Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Writing Great Micro-concepts

Today I’m going to talk about what I call “micro-concepts.” I don’t know if there is a real term for them, but micro-concepts are cool little tidbits, little concepts that come up in some minor point of the story. They can be about a minor character, or a bit of indirect plot, or a snip of detail. They are really cool ideas or just great ideas that come up in passing. They may be only one sentence long or a couple of paragraphs.

In contrast, a “macro-concept” is an overall concept in a story. It might be the concept of your story itself. In The Hunger Games the idea that kids have to fight each other to the death in a reality t.v. show is a macro-concept. In the trilogy, Peeta becoming exactly what he feared was a character macro-concept. Macro-concepts are usually what come to mind when we talk about concepts in a story–we’re thinking of the big picture. The overarching ideas.

 

 

But concepts appear in small aspects too. Micro-concepts are like that post I did a while back on picking the right details. We could pick some kind of generic concept for something small in our story, or we can pick something fresh or interesting. I’ll give some examples.

Continue reading Writing Great Micro-concepts

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Relationship as a Character: Crafting Duos, Trios, Groups that Readers can’t Resist

There are loads of resources about creating great characters. But when it comes to creating great relationships–the perfect tag team, the favorite couple, the best friends–the writing world is lacking. Whether your characters are romantic partners, coworkers, best friends, siblings or what have you, audiences eat up a wonderfully crafted duo, trio, or group.

People love Sherlock and Watson’s relationship so much, that there is an entire fan community that roots for them to actually be together. Agents Mulder and Scully from X-Files worked so well together that they belonged together. I was once watching Harry Potter with someone who turned to me and said, “You know, I love how Harry, Ron, and Hermione all fit together.”

Some kinds of relationships would still be entertaining to watch if the whole story revolved around the characters going to the grocery store–their relationship is that amusing. (In fact, one of my favorite X-Files episodes is where Mulder and Scully have to go undercover as a married couple living a normal life together. It’s hilarious.)

This post is going to talk about some of the key factors in creating this effect. How do you create a tag team that we can’t get enough of? Well, here are some things to consider.
Continue reading Relationship as a Character: Crafting Duos, Trios, Groups that Readers can’t Resist

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Picking the Right Character Names

One of my followers asked, “I can’t for the life of me get my character’s names right. I have two main characters and I just can’t find satisfactory names for them. Do you have any tips on how to find the right names?”

Which led me to write a whole post that covered everything I could think of about character names.

Setting and origin is an important factor.  If I lived in China, my name might be “Li Ming Fan.” Names like “Alohilani Smith” suggest a mix of ancestral heritage or perhaps the character’s mother is Hawaiian and the father American. I have one friend who has a Native American name and she’s super pale, yet she has Native American blood, so you could even play around with things like that to make your character a little unique.

harry pavarti

Names can suggest culture and ethnicity. Never in the Harry Potter books does Rowling describe the Parvatis’ skin color. She just gave them Indian names, Padma and Patil. In The Maze Runner series, we meet Fernando. Dashner doesn’t need to tell us Fernando’s ethnicity.

Names can also establish time period. I had grandmother named “Merle.” No one names their kids that these days, but if you wanted to write a story that took place about 80 years ago or you’re writing about a grandma in 2015, it’d be fine, just like “Gertrude.” Some of those names are coming back in fashion. “Emma” used to be an old name, but in the last decade or so it’s become one of the most popular baby names. For my generation, everyone was named “Jessica” or “Megan,” so those name would be great for someone my age.

A lot of people are named after public figures or ancestors, so you can think about that. I’ve known people named after movie stars or prophets in scriptures. It can tell a lot about the character’s parents or the character’s family. I’ve heard of one family where the youngest child got to name the next baby–one can only imagine how that turned out.

Maybe your character’s parents are movie buffs, so they name their kid “Harrison,” after Harrison Ford, because they want him to be an actor. Does the boy want to be an actor? How does he feel about being in a family pushing him into that? That’s something you could explore. What about a character named after a prophet? Does he feel inadequate because he’s not saintly? What if he’s atheist? Would he try to go by a different name? Or wear it more proudly out of spite or snark?

