How to describe clothing in a story: Creating characters

Hi friends, Are you having trouble showing instead of telling? I am constantly adjusting my story back to showing, thanks to my writing coach, Jo, and these blogs by Bridget from NowNovel. Slowly and surely It is sinking in.

Here is Bridgets’ blog:- How to describe clothing in a story: Creating characters
The clothes a person wears tells us many things: their status in life, for example, or their cultural affiliation or identity. They can tell us what era they live in, and even a person’s current state of mind or intent. Understanding how to describe clothing in a story well will help you create fuller, richer character portraits.

Read these tips on how (and why) to describe clothes with examples from well-known novels:

1: Use clothing to show status and position

2: Build (or thwart) character expectations with clothing descriptions

3: Describe clothing to contrast characters’ personalities

4: Show clothing to avoid over-relying on telling

5: Change characters’ clothing to highlight character development

6: Use clothing details to recreate authentic setting

Let’s explore each suggestion for using clothing descriptions creatively:

1: Use clothing to show status and position

Think of your characters’ clothing like an actor’s costume in a play. The costume is a large part of the character. As soon as the actor enters stage right or left, we have an inkling of whether they’re a wealthy landowner or peasant, an elegant heiress or down-to-earth flower-seller.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a character’s widespread respect is shown, curiously, by the fact that he is one of the only attendees at an event who is not smartly dressed:

‘Although it was not customary for invitations to request special attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary clothes.’ (p. 35)

What the description shows is that many of the invitees play at status and refinement through fancy dress. Yet Dr. Urbino’s status as a respected doctor is earned – he has nothing to prove by dressing smarter. Thus his plain dress is, ironically, a sign of his greater status.

Like Marquez, you can compare and contrast character’s clothes to reveal important details about their social status or position.

2: Build (or thwart) character expectations with clothing description

You can quickly convey a number of things about your characters based on the clothing they wear. You can also confound or prove untrue impressions your characters (or readers) form based on appearances.

For example, think about a wealthy person and how that person might dress. You may have imagined a man in an expensive suit or a woman in designer clothes. You can immediately show a character is wealthy with descriptions of fine clothing. However, you can tell your reader interesting things through a mismatch:

A wealthy character might dress ostentatiously in expensive clothing. But they could also dress in modest, inexpensive-looking clothes.

What would you think about a wealthy character who looked as though he shopped at thrift stores? Or one who was forever wearing poorly-fitted clothing that appeared to be handed down from friends? These detail could suggest that your character is miserly or down-to-earth despite their wealth. Dr. Urbino in Marquez’s example above fits the latter category.

Think of other interesting combinations: A teacher who dresses provocatively; a beggar with an incredible, fashionable style of dress: What backstory or character motivations could these combinations of position and appearance suggest?

3: Describe clothing to contrast characters’ personalities

A few small details of clothing can radically separate your characters, highlighting aspects of their personalities.

The Victorian author Charles Dickens is widely regarded as a master of characterization, for good reason. His clothing descriptions are always precise, often comical.

Consider this example from Hard Times (1853). See how Dickens contrasts fact-obsessed, overbearing teacher Thomas Gradgrind and his wife’s personalities through (among other details) their clothing description. Towards the end of the third chapter, Gradgrind is described returning home to find his children playing outside:

‘A space of stunted grass and dry rubbish being between him and the young rabble, he took his eyeglass out of his waistcoat to look for any child he knew by name, and might order off.’ (p. 15)

The pompous and bullying Gradgrind is (as Dickens’ descriptions elsewhere show) the type who’d wear a waistcoat concealing an eyeglass for catching people out.

Compare this, then, to Dickens’ description of Gradgrind’s wife in the following chapter (Gradgrind’s wealthy but poverty-claiming friend has just told Mrs. Gradgrind he was born in a ditch):

‘Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her; Mrs. Gradgrind hoped it was a dry ditch?’ (p. 19)

In one single piece of clothing description (‘a pink-eyed bundle of shawls’), Dickens conveys how timid and ailing Mrs. Gradgrind is in contrast to her bullish, overbearing husband.

Similarly, show how different characters’ personalities are through apt clothing description.
4: Show clothing to avoid over-relying on telling

Clothing description in a story is useful because it often gives additional information about a character that you might otherwise tell. For example, if a character is going on a date, you could write:

‘Gem wanted to look sexy for her date downtown (but not easy), so she changed into more comfortable clothes.’

