If you write your characters like real people, they’ll read like real people.
But, in order to bring them to life, we first have to figure out who they are. Some writers want to understand their characters before they type a single sentence. Others like to learn about them on the way. Think of it like meeting online versus a blind date.
When you meet a potential date online, there’s an opportunity to get to know him before you’re face to face. You might discover that his blue eyes remind you of a cloudy day, that he works at a law firm, loves sushi, hates politics, and lost his mom to cancer in college. After you meet, there’s still more to learn. The same goes for your characters. As the creative process works itself out, be careful not to get stuck in your “online” first impression. Be willing to be flexible. You’ll get a better story.
When you meet on a blind date, you don’t know what to expect. You’ll probably notice those blue eyes right away, but the rest might take time. The same goes for your characters. You’ll be writing “blind” at the beginning. Be careful not to plow ahead without developing individual personalities for your characters. Once you feel you know them well, be willing to go back and tweak who they are.
Give the most description the first time we meet a new character. Otherwise your reader might form an incorrect picture. Maybe you meant to write an elderly woman, but your reader sees her as a young mother. Once your reader gets a feel for who a character is, those first impressions are hard to erase.
Example: Two silver hoops stuck in his eyebrow. Long-sleeve tats started at his knuckles, crept like vines around his arms, and disappeared underneath his black T-shirt. But it was the matching silver barbells—one stapled through his nose, the other tacked to his tongue—that made my mouth go dry and gritty.
The “most description first” guideline doesn’t always hold true for a POV (point-of-view) character who’s describing herself. We’ll come back to that later.
What Does Your Character Look Like?
Think in movie terms. Having to squint at blurry characters to figure out what they look like distracts me from getting caught up in the plot. Write clear characters.
Example: Papa Joe’s trimmed mustache matched his gray ponytail. Tall, reedy and wearing a threadbare Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and a pair of wide-bottomed dark jeans, he looked like a first-generation hippie who’d found his way home from Woodstock after a forty-year detour.
For an instant “visual,” compare your character to people most readers know.
Example: Even though Dad wore his best black suit and only pair of dress shoes, the strands of brown hair sticking up on top of his head made him look early-morning rumpled. Sort of like Bryan Cranston before he went bald and Breaking Bad.
What about writers who believe less is more and that readers should create their own character interpretations? Even crossword puzzles give clues. At least offer readers some visual hints to help fill in the blanks. Otherwise, all they’ll see is a shadow of who you created your character to be.
Personality: What Does Your Character Act Like?
Personality descriptions can be as telling as physical descriptions. Not every beefy guy and busty girl will need a math tutor. This gives you a chance to break stereotypes and come up with distinctive people to populate your story.
Example: Papa Joe stood in the middle of the room shaking his backside, and what I hoped was a drained bottle of Budweiser, at a field full of life-size football players on a TV screen that covered the entire wall.
Try combining personality traits with physical attributes.
Example: Cade Brody. The guy at the top of my unattainable list. Six feet of packed lean muscle. Messy brown hair. Deep-ocean eyes. Oak Cliff’s very own tattooed and barely tamed bad boy cliché.
Example: Trace might be two inches shorter than Cade, but he makes up for it in ego.
First Impressions Count
We tend to form an impression the first time we meet a new person. We do the same when we meet a new character.
Make sure to introduce us the way you want that character to be perceived. Do you want us to swoon over him or root for her? Really think about this. Be intentional. You might come up with the most fabulous description ever, but if it doesn’t fit your character, the reader will get the wrong idea. And once ideas are formed, they stick.
Example: Emma still appeared to be in love with Derek—who seemed as oblivious as always. She was crazy to give up the sophistication of a man from Paris for a corn-fed lumberjack from Wisconsin.
How does this make you feel about Derek?
Example: Hendrix’s grandpa, Papa Joe, had been everyone’s grandpa ever since I could remember, his kitchen table more popular than Runaway’s one and only bar.
How do you feel about Papa Joe?
It’s time to talk about how your POV characters see themselves. Your point-of-view character is the person telling the story. Some stories have one, others have more. Think of a typical romance. You see the world from behind both the hero's and heroine’s eyes at different times.
*Confused about POV? See the beginning of my blog on The Ins and Outs of Internal Dialogue.
