The Hard Truth About Creating Great Characters

We live in an imperfect world. It is this imperfection that defines our existence. Everything we do as people, every decision we make, every book that we read, every new car that we buy, is a result of this imperfection. We are filling the holes in ourselves, one decision, one distraction, and one purchase at a time.

It’s this imperfection that leads to art, adaptation, and innovation in our world, for in a perfect world, where all are happy and whole, there is no need to change.

Likewise, it is this desire to be complete that leads to conflict and chaos. In a world shared by billions, with limited land, resources, wealth, and food, it only makes sense that one must go against another to achieve what makes him or her feel whole. Most of us do this indirectly, unaware of the consequences. You got that job? Great! But what about those who didn’t? The single mother of four, the college student forever indebted to her university, the sixty-something-year-old man who never could get it together. Disturbing, no?

Others take a more proactive stance. These are the warmongers, the cheats and scoundrels, tyrants, pirates, and… the list goes on. Those who knowingly put themselves before others in a bold attempt to gain the things we all desire.

So here we are, a people warring with one another, fighting for jobs, for prosperity, for companionship, and so much more.

I’m reminded of this fact when thinking of what makes a story. Because in every great story, you’ll find a cast of characters at odds with one another, each with their own motivations and desires, fighting tooth and nail to achieve the impossible. Like us, they want to fill the void.

It’s why almost every Disney movie begins with a beloved character dying. Death has a way of digging its claws into those left behind and excavating their cores, tearing past the flesh and into the sweet, gummy center of our heroes and villains. What’s left is a gaping hole, a void to be filled.

But Death isn’t the only creature lurking in our midst. There are, sadly, an innumerable amount of ways in which one may find himself a desolate wasteland beneath his skin.

And as our characters strive to fill those holes, here we are. Authors, creators, gods. We have at our fingertips the claws that will do that excavating. The click-clack of our fingers upon the keyboard gives sound to the surgical incisions we make into our characters’ souls as we scheme against, betray, and deceive them.

And yet, many of us struggle to fulfill that role. We make characters who are bland and lifeless, we play out the same tired tropes again and again, as if we don’t really know what being a person is like.

The point I’m trying to make here is this: We *are* our characters. We know what it means to yearn, to hurt, to fear. We know what it takes to break someone down or build them back up. We have around us *billions* of real world human examples. Seriously, look to your left. Is there a person there? No? Okay, then look to your other left. Still alone? Grr…

Okay, fine. Forget all that. Here’s what I want you to do. Take a moment, and look within. Grab a flashlight ’cause were going in deep. Take inventory. What’s there? Find the empty spaces. Poke around. If it hurts, take note. These are the things that make us human. These are the things that move us forward and force us to change. The things, which you do not have, or you DO have and wish you didn’t, these are the things your characters need. Use them.

Are You Creatively Constipated? Because Here’s the Remedy.

I sometimes wonder if 100 years from now the last remaining shreds of humanity will look back at us with our cute fitness watches and snarky but mostly useless AIs (i.e., Siri, AKA the Furby for adults) and curse us for our greedy, untamable obsession with the machines that will one day become our masters (AKA Slaughterbots, AKA the Children of Siri).

Okay, so maybe technology won’t lead to the demise of our species (or it might!), but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a hindrence in our lives. Especially for those of us who are more creatively inclined.

Consider this, ye fellow artists. When are you most creative? While streaming The Walking Dead from Plex on your PC to the Roku 3 connected to your 64″ 3D LED HDTV?

Probably not.

How about in the john, while scrolling through Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Tinder/4Chan/LinkedIn (why?)/reddit?

Again, probably not.

If you’re like me, you’re probably at your creative peak when driving (unless you’re a “multitasker”/invincible teenager who can text and drive because you’re smarter and have better reaction time than everyone else) or in the tub. In the car you have music, scenery, and a pair of hands and eyes that are devoted to keeping your ass from driving through a tree. In the bath, you have the soothing sounds of running water and a virtual safe-zone from electronics because water and electricity just don’t mix well.

I know I’m not the only one who comes up with my best ideas in the tub. Hell, the word “Eureka!”, attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, came from the tub when he discovered volume displacement.

And reddit, one of my all-time favorite ways to waste my life away on the internet, even has a whole subreddit for posting Shower Thoughts.

Case in point: The person who would proof read Hitler’s speeches was a grammar Nazi.

So, what am I getting at here? Dump technology? Go without phones and computers for the rest of our lives? Am I out of my mind?!

No. The point is… be bored.

And don’t just be bored, make time for boredom. Seriously, are you struggling with creativity? Having trouble pushing out fresh ideas? Tired of sitting on the toilet for hours complaining to your Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Tinder/4Chan/LinkedIn (seriously, why?)/reddit friends about how creatively constipated you are?

Then be bored. And just in case you doubt me, know this: The idea for this post came to me — like a fairy in the night — whilst I was in the bathroom… because I forgot my phone.

Boredom, folks. It helps you make things.

Rulers of the Realm with George R. R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Diana Gabaldon, Joe Abercrombie, and Lev Grossman

Hi, folks!

I wanted to take a short break from my Calculus induced, sleep-deprived hiatus to share an AMAZING video with you from this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

In this video, panelists Joe Abercrombie, Lev Grossman, Diana Gabaldon, George R. R. Martin, and Patrick Rothfuss discuss epic fantasy, world-building, maps, and other literary goodness.

I found this video to be enlightening, hilarious, and inspiring. PLEASE do yourselves a favor and check it out.

Why Writing is like the Pit from The Dark Knight Rises


“There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has rotted here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.”


You know the Pit, right? It’s the prison where Batman is taken after being defeated by Bane in the Dark Knight Rises.