However, you can show and imply a character’s intention without spelling it out:

‘They’d agreed to meet downtown at 6. At a quarter to 6 Gem pulled off the low-cut top Emma had wolf-whistled and clapped at when they’d met for their usual weekend catch-up. ‘Make them earn any sight of skin,’ Aunt P always said. Jeans and a tee it was.’

Why this arguably works better is the details of getting dressed tell us multiple details about Gem. The last minute change suggests an indecisive nature. We see the contrast between the character’s friend’s reaction and the advisory words of Gem’s aunt. The fact Gem goes with jeans and a tee could suggest that she trusts her aunt’s advice, or else feels shamed by her Aunt and compelled to be ‘good’. There is simply more characterization, not only of Gem but the other example characters.
5: Change characters’ clothing to highlight character development

Changes in characters’ clothing can help reveal character development. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the poor, Tuberculosis-stricken Katerina Ivanovna’s husband is trampled to death by a horse-drawn cart. The novel’s protagonist Raskolnikov gives Katerina the last of his money to host a funeral. Dostoyevsky describes how Katerina’s landlady, Amalia Ivanovna, dresses for the funeral:

‘…the table was properly laid at the time and fixed, and Amalia Ivanovna, feeling she had done her work well, had put on a black silk dress and a cap with new mourning ribbons and met the returning party with some pride. This pride, though justifiable, displeased Katerina Ivanovna for some reason.’ (p. 340)

Katerina is affronted by Amalia’s fine dress because it is ‘new’ and shows ‘pride’. Impoverished with children to care for, she uses her last money to give her husband a dignified funeral. Amalia’s dress thus comes across as insensitive to her; malicious even. The landlady’s dress highlights, by contrast, the downward spiral of Katerina’s fortunes, and she responds to the landlady’s prideful clothing with her own wounded pride:

‘Look at her, she’s making round eyes, she feels that we are talking about her and can’t understand. Pfoo, the owl! Ha-ha! (Cough-cough-cough.) And what does she put that cap on for? … Look how she sits with her mouth open! An owl, a real owl! An owl in new ribbons, ha-ha-ha!’ (p. 343)

Embarrassed by her own inability to dress in finery for the occasion (and by being upstaged), Katerina resorts to scathing mockery of Amalia.

Like Dostoyevsky, think how something as small as a character’s change of clothing can affect their own or others’ behaviour.
6: Use clothing details to recreate authentic setting

Another important function of clothing description in stories is to create an authentic sense of time and place. Particularly in genres such as historical fiction and fantasy, clothing can help to create other worlds (or a long gone era of our own).

Here, for example, Hilary Mantel describes a Cardinal’s residence being plundered by the King’s men in 1529 England, in her historical novel Wolf Hall (2009). Mantel describes the cardinal’s vestments:

‘They bring out the cardinal’s vestments, his copes. Stiff with embroidery, strewn with pearls, encrusted with gemstones, they seem to stand by themselves.’ (p. 49)

Mantel creates a vivid sense of the wealth that the church amassed in these times. The fact the clothes ‘seem to stand by themselves’ indicates just how heavy they are with jewels and embroidery.

The details create an authentic sense of a prominent cardinal’s dress in the 1500s. Elsewhere, Mantel’s novel is full of descriptions of garments for specific, era-appropriate purposes: Riding cloaks, town coats, and other clothing people of means would have worn at this time.

Similarly, find out (or, if you’re creating a fantasy world, create) the garments your characters would wear in a particular time and place, for a particular purpose. Describe these in passing to add visual colour and authenticity to your character descriptions.

Ready to sketch vivid characters for your novel? Use the ‘Character’ section of the Idea Finder to flesh out your story’s cast.

How to write backstory but not bog down your book

NowNovel, thank you. Exactly when I am thinking about backstory and how to use it, you publish your blog. 

How to write backstory but not bog down your book

Telling character backstory is sometimes necessary to show why your character has a specific motivation or mindset. Yet it’s important to learn how to write backstory that will not bog your novel down in constant harking back to prior events that occurred before the present time of your narrative. Read 5 tips for using backstory better:
1: Choose what to explain using backstory and what to leave a mystery.

2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments.

3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time.

4: Know when to tell backstory and when to show it.

5: Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res to get backstory out the way.

Let’s unpack each of these points. First, what is backstory exactly?

Defining Backstory

In fiction, backstory refers to the events that precede the narrative frame of the story itself. In a novel that shows bitter rivalry between sisters to ascend a kingdom’s throne, for example, the backstory could describe the origins of this strife in their father’s favouritism (this is the premise of Shakespeare’s King Lear).