Sometimes it helps to think of the POV character as yourself. For example, you don’t think about your hair or eye color unless there’s a reason. The POV character won’t describe those things without a reason either. I don’t flip my “blonde” hair over my shoulder. I flip my hair over my shoulder.
How POV Characters Can Describe Themselves
Since it’s “cheating” to use a mirror, and a POV character doesn’t think of her own age, size, skin, hair, or eye color, what can you do?
- Compare with Another Character
Example: Unlike me, Claire spent time to style her hair. Today it spiraled over her right shoulder. The twist highlighted the natural red streaks, swirling them through the blonde like an artist had brushed paint across the strands in symmetrical lines. But it was her eyes—one vivid green, the other electric blue—that held Kyle, and every other boy we knew, in place.
My hair. My eyes. My face. Sort of. I brushed my fingers over my low ponytail. Claire pulled off our unusual traits in a way that said unique. On me, they screamed mutant.
- Get Creative
Example: I’ve been an adult half a day, and it already sucks. Eighteen. A joke of a number the court picked that proclaims me ready to deal with grown-up crap when I haven’t even graduated from high school.
- Focus on Personality
Example: I chewed on my pinky nail, mangling my day-old, raging-red manicure. Maybe I was paranoid. Maybe I only imagined that prickle scraping up my spine like a thorny sixth sense.
- Have Another Character Comment
Example: “Not the way to get the guys.” I pulled the towel off Jennie’s shoulders to reveal her new swimsuit.
She grabbed it back and looked at me. “Some of us don’t have a Barbie body or a tankini tan.”
When POV Characters Can Describe Themselves
Earlier, I encouraged you to give the most description right up front—except when a POV character described herself.
Why hold back? Because real people don’t think about themselves in terms of descriptions. They think about their physical and personality traits in terms of the world around them.
Give us enough to start to form a picture, but don’t be afraid to take your time to build a description based on the POV’s internal thought or to use other characters to color in the holes.
Example: (First physical snapshot of a POV) I knew by the time I called the Plano police the SUV would be gone, and I’d be the one in the report—Kate Thomas. B Student. Blonde. Seventeen. Ridiculously paranoid.
Example: (First personality snapshot of a POV) Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.
Sometimes a person’s view of himself can be inaccurate. He can elevate or demean the way he sees himself. You can use that to your advantage in your story.
Make Your Characters Pop
Another way to make characters real is to make them stand out.
- Physical Differences
Example: His clothes matched the sparse office décor, but not each other. Brown-and-orange striped tie. Gray dress shirt. Black pants. Brown shoes. But it was the slight limp slowing his progress that drew my gaze.
Example: Vi and her lavender bedhead spill into the room from the hallway, crumpled pantyhose in one hand, yesterday’s dignity in the other.
Example: Dad scrapes a hand over his buzz cut. Front to back. It’s what he does when he can’t find words. He probably should be bald by now.
- Speech (Accents, Dialect, Inflections, Pet Words)
Example: “This thing is new, you know?” Pitching my voice in that perfect place between arrogant and sexy, I pull Jess back against me. “We’ll have to see how the week goes.”
- Body Language
Example: David’s waiting on the porch, one hand in his pocket, the other on the railing, eyes narrowed like I’m on his clock, and he’s mentally docking my pay.
Example: Alek smelled like Abercrombie & Fitch. The cologne. And the store.
Example: Sunlight streams through the wall of windows, highlighting Vi’s lavender bob and brightening her fuchsia suit. Twenty years past her party-queen prime, she still somehow manages to rock both those colors.
Example: I sprinted down the back stairs to the laundry room and grabbed the keys to Lola, my middle-aged beige Corolla.
Avoid Being Vague
Readers don’t like to be confused.
Don’t introduce a character with a nameless, faceless pronoun. Don’t use a pronoun where it has no name to refer back to. Especially when you’re opening a new scene. You might think you’re being mysterious. You’re not. You’re being frustrating. A generic “she” or “he” could refer to anyone.
Example: Tucking my earbuds into my pocket, I follow him out of my room. “I can drive myself.” Or stay home and spare my self-esteem a few thousand skid marks.
“Vi offered to come get you.” Dad throws the words over his shoulder. The first words he’s said to me all morning.
*Dad needs to be in the first sentence, not him.
Write your characters like real people, and they’ll read like real people. Your character should act and react like you would if you had his background and personality. When in doubt, put yourself in the scene, close your eyes, and play it out in your head.
