- Why are you acting this way? No superficial answers allowed to this one. The character has to explain in depth and be able to justify what they are doing, whether they are villainous or heroic. The justification has to be enough for them. It doesn't have to be right. They just need to be convinced they're right otherwise they won't go through with it.
- What do you really want? Again no superficial answers here and I like my characters to also explain why they want what they say they do. Sometimes it is not always what "they" (i.e. you as their creator) think. Sometimes hidden motives can come out but that's a good thing. You've discovered what your character is really made of and will write for/about them much more convincingly.
- Have you any regrets? This is a useful one as regrets so often change the way a character behaves in the future. This is partly to avoid making the same mistakes again (so you don't have the same regrets again) and partly if the character is on a collision course with someone else, regrets might hold them back. You can then look at how your character will deal with those regrets if they must carry out the course of action you've set them. Do you want their regrets getting in the way? You might do, of course. Equally you might want your character to "bury" those regrets and not lose their focus.
I've mentioned before that one great way to find out more about your characters is to interview them. Some of the questions I've "put" to my creations include:-
What qualities would you look for in a "good" story (regardless of format or length)? I would choose the following:-
What makes a good writer?
For me the definition of a good writer is someone whose prose you must read, who makes writing look easy (because the reading’s easy) and whose work you look forward to. Good writers show brilliant characterisation, plots that work (within the world they have set up, not necessarily this one!) and they use economy of language – i.e. every word counts and you couldn’t imagine editing anything. Sometimes they add to the language but you get the impression they love English and enjoy “playing” with it.
I know I’m a huge fan of wordplay and puns (as was Spike Milligan). A good writer produces work regularly and edits their work thoroughly too. I need to get the feeling there was no word they could have taken out to make their stories any better. A good writer is committed to their stories, wants to talk about them and knows their characters inside and out. A good writer loathes the idea of celebrities claiming to write when we all know they use ghost writers. At least be honest about using a ghost!
A good writer will find time to write, no matter how busy they are, and will use this time regularly, knowing work will build up. A good writer will write regardless of publication. They know they need to get the stories in their head on to paper. Good writers aren’t afraid of editing either. They also know it is okay to write rubbish, indeed expect to do so but then edit ruthlessly to get at the real story, the good stuff beneath. A good writer does not give up.
Always buy your magical equipment from a reliable source. You don’t want your wand to go kaput half way through a spell trying to protect yourself from the local marauding dragon.
Mysterious Old Ladies
If an old lady appears from nowhere and offers you fruit, a helpful spell or a map, it’s time to leg it as these “gifts” will get you poisoned, cursed or sent on a quest where certain death awaits you.
Never show off your magical skills unless you are absolutely certain of the identity of the person you intend to boast to as imposture is a common enough occurrence here. If you decide this tip is wrong, on your head be it, literally.
Make sure you know who the most powerful beings are in any magical world before you sound your mouth off about the dreadful way in which the place is run. Those in charge tend to be sensitive little flowers when it comes to criticism and dole out punishment that is anything but sensitive!
Time is something that everybody wastes, regardless of what world you’re on. Time on Earth goes faster than in the magical realm. The magical species live roughly five times as long as we do bar illness or magical accident (the latter usually dragon induced).
What everybody in my Fairy Kingdom believes humans do all the time. It goes on in their realm too, the sprites are especially guilty of this, but this is not commented on as much as human dodgy dealings. It’s more fun to criticize others.
In my Fairy Kingdom this is considered a magical art form in itself. They don’t have plumbers that charge outrageously (anybody doing that would be transformed into something unpleasant and there is some pity humans cannot do this to those who con them).
In the fairy world surgery is when a major spell is cast and everyone is relieved when it works! On Earth of course it’s a medical procedure. My Fairy Kingdom broadcasters, FNN, have reported on this and shown pictures. Almost everyone in the fairy world was disgusted. They didn’t pick up on the fact the surgery was designed to save lives. All they saw was the gore, the blood and the indignity of the hospital gowns…
You are visiting a magical world. You have an excellent tour guide. And then, by the look on their face, you can tell something is up. What you don't want to hear them say is:-
The classic fairytale ending is, of course, "and they all lived happily ever after". Hmm... in many stories including fairytales, a happy ending is where the characters get to survive at all. "And they all lived" would be a much more appropriate and suitable finale...
The important things with endings of stories is they have to be the right ones for the tales being told. "Right" in terms of being satisfactory so your reader feels the story could not have ended any other way.
I find it helpful, once I've written a piece and put it aside for a while, to come back and read it as if I was the reader coming across the tale. One of my edits is to specifically look for anything that might "trip" a reader up and one big area here is examining the ending of the story carefully. Could a reader find fault with it? While accepting you can't please everybody, if you can look at the way your tale ends and feel genuinely most readers would accept that ending, then yes they will and the ending is appropriate. Asking trusted readers to come back to you with their thoughts can be really useful too.
Some stories that might make the magical world's media might include the following headlines:-
How do your characters make the headlines in your world's media?
