Brian Answers: Writing Advice

Ben Trube, a.k.a. The Bearded Wonder, offers up today’s question:

What single bit of writing advice would you give to yourself ten years ago?

Fear me, Younger Self! I come to you from beyond the misty barriers of time, speaking like unto an oracle, with the power of…ten extra years of doing stuff!!


This is an excellent question. Basically it’s asking: what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing in the past ten years?

I think I would say:

Know your characters better.

Sun Tzu said: “Know yourself. Know your enemy. In a thousand battles, no danger.”

If Sun Tzu had been less into battle-winnin’ and more into novel-writin’, he might have said: “Know your characters. In a thousand scenes, no danger.”

When I was younger, I built up elaborate plots with cardboard-thin characters. I tried to flesh out the characters in revision, but it never worked, because their actions were pre-determined by the elaborate plot. I was stuck.

Stories, I believe, need characters to be the foundation. You build your plot on top of them.

Now, plot is still important, and I still think you should write with an ending in mind. Otherwise you end up like Stephen King, with thousands of pages of stellar material that finally comes together with all the grace and elegance of a high school dance.

But your plot shouldn’t be so rigid that it squeezes the life from your characters. It should be loose enough to let them breathe, to assert themselves in your scenes.

And before that can happen, you have to know who they are.

One technique is to write character interviews. Just imagine sitting down with your character, asking them questions, finding out all sorts of things about them. What kind of jokes do they laugh at? What are they embarrassed about? What stories do they remember from childhood?

Above all: what do they want? And why?

Characters, I think, need strong goals to be compelling. Sometimes they don’t even realize what those goals are, but they still need to exist – and you, as the author, need to know them.

When things get difficult, which goals are your characters willing to sacrifice, and which will they cling to desperately until the end? And what is it about your character that makes those goals so compelling for them?

Think deeply, 18-year-old self.

But not so deeply that it keeps you from actually writing. Because if you’re trying to be a writer, that’s the most important thing. Keep writing.

I would’ve given you that as my advice, except you already know it, even at 18.

Thanks for the question, Ben! To all my hypothetical readers: what advice would you give your ten-years-younger self?

6 responses to “Brian Answers: Writing Advice

  1. About character interviews, the thing that always bothered me the most was that half my characters would never bother giving me one.

    • If your characters won’t talk to you, that can be another chance to explore. Who *would* they talk to? Interview from that person’s point of view. Or, what would it take for them to talk to you? What kind of reward or punishment would be required? Use those circumstances to get to know them better.

  2. I took a break from writing and only restarted a few years ago, so I suspect the best advice I could give me would be start writing again. Given where I am now I could be writing this from my secret library lair if I had been back at the keyboard for ten years.

  3. “Stories, I believe, need characters to be the foundation. You build your plot on top of them.”

    Yup. I know that’s not the only way to do it, but that’s definitely what I do.

    My advice my younger self?

    “Put your third novel away. It’s not a mystery, and you’re a mystery writer. Repeat: You are a mystery writer. Please evaluate all future projects on that basis. Thank you for your attention.”

    I have never considered character interviews. I have characters who are heavily armed. 🙂

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