You can pick names based on their meanings. J.K. Rowling does this all the time. “Dumbledore” is Latin for “Bumblebee,” and she picked it because she pictured Dumbledore to be the sort of person to hum when he walked about the castle. “Lupin” relates to “wolf,” and he’s a werewolf.  Many of the pure bloods are named after stars, like “Bellatrix” and “Draco,” and Sirius is named after the Dog Star, and he can turn into a dog. Suzanne Collins named her character “Katniss,” which is an old word for arrow or arrowhead–something like that. (There was once an early time when I could google “Katniss” and that’s what would come up. That time has definitely past.) Continue reading Picking the Right Character Names

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Breaking Your World’s Rules

Once in one of my college classes, we talked about what constitutes a good fantasy or science fiction novel. One of the qualities is that the story follows its own rules, meaning, if Harry Potter book one states that it’s impossible to magic food into existence, Hermione better not create a bowl of stew out of thin air in book five.

The fantastical universe you’ve created has to follow the rules it sets up for its readers. Otherwise, any deviation feels like a continuity error. The magic doesn’t make sense. Or, in other cases, it feels like the rule was broken out of convenience for the plot and as readers we feel cheated. We’ll probably question the writer’s abilities. The fantasy or science fiction world needs to follow the rules it lays down. . . usually.

There is a right way to break your world’s rules.  And it can kick up the heat of your story, and keep your reader glued to the page.

Last year I watched a show where the magic system was based on alchemy. In it, an alchemist can break down matter and reassemble it into something else. It’s impossible to create a living, functional human being this way.

Or so we think.

But then the protagonists get stuck in a fight with humans who have crazy abilities and discover they were created by alchemy. The main characters are shocked because it’s supposed to be impossible to do. Bam! Rule broken.
Now as the audience, we’re glued to the show, not only did an impossibility suddenly become possible, but this plot turn opens up a bunch of new questions. How exactly are these man-made humans created? Who created them? Someone who must be powerful. Someone who is an enemy? How are the heroes going to defeat them?

So the plot grows thicker.

This plotting trick can be surprisingly simple to do.
1. Set up your worlds rules
2. Break them.
* In order to break them the right way, make sure your characters are just as surprised as your audience about it. Otherwise, it will feel like a mistake. The break needs attention. The characters involved need to be shocked.

The follow up to doing this is that the audience needs to learn something about how the rule was broken. For some stories, the audience will want a very specific explanation (bordering on science) by the end of the book. In other stories, it’s enough to simply know that someone discovered how to do the impossible or that it’s some kind of freak anomaly. Do what is right for the magic system you set up.

Breaking your world’s rules often creates a feeling that we are on the cutting edge of science (or magic). The characters can discover more and more about the magic system, maybe even push it to its limits. This can keep your magic system feeling fresh because there are more mysteries to discover. The magic system can grow and expand.

So if you’re working on speculative fiction, think about how you can set up and break your world’s rules to rein in your readers.

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Writing (Magical) Items: Weapons, Attire, Potions, Tools, Steeds

I used to loathe the idea of having to research things like weapons for my fiction. It’s just not something that interested me. I’d rather just say “he had a sword,” or “she pulled out a gun,” and get back to the plot and characters. But I know some items, especially if they are important to the main characters, should be specific, should have names technical or given. Then one day this part of the writing process came alive for me when I applied The Legend of Zelda to it.

I don’t consider myself a “gamer,” but there are some games that I love. Zelda is one of those. I haven’t played all of them but several. One of the coolest parts about The Legend of Zelda, is that Link, the protagonist, acquires all these wicked weapons during the course of the game. They’re unique. They’re personalize. They’re awesome. Once I married my love for Zelda with writing, I finally gained an understanding of and appreciation for characters’ items.

Whether you write speculative fiction, like fantasy and sci-fi, or stick to the real world, you can get something out of this post. Even if your characters’ items aren’t Magical they can still be “magical,” and should be. In this post I’ll be talking about how to take your characters’ items to the next level, what makes an item a good one, and how to use an item well in your story. But first, let’s talk about the different kinds of items your character might have, both fantastical and realistic.

ocarina_of_time_inventory_by_blueamnesiac-d6wamuk

Continue reading Writing (Magical) Items: Weapons, Attire, Potions, Tools, Steeds

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

What Was That, Again?