Getting organized is crucial for any writer wanting to promote their work of course (and for trying to achieve all the submissions you would like to send in too!). But how about your characters?
How would you describe them? Logically, some will have to be practical, others will be dreamers, given that reflects life generally (and fiction is a wonderful mirror held up to reflect what we know and experience daily, even if the setting of the story is a fantastical one).
Think about the profession of your characters. What would they need to be able to be organized? Do they aggravate the dreamers? (I strongly suspect the dreamers would aggravate them! There would be good stories in situations where planners and dreamers must work together to survive. There would be plenty of conflict there but they would have to overcome all of that to live. Could be fascinating to read how they did it).
Do your planners come from a long line of planners or are they rebelling against a family that never planned anything? Have they learned to plan because of bad mistakes made by not doing so before? Can the dreamers show an unexpected practical streak when push really comes to shove? Could be some good ideas and stories to explore here.
It is so very easy to develop tunnel vision. You can get so close to your work you can't see its faults and weaknesses. This is where a trusted writing buddy or a paid for editing service (but check out the credentials first!), can come into their own. You do need the outsider's perspective looking in. Putting work aside for a while and then re-reading it is also really useful as it gives you some distance from when you initially wrote the piece (though I would always recommend where you can get good outside advice, do so).
Do any of your characters suffer from tunnel vision? If so, what has caused it? What are they focussing so hard on they are missing other vital, important things? How does this affect their relationships with other characters? Do they even accept they have tunnel vision?
If your characters "come out" of having tunnel vision, when they look back at the period when they were under its influence, what is their reaction? Do they regret the time wasted in having so narrow a vision or just accept that was what they were then and move on?
Some more "classified" adverts for the fairytale world could include:-
Wanted: Home for cute little mice, well away from any knife wielding farmer's wife. Send details of home to Three Blind Mice. Oh and no cats, please.
Wanted: Sheep. Have lost mine. Send details to Little Bo Beep.
For Sale: Red Boots. Worn once by witch owner. Only selling because farmhouse fell out of sky and killed her. Don't believe them to be unlucky but, hey, we are offering these at a discount and you pays your money....
Opportunity: Business opportunity in Jericho. Lots of skilled builders needed after sudden wall collapse. Plenty of work available.
Some "classified adverts" that might be shown in a magical world include:-
For Sale: One magic wand, one previous owner. Only works on pumpkins. Reason for sale: owner hates pumpkins.
Wanted: A magic wand that works on anything.
For Sale: One glass slipper for a lady with tiny feet. Reason for sale: no longer required by original owner. Sadly other slipper was broken. Price very heavily discounted.
Wanted: Slippers that are actually nice to wear on the feet.
For Sale: Broken furniture, possible to fix. Needs a good carpenter. Reason for Sale: Daddy Bear is NOT a good carpenter. Mummy Bear is insisting on buying in replacement.
Wanted: A foolproof way of stopping Goldilocks from breaking and entering any more houses.
Fairytale one-liners you definitely don't want to be on the receiving end of:-
My advice to those wanting to be a fairytale "star" includes:-
How emotional are your characters? Do they wear their hearts on their sleeves or do they keep things to themselves until a crisis (or series of them) forces them to open up? What makes your characters behave the way they do here? Has a character witnessed the "hearts on sleeve" and decided it wasn't for them or have they opened up, encouraged to do so with someone more able and willing to share how they feel?
What makes your characters emotional in the first place? What/who do they really care about? Who would they sacrifice themselves for and why? If emotions do get the better of a character that normally remains bottled up, how does this affect them afterwards? Are they determined not to "let it all out" ever again or have they found this liberating?
Think about what causes your characters would care about and be prepared to act on. Think about their beliefs and how they would react if they were challenged on them. How do your characters handle ridicule and insults? Do your characters react the way they do because it was the way they were brought up or are they going in a different direction, deliberately, from their family?
Your characters' emotions can be shallow or deep but there should be good reasons behind them that a reader can identify with, even if they don't sympathise.
Truth and lies play a crucial role in fiction. What your characters see as truth and lies is often the basis for the central conflict in a story. It certainly is for crime fiction.
When you get Character A and Character B opposed as to what is the truth, then the sparks will fly, the story will take off because it will have to be resolved one way or the other. Which one was telling the truth?
If it is a case there is no outright lie, but a case of seeing something from a different perspective, one of the characters is going to have to shift their position to be able to recognise that, otherwise there is no resolution. The story there is how they come to do that.
If there are outright lies, do the characters responsible get away with them? If not, how are those lies exposed and stopped? If they do get away with it, what are the consequences, especially for those who tried to combat those lies? (There will be some - at best, the truth teller can expect the liar who got away with it to "trash" them, possibly literally).
It is interesting in coming up with the lying character to find reasons for them to do this. The reasons have got to be good (at least from their viewpoint, they have to be able to justify their stance to themselves, otherwise they'll never go through with it). Sometimes, of course, a character may genuinely believe they are not lying but are. They have been given or inherited from someone (especially family) false information that is being challenged. How do they react to that? Great story possibilities here.