The Oxford Dictionary defines backstory simply: it is ‘a history or background created for a fictional character’. Because backstory shows cause and effect it makes a story richer and more fascinating. Yet too much hopping back and forth to explain origins can become tiresome.

Choosing what to include as backstory wisely is key:

1. Choose what to explain as backstory and what to leave a mystery

Not every detail about every character’s past has to be explained. Using backstory effectively means using it for a purpose. You can use backstory to:

Explain your characters’ psychologies; the origins of their behaviour and the forces influencing their decisions

Increase suspense: Past events that precede and influence your narrative can create expectations of future developments

Strengthen the reader’s emotional connection to your characters – their private histories can foster empathy and understanding

J.K. Rowling uses backstory effectively in her Harry Potter series, as a prime example. Rowling gradually reveals more and more about Harry’s late parents. This leads the reader to care and empathise with Harry. The details about his parents that emerge over time create affect and a fuller sense of the enormity of his loss. These details lead readers to invest emotionally in Harry’s quest to conquer their killer.

Like Rowling, choose details for backstory that increase affect and investment in story outcomes. It helps to ask questions about your character’s past life. If a character has a troubled past with addiction, for example, show the defining event that led them to either spiral down or seek help and get on the path to recovery.

2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments

E.M. Forster said ‘only connect’. This is essential when it comes to writing backstory. Make sure that any incident that occurs before the main narrative events of your story is relevant and illustrative. If your character has quit their job before the story starts, it only makes sense to mention this in passing or devote a flashback scene to this event if it is significant. Does it create a specific fear or motivation that will prove important to your character’s choices and development? If not, rather focus on details that do.

For example, if your character meets the romantic partner of their dreams and self-sabotages, the reader wants to know what motivates this behaviour.

Sometimes we fill first drafts with backstory because of a lack of story direction. We’re simply not sure where we want the story to go. This is why creating a plot outline helps. This is a scenario where backstory could be helpful. You don’t need to write a flashback to reveal this information:

3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time

Your story can get bogged down quickly when you constantly leap back in time to show formative moments for characters. You don’t need to tell every bit of backstory using flashbacks. For the example above (a character who self-sabotages at the first sign of potential romance), you can also share backstory in present time narration.

For example, your character might;

Open up to their love interest in a pivotal scene where they reveal mutual uncertainties or explain troubling preceding actions to each other

Speak to a close friend about relationship fears, bringing up a past event that explains their hesitance

Sharing backstory via dialogue and conversation is a useful way to avoid too many dizzying flights back and forward in narrative time.

Another way to make sure your backstory isn’t too disruptive is to simply tell backstory rather than show it when appropriate:
4. Know when to tell backstory and when to show it

You may have read or been told ‘show, don’t tell’ many times. This advice is useful on one hand. Showing the reader a scene and immersing the reader in your characters’ experience makes your fictional world more vivid and real. Yet sometimes, telling is very necessary. It’s easier to cover important backstory without having to resort to a flashback if you simply put it in passing narration.

Here’s an example:

Frostbitten days like this took her back to the year she turned fifteen, when her mom had been in and out of hospital all winter and snowmen lined the neighbourhood, watching and waiting for something simultaneously inevitable and impossible.
In a single paragraph, you can tell something pivotal and affecting about your character’s past that contextualizes their present, without taking your novel out of its current time-frame.
5. Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res to get backstory out the way.

Some backstory explains specific character actions or motivations. Other backstory explains the narrative trajectory of your novel as a whole.

For the latter type of backstory, a succinct prologue is an effective option for recounting what came before the main events of your story. A prologue can give a brief history that will help avoid messy retelling that interrupts the core action of your story.

Alternatively, you can begin your story in medias res (in the middle of the action). Trust that the reader can withstand a little uncertainty as you gradually reveal how your main characters got to this state of affairs.

Are you struggling to create character sketches and backstories? Use the Now Novel idea finder to prompt ideas or share your backstory ideas for feedback from the Now Novel community.

Rebecca Johnson you’re a genius. Teachers everywhere should rejoice, and so should any students who haven’t yet mastered passive voice. If you’re still new to this and aren’t sure how passive voice works or why Rebecca’s work-around is so boo-tiful, let us explain.
Passive Voice

Odds are high that you have, at some point in your life, had passive voice marked on an essay or piece of writing. Odds are higher that you probably had no idea what in the world that meant. Basically, it is this. Passive voice is when the noun being acted upon is made the subject of the sentence. (Active voice is when the noun doing the action is the subject.) Let me explain with an example.

