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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.


From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Tag: Writing Dynamic Characters

WDC Series: Villains with Positive Character Arcs

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Ah, villains. Quite possibly my favorite characters of all time. They’re swift talkers, fast thinkers, and they earn the best internet memes. Everyone knows who they are. But what really makes these characters special for me is they tend to be complex, holding a depth that protagonists and other supporting characters sometimes lack. (Don’t throw things at me yet—I did say sometimes.)

Truth be told, stellar characters need complexity no matter whose side they’re on. Authenticity, depth, a clear goal, an irrefutable lie, and obstacles make for exquisite layers that form a powerful, relatable, and realistic character.

What Is a Character Arc and Why Are They Important?

A character arc can best be described as the change in a character from the start of a story to the end of it. If a character gains redeemable traits throughout, their arc is considered positive, or one of growth. If there’s no change (which, when done right, will still result in changes from surrounding characters), the arc is considered flat. When good characters go bad, taking on negative traits, that change is considered a falling arc.

One book I love recommending is K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development. In it, she goes into depth about each type of arc and how things like goals, lies, truths, and obstacles are set up in a story. For those of you who don’t want to spring for the book, her website does a great job of providing details about arcs as well:

Another resource I’d like to share is the Writers Helping Writers site, which has a fantastic article about why writing characters with depth is so important and how that translates to a better book for readers:

As you’ll see in the article, the key is making the characters relatable—not necessarily likeable.

How Positive Character Arcs Can Create Compelling Villains

For those of you who are familiar with my fiction books, you know I love writing unlikeable characters. Their stubborn personas draw me like a moth to a flame, and for whatever reason, creating them has become my little niche, so I proudly wear that badge.

It’s challenging finding new ways to reach readers through darker characters though. One approach I use is taking a complex villain and having them change sides. I do the same with my protagonists. For one, it makes them more relatable. For two, just as in real life, good and evil isn’t always clear-cut. Things get a little muddied in the middle, causing character to cross lines they wouldn’t normally cross. Sometimes really good people make bad decisions, because we’re complex creatures and have the freedom to make choices. My favorite characters are ones who tread in the gray space, because you never know where they stand until it’s too late.

I’ve found when characters hit rock bottom and are in a rut, especially mentally, one of two things will happen: They’ll either pull themselves out and change for the better, or they’ll go down the path of self-destruction. In my current work in progress, The Lost Souls, I have two characters who face such a dilemma. One is faced with extreme loss, and it forces her to take action, ultimately changing her for the better. The other has faced life-altering traumas as well, but he spirals out of control into a deeper pit of anger, revenge, and self-destruction.

When it comes to character development, characters can change as much as people can (which now has me humming “Hot N Cold” by Katy Perry), and sometimes those changes result in positive character arcs—think Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol or Hans Solo from Star Wars. Whether you’re dealing with a protagonist or an antagonist, combining complex traits with a transformative arc can yield captivating results, especially when those characters are less than likeable.

Last but not least, I’ll leave you with this stellar tip from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus series.

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WDC Series: 5 Tips for Avoiding Stereotypes and Cookie-Cutter Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If you’ve ever read a review that criticized a book for having stereotypical characters or ones that lacked depth, you know just how much it likely affected the reader’s rating and overall enjoyment of it. Flat characters are hard to relate to, and they can take even the most extraordinary plot and transform it into a cure for insomnia. No one wants to read (or write) a book like that, yet there continues to be an influx of published works that receive that very critique. So how can you, as a writer, avoid such a thing?

The short answer is to make your characters unique—a feat that’s far easier said than done. So here are five tips for transforming your cookie-cutter characters into three-dimensional beings that captivate readers and leave them dying to find out what happens next.