Truth and lies are crucial to fairytales too. We have to believe Cinderella etc is telling the truth - that they really are the good guys - otherwise the whole thing falls apart. This is one aspect of fairytales I love - it is clear what is right and what is wrong (usually) and I feel that is why they they make such sense for children. When you already know life isn't always fair (and kids do know fairly early on), to read tales where wrong is always righted is a great comfort.
So what would be the unwelcome professions in the magical world? My suggestions are:-
Fairytales are a wonderful source of story ideas because of the themes they use. (The theme of wrongs being righted is never going to date!). As well as usually being amongst the first things children have read to them and then go on to read for themselves (usually because they like to read tales they already know), fairytales can be the introduction to a whole universe of books and stories for youngsters. Fairytales can be the foundation of someone's reading life (I should know, this is very much the case for me!).
So do fairytales matter? Yes, of course they do. Many of them contain a great deal of truth, some deal with social commentary (The Little Match Girl), others simply entertain but also encourage with evildoers not getting away with wrongdoing. Even at a young age, you become aware this isn't always the case in life so these stories act as a consolation to an extent. And I feel one of the most important things from a fairytale is the common theme of never judging by appearances. The Ugly Duckling is the most obvious example but how many fairytales have ordinary people as their heroes/heroines? Quite a few. And I love that.
One great thing about the writing world is its festivals! You get to meet fellow writers, hear wonderful speakers and hopefully learn a great deal, maybe meet someone who ends up being your agent/publisher etc.
All invaluable (and excellent networking practice for the shyer ones amongst us. I always used to dread networking until I realised all it really means is talking about what I love - writing - and knowing who I was talking to shared that same love so we could get a really good conversation going. You ask them what they write, they are pleased to tell you, they then ask you etc. Reserve etc breaks down pretty quickly when you're talking about a shared interest like that).
So what festivals does your fictional world celebrate? Are there the equivalent of our literary ones or is it just historical events that are commemorated? Is attendance at a festival "expected" (and if so, who by? What would the consequences be for anyone who defies that?
The outsiders are often the heroes/heroines in fairytales. They may officially be part of the magical setting but they are the ill-treated ones (Cinderella), the ones marked out to achieve something amazing (Frodo Baggins) and so on.
Who are the outsiders in your fictional world and how did they get to achieve this"status"? Will they be your heroes and heroines?
As for real outsiders from another universe, planet or a neighbouring village, how do your characters react to these? With fear? With kindness?
Yesterday, I celebrated the publication of From Light to Dark and Back Again (Chapeltown Books) by having a cyber launch. It was huge fun, thanks to all who supported it, and it was great to share writing tips, how I got into writing flash fiction and so on.
Just as well pixels don't have calories though. With all of the cake, cheese and drink on "offer" by my publishers and myself, we'd have all put on extra pounds on the scales today and woken up with a nasty headache! I also got to choose some of my favourite music (You Tube based) to share, some of which reflected my writing by being stories in song with a definite twist to them.
Anyway, all of this led me to think about what kind of celebrations your fictional world would have. Would magic be involved to help the party along or is it banned (because combined with alcohol consumption perhaps nobody wants to risk it?!)? Does your world have its own literary world with writers promoting books? Does it have certain statutory events everyone has to go to, possibly on pain of death?
Who organises and pays for the celebrations? In the case of a dictatorship, are there celebrations which are banned and how do your people find a way of getting around this so they can keep their traditions going? All good stories to come from those thoughts I hope!
One of my cherished dreams came true today. Chapeltown Books and Cafelit (with me as co-host) held the cyberlaunch for my flash fiction collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again. Yes, we sold copies of the book. Yes, I was asked to sign copies (on the ones awarded as prizes). I have dreamed for ages of being asked to sign my own book so this is very special.
I've written a piece about this on the book's page on this website but wanted to talk here about how important it is not to give up when it comes to writing.
I couldn't tell you how often I came across that advice when I was starting out. It's all too easy to think, when all that is coming in are the rejections, "oh yeah?" when some published author somewhere says this but they are right. The keys to success are persistence and learning to improve your work all the time by submitting it and taking to heart feedback received on it. Always pay careful attention when more than one person says the same thing about your work too.
Beta readers are so useful because you can be too close to your own work to read it objectively, especially if you have gone through it time and again editing and improving it. I would also say support your independent presses as they give writers a voice the bigger, more traditional firms are unlikely to take a chance on. The indies play a wonderful role in ensuring there is more variety out there. And good luck, we all need a bit of that too, but hard work and persistence are more important.
I'm Allison Symes and I write novels, short stories as well as some scripts and poems. I love setting my work in my magical world, the Fairy Kingdom, and my favourite character is Eileen, who believes hypocrisy is something that happens to other people without caring that statement is hypocritical in itself! Eileen is huge fun to write for and about.