Writers are avid readers. If you are a writer and you aren’t a reader, you should be. Read whatever you want, in any genre you want, but read. The reason why is fairly simple. Reading is not only fun, but it is educational. That may sound hokey, but it’s true. You can learn a lot by reading other writers’ works.
I’m not the most avid reader in the world, but I’ve read my share of books and I’ve learn a lot from them. Here are just three things that I’ve learned from my favorite books and authors.
1. You want to develop characters? Torture them.
My favorite books, the ones I’ve read so many times the pages are falling out, have one thing in common: awesome characters, and awesome character development. Characters are a lot like real people. People grow and change; they don’t stay the same. People make mistakes. They go through bad times and have things challenge them, and when they come out on the other side of those changes, they are either better or worse for it.
Your story is a window into your character’s life. Your character can’t change if things don’t happen to them. They need to be challenged–whether mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually–in order to grow. Where there is challenge, then your story has conflict, and conflict is always good for the story.
This means you can’t be kind to your characters. You have to be mean to them. If the characters in your story don’t make you cry, ache, get angry or wring out some kind of reaction from you, then chances are your doing something wrong. What is the worst thing that can happen to them? Put them through it. If your character is rich, then maybe he should lose his fortune. Is he proud? Maybe he should be humbled. You’re the one who best knows your character–be mean to them.
2. Write the character’s thoughts on paper.
People’s minds are a fascinating place. What makes them tick? How do they feel about a particular thing? What were they feeling when this event happened? In real life, we can’t answer these questions because none of us can read minds. In books, however, readers can often get a glimpse not only into the life of characters, but their minds as well.
I learned about the term stream of consciousness while still in high school. It is a technique of writing, where the story is told entirely through a character’s thoughts. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is one famous example of this, as is James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Telling a story entirely through stream of consciousness isn’t done much today, but the technique is used all the time. Character’s thoughts pop up in most books I read, some more than others. Part of it has to do with what point of view the story is written in. If it is written in the first person point of view, then we will see more of what goes on in a person’s head than say, a story written in third person. But even with third person omniscient we sometimes get into people’s heads.
Using this technique accomplishes several things. For one thing, there is no better way to get to know a character than by reading their thoughts. Secondly, there is no better way to build tension than to have a person’s thoughts conflict with what is going on around them. And thirdly, writing a characters thoughts down is the first step toward character development.
3. Get to know your characters.
Of course, you can’t develop your characters or write down their thoughts if you don’t know your character inside and out. You need to know more than just what they look like. Where are they from? What is their favorite foods? Do they have allergies? What do they do for a living? Where do they live? What kind of car do they drive? What happened when they grew up?
If you know what makes them tick, then you will know how your character will react in certain situations. Do you know why your character has a fear of the water? Maybe they saw someone drown when they were young. If this is the case, then maybe your character shouldn’t be a lifeguard.
If you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, then maybe you should. Write down as many questions like these that you can think of, and interview your character. Get to know them. Who knows–something may come up that changes the entire face of your story.
4. Always improve on your craft.
I’ve seen examples of authors who improve and others who don’t–and I have favorites among both categories. With some authors, you can go through their works and see how they’ve improved in their career. It’s kind of awesome, really. Every great author started somewhere, but look at where they are now. It gives me hope to read my favorite authors’ early works, because really, those early works aren’t that different from mine. This is the level of writing they were at when they were first published, and it gives me hope that publication is possible with me.
Then there are the authors that don’t improve. They reach a plateau and then that’s it. Their writing doesn’t change, doesn’t get worse, but doesn’t improve either. They get into a rut and for whatever reason, they refuse to leave it. I find this frustrating because truthfully, reading the same book over and over gets kind of boring. The only reason I still read books written from that author is because they have long ago gotten me addicted to the stories and I want to know how the series ends.
Lesson: if you don’t want your readers to fall asleep in the middle of your story, keep improving on your craft. Avoid ruts.