The house was haunted.

“The house” is the noun being acted upon, in other words “house” is the object of the verb “to haunt”. It’s clear here that the house is not doing the haunting. It is not doing the action. It is receiving the action. However, it is the subject of the sentence, which makes this sentence a passive voice sentence. (In an active voice sentence, the noun performing the action should be the subject. In this case, the active voice version would be: “Ghosts haunted the house.”)

Using “by zombies” to help identify passive voice

If you are still having trouble understanding passive voice, here is where Rebecca’s idea can help. Usually (but not always), passive voice can include the actor, usually following the verb. Basically, if you can add “by zombies” after the verb and it makes sense, you probably have passive voice.

The town was attacked (by zombies).

Yes, this makes sense; therefore, it is a passive voice sentence. To make this sentence active, you will need to put the noun doing the action in the subject location of the sentence. That is: “Zombies attacked the town.” Now we can check for passive voice:

Zombies attacked the town (by zombies).

No, this doesn’t make sense; therefore it is active voice.

These are simple examples and not every passive voice sentence will be identifiable with this trick, but it will help for a significant number of examples. If you would like to help others learn how to identify the passive voice, leave your tips, tricks, and exceptions in the comments!

The Unwritten Rules of Blogging.    Write about what you care about.

Hello friends and writers, I discovered this blogger today and have reposted her blog. I find it helpful. Thank you Meg Dowell.

The Unwritten Rules of Blogging
Write about what you care about.

Apr 17, 2017 Meg Dowell

New bloggers and seasoned bloggers alike have similar questions when it comes to doing their best work on their websites. What’s the right way to do this? How do I grow my audience? How do I increase engagement? How do I know I’m not somehow messing all this up?

There are the typical blogging rules all bloggers know to follow: write well, insert as much media as possible, use keywords, etc., etc.
But what about the rules not everyone talks about — the “unwritten rules”?

So I’m going to write down these unwritten rules for you, because I’m a writer and that’s what I do. My approach to blogging comes from over 8 years of typing words and hitting publish and still not always knowing exactly what people want from me — but I love every minute of it, and any wisdom I do have from all my years of doing this, I’m more than willing to share.

Blog consistently, or not at all

Different people have asked me the same question a dozen times in the past few years: “How do you get views, likes, and comments on your blog? I don’t get hardly any.” (First, thanks for leaving comments to ask this question — really.)

Here’s the best answer I have for these queries, since Novelty Revisions only just turned two in March 2017 and I’m bad at promoting myself on social media: post consistently.

I post every day, and have for almost two years straight. I do not recommend new bloggers do this (I had been blogging six years before I started doing this) because you will crash and burn and it will hurt your brain a lot.

Post five days a week, post every Tuesday, post once a month — it does not matter how often you post. Post good content, and post it on the day(s) and time(s) you say you will. Always. It has worked for me, and in time, it could work for you too. There are no guarantees. But this is the best way I have found to draw people in and keep them coming back. Consistency tells people that you’re here, you’re committed, and they can come to you at a designated time and place and you’ll be there waiting.

Only write about what you care about

I like this better than “write what you know,” because that idea is often misinterpreted or misrepresented to mean you shouldn’t ever try to learn something new or write about less familiar topics. Writing what you care about is a completely different way of looking at writing, inspiration, motivation, and getting your work done. Knowing is subjective. Caring — well, you know what you care about. And you’re not going to give that stuff up very easily.

Never blog about something because you think it’s “popular” or “trendy” or “a lot of people will like.” You won’t last a month managing that blog unless you genuinely care about the content. Because in the beginning, you’re responsible for all the research and writing. This is going to be your life now. If you’re not completely invested in the topic of your blog, good luck trying to keep it going.

Treat your readers like good friends

No one that I know in my personal or professional life reads, likes, or comments on my posts. (At least that I know of — mom, are you there?). Everyone who follows and interacts with me on my blog is a stranger. But I don’t treat you all like strangers. I treat you like you’re my friends. I don’t talk with you about my problems (uh, debatable) or share gossip, but when you need me, I try my best to be there for you.