Got thinking about titles. Titles of Books. Short Stories. Murder Mysteries. Fantasies. Poems. Lyrics. Just how important are they? Then I ran across this on Mental Floss: “What 10 More Books Were Almost Called” C so I’m supposing they’ve run series like this before. But I liked and was familiar with the ten they listed in this version. Which ones have you read? How many would you have read if they’d carried the “original” title?

 

ORIGINAL                                                                           AS PUBLISHED

They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen       Valley of the Dolls ~ Jacqueline Susann

Kingdom By the Sea                                                       Lolita ~ Vladimir Nabokov

HarryPotter & the Doomspell Tournament or
Harry Potter & the Triwizard Tournament      Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire ~ J. K. Rowling

Goodnight Room                                                               Goodnight Moon ~ Margaret Wise Brown

James and the Giant Cherry                                        James and the Giant Peach ~ Roald Dahl

A Week with Willie Worm                                           The Very Hungry Caterpillar ~ Eric Carle

Second‑Hand Lives                                                         The Fountainhead ~ Ayn Rand

Strangers from Within                                                    Lord of the Flies ~ William Golding

Something That Happened                                          Of Mice & Men ~ John Steinbeck

The Mute                                                                               The Heart is a Lonely Hunter ~ Carson McCullers

The titles changed for a variety of reasons, with occasional suggestions from various sources.

Jacqueline Susann went for a “snappier” title, while Nabokov wanted to pay homage to E. A. Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” the nickname Humbert gave his first teenage love.

J.K. Rowling’s working title (the first listed above) was leaked before the book was ready; she “kicked around” the other possibility above, but decided to go with Goblet of Fire to get the “cup of destiny” feel about it.

Brown’s title changed to give a more “ready to drift off into dreamland” feel to her story and Dahl felt a peach was “prettier, bigger and squishier.” He sure got that right!

Ayn Rand explained her “new” title on the dedication page of her manuscript: “To Frank O’Connor, who is less guilty of second-handedness than anyone I have ever met.”

There are those (possibly William Golding among them) who thought the original title may have had something to do with the reason it was rejected… SIX TIMES. (So, don’t give up: try, try again!)

Steinbeck’s original title would supposedly show, for better or worse, sometimes things just happen. And that’s the way life is. (It still needed a better title.)

Eric Carle’s editor, Ann Benaduce, suggested he make a slight change to the book, and Carle had no clear ending in mind. Switching the story to a caterpillar gave him a natural conclusion ‑‑‑ and is much more appealing, in my “book” anyway.

The sales manager at Houghton Mifflin suggested the changed title to Carson McCullers. Guess we need to look at anyone’s, everyone’s suggestions.

TITLES: make ’em snappy; pertinent to your story, or its mood or purpose; try out various possibilities on your critique partners and/or friends; lend a touch of magic, or inevitability, or warning where you can; consider your eventual target audience and appeal to that child, woman, guy’s guy, etc.

Listen to advice from ALL sources, but make up your own mind in the end. And if your manuscript is turned down, try something new and send it out again.

Empty Threats

Sometimes when I’m reading a novel or watching a show, the writer throws an empty threat into it. In a novel I was recently reading, a love triangle develops, but I knew from day one that the protagonist was going to stay with her first love. Yet, the author dragged me about this awkward love triangle for the majority of the book. It was still interesting, but it lacked stakes, it lacked intensity because I knew nothing big would come out of it.

The story might have been better if the author actually threatened with something I believed could happen. Often empty threats in a story mean missed opportunities to write something that really digs into the reader’s emotions.

It’s like parenting kids. If you don’t follow through with your threats, then the kid stops believing in them. The threats have no effect. But if you follow through with those threats, they work.

In writing, it’s not required to follow through with all of your threats. But don’t be afraid to follow through with a lot of them. Then readers know you’re not afraid to do so, and they really don’t know how the story is going to play out. The stakes are real. Will Joseph die? Will Kristin choose Jack over Stephen? Even if Joseph doesn’t die, the threat doesn’t feel empty, because the readers know you’re not afraid to kill him.

But if you keep threatening to kill people, and you never do, then it can lose its effect.

