To Write Better Characters, Invert the Binary

As storytellers, it’s our responsibility to shape others’ view of the world. The easiest and most subversive way to do this is to get ahold of one of these binary oppositions and deconstruct it.

French linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure was studying Western languages when he discovered that everything we understand, we only understand because we can compare it to something opposite. In order to know evil, we must know good. To know freedom, we must know slavery. To know light, we must know dark. 

Jacques Derrida took this thought further and said that in all of those binary relationships, one of the values dominates the other. Light dominates dark. Good dominates evil. Freedom dominates slavery. Man dominates woman. You see where this is going. When you only have two values and you place them in opposition to each other, one of them is going to come out on top. In Western culture, many of these values have been cemented into our worldview. Thus, wealth dominates poverty. Capitalism dominates Communism. White dominates black. Those who are able are inherently better than those who are disabled.

Pieter Fourie claimed that deeper in each of these binary oppositions were secondary oppositions. White means wealthy, powerful, civilized, good, favored, intelligent. Black means poor, powerless, uncivilized, inherently bad, cursed, and unintelligent. Man means strong, virile, intelligent, capable of leadership, logical. Woman means weak, chaste, unintelligent, incapable of leadership, emotional. While most of these assumed binary positions have been criticized and proven false over the years, many of them still remain in our subconscious view of the world. 

As storytellers, it’s our responsibility to shape others’ view of the world. The easiest and most subversive way to do this is to get ahold of one of these binary oppositions and deconstruct it. We do this by inverting the binary order. Instead of a Black savage in Africa, why not explore the mind of a White savage in New York? Try making your hardened special forces operator a mother of three. Or make your benevolent, successful businessman a high-school-educated Ugandan immigrant.

Doing this creates interesting characters who leave a greater impression, because they challenge our preconceived notion of the way things are.

Finally, you can invert the binary on locations or objects as well. So many fictional murders are committed in dark alleyways that it has become a cliche. Why not place a violent encounter in a place we deem as safe and free from turmoil, like a sunny day in a flowery garden?

So, how do you do it? When you’re creating a character or a setting, choose one defining characteristic, say age. You’ve got a little girl, age 9. Now, ask what characteristics are associated with youth. Innocence, imagination, playfulness, beauty, naivety, a lack of knowledge, etc. Pick one and invert it. Let’s take “a lack of knowledge”. Instead, we’ll make this girl very well read. In fact, when we meet her, she’s reading a Dostoyevsky novel in an attic where she lives while using a knife to cut off a slice of apple. She lays it down on a stack of other Russian authors and pulls an Isaac Asimov off the top of a tower of science fiction books. Already, this girl is more interesting than a pretty little princess in pigtails playing with dolls. What’s going to be even more interesting is how all that reading affects her decisions. We want to know how she sees the world, what she thinks, why she locks herself into books.

Give it a go. Try as extreme a departure from the norm as you can imagine. If that doesn’t fit, rein it in a little bit more or pick another characteristic. I’m interested to hear what you come up with.

How to Get Ideas for Stories

Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas.

I told my wife a while back that I had finally hit the turning point in my second novel, Fracture, coming out at the end of this month. My first novel starts out with a whip-crack (the lead character falling out of an 8th floor window) and only slows down to take a breath in a few places. With Fracture, I wanted to work on a slower build that gradually increased in tempo like a lit fuse nearing the first stick of dynamite in a chain of explosions.

When I explained this to my wife, she said, “I wouldn’t know where to begin writing a novel.”
“It all starts with an idea,” I said, “usually a ‘what-if?’.”

That’s why de-cluttering your space, schedule, and mind is so important to an author. When you’re stuck in routines or harried by to-do lists, your mind doesn’t have time to wander.

  • You need time to read. Books are great. They shape your perception and your style as an author. Books aren’t the only places where authors get ideas, though. Pick up magazines, news articles, slip through an encyclopedia or a national geographic. Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas. So if you’re looking for something fresh, get outside your genre for that brilliant “what-if?” that sets your pants on fire.
  • You need time to wander too. Set aside 30 minutes to go for a walk at the end of the day. Go alone if you can or with a friend who likes to talk about things outside of conventional conversation. Maybe just sitting on the same bench in the same park is what you need. Whatever it is, clear your mind of all the tasks you have to do and give yourself time to dream on whatever takes your interest.
  • People-watch. There is no better place to find drama than laundro-mats and all-night diners. Go places where people talk loudly. Bring a pen and paper or your phone and a note-taking app. Capture moments of dialogue that hook your attention, life’s ironic twists, physical descriptions and tics, and the multiple facets of the human psyche.