My whole blog revolves around the idea that I am just one of you — a writer trying to figure out how writing fits into the grand scheme of my life. I love giving advice and helping any way I can. I keep my tone conversational yet as professional as my can’t-ever-take-anything-too-seriously brain can manage. I don’t like to convey my authority in a way that makes me unapproachable. I want my readers to feel like they can say/ask anything and they’ll get an honest reply. Always interact with your readers as if you genuinely care about their well-being. Well, it helps if you actually do. I hope you do. Otherwise, what are you in this whole writing thing for?

Only quit if you don’t love it

I’ve seen a lot of bloggers drop out of their writing projects out of frustration. They aren’t getting as many views or comments as they think they should be, so they decide it’s not worth it and give up less than a year into it.
I’ll never tell you that poor performance is a good sign, or that there aren’t times when putting a project on the back burner is in your best interest. But I will tell you this: if you aren’t having fun, drop it. If you love blogging, keep it. Even if you have about a dozen regular readers and that’s it, that’s no reason to stop. Having a big blog isn’t the only way to be successful. What matters is that you’re doing something that excites you — and that you’re bringing value to your audience, no matter how small.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

He Said, She Said: Why Tags Matter When Writing Dialogue

He Said, She Said: Why Tags Matter When Writing Dialogue
Hello writing friends, 

one of my my able assistants is the autocrit editing programme. Without it my writing struggles to keep the writing rules. According to editors and publishers there are right and wrong ways of writing. Especially, in our attempts to show rather than tell.  As I have reworked my novel, with autocrit beside me, I observed my novel turn from one of a new writer to a more concise manuscript. Enjoy this autocrit blog on Writing Dialogue in a Novel. Glennis

Dialogue tags – words such as said, replied or asked – have magical powers.

Why are they magical? Well, because they disappear. Readers unconsciously skip right over them.

And that’s what you want them to do!

When writing dialogue in a book, tags exist for only one purpose: to identify who is speaking. That’s it. You want the focus on the dialogue itself. You don’t want readers to get distracted by the tag.

Editors and readers prefer minimal use of dialogue tags in fiction – and this is a common place where new writers fall down. Writing their dialogue, they think words like asked or said are boring or repetitive, so they try to use more interesting alternatives – mixing it up to try and inject emotional indicators to add to their characters’ words.

But there’s a big problem, there – because in doing so, you’re committing a cardinal sin: Telling, not showing.

The dialogue tag is not the place to get fancy. For a fluid reading experience, dialogue tags should melt into the background.

Here’s why

Why Said and Asked are All You Need

First of all, if you pack out your writing with little flourishes such as queried instead of asked or exclaimed instead of good ol’ said, it’ll tell the editor or publisher straight away that you’re a newbie.

But more importantly, it’s about the function of these tags – or rather, the functions they should not perform.

Remember, the only purpose of these tags is to identify who is speaking. So only use them as often as you need to, and no more. Even a quiet little word like said will become annoying if you use it too much.

Here’s an example

“Where are we going?” John asked.

“To the park,” Aunt Ginny said. “Do you want to play on the slides?”

“Not really,” John said. “It’s too hot.”

“It’ll be cooler under the trees,” Ginny said.

“I’d rather go to the pool,” John said.

See how quickly those tags add up? Since most of them aren’t needed, let’s see what this looks like when we eliminate the extras:

“Where are we going?” John asked.

“To the park,” Aunt Ginny said. “Do you want to play on the slides?”

“Not really. It’s too hot.”

“It’ll be cooler under the trees.”

“I’d rather go to the pool.”

There – much better! It’s leaner, clearer, and puts the focus where it belongs: on the dialogue, not the tags.

But You CAN Mix It Up

While it’s good form to stay as simple as you can, it’s perfectly okay to deviate occasionally from asked or said. Good alternatives could include replied, or countered – as long as their use is justified, such as when you’re trying to show the volume of a speaker’s voice.

Take these, for example:

“What do you think they’re going to do to us?” Jennifer whispered.

“I can’t take it anymore!” John screamed.

A word of caution: If you do mix it up, avoid using a dialogue tag to show an action that can’t actually be accomplished in real life. As we mentioned earlier, this is an all too common mistake.

Trying to express character behaviour through dialogue tags – to indicate their physical reaction or state of being outside of the dialogue, rather than within it – is a recipe for disaster. For instance:

“I want to go home,” Lily sighed.

A character cannot speak and sigh at the same time; this dialogue should be revised to:

“I want to go home,” Lily said, sighing.

The same goes for emotion, which often happens when an adverb is added to a dialogue tag. For example:

“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.