Have any other hints to add? Post them in the comments!
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.
Lori Freeland Author/Editor/Writing Coach
The Accidental Boyfriend out on Radish. Grab the free app.
Gabriel Wade isn’t a werewolf, he just plays one on TV. Jessica Thorne has never had a boyfriend, she just writes teen romance. But they both know what it’s like to have their lives ripped away. To be crazy desperate to get them back. To suffocate in the restless ache of losing someone who’s still here.
Welcome! Welcome to another exciting installment of Writers in the Storm.
This episode promises, thrills, chills, journeys to foreign lands in search of writing glory, as well as encounters with writing history and deadly foreign bacteria! And, Gentle Reader, there is a Moral to this story.
That’s An Invitation . . .
Writing is sometimes exhilarating, but most often it’s lonely and painful — and the latter can be on a good day.
You must learn the craft, practice, find your voice, practice, complete manuscripts and send them out. See the Notes at the end of this essay for a way to find those steps in detail.
And through all of that, when you wake up at 2:00 am and think, “Am I any good?” even if you answer that with, “Bah! Humbug!” you must, must find the courage to keep going. You must avoid the impulse to say, “I suck! This is useless. No one cares.” If you are a regular reader of this blog (and if you’re not you should be) you have heard reasons to keep going. I’ve contributed some of them.
Well, here’s something new.
At a low point in my writing career the Universe, God, fill in your own idea, stepped up and spoke to me. Here’s what happened.
. . .to Make a Reservation
It was an age long ago, in the distant past, 1978 to be exact. Some college friends, my wife Nancy, and I went on vacation to Great Britain and France.
I’d written book reviews and a magazine called The Pacific Northwest Review Of Books seemed to like my work, or at least they didn’t hate it, so I wrote them and pitched an idea for an article about antiquarian bookstores in London. They wrote back saying they might be interested and could I supply pictures? Sure! (I had a camera, so how hard could it be? Don’t answer that.)
I looked up three London bookstores and about a month before we left, wrote to them, sort of “Oh hi, I’m coming to London, can I talk to you?”
None of the bookstores answered the letters, but no matter.
The first bookstore on my list was Peter Eaton, Ltd. I showed up and met a nice man, and was convinced he’d have everything I’d need, until he said he’d never heard of me. I showed him the letter. He said it must have gone to the owners, who rarely came in to the store. I could try calling back later. He couldn’t talk to me.
Next was G. Greer. This time — good news — they had received my letter but it would not be convenient to talk to me. At all.
Then there was Magg’s. The older gentleman said I could try calling back for an appointment with the owner, but he didn’t come into the shop very often. He couldn’t talk to me.
So I tried a new approach — wandering aimlessly into bookstores to ask about business and see what happened. The kids working the cash registers were about my age and they could tell me how to ring up a sale. The owners, if they were there, basically said, “You want what?! An interview?” when they spoke to me at all.
Dying to Take Me Away
Okay, I was bummed. No joy. Snake-belly low.
So it was all a waste, right? Not just a waste, humiliating. Not only a humiliating waste of valuable vacation time, but also a black mark against my name at a magazine that liked me.
But, of course, this True-Life Adventure story has a happy ending, right?
Well, England is cold. Apparently even in the summer. And, uh, well, actually I got pneumonia, then turned out to be allergic to the ampicillin I was prescribed, and then didn’t know what was happening so I kept taking it. Later, when I was writing medical training scripts one of our staff nurses heard this story and explained that the germ was foreign and I had no immunity. I had no chance at all once those nasty bacteria got ahold of me. And the allergic reaction? I could have died. Next, most of the friends we were traveling with left Nancy & me behind and went to off to Wales. We later dubbed this the “Eat the Weak” vacation. Yeah, they ditched me. I didn’t blame them; I just waved weakly at the car as it drove away.
But it wasn’t a waste. Here’s why.
They’ve Got Everything You Need
We visited Stratford-on-Avon, yes, that Stratford-on-Avon, home of Shakespeare. And while we were there I saw a framed poster advertising a production of “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” to raise money for restoration of the building.
One of the stars of the charity event was Charles Dickens.
Yes, that Charles Dickens. He was donating time to help save the home of one of his favorite writers. I realized there was this long tradition of writers helping each other as they created stories to entertain and enlighten, a chain that goes back past Beowulf to campfire tales to cave paintings.