These are just a few ideas to get you going. How about you, though? How do you find your stories?

Some Simple Encouragement and Advice for Writers, Artists, and other Creatives

We worry when we stumble across something truly excellent that we might just be setting ourselves up for disappointment when we can’t sustain that level of mind-blowing brilliance.

You’re thinking about a story or a blog idea and boom, it hits you like a frying pan in the face in one of those old cartoons. It’s that perfect idea. It’s the one that takes everything that throbs inside of you and puts it into words that express it in a way you haven’t heard before. For a moment, you rocket up into the stratosphere, imagining the unique visitors and comments, the book sales, the TED talks, the friggin’ Nobel prize!

Then that other feeling hits you. It’s the one that makes you feel like someone’s just poured a pint of mercury into your veins. It’s a feeling of dread and depression. It says, “yeah, this is the most incrediawesomeable idea I have ever heard. It’s the one that’s going to make me. But then what?” What do you follow it up with. You stop hopping around in the shower like Gollum with his precious, and you stand there, water dripping off your cheeks, a cold numbness prickling at your private parts. The mercury meets up with that prickling and makes it way, slowly to your brain. All your dreams clam up under the urging voice saying, “Put it away. The thought is too good. You can’t follow it up. People will be disappointed with whatever you put out next. You’ll slowly watch your followers tick down from the hundreds of thousands to the fifty that you have now, which consists of TeamFollowBack members, BookSpammers, and your alcoholic uncle who writes dark, erotic crime novels with characters that are uncomfortably close in resemblance to the people in your family.”

We all know that voice. Anyone who is judged on their creativity knows that voice because we know we are not the source of our ideas. We are dependent on inspiration for our greatest ideas, and we cannot control it. So we worry when we stumble across something truly excellent that we might just be setting ourselves up for disappointment when we can’t sustain that level of mind-blowing brilliance.

Let me step in to encourage you here, my friend. I’m all for practical consideration and planning out your next steps before making big decisions, but worry has no place in that process. So the next time you hear that voice, step out of the shower, throw it in the toilet and flush it. Then towel off and go write. Don’t worry about following up your brilliant ideas with more brillianter ideas. Just put them out there and keep writing. It won’t all be great, but the more you write, the better and more consistent it will get.

Movies Worth Your Time: Cake

Aniston is like a sponge sopped in bitterness, sorrow, anger, and pain. She carries that burden subtly so that, at no moment, despite the heaviness of the film’s content, does she over-act to prove a point.

Time–we don’t have a lot of it, and every movie out there claims to be “spectacular”, “one of a kind”, “mesmerizing”. Let me save you some time right now and point you at films that are worth seeing for those who like thought-provoking, story and character driven, sometimes a-typical films. You may have seen them. If that is the case, let me know what you thought in the comments. If you haven’t seen them, check them out and come back for a conversation. If you’ve got any others to add to the list, pop them up in the comments feed.

cake-cake-posterCake. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Reese Witherspoon’s Wild, but not much about Jennifer Aniston in Cake. I’ve seen Wild, and, yes, it was good. It was the best acting of Reese’s career, and the story was important, but it felt lacking due to having to compress an entire memoir into a film. Cake, in my opinion, is the better movie. It, too, sees the best acting from its main character, Jennifer Aniston. Aniston is like a sponge sopped in bitterness, sorrow, anger, and pain. She carries that burden subtly so that, at no moment, despite the heaviness of the film’s content, does she over-act to prove a point. All she has to do is look at you and you see the weight of her life in her eyes. The movie begins in a chronic pain support group, where one of the members has committed suicide. It follows Aniston’s character as she processes that suicide and continues to manage, or mis-manage, her own pain. Slowly, her character opens up to us like a crushed orchid unfolding. As more becomes known to us, we are left asking ourselves how we could possibly have managed anything better.