Keep Emotion in the Words, not the Tags

Dialogue tags are not the place to convey emotion. The dialogue itself should do that. If you think you need an adverb to convey emotion, your scene needs to be written so the character’s dialogue and actions more clearly express that emotion. That’s how you show instead of telling – and generate stronger, better realised and more involving prose.

Try this comparison on for size…


“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.


Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over!”

Here, it’s Simon’s dialogue and actions that clearly display his emotions. What’s conveyed here is more than just the words that are said – and it has nothing at all to do with dialogue tags.

They might as well be invisible.

With the Dialogue Tags, Adverbs and Showing vs. Telling reports AutoCrit members have access to, you’ll never get caught out by these kinds of mistakes again – and your readers will thank you for the extra vibrancy it will bring to your characters, their conversations, and your writing as a whole.

Try it out for less than $1 a day by joining up right here at

Are You Making These Mistakes in Your Novel?

Enter your details for instant access to your FREE AutoCrit Red Flags report… and discover exactly how you can avoid the three simple mistakes that send agents and publishers running for the hills.

Don’t get declined – get published!

Character archetypes: How to enrich your novel’s cast

Hi fellow writer.

 This week I continue re editing my novel, tightening and cleaning it before returning it to the publisher. My writing coach suggested a new format for introducing the prime characters. Having completed this I am satisfied it will read easier. Upon reading this weeks NowNovel blog just now, it is satisfying to re identify the characters according to this informative information. I pass it on hoping you will learn more of your craft as well. Glennis Browne

Character archetypes: How to enrich your novel’s castThe best-loved fiction for children, teens and adults shares characters who feel familiar. This is because effective characters often have strong archetypal qualities. They have combinations of fears and goals – character psychology – we’ve seen before. What are character archetypes, exactly, and how can you use them to make your novel’s cast more interesting?

Defining character archetypes

The first definition of the word ‘archetype’ is ‘a very typical example of a certain person or thing.’ (OED). The second is ‘an original which has been imitated’ or ‘prototype’ (OED).

‘Character archetypes’ are thus the blueprints for characters that we draw on. There’s a pool of stock characters writers adapt and vary. In Harry Potter, for example, we see the classic (even clichéd) fantasy figure of ‘the chosen orphan-meets-hero’.

A third definition of archetype comes from psychoanalysis, the study of human psychology. Carl Jung described archetypes as the mental images inherited from ancestors that fill our collective unconscious minds as human beings who have rich networks of mental and emotional associations.

Why are character archetypes useful for writers?

Archetypes recur and repeat in fiction because they mimic real people’s similarities and differences.

Take, for example, A.A. Milne’s famous children’s series featuring the easygoing bear Winnie the Pooh. Each character is a vivid archetype, a bundle of distinctive personality traits. Pooh is the archetypal phlegmatic or easy-going character. The self-described ‘bear of little brain’ plods along, seldom ruffled. Milne contrasts this with Pooh’s friend Piglet, who is timid and usually in a state of high anxiety or panic. The two friends contrast with another inhabitant of Milne’s world, Rabbit, who is bossy and hot-tempered.

What Milne’s characters illustrate (and why they feel so real and ‘knowable’) is the dominant, archetypal aspects of our personalities. You might have a friend who is a nervous wreck like piglet; another like rabbit who is bossy and quick to anger.

So how do you use character archetypes to build a diverse story cast?

1: Combine characters with different dominant archetypal qualities

People’s personalities can be divided into four basic emotional types:

Sanguine: Sanguine or upbeat people look on the bright side – they’re ‘glass half full’ types who tend towards cheerfulness and usually bounce back easily from setbacks.

Melancholic: Melancholic people and characters are the opposite end of the spectrum: They dwell more on the past and are more the ‘glass half empty’ types. They’re more sensitive to life’s knocks than their sanguine counterparts.

Phlegmatic: Phlegmatic or easy-going types come across as lower in energy than sanguine types, but have more of a level emotional balance than melancholic or sanguine people.

Choleric: Hot-tempered choleric people are feisty and fiery, quick to react when irritated. Like sanguine people, they’re high-energy, yet they have more of the negative outlook of a melancholic person.

These are of course shorthand. We know real people are complex, often two or more contradictory things at once. People also change. Yet they are useful categories for focusing on how fictional characters differ in their temperaments and shortcomings.

When you combine different archetypes you can get volatile character relationships. For example, in the Winnie the Pooh series, choleric Rabbit is often irritated by phlegmatic Pooh’s easygoing but impractical nature. In one story, Pooh eats too much while visiting Rabbit and gets stuck in his burrow’s entrance, to Rabbit’s immense frustration.