Continue reading Empty Threats

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Writing Empathetically vs. Sympathetically and Sentimentally

Several weeks ago, I read a story that had a passage like this:

“My parents never really cared about me,” Allie said. “All my life they saw me as a disappointment, a waste of space. I was always the butt of their jokes. And no one really noticed. I was always last place, as far as they were concerned. I had a really difficult childhood. . .”

And it went on like this for about a paragraph or two.

I could see that the writer wanted to foster sympathy for the character, wanted to explain how the character felt about her upbringing.

But ultimately, it made her sound whiny–and I could tell that wasn’t what the author intended.

At first I was a little sympathetic to the character. . .then after several sentences, the writing just felt sentimental to me, meaning, I felt like the writer was trying to coax me to feel a certain way, like I was being controlled, rather than letting me feel for the situation myself. 

It’s a good idea to want your readers to connect with your characters’ hardships, but it can backfire if it’s too sentimental or sometimes even when it’s sympathetic.

Instead, when you want to impact the reader, strive to create empathy.

Usually when I hear empathy, I think of someone who is in pain, going through a lot of difficulty, but really, it’s a level of deep understanding–whether that’s an understanding of fear, bravery, or obsession.

Here are two examples to illustrate empathetic writing.

In The Maze Runner, I got to a scene where James Dashner wanted to show that his main character, Thomas, was a hero with a good heart–but I could only tell because I’m not just a reader, I’m also a writer. He didn’t write about it sympathetically or sentimentally, he created empathy simply by putting us in Thomas’s head and showing us what he did in a given situation.

 

The context is that Thomas is stuck out in the maze (where monsters called Grievers are) after running to help his friends, Minho and Alby. The Grievers have already hurt Alby, who is now unconscious. Minho criticizes Thomas for running out into the maze to save them, because now the Griever will kill all three of them. When they hear a Griever coming, Minho runs away to save himself, leaving Thomas with Alby.

Thomas couldn’t begin to guess what was in store for him; he’d seen a Griever, but only a glimpse….What would they do to him? How long would he last?

Stop, he told himself. He had to quit wasting time waiting for them to come and end his life.

He turned and faced Alby, still propped against the stone wall….Kneeling on the ground, Thomas found Alby’s neck, then searched for a pulse. Something there….

He couldn’t leave a friend to die. Even someone as cranky as Alby.

In that excerpt, we get this: Thomas is scared. He’s inexperienced. But he’s brave, self-sacrificing, and heroic. Dashner doesn’t use any of those words here. We are experiencing the story from Thomas’s viewpoint. Dashner is writing empathetically.

And importantly, Thomas doesn’t see himself as a self-sacrificing hero. That would have completely changed our perception of him. He’d come off as more like Iron Man–talented, but full of himself (that’s fine if that’s what you are going for). In other places, Dashner has other characters comment on Thomas’s bravery, but never Thomas. Notice also, how Dashner provides a foil, Minho, to make Thomas’s heroic qualities even clearer.

If you want to see how to portray a character’s qualities empathetically, grab a copy of The Maze Runner and read chapters 17-20, that’s about 20 pages. Dashner’s got it.

Here’s another from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The set-up is that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have just found out what the Deathly Hallows are. If you have the book, turn to page 434 and start reading. Rowling slips us into Harry’s thought process. She doesn’t just say “Harry is obsessed about the Deathly Hallows” (after all, he doesn’t think he is), but we see how his mind keeps going back to them again and again. You should really read that page and the next, but here are some sentences to give an idea:

But Harry hardly slept that night. . .the wand, the stone, the Cloak. . .if he could just possess them all. . .

Harry wished his scar would burn and show him Voldemort’s thoughts, because for the first time ever, he and Voldemort were united in wanting the very same thing. . . .Hermione would not like that idea, of course. . . .But then, she did not believe. . .Xenophilius had been right, in a way. . .Limited. Narrow. Close-minded. The truth was that she was scared of the idea, especially the Resurrection Stone…

It was nearly dawn when he remember Luna, alone in a cell in Azkaban. . . .If only there was a way of getting a better wand. . . . And the desire for the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, the unbeatable, invincible, swallowed him once more. . .

It was as though a flame had been lit inside him that nothing, not Hermione’s flat disbelief nor Ron’s persistent doubts, could extinguish. . . .Harry’s belief and longing for the Hallows consumed him so much that he felt quite isolated from the other two and their obsession with the Horcruxes.