Busting Writer’s Block


There are plenty of tips to breaking up writer’s block. They are all good, but here’s my favorite. It’s my favorite because it makes me feel in control of the act of writing, lets me stop feeling satisfied and start with plenty of new ideas to bring to the page. You ready for it? Okay, here it is. Real simple: don’t finish.

When we’re writing–especially when we’ve struck a vein and the words are gushing–there is this drive to get it all out before that vein dries up. Number one, that mentality is a problem. By thinking you’ve got a limited supply of ideas and they only really come in spurts of inspiration, you lock yourself into a mindset of inspirational poverty. That’s not the case. The words are always in you. It’s just about your mind making connections between concepts. When you put a full stop on an idea with a period, you sever those connections. If, however, you stop writing in the middle of a sentence, you keep that connection open. What’s more, using the analogy of the vein, you let those words keep flowing when you walk away from the computer and soon you’ll be swimming in them. Your subconscious will keep making connections, and bursts of insight will hit you while you’re pulling the milk out of the fridge, the car out of the garage, or your head out of your ass after a fight with your spouse.

Number two, if you know how a sentence, or a scene is going to end, then you come back into the act of writing with at least half a tank of fuel to get you going. Writing out a full chapter till you can’t think of what comes next leaves you dry, with little motivation to sit back down and start, since you don’t have that enough juice to get things moving.

So, how do we put this into practice? Easy. If your goal is to write a chapter a day, write a chapter and a half, or just three-fourths of that chapter. I don’t typically stop conversations if they are really crackling, or a description that I have just the right words for. I do, however, stop right smack in the middle of a sentence if the point of the sentence is the character performing an action or moving from one place to another. I know where it’s going and it’s not critical to say it just right (not yet at least). To get into this practice, all you have to do is call off the voice of that asshole overlord in your head that tells you to finish the sentence and stop right in the-

How’s that? You’ve got that urge to finish the sentence, don’t you? Good. That’s what I’m talking about. Now try it out for yourself. But before you go, why not share some of your own ideas on busting writer’s block?

To Write Authentic Dialogue, Write Backstory First


Last week I told you about a conversation my wife and I started having about writing.
“I wouldn’t know where to start writing a novel,” she said.
“It all starts with an idea, a ‘what if?’.” I answered. So, last week we talked about where you get your ideas. That wasn’t enough for my wife, though.
“Yeah, but all that dialogue,” she said, “where do you begin writing that?”
“Backstory, I guess,” I said. “I start by figuring out who my characters are. I don’t try to write anything until I’ve got that sorted.”
Backstory is, perhaps, the most critical step in the creation of a novel for me. To write a character, I have to feel like I know them well enough to invite them to a birthday party. That’s actually a great way to get to know your characters.

If you’re having trouble getting a handle on someone in your novel, imagine that you are out on a double date with them, or that you’ve invited them over to your house for a party. 

Ask them the typical questions that you get asked at a party. How would they respond? What questions would they ask you? Who would they get along with? If you want to make things interesting, imagine a crisis: a motorcycle drives through your fence, you find out your sister has been sleeping with that character, you ran out of dip. What does that character do?

After I nail down the backstory of my characters complete with at least a few childhood memories and the track of their life decisions, then I pen that down on an index card. From that point on, all I have to do is put that character in the room with another character and a subject to talk about. They do the rest.
“When you know your characters, you don’t have to worry about dialogue,” I told my wife. “You just let them talk. If you start hearing words come out of their mouths and thinking, ‘that doesn’t sound like Shirley,’ then you know that you’re taking over and putting those words in there.”
Sure, writing this way may lead to some rambling conversations about trivialities, but that’s often what makes the dialogue interesting. It’s the details that tell the story. And, if you’ve got twelve pages of blathering nonsense at the end of your writing, you know two things. First, you know a little more about your character. Second, you know that you can always tighten that dialogue up when editing time comes around.

How about you? What part does backstory play in your writing process? Are there any characters who have become immortalized in your mind because of the amount of detail that the author put into their backstory?

Catching Up on the Blog Tour

If you haven’t found the recent links to my blog tour online, I’ve posted them here for you. Enjoy, my friend.

What Inspires My Writing on Journeys Thru Books

An Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Hindsight on BookBlurbsJim

Villains and What I Learned from Writing Hindsight on Pastime with Books

To Outline or Not To Outline on Next Big Book Thing