And in one of the few true epiphanies I have ever experienced I realized that I was part of that same tradition. A small part but a link in that chain nevertheless.
And you are, too.
It didn’t matter that no one liked my sf novel. It didn’t matter that my article was a disaster. I’m not alone. Neither are you.
Back home, after the rash that covered my back and chest cleared up and I had for the most part stopped coughing, not letting a minor detail like I didn’t get any of the interviews I’d promised to deliver stop me, I wrote the article anyway. Content? We don’t need no stinkin’ content. “Let’s Not Talk About Old Books in London, or, Opening the Mummy’s Tomb” was sent off to the magazine which promptly rejected it despite the catchy title and a nice picture of the front of one of the bookstores.
Forty years later I remembered Stratford-on-Avon and that Dickens poster and I thought of sharing the story with all of you.
Because, unless you are Stephen King, you will hit low spots. And like all those who came before you, you will have to find a way to suck it up and keep going.
I can tell you, dear reader, about the adventure and hope to provide a chuckle and — in a way — the article lives.
There is value in your work. No matter what, there is value in your work.
In 1848 Dickens helped save Stratford-on Avon. A hundred and thirty years later that act helped save my writing career.
Remember, always remember, you are part of that tradition. Some writers are 33rd Degree, we may be 1st Degree, but we’re members of the same lodge, the fraternity of ink-stained wretches, and when you are sitting there at 2:00 am wondering “What happens next?”, thinking “Bah! Humbug! Why am I doing this?” and you feel like Tiny Tim on crutches hobbling through the snow, remember Dickens scribbling notes on a scrap of paper held on his knee as his carriage races through the foggy London night.
If you feel like you’re part of the tradition, share with us the writers you’re proud to be associated with. After all, we’re in this together.
God bless us every one. Happy Holidays!
Have you had a vacation experience, domestic or international, that might appear in one of your novels? How have you worked through those times when you ask, "Why am I doing this?"
Thanks to Robert A Heinlein for articulating the “33rd Degree” idea in his wonderful YA novel, Space Cadet.
Google Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing for all of them spelled out.
For the Stratford-on-Avon restoration story do a Google search. It’s a great tale, with P. T. Barnum actually trying to buy the building and move it to his collection in the U. S. I’m not making this up.
Even King wondered if he was selling only because he was Stephen King and were the stories any good, and that led to the “Bachman Books.” They sold well. They’re good.
James Preston survived the Attack of the Alien Virus and went on to write the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next appearance will be a panel on January 26 at the Fullerton Public Library.
By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes
Firearms . . . Love them or hate them, they often turn up in our fiction. Sadly, they often turn up in fiction in fictional ways that leave readers throwing books against the wall. To keep that from happening to WITS readers, let's take a look at the firearms that most often turn up in espionage and crime fiction—the revolver, the semi-automatic, and the automatic. When it comes to handguns, specifically, only revolvers and semiautomatics are usually used by intelligence professionals in the field, as the vast majority of automatic weapons are rifles.
Before we get to the differences in those types of handguns, though, we need to address the most common firearm misnomer of all time -- the "clip" vs. the "magazine." Time and again in fiction, shooters are reloading their "clips" into their "automatic" pistols, when they should be loading their "magazines" into their "semiautomatics." Let's take a look at the differences so that you savvy folks will never make that mistake.
Clip Vs. Magazine
A magazine has a spring that force-feeds the ammunition as the shooter fires. A clip does not have a spring or a feed mechanism. It simply holds the ammo and attaches to a magazine or inserts directly into a firearm. These are examples of "clips."
On the left half of the picture, we have an empty M1 Garand clip, an M1 Garand clip loaded with eight rounds of 30-06 ammunition, and the brass from a 30-06 spent cartridge. On the right half of the picture, we have nine rounds of 7.62x39 ammunition loaded onto a "stripper clip" and an empty stripper clip. This stripper clip holds ten rounds. The tenth 7.26x39 cartridge is just above the loaded clip. The clips are plain metal with no springs or gadgets of any kind that assist in feeding the ammunition through the firearm. Once the cartridges have been fired, the clips can be reloaded. However, in combat that is highly unlikely. A clip would normally be discarded and a new clip loaded into the magazine or the magazine well, depending on the firearm.
The vast majority of firearms made after WWII do not use clips.