Bane’s quote regarding the Pit resonates with me on many levels. That notion of hope leading to despair is a troubling one, and its something I’ve been struggling with for a long time as a budding artist.

You see, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. It wasn’t until I turned eighteen that I began taking it seriously, allowing it to consume the majority of my conscious mind, reading book after book on how to craft sentences and how to write the first five pages of a manuscript. How to build characters and worlds, paragraphs and scenes. When I’m not writing, chances are I’m thinking about it, talking about it, or, more often than not, fantasizing about it.

I remember when I first started, how simple it all seemed. I had ideas, I had pens and paper, I had time. And so my journey began. A long and cumbersome journey. Fast-forward eight years and I’m still here, clinging to this hope that some day I might make a career out of this.

Only things are different now.

The thing is, I’ve failed practically every attempt I’ve made so far. Eight years into this gig and I’ve barely made a chink in the wall. No published works, no prospects, no promising stories. I’ve made progress, sure. I’m certainly more humble than I was before. I can handle criticism, to an extent, and I do write with somewhat improved ability. But for the life of me I can’t help but feel that nag of despair, that inner-voice telling me that this is it. That no matter how hard I try, I am doomed to spend the rest of my life dreaming about some day becoming a published writer.

And this is where the Pit comes in.

The Pit is a prison. A big-ass hole in the ground with a large well rising up from it. What makes it so disparaging is that any man is free to leave, so long as they have what it takes to scale the walls of that well and climb out.

But who has what it takes? Everyone? Me? How do I know?

Now, some might say that a true writer doesn’t need to be published. If you love writing, and you do it, then you have succeeded. I love that idea, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone who lives by it. But the thing I love about writing isn’t the act itself. It’s what it can do. It’s the sharing of ideas, the impact it has on other people’s lives. Stories shape the world, they become a part of the people who read them. That is my ambition. Not to be rich or known, but to share my thoughts and ideas with others. To bring joy or hope or enlightenment to my readers. And for that to happen, I must have readers with which to share. And before THAT, I have to have stories and ideas worth sharing.

Others might say, “Hey, maybe writing just isn’t your thing. Maybe its time to try something else. Like, oh I don’t know, something you’re good at.”

But that’s the problem. THIS is what I want. Not because I want to want it, but because I simply DO.

Sure, there’s a part of me that yearns to turn away from it all. To call it quits and find something else to strive for. Ah, but there’s that glimmer of light just above. That open sky where all of our dreams come true. Not too far, no, but just out of reach.

Besides, how can I quit aspiring to the one thing I wish to be?

The fact is, I can’t. Like those in the Pit, I’m here and there’s no way out but up. And like so many before me, I can spend my life staring up at that sky and wondering if I have what it takes, or I can grit my teeth and work toward being the thing I wish to be.

Here’s the deal. It’s doable. People do get out. But no one gets out by whining about it, or sitting on their asses daydreaming about what goes on outside. No, the ones who get out are the ones willing to push themselves to the limit. To get up every day, do some damn push-ups, and make themselves better, stronger writers.

Because there’s no other option. At the end of the day, I AM a writer. Do I have what it takes to climb out of the Pit? Maybe not. Do I have what it takes to try?


Is it profitable for authors to share the secrets of their craft?


One thing I’ve learned in my years as a fledgling writer is that I have a profound respect for professionals who share their knowledge with would-be competitors. In fact, many of the authors I read are those who have contributed to my cause in some way or another.

When I first discovered the Writing Excuses podcast, I had no idea who Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor were. In truth, I was a fan of their show long before any interest emerged in their works. And while I did eventually buy their books, it had little to do with the stories themselves, but because I felt I owed it to them.

In a way, they became mentors, churning out hours of free content, condensing years of hard-earned experience into tiny bite-sized earcasts that I was then allowed to gobble up free of charge. It just didn’t seem fair.

So I read their stuff. And if I couldn’t read it, I shared it with friends. And I still do, for what it’s worth.

Since then, I’ve discovered other authors this way. My desire to learn has lead me down many a strange path, and I’ve read a lot of peoples’ stuff for the very reasons mentioned above.

I once bought a book by Ray Rhamey, for example, called The Vampire Kitty-Cat Chronicles. To be clear, I am not the target audience for this kind of book. I’ve never been a fan of vampires, and while I do like cats, I don’t much care to read about them. But I did read this one. Why? Because Ray Rhamey posted a generous critique for a sample I had written on his site,

I honestly have no idea how profitable this strategy is for authors. I do know there are a lot of desperate writers out there looking for mentors. And in an industry where getting your name out there is paramount, I can’t help but see this as an opportunity for those looking to engage more readers.

So, all of this has me thinking. Is this give-and-take relationship as successful as it seems and, if so, in what ways can it be exploited?

I remember an episode of Writing Excuses (Episode 4.32: First Paragraphs) where the hosts critiqued the works of their listeners. It was a fantastic show and one I’ve been hoping to see repeated.

One idea I’ve seen mentioned is to have a panel of contributing authors offer feedback on aspiring authors’ stories. It wouldn’t have to be a regular cast, per se, but just a few pop-ins here and there. Barring that, maybe some writerly Q&A’s or idea workshops.

Now, I am aware of the many amazing critique sites out there, and I don’t doubt their merits. But there’s something so damn appealing about having a pro take the time to look over your work. I’m also aware that many authors host workshops online (Cat Rambo’s Online Classes for example), but I lack the time and resources to participate in most of those. Lastly, I’m sure I’d have better luck asking someone this question directly, but my blog is woefully lacking in content so I might as well post it here.

I’m sure these things exist, I just don’t know where to find them. At any rate, if by some off chance you’re still reading this God-awfully long post (Hi!), and know of where I might find such a thing… Please, do be kind and show this wayfaring stranger the way.