To distinguish your characters and set up conflict (or attraction between opposites), make sure you use multiple archetypes as you flesh out your cast.

2: Use character archetypes to plan characters’ goals

In a novel or story, characters’ goals are crucial. They give the story purpose, drive and direction. They tell us why characters make specific choices that lead to scenarios.

Carl Jung, in theorizing archetypes, defined twelve types of personality. He defined these in terms of people’s motivations and drives. It’s worthwhile reading Carl Golden’s concise summary of these archetypes here.

Here is an infographic of each character archetype’s most common goal and fear:

Think of a well-known character from fiction. How do they combine the above characteristics?

Take one of YA’s most famous characters, Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling’s hit fantasy series. At the start, Harry lives the ‘Orphan’ archetype’s greatest fear. His spiteful aunt and uncle exclude him. Out of fear of his difference, they constantly emphasize his non-belonging and demand gratitude while abusing him emotionally.

Yet when Harry enters Hogwarts School, he finds an inclusive world of friendship, which fulfills the Orphan archetype’s core goal: belonging. This in turn gives him courage and support, both of which help him assume the ‘Hero’ role and confront the series’ villain.

When you create primary characters for your book, think about how they could combine elements of the above archetypes. Is your protagonist an Explorer, for example, who craves freedom and thus avoids close relationships because they’re afraid of being tied down?
3: Make archetypal character goals, fears, talents and flaws interact

Fictional characters are believable when they have goals, fears, talents and weaknesses like us. These elements interact with each other, and with other characters’ own attributes. A character whose weakness is fear of losing freedom, for example, might respond negatively to a Lover or Caregiver type who strives for attachment and close relationships.

These interactions between contrasting archetypes make stories compelling, ring true.

Take the protagonist and antagonist in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). Anti-hero Randle McMurphy chooses to serve a sentence for battery and gambling at a psychiatric hospital rather than go to prison. Randle, the Rebel archetype, encounters the iron-fisted head nurse, Mildred Ratched, who controls her patients using rewards and shame. Ratched is a quintessential ‘Ruler’ archetype.

These two archetypes – Ruler and Rebel – are each other’s nemesis. The story shows the conflict and drama that results when two opposite character archetypes are thrown together. Randle disrupts life in the psychiatric ward, encouraging patients to rebel, and this builds to eventual major conflict.

In Randle, we also see the internal conflict within an archetype. Nurse Ratched’s dogged determination to curb Randle’s rebellion stokes the Rebel type’s greatest fear – loss of power. This eventually leads to Randle revealing the Rebel’s type’s shadow side (criminal action) when he attempts to strangle Ratched.

The story thus shows us each element of the Rebel archetype, from the Rebel’s talent for charismatic rebellion to the shadow, violent side of rebellion.

As you sketch characters for a story, think about their archetypal strengths and weaknesses. Like Kesey, reveal your characters’ core goals, fears and weaknesses at key points in your story arc. This will create complex, rich, compelling characters.

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Good exposition examples: Narrating your story’s background

Thank you again NowNovel for these pearls. Again I consider your suggestions as I process the delivery of my series – The Fortune Seekers. Each edit brings improvements. Thanks to this strong writing coaching. 

Good exposition examples: Narrating your story’s background

What do we mean when we talk about ‘exposition’ in stories? ‘Narrative exposition’ is important information that gives readers your story’s background (e.g. character backstory or historical setting). Read effective exposition examples from celebrated novels:

1: Craft vivid exposition using dialogue

Writers sometimes use ‘exposition’ as a synonym for ‘info-dumping’. Info-dumping, however, is when two characters share info both already know for the reader’s benefit. It reads false because in real life, people never say to each other ‘As you know, we were both born in Arkansas.’ Good exposition gives important story details without being hammy or fake.

Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining gives a strong example of the good kind. King’s opening gives us plenty of character and setting exposition without info-dumping. In the opening chapter, ‘Job Interview’, the protagonist Jack Torrance is interviewed by a man named Ullman for the winter caretaker position at the creepy Overlook Hotel:

‘Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration.

“I’m sorry?”

“I asked if your wife fully understands what you would be taking on here. And there’s your son, of course.” He glanced down at the application in front of him. “Daniel. Your wife isn’t a bit intimidated by the idea?”

“Wendy is an extraordinary woman.”