“Obsession?” said Hermione. . .when Harry was careless enough to use the word one evening. . .”We’re not the ones with an obsession, Harry!”

I love that last bit, because it shows that Harry is projecting himself onto others, also, it lets Rowling seal the deal in conveying Harry’s obsession.

But you don’t have to always write empathetically. Sometimes saying “Allie was depressed,” is enough. Sometimes the fact that she is depressed isn’t that important, but your reader still needs to know it. It’s okay to write sympathetically sometimes. (It’s not okay to write sentimentally.) But when a character’s emotion is important, when you want your reader to feel for them, write empathetically.

Remember,

Sentimental: Trying too hard to make the reader feel something.

Sympathetic: Telling the reader how the character feels

Empathetic: Putting your readers in your story and letting them see and experience it firsthand

There are few mediums that let us put on the flesh and eyes of someone else, so use it to your advantage.

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Writing Creepy: Perverting the Normal

Creepy doesn’t have to be outlandish to send chills down a spine. Often what’s really creepy is something normal that has been twisted, distorted, or perverted either physically or through the story line.

 

Take dolls for example. If you go to a store and see a doll, you probably won’t look at it and consider it scary, right? But put the doll in a horror movie with a knife in its head (physical) or give it a criminal conscious (story), then it becomes a little more disturbing, and if done well, you might feel uncomfortable whenever you see a doll.

Sometimes, making something normal creepy is more powerful than creating something foreign and outlandish.

After I read The Hunger Games trilogy, I couldn’t look at roses the same way for months. Every time I saw a rose, it reminded me of President Snow, him poisoning people, killing children, and his constant, omniscient presence in Panem. He, and by extension his roses, became creepy.

But perhaps more unnerving were the genetically engineered, human-animal hybrids. In the first novel, the Capitol mixes dogs with the DNA of dead tributes. They unleash the creatures on Katniss in the arena.

Here is some concept art from the movie. As you can see, the mutts were toned down a lot in the final product.

 

 

 

These images have creeped me out ever since I first laid eyes on them because they marry two normal things (dogs and humans) in a perverted way.

Another example of a twisted creature that comes to mind is the dementors from Harry Potter. Dementors have a humanoid figure that resonates with the concept of “death,” but one of the creepiest dementor moments for me is when Harry finally sees what’s under a dementor’s hood:

Where there should have been eyes, there was only thin, gray scabbed skin, stretched blankly over empty sockets. But there was a mouth…a gaping, shapeless hole, sucking the air with the sound of a death rattle (Prisoner of Azkaban).

Again, something normal (a human face) is made creepy by perverting its appearance.

I have one more example. In the film adaptation of The Hobbit, we are introduced to the character Azog the Defiler. Part of his arm was cut off in an earlier battle, so he has a metallic claw. We’ve all seen pirates with hooks for hands, so the idea isn’t all the shocking in today’s world. But the filmmakers took the concept further. They added one little detail: the end of the claw goes through his arm, so you can see it poking out the other side. What a small but powerful detail. It made me uncomfortable whenever I saw it. They took a familiar concept and twisted it.

There are, of course, other ways to ramp up creepiness in a story, such as good, specific word choice, but consider this technique next time you need something unnerving.

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.

Let Your Reader Do the Work

I have the opportunity to read a lot of unpublished content, and every so often I find a story where the writer doesn’t let their readers do the emotional work. I’ve heard the writing rule that if your character is crying, then your reader doesn’t have to. At first I wasn’t sure how much I agreed with it, but after I read it, I started paying attention.

Here are the examples I ran into. Harry Potter: while Harry is on the verge of crying several times in the series, he never actually does. Fact: I cried more in those books than any other book I’ve ever read. And thousands of people cried too. In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean weeps several times just in the first 200 pages. I never cried once. (And anyone who knows the story, knows how heart wrenching it is.)

If Harry ever broke down and bawled, I don’t know that I would have. I may have still gotten teary-eyed, but I don’t think I would have sobbed like I did. There is something about having your character cry that takes the tension out of the reader. The character is doing the emotional work, so the reader doesn’t have to.