Extremely few modern weapons that use clips are being manufactured today unless they are replicas of old weapons. One rare example of a modern weapon using a clip is the Smith & Wesson 9mm revolver, which uses a moon clip. So unless your character is using a historical weapon or one of the rare modern firearms that take actual "clips," the terminology is a fiction.
Next we have "magazines." Magazines are widely used in both handguns and rifles. They can be detachable or not. They hold cartridges and can be quickly and easily reloaded. There are springs in the magazines that assist in feeding the ammunition through the firearms.
The larger magazine in the picture is an “extended grip” 9mm SIG Sauer magazine, and the smaller magazine is from a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380. These magazines fit into the handles of the pistols shown. Magazines are made of metal or plastic and can be reused countless times. They don’t get “used up” just because all of the rounds are fired.
Writing Tip: If you’re writing historical fiction, you might, indeed, have a weapon that uses a clip. If you are writing anything post-WWII, your weapon, unless it is a revolver, will likely have a magazine. We recommend you do a bit of research on the specific model of weapon in your manuscript, including the year it was made.
A revolver is so called because the cartridges reside in a revolving cylinder. Almost no revolver ever made has an actual manual safety mechanism. Like the semiautomatic, one trigger pull equals one shot. However, the brass shells are not ejected automatically. A shooter must open the cylinder and eject all of the shells simultaneously and reload. A shooter can hasten this process by using a “speed loader” to insert all of the cartridges with one motion. The legalities of revolver ownership vary from state to state, but revolvers are generally the most legally accepted of handguns.
Things to remember about revolvers:
- Ammunition is loaded into a cylinder.
- Revolvers virtually never have manual safety mechanisms.
- One trigger pull results in one shot.
- No brass is ejected.
- Legal in varying degrees according to state law.
With a semiautomatic, ammunition loads into a removable magazine that usually fits into the pistol grip, like the ones pictured above. To reload, a shooter drops the empty magazine out of the grip and snaps in a full magazine. Most people are able to drop a magazine and snap a new one into a semiautomatic faster than they can reload a revolver; however, a skilled shooter is just as quick with a speed loader. Like the revolver, one trigger pull always equals one shot. Unlike the revolver, the brass is ejected with each shot. Also unlike the revolver, a semiautomatic often has a manual safety device.
Semiautomatics are legal in all states, but only to varying degrees in different places. In a few states, they practically come as prizes in the bottom of Cracker Jack boxes, while in others, they are more difficult to obtain than a straight answer from a politician.
It is extremely common for a semiautomatic to be inaccurately referred to throughout media, movies, and TV as an “automatic” weapon. No matter how hot the journalist, movie star, or soap opera star might be, it simply isn't so. If you make that mistake in your own writing, you are sure to get a bursting inbox full of corrections.
Things to remember about semiautomatics:
- Ammunition is loaded in a magazine.
- One trigger pull equals one shot.
- Often has manual safety mechanism.
- Brass is ejected, usually to the right of the weapon, every time a shot goes off.
- Legality varies according to state. Some states make semiautomatics difficult to obtain, or they restrict the size of the magazine. Other states have the Cracker Jack Box standard.
With an automatic weapon, the cartridges load into a removable magazine. The weapon is called automatic because when a shooter pulls the trigger, it automatically fires repeated bullets until the shooter takes their finger off the trigger. When the shooter fires, the brass shells of the cartridges are ejected from the weapon at high speed.
Modern automatic weapons are generally illegal for private ownership without special government procedures—emphasis on “generally.” There are three ways an individual in America can obtain an automatic weapon. . . .
The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 made it illegal for private individuals to acquire fully automatic weapons without special permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Private gun owners can still obtain one of the pre-1986 fully automatic firearms if they fill out a form, wait several months, secure a tax stamp, and purchase the firearm for an exorbitant amount of money—exorbitant because, according to the National Rifle Association, there are only around 150,000 pre-1986 fully automatic weapons in private ownership.
The second way private individuals can obtain an automatic weapon is by going through the intense process of obtaining a license to manufacture Class III/NFA firearms. Once the individual has this license, they can secure a conversion kit to modify a semiautomatic rifle to make it fully automatic. With the hassle and expense, though, we recommend using the money for a nice beach vacation rather than pursuing one of these weapons.