“And your son is also extraordinary?” (p. 2)

King gives us character exposition via dialogue. We learn Jack has a wife and son. We also get setting exposition. King sows the idea of the hotel being ominous when Ullman asks if Jack’s wife will be intimidated. Further, Jack’s son does prove extraordinary, as his paranormal abilities and terrifying visions later reveal. King thus uses setting and character exposition to foreshadow the frightening developments in his story.

If you use dialogue for exposition, make sure it fills in information central to your plot. By page two of The Shining, we already know King’s setting is intimidating and have been introduced to the story’s central characters.

2: Create the history of a place: Read historical exposition examples

The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez blends personal and social history brilliantly in his novels. His novel Cien años de soledad (translated as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’) opens with historical exposition:

‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.’ (p. 3)

Note how expertly Marquez blends his character’s past (and foreshadowing of his dramatic future) with history and setting. Marquez moves seamlessly from describing an intimate memory of the Colonel’s father to describing their hometown Macondo. We get a sense of its size and surrounds.

Similarly, use characters’ present and past in exposition (and even future) to flesh out historical details of their lives and merge this with description of your settings.

3: Write expository setting description with rich atmosphere

Creating an immersive setting is important. It helps us picture the scene where events unfold, heightening their impact. Toni Morrison’s devastating, Pulitzer-winning novel about the cruelties of slavery, Beloved, opens with clear expository setting description. Morrison creates the haunted atmosphere of a home that holds traumatic history:

‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it.’ (p. 2)

Morrison uses personification (the writing technique of giving an inanimate object human-like character) to show her setting’s atmosphere. The home, like an embittered person, is ‘spiteful’. The author creates a strong sense of the history of place. She shows how experiences and memories gather over time, colouring how we relate to places like home.

Like Morrison, make your setting exposition characterful. Show the atmosphere of your setting, the memories, fears or joys it holds for your characters.

4: Show your characters’ personalities using exposition

Where possible, show characters’ development. Your characters’ choices and interactions with others as your story unfolds should show readers crucial information about them. Reveal their flaws, loves, hates, passions, goals, fears.

Sometimes expository information is as useful as showing, however. You can share a characters’ outlook in a paragraph rather than a whole scene.

Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye tells the story of an artist, Elaine Risley. Elaine returns to her childhood stomping grounds in Toronto at the start of the book, for a retrospective of her work. This leads her to remember her childhood (via flashbacks) and the complex friendship she had with another girl, Cordelia, a bully or ‘frenemy’.

Atwood writes vivid flashback scenes that show her characters’ natures. When the novel shifts from childhood flashbacks to the older Elaine, however, there is more exposition. Here, Atwood uses first person narration in the present tense. For example:

‘This is the middle of my life. I think of it as a place, like the middle of a river, the middle of a bridge, halfway across, halfway over. I’m supposed to have accumulated things by now: possessions, responsibilities, achievements, experience and wisdom. I’m supposed to be a person of substance. But since coming back here I don’t feel weightier. I feel lighter, as if I’m shedding matter, losing molecules, calcium from my bones, cells from my blood…’

This exposition example works because the introspection in these ‘present-day-Elaine’ passages contrasts with the vivid showing in scenes from Elaine’s childhood.

Similarly, blend scenes that show with briefer pieces of exposition that condense information about your characters’ personalities. Showing gives the reader concrete examples. Yet well-written exposition can summarize and strengthen or broaden the reader’s understanding of characters’ natures.

5: Describe important events that took place before your novel begins

There are countless exposition examples showing how to open a novel with concise description of a pivotal event that is the backbone of the story. In mystery novels in particular, authors often open by describing puzzling, dramatic events that the rest of the novel attempts to explain.

This is the case in Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides. Boys who live across the street from the beautiful Lisbon sisters narrate the story in first person plural, as they (now older) try to make sense of the sisters’ teenage suicides. We read of the sisters’ suicides through exposition in the first paragraph:

‘On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.’ (p. 1)

This dark exposition gives us the core information: A group of sisters, the story’s central characters, all commit suicide. Yet it leaves us with the same question that perplexes the novel’s narrators: Why? The question of motivation.

Through flashbacks showing the girls’ increasing isolation and rebellious behaviour, Eugenides shows the build-up to this event, even though the narrators never find a definitive reason for the girls’ actions and retain the bewilderment and trauma of this event.

Like Eugenides, use exposition to show the reader an earlier event crucial to your story. Sow curiosity so that the reader has every reason to seek answers to her questions.