I soon realized this applied to more than crying. In one unpublished story I read, one of the characters was often worrying about a mystery. She asked all the questions, did all the wondering, the worrying, and I found that I, as a reader, didn’t have to. And you know what? I wasn’t as engaged. The author didn’t let me do that part. So instead of participating in the story, I was merely “watching” it.


I Open at the Close by Yume Dust

I’m not saying you can never have your characters cry etc. (there is a time and place), but keep it minimal. You want to build up those feelings in your reader so that they experience the story, not just read about it. Just because you didn’t write that your characters were crying, or worried, or angry doesn’t mean they weren’t. 

In fact, I’ve come to accept that those passages where I was bawling my eyes out were moments where I was vicariously crying as Harry. And that’s what you want as a writer. You want your readers to be in the character, in the story, because only then can they reach that deep, emotional plane where the story leaves an indelible mark on them.

So when your character is sad, anxious, fearful, embarrassed, or angry, instead of focusing on how the character feels and reacts emotionally to it, focus on how to elicit those emotions in your readers, so that they become part of the story. This is often done by focusing on the event that caused those emotions and rendering it in a way that amplifies those emotions. For example, how much emotion do these sentences conjure?

Harry watched Sirius fall through the archway to his death. Harry couldn’t believe it. He was upset and started crying.



How much more emotion does this passage conjure?

It seemed to take Sirius an age to fall. His body curved in a graceful arc as he sank backward through the ragged veil hanging from the arch. . . . 

And Harry saw the look of mingled fear and surprise on his godfather’s, wasted, once-handsome face as he fell through the ancient doorway and disappeared behind the veil, which fluttered for a moment. . .



Harry heard Bellatrix Lestrange’s triumphant scream, but knew it meant nothing–Sirius had only just fallen thought the archway, he would reappear from the other side any second. . . .

But Sirius did not reappear.



“SIRIUS!” Harry yelled, “SIRIUS!”



[Harry] sprinted to the dias, Lupin grabbed Harry around the chest, holding him back.



“There’s nothing you can do Harry–“



“Get him, save him, he’s only just gone though!” . . .



Harry struggled hard and viciously, but Lupin wouldn’t let go.


The second example is more likely to give the reader that vicarious feeling, the sense that they are experiencing the story firsthand. If you look at the first example again, you’ll see that almost all the info is shown in the second example.

So, make sure your characters aren’t doing all of the emotional work. Let your readers worry about outcomes, make them want to throw the book across the room in anger, make their stomachs drop with anxiety. Make the reader the vessel, most of the time.

September C. Fawkes

About September C. Fawkes

Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting.

Fawkes wrote her first story on a whim during a school break when she was seven. Crayon-drawn, poorly spelled, and edited so that it contained huge, fat, blacked-out lines, the story (about chickens seeking water) changed her life. Growing up, she had a very active imagination; one of her best friends accused her of playing Barbies wrong when she turned Ken into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde mad scientist love interest. Her passion for stories led to her playing "pretend" longer than is socially acceptable. It was partially a symptom of never wanting to become an adult. Luckily she never did. She became a writer instead.

Fawkes has a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction, but she explores and reads anything well crafted. She has a passion for dissecting stories and likes to learn from a variety of genres, so you may find her discussing classics in one blog post animated shows in anotherTry not to be afraid of either. (And do be sensitive to the fact she never did reach adulthood.)


September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. She was also able to complete an internship in which she wrote promotional pieces for events held in Southern Utah, like the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, and she participated in a creative open mic night, met some lovely people in a writers’ group, and worked as a tutor at the Writing Center. Her college experience, although demanding, was rewarding.
She liked it enough to consider getting her M.F.A., and she got accepted into a couple of programs, but decided to pass on it.

Since then, she has had the opportunity to work as an assistant for the New York Times bestselling author David Farland, while (rarely now) critiquing novels or proofreading promotional pieces on the side, and she even had the chance to meet J.K. Rowling in New York City, but mostly she hides out in her room, applies her butt to her chair, and writes. Other than that she reads fiction and books about writing fiction.

She has had poems, short fiction, and nonfiction published.  Her main writing project right now is a young adult fantasy novel she plans to publish traditionally.

Some of her favorite things include, but are not limited to, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Les Miserables, The X-Files, The Office, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, rock concerts, Creed, ballet, pugs, cherry blossoms, Ethel M. Chocolates, and anything yellow.