The third way to obtain an automatic weapon in America is the timeless and ever-popular method known as theft. If your characters try this method, especially with anyone who owns an automatic weapon, that owner might remember to use it on your character.
Things to remember about automatics:
- Ammunition is loaded in a magazine.
- One trigger pull equals multiple shots.
- Likely has a safety mechanism.
- Brass is ejected as the shooter is firing.
- Illegal for private owners everywhere in the United States except with a very detailed, expensive process.
It’s worth noting that different types of ammunition and barrels impact accuracy and are used for different purposes. For example, Bayard & Holmes use hollow point cartridges for self-defense because the bullets are less likely to pass through the target and harm someone behind them. Different barrels with different types of rifling are also used depending on the purpose at hand. Firearms experts have written treatises about the many subtleties of ammunition and barrels. If you discuss types of ammunition and barrels in your fiction, we recommend you read one of these treatises before you commit your writing to stone or Kindle. If you make a mistake, firearms experts will call you on it, and they can be pretty rough about it.
Writing Tip: Be aware that no matter how much you research, there are firearms aficionados who will write to you about the rarest and most obscure exception to whatever you say and tell you that you’re stupid. Don’t let that bother you. It’s what they live for. Be reasonably diligent in your vocabulary, hit the big things like “revolver,” “semiautomatic,” “automatic,” “clip,” and “magazine,” and you can be pretty sure the vast majority of your readers will be satisfied. As for the rest, don’t feed the trolls.
Do your characters carry or use firearms? Which firearms do they use? What are your firearms pet peeves in fiction? Do you have any questions for us?
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Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Their latest release, SPYCRAFT: Essentials, is designed for writers. It addresses the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the spook personality and character, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. It is available in digital format and print at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.
Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.
When the money doesn’t come flowing in or when the market ignores your book, it’s easy to lose the joy in writing. Fortunately, you can get it back.
What Rewards are Writers Seeking?
In almost everything we do, there are two types of rewards involved:
- Extrinsic rewards are those we get from the outside world, including money, recognition, prizes, and praise.
- Intrinsic rewards are those we get from inside ourselves, including a sense of accomplishment, personal satisfaction, mastery of a craft or skill, or simply the pleasure of pursuing something we enjoy.
Though both methods can be effective when you’re pursuing a goal, it depends on what kind of goal it is. Some research has suggested that extrinsic rewards—particularly money—may in some cases be detrimental to creative goals.
In one experiment, for example, scientists asked elementary and college students to make “silly” collages. Teachers then rated the projects based on creativity, and found that the students offered money came up with the least creative results.
In another related study, researchers asked creative writing college students to write poetry. One group was given a list of extrinsic reasons for completing the project, including making money and impressing teachers. The other group was given a list of intrinsic reasons, including self-expression and the enjoyment of playing with words.
Twelve independent poets then judged the poems. Results showed that participants given extrinsic reasons to write not only wrote less creative poems, but also created less quality work than those given intrinsic reasons.
“The more complex the activity,” wrote lead author Teresa M. Amabile, “the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward.”
Researchers have some theories as to why this may be:
- Extrinsic rewards may make us feel less autonomous in pursuing the activity, and lead us to believe we’re now controlled by the reward, making the activity less enjoyable.
- Rewards encourage us to complete the task as quickly as possible to receive the reward, and to take few risks, reducing creativity.
- Extrinsic rewards may simply make the task seem more like a “job.”
Signs You’re Thinking Too Much About Extrinsic Rewards
1. What are you thinking about when you’re writing?
While writing, do you notice thoughts like, This book isn’t going to be as good as my last one? Do you worry the reviews will be lackluster, or that this book won’t get the green light from your publisher? Are you secretly hoping this book will the one to garner you the publishing rewards you long for?
All of these types of thoughts are centered on extrinsic rewards, and even if they occur only sporadically during your writing time, they can derail your focus and sap your motivation. When you find yourself thinking something like this, let the thought go and bring your focus back to the story, alone.
2. How much pressure are you feeling?
Perhaps you’re trying to “write quickly” so you can get more books out there and make more money. Maybe you’re trying to please an editor so you can hang onto a multi-book contract. Maybe you’re trying to prove that the time you spend on writing is really worth it by getting the story done and published, already.
Feeling stressed and pressured quickly takes the joy out of writing, and stress and pressure usually come from focusing on outside rewards. Try to think back to why you started writing in the first place, and see the blank page as a place for fun.
