Of the many reasons that contributed to the last-minute decision to attend the 2018 Agile Writers Conference in Richmond, VA, getting the chance to meet Bill Blume was the most exciting. For the longest time, I didn’t realize there was any kind of writing community in Virginia. It wasn’t until I graduated college and moved to Georgia that I heard about the James River Writers.
Great timing, right? I lived in Williamsburg for about 13 years and found the writing community there after I left. I connected with Bill on social media after I moved to Georgia and had always looked forward to the chance to meet him. To me, Bill is one of those authors who bridges the gap between reality and the dream. It was so disappointing when I found out Bill did a reading from one of his books in Williamsburg—at my old high school, no less!—a week after I had visited once.
Seeing Bill at AWCon 18 was exciting enough by itself. Bonus for me: his lecture was on the very thing I was struggling with in my revisions for The Thieves of Traska. He had so much wonderful advice that I needed to hear, in fact, that I decided my whole manuscript needed to be rewritten. For the sixth or seventh time (I’m starting to lose count).
One of the first things Bill pointed out was the need to identify what sets the main character apart. What skills or powers do they possess? How did they gain these abilities, and how do they help or hurt the character in their attempts to achieve their goal? These are questions we as writers generally know to ask ourselves, but sometimes it’s easier to answer them when another writer asks those questions.
There were some surprises in his questions about the main character’s obstacles. “How does the character get in their own way?” he asked. What becomes less important to them as the story progresses? He even suggested to find ways in which the setting can be a disadvantage.
This was a new way to verbalize something I had instinctively addressed with one of my main characters, but not the other (sadly, it was main character B, and not the prime focus of the story). Reed has a very clear goal of trying to find Claire, and he knows he needs help. But his horrible attitude and the way he treats other people earns him more enemies than friends, hindering his search at every step. Thinking about where I felt I did it right really helped me realize where I needed to do better.
Bill’s main advice for character descriptions: keep the details consistent, and keep a record for yourself. He also said: “Give the reader a few things, then let them fill in the rest.”
A few deliberate details that contribute to the character will do more for the reader than an info dump about their exact appearance as the author imagines them. Some writers, such as other AWCon 18 guest speaker Lani Sarem, use comparisons to actors to do the heavy lifting of their physical descriptions. As a reader, those descriptions always left characters with blank faces for me. Whether I’m reading someone else’s work or my own, I have a hard time putting an actor’s face to a book character. I’d be imagining Rupert Grint as Ron Weasely, or Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit.
Building the Cast
Up to this point in Bill’s presentation, I had only made notes of relatively minor changes to make to my manuscript. Then he gave all this wonderful advice about not overpopulating your story, posing this question:
“‘Do I name this character?’ Well, do you really need that character?” — Bill Blume
Naming too many characters can lead to overpopulating the story. And an overpopulated story gets convoluted. As Bill said, “you end up adding scenes so every named character has an arc.” Pushing aside the surge of dread I felt when I realized that yes, sorry, I did exactly that thing you said not to do, I asked about using names for minor characters who show up briefly, or strangers to the main character, to avoid overusing “s/he said” tags.
Bill’s solution: have the main character assign nicknames to these strangers. The hero of his YA books, Gideon, doesn’t always know the names of the vampires he slays, but he does come up with some wickedly entertaining nicknames to call them by.
For people like me, who realized they had a few too many characters, Bill offered The Cheat. Make a hybrid character. Instead of having two roles performed by two different characters, find a way to combine them. I’ve done this between drafts before, and it inevitably solves narrative problems. It also presents new opportunities to do something else Bill said is essential for motivating your characters: challenging them.
When the Writing Begins…
“I obsess over my first draft, but I still get it finished.” — Bill Blume
To stay focused, give your characters scene-specific goals. In every scene, every character has a goal. Don’t ignore your characters when they push against your plans. As Bill said, if a character pushes against you, it’s a red flag that it’s not working. That’s where my former professor, author Jonathan Rabb, would say to go back to what happens just before the character pushes back to figure out exactly what isn’t working.
But Bill warned against getting too caught up in the character as a device. “Don’t get so wrapped up in your plot that your characters forget to be themselves,” he said.
THE BIG DON’T
There is a rule I’m forever going to refer to as “The Big Don’t” that is even bigger than “show, don’t tell.” I was familiar with this rule before 2018. It shows up in just about every book on writing books that I’ve read. It shows up in blogs articles, and responses from my beta readers. My own mother told me not to do this, and of course I did it.
“One of the dumbest things you can do is try to write a series before you’ve sold the first one.” — Bill Blume
Thank you, Bill. I’ve seen the error of my ways after committing said error for nearly a decade. I’m going to put this on a plaque to hang near my desk. That way I can hit myself over the head every time I catch myself doing The Big Don’t.