  1. Pinpoint each character’s needs, wants, and motivation. Developing a strong character arc is key to giving your readers the dimension they crave. Not only are no two people alike, we’re all complex creatures with many things driving our actions. We succeed, we fail, and we make mistakes along the way. Our encounters with others not only shape our experiences in life, but they often influence the decisions we make. So why should your characters be any different?
  2. Give your characters flaws. Shortcomings make characters incredibly realistic, and even more important, relatable. Everyone has flaws, even the most successful person you’ve ever met. That cute guy you’ve been staring at all week? I guarantee you there’s something annoying about him. And when you look closely enough, he probably doesn’t have perfect skin, perfect abs, or flawless teeth. Maybe he’s even got a scar or two or a crooked nose. Flaws aren’t just skin deep either—even the most popular girl in school has insecurities about herself and will long for something she doesn’t have. By giving your characters faults, you add depth to them and avoid falling into the trap of stereotypes.
  3. Allow your characters to grow and evolve. Even if you have a well-developed character who’s easy to relate to and has adequate flaws, you’ll fall short if you don’t allow them to grow and evolve throughout the story. As I mentioned in the first tip, a character’s environment and interactions with other characters should impact them, even if the effect is subtle. Without that forward movement, characters can grow stale, much like plots do if there isn’t enough conflict or action. After all, it takes both characters and plot to drive a story forward. The best stories have mastered their pacing through a stellar balance of plot and character development.
  4. Blur the line between good and evil. Is your main character an antagonist or a protagonist? Once you have that figured out, make them SWAP SIDES. Then contemplate what would have to happen to pull them back to their original side. Pretty cool, huh? When the line is blurred between black and white, your characters will naturally evolve into complex creatures. Playing both sides of the field can make your character incredibly relatable, even if they’re not necessarily likeable (more on that in an upcoming post in the series), which is incredibly valuable when it comes to fleshing out secondary characters as well.
  5. Develop backstory that only you know as the author. When you have a rich backstory for each character, it’s much easier to see not only what drives them but also how they would react in multiple situations. The more you have established, the easier it is to keep them from falling flat. Character charts and questionnaires are a great place to start, but I’ve found that by focusing on their motivation and wants and needs first, then adding to the list of their traits as I write, I can give them an incredibly realistic depth through the process of writing in layers. But there are many ways of achieving this. If that sort of thing doesn’t float your boat, find another method that does. Also, don’t despair about the details that don’t make the final cut. Think of them as cool behind-the-scenes gems that only you and a select few people are privileged to know. They also make for great extras to include in your author newsletter if you have one!

Recommended read: If your characters just aren’t cooperating for you, check out K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs for further ideas on how to develop amazing characters. It’s an excellent book well worth the read.

WDC Series: 5 Tips for Introducing New Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Characters are the life of the party. Their individual quirks can completely turn the plot on its head and send the story spiraling in a new direction. As a writer, I love incorporating new characters, because I see it as an opportunity for plot twists, growth, and complexity in books. But as a reader, I know how disappointing the story can be if the characters are not written well. You want their introduction to feel natural while providing enough information to give you an accurate taste of their personality. So what are effective ways to achieve that?

  1. Bring new characters in at crucial moments. By having a new character waltz into the scene when tension is high and emotions are wavering, they have a direct impact on the plot—and oftentimes, the other characters. This will allow their character arc to unfold naturally and will also encourage their interaction within the scene. Even though this is usually a planned opportunity, if done correctly, it won’t feel rigid.
  2. Make the character relatable, even if they’re not likable. This is one of my favorite tricks, because complex characters will always have at least one facet of themselves that readers can relate to. Villains have weaknesses, just as protagonists do. Both strive to reach a personal goal and both must work through obstacles to obtain them—or otherwise fail doing so. That makes each not only human but also relatable to the reader.
  3. New characters should bring a unique flavor or viewpoint to the story. As with scenes, if a character doesn’t alter the course of the plot or have a direct impact on another character in at least one scene in the book, even if only briefly, there’s no need for them to be in the story. The impact of their role is key to holding readers’ interests and keeping the writing concise.
  4. Keep physical descriptions to a minimum. This can be woven in as the scene unfolds. One great way for pegging which features you should use are those that the main POV character might notice most. Not only does that enhance the personality of your main character and their viewpoint, but it will also help you avoid boring info dumps and prevent you from describing the same types of physical features on each character you introduce.
  5. Have a backstory ready—but don’t share it with the reader! In one of my writing and editing tips on Tumblr, I mentioned seeing backstory as a privilege solely for the author—and perhaps the team working to create this book, such as beta readers and the editor. It’s important to know what drives each character you bring into the story, because it directly affects their actions. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs to know every minuscule detail about it. A great rule of thumb is to share just the information that must be revealed for the purposes of the plot. If the information is something that can be withheld until the climax of the plot or another crucial moment, and is then delivered as part of it, that’s even better. Also bear in mind that only a fraction of the backstory drawn up in the beginning stages usually survives the editing process to make it to the final draft.