way of describing something that can easily be stated in one sentence, and for that reason it is incredibly dangerous to use this method in excess.
Instead of saying that they were all scared, have a little back-and-forth with one character making a nervous remark and the other character reassuring them.
You have to be really careful with this, but if you do it correctly, it should help you make the story longer.
Also while we’re talking about dialogue, you can add things to it to bulk it up and make it seem more dimensional.
“I don’t really know if this is a good idea, guys,” Gary said. “This place doesn’t look safe.”
“I don’t really know if this is a good idea, guys.” Gary had chewed all of the nails on his right hand down to the quick and was now diligently working on the nails of his left hand.
3. Show, don’t tell
Instead of stating what’s going on, show what’s going on. I’m not going to get into this because there are so many posts out there that describe it, so I’ll leave this up to you.
Hope this helped!
If I may, because I ran into this problem when I first started my serious attempts at fiction and got this advice:
4. Add a subplot. Or two.
If you’re clocking in at 10k words but your goal is novel length, the problem may be that you’ve stuck too close to your primary story. This works in short stories and novellas because of the length restrictions, but for a novel you will need more.
Here is some good advice on how to incorporate a subplot that isn’t extraneous junk meant to stretch your word count, but vital content that adds depth and breadth to your story.
5. Try a beat sheet
A beat sheet is essentially a structured outline. They are almost required for screenwriting and genre fiction.
I should caveat this with: just because you outline with a beat sheet does not mean you are bound to the outline. As you write, it’s almost a given that the story will evolve beyond your initial beat sheet. BUT the beat sheet is a great place to start and continuously refer back to to ensure that your story has a consistent rhythm, you aren’t leaving things out (that third act twist!), and of course to help flesh out your story if you find yourself hyper focusing on just your primary plot.
I am a fan of the Blake Snyder beat sheet. It is designed for screenwriting, but can easily be adapted for written fiction.
I hope this helps!