3. How do you feel about yourself as a writer?
It’s amazing how many of our feelings about ourselves as writers are tied up in outside approval. When children create, they do so simply for the fun of it, until they start to get the idea that it matters what others think about their projects.
If you’re feeling down about your writing or about your ability as a writer, you can probably trace it back to something outside yourself—a bad review, negative comment, lost contest, or publishing rejection. Remind yourself that the emotions you’re feeling are because you are seeking approval outside of yourself.
When to Use Extrinsic Rewards to Your Advantage
Sometimes extrinsic rewards can be beneficial to a writer. Think about those writing-related tasks you don’t usually enjoy. Scientists have found that extrinsic motivation works most effectively for them. So if you don’t like promoting your work, for example, you may find more success by providing yourself with extrinsic rewards each time you complete any marketing-related task.
Put together a successful book launch? Give yourself a weekend away. Update your website? Take yourself out to dinner. Write a series of guest posts? Get yourself that new outfit you’ve had your eye on.
“External rewards can be a useful and effective tool for getting people to stay motivated and on task,” says Kendra Cherry, author of Everything Psychology Book. “This can be particularly important when people need to complete something that they find difficult or uninteresting, such as a boring homework assignment or a tedious work-related project.”
Restore the Joy in Writing
Writing promotes healing self-expression.
In one 2005 study, researchers found that those individuals who had experienced an extremely stressful or traumatic event who wrote about the experience for 15 minutes four days in a row, experienced better health outcomes up to four months later than those who didn’t write.
“When we express our feelings honestly,” says writer Nadia Sheikh, “we are better equipped to deal with them because we actually know what we are feeling instead of denying it….we feel more in control of our thoughts and feelings, and we understand them more clearly.”
Writing creates personal satisfaction.
How many people can say they’ve actually completed a poem, short story, or novel? As writers, when we finish a project, there is a blissful sense of satisfaction. We may re-read the words later and wonder, “Where did that come from?” or “How did I do that?”
This sort of satisfaction seems to be even more delicious when the project is difficult. If you had to bang your head against the wall to get through the middle of your novel, but then you figured it out and finished it, that creates a feeling that’s hard to match with any other sort of activity.
“An immense amount of pride and self-satisfaction follows a completed, perfected, edited, and published novel,” says bestselling novelist David Perry.
When writing, you can create your own world.
For some writers, the craft provides a sort of sanctuary, a place to go no matter how chaotic the outside world may become. For others, this immersion into another world stimulates a state of “flow”—that sense of being completely absorbed and lost in one’s work to the point of losing track of time, which has been linked to increased happiness.
“Writing is like being in a dream state, or under self-directed hypnosis,” Stephen King says. “It induces a state of recall that—while not perfect—is pretty spooky.”
Writing makes us feel more like ourselves.
Writing can bring us peace, and make us more comfortable with who we are. That may be because it helps us understand ourselves and others, because it relieves stress and anxiety, or because it allows for that self-expression that helps us make sense of our own jumbled thoughts.
Freelance writer and sci-fi/fantasy storyteller Rand Lee said it well when he wrote:
“I have to face the appalling truth that I have to stop worrying about fame and fortune, and focus upon writing pieces that, first and foremost, produce within me a sense of wonder and delight. Rereading my works with this in mind renews my enthusiasm for the creative process and gets me back in the saddle.”
What rewards do you enjoy from writing?
Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and creativity: Effects of motivational orientation on creative writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-397. doi:10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.1683
Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(05), 338-346. doi:10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Bramley, C. (n.d.). Cathy Bramley's 5 favourite things about being a writer. Retrieved from https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/on-writing/why-i-write/2017/aug/the-best-things-about-being-a-writer/
Cherry, K. (2013, June 3). How Does Extrinsic Motivation Influence Behavior? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-extrinsic-motivation-2795164
Coleman, T. K. (2018, January 17). 5-on-5: The Challenges & Rewards of Writing Every Single Day | Praxis. Retrieved from https://discoverpraxis.com/5-5-challenges-rewards-writing-every-single-day/
ER Services. (n.d.). Incentive Theory of Motivation and Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation | Child Development. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd-hostos-childdevelopment/chapter/incentive-theory-of-motivation-and-intrinsic-vs-extrinsic-motivation/
Kohn, A. (1987, January 19). Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/motivation.html
Lee, R. (2018, March 22). Rewards of a Writing Career - Curiosity Quills Press. Retrieved from https://curiosityquills.com/rewards-writing-career/
Perry, D. (2015, August 3). The Rewards of Becoming a Writer - David Perry Books. Retrieved from http://www.davidperrybooks.com/2015/08/03/the-rewards-of-becoming-a-writer/
Positive Psychology Program. (2017, October 26). Writing Therapy: Using A Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal Growth. Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/writing-therapy/
Sheikh, N. (n.d.). Self-Expression and Creativity: Managing Feelings. Retrieved from https://www.smartrecovery.org/self-expression-and-creativity-managing-feelings/
Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health,100(2), 254-263. doi:10.2105/ajph.2008.156497
Colleen M. Story is the author of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue—a motivational read to help writers escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. The book was named Solo Medalist in the New Apple Book Awards, Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book, and first place in the Reader Views Literary Awards.
Colleen is also a novelist and has worked in the creative writing industry for over twenty years. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness. For more information, please see her author website, or follow her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story).
by Fae Rowen
Last week I was writing a character study for my WIP. The character is persistent, never giving up, even when the cause seems lost. At times she's like a small child who keeps asking "Why?" and driving the adults around her crazy. I had more than a half dozen adjectives in my list, but something seemed lacking. I added perseverance.
On my trail walk, I thought about persistence versus perseverance. If I were in a hurry, I would have stopped at persistence. But as I mentally detailed the difference between the two words, persistence took on a more negative flavor. At home, I used the thesaurus and found these words for persistent: perseverance, tenacious, determined, obstinate, stubborn, pushy, relentless, insistent, continuing. The words for perseverance included: determination, insistence, stubbornness, doggedness, diligence, resolve, drive, purpose, tenacity, dedication, devotion, tirelessness, pushiness.
When you compare the two lists, the words are very close in meaning. But the diligence, resolve, drive, dedication, devotion and purpose in the perseverance column, convinced me that I made the right choice in labeling my character as exhibiting perseverance.
As writers, taking the time to drill down to the finer meaning of the words we choose can help us better define characters, their goals and motivation, and our stories. Think of this exercise like an artist painting a color wheel. The primary colors are placed within the wheel, then the artist must mix the paints to move from red to red-orange to orange to orange-yellow, and finally yellow. All the gradations between red and yellow are shown in the small space on the wheel.
If we became adept painters with our word choices, we can convey more depth to our readers without having to resort to telling them what we want them to know.
Let's look at another word pairing. Do you want to humble an arrogant character or do you want to humiliate him? When someone is humbled, their pride or rank is lowered. But when you humiliate a character you shame him, usually in public. That character loses self-respect and the respect of others. Again, as writers the careful choice words we use to describe the humbling or the humiliation can help us convey the feeling we want the reader to experience. There's a big difference between calling a lover a "boy toy" or a "friend" or a "sweetheart" or a "partner."
I've been guilty of using my thesaurus to find a synonym quickly. A good thesaurus can do much more than that, if we're aware of the gradations of meaning as we look for a "better" or "fresher" word. A partnership can be an association, a connection, a collaboration, or an alliance. By choosing a more descriptive word, we can subtlely convey more meaning without having to spend precious word count to explain what we're trying to say.
You don't need to be tied to a dictionary or thesaurus to be mindful of your word choices. And you don't need to do this for every word in your story. But the important words, the words that describe your characters' emotions, their character traits, the turning points, deserve extra time and thought.
Taking time and care with critical words is like using the right tool for the job. When you have the best word to describe a situation, that word does your work better than a paragraph of explanation ever could. The pace of your story isn't slowed with exposition or back story. The reader builds and fills in details that enrich their experience and make that experience unique to each reader.
Take a few moments to think about how you could describe a plain Jane character on the first page, using one word to convey much more than the cliched plain Jane. Don't turn to a thesaurus. Picture the character. Watch her. Make up a backstory for her. Then sift through words until you find the best one to describe what you want a reader to know about this character.
You'll find this gets easier, and it will help you hone in on your characters' important traits. And an added side benefit: you'll find yourself writing fresher descriptions, combinations of words you haven't seen before.
Do you have an example of a refined word choice that you'd like to share?
Why did you choose one word over the other?