I love The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. So much can be said about this book, and so many areas can be explored. The very first time I came in contact with the book was in a creative writing class, where my professor used it as an example of messing with setting—and boy does it! From the very first lines, where we read about the knife and the man holding it, we realize that this home (which is normally a safe place) is anything but safe. The quiet suburban house has been infiltrated by the evil outside, evidenced by the fact that the door is left open. Not many pages after, Gaiman turns a creepy old graveyard into a safe haven. Ghosts become more loving and kind than the living people.

Beyond the setting, Gaiman also manages to produce a coherent plot out of something that originally feels like a slice-of-life narrative. Every small story from Bod’s childhood becomes important at the climax. When Bod and Scarlett first entered the chamber of the Sleer, I knew that it would be important in the end, yet I didn’t know how. The Ghoul gate, learning how to Fade properly, so many things played a part. Yet each chapter could have almost been its own separate story.

For most of the book, we, like Bod, are in the dark as to many things—like why did the man Jack try to kill Bod in the first place? We eventually get an answer, but there are many things that Gaiman doesn’t fully explain. Yes, Mrs. Lupescu is a werewolf, but what does that mean in this world? What is Silas? He doesn’t delve into much detail. This could be frustrating, except that it simply puts us and Bod on the same page. We know little more than he does, and he knows no more than us.

Many writers have the urge to put everything on the page, to tell everything they know about everything. But Gaiman didn’t do that. He gives his readers credit.

The Graveyard Book twists setting, has paced revelations, and makes us feel like we’re right there with Bod. It’s fun and different. Read it!

Last week, I talked just a little bit about getting to know your characters. There are many parts to this and many different angles to approach it from, but one of the most important aspects of any character—every character—is their central desire.

What is desire?

Your character’s desire will likely spin off of their main problem. What is the goal they want to accomplish? What are they looking for? What are they attempting to gain? Is it a physical thing, a person, a state of being? Your character may want many things, but the central desire is the most important.

Sometimes, their want is a simple thing, like in Tangled. Rapunzel has a straightforward desire to see the floating lights. It’s that want that drives everything she does. Other times, the desire is more complicated. In Mulan, she realizes near the end of the movie that her true want was not to save her father, like she thought it was, but to find her own self-worth. When you have a hidden desire like that, everything must point towards it, even though your character herself is unaware.

desire supplies motivation

 Desire is often the motivator, the reason why your characters are out there doing what they’re doing.

Why do you do things? What gets you up and going? Likely it’s because you wanted something. It’s the same for your characters. When a character lacks a clearly defined desire, they come off as bland, flat, and useless. A character’s desire rounds them out. It helps you as an author to understand them, and it helps readers to connect with them.

In real life, we don’t always know what we want, but in writing, the character’s desire must be clear. If readers don’t understand what a character wants, they aren’t going to sympathize with their quest. In fact, it becomes boring. Instead of an active character doing things of their own volition, we have a passive character who comes across as a victim.

conflicting agendas

While a few of your characters may have the same wants, more often, they won’t. If these differing desires are at odds with each other, you will have conflict. That’s a great thing! Conflict is what keeps readers going; it’s what grips their hearts and pulls them along for the ride. But it has to make sense, which is where conflict born of a character’s desire comes into play.

If Sally wants to go to the Opera, and Sam wants to watch football, there’s going to be conflict. If Rick wants to make Susie happy, but Susie wants to be left alone, there will be conflict. If Harry wants to keep the Sorcerer’s Stone away from Quirrell and Voldemort, but they want to find the Stone, there is conflict.

Sometimes, a character can have conflicting desires within themselves. This inner conflict will hold them back and keep them from accomplishing their main task. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry has conflicting desires to find the Horcruxes or the Deathly Hallows. He struggles with getting his priorities in order, and it causes not only conflict within himself, but also with Ron and Hermione. It slows their progress in defeating Voldemort, and gets them into trouble.

Creating your character’s desire

How do you make sure your characters have a desire? If every character (at least all your main characters) need a clearly defined desire, how do you make sure they have one? Simply ask what they want more than anything else in the world. Ask, and then don’t give it to them. Keep them away from it as long as you can (unless you’re writing a story about the consequences of getting what you want. Then you can give it to them part way through the story).

In my short story “Gypsy of the Sea,” my main character Abigail wants to be brave, but she can’t become brave because she’s scared of her father. The story is about her overcoming that fear. Once I figured out that was her desire, the story came together. 

Look at your characters—talk to them. Find out what they want more than anything else, and then use that desire to propel them forward.

 

I had a teacher who had us work it out this way:

Once upon a time, there was a ________ , and what he/she/it wanted more than anything else in the world was _______ . But they couldn’t because_______.

I was with book, as a woman is with child. - C. S. Lewis

Perhaps it’s a daydream that’s been flitting in and out of your imagination for years. Maybe it’s a character that just won’t go away. Or it could be a world that is so interesting that you just want to pack up and live there. Whatever your starting point is, it makes you want to share it with others. Whatever it is, it makes you want to write a novel. That’s great! But what do you do with it?

If there was a way to pluck ideas straight from your head and display it for others to see—exactly the way you want it to appear—we’d probably all go that route. Instead, we have to deal with the task of taking images from our minds and translating them into words that create images in the minds of other people. Whew! It’s hard work, no joke. So before you put pen to paper (or open that Word file), here are three things you should do.

1. Start with a Problem

Before you start writing, even if you’re not really an outliner, it helps to have a good idea of where you’re going. Every story has a problem. The story comes from solving that problem. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the problem is that there’s an evil ring that needs to be destroyed. The solution is that Frodo will carry the ring to Mount Doom and throw it in. Everything else that happens are off-shoots of that problem and solution.

Most stories have smaller problems that contribute to the bigger problem. In Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, the obvious problem is that Tiana has been turned into a frog, but she also has the problem of being a workaholic, and the prince has the problem of being a lazy bum. As they solve the frog problem, they learn how to solve the other two.

What problem needs to be solved? What is the solution? There, you have a beginning and end to your novel. If you don’t know the solution yet, that’s okay too. But you should definitely know what the problem is.

2. Get to know your charactersHISHE Batman

Real people have both strengths and flaws. No one likes a Mary Sue (except Batman), but when you’re first starting out, it’s easy to over-power your main character, to make them so good at everything that it really doesn’t make sense that they’re even having a problem. Take Calaena from Throne of Glass. She begins the series already having the reputation of the greatest assassin in the land. That’s a heavy burden to carry! I wonder if Sarah J Maas ever regrets giving her that rep. It limits the kind of problems that can challenge Calaena. 

When I wrote my first novel (at 12 years old), my main character was a mind reader who could not only hear people’s thoughts at will, but see through their eyes, turn herself invisible (because she blocked her image from their vision center) and occasionally have visions in her sleep of people whose minds she was reading from a long distance. AND she originally knew how to fight. In a later version of the story, I took away her ability to fight physically. Recently, I’ve returned to this story again (because it really is a good one), and now her mental powers are much more limited.

It’s also very easy to have a cookie-cutter character. Real people are more than their high school clique. They’re not just a jock or nerd or emo kid. They have multiple sides to them. Get to know your characters completely, especially your main characters. How? Write them. Write scenes that will never show up in your story. Get to know where they come from, where they’re going. In one of my WIPs, I have a character who came from an abusive home. My own home was nothing like that, so in order to understand him, I wrote about his past. I learned why he thinks the way he does, but I also learned what he likes. It makes him less of the typical brooding character and more of a person.

3. Don’t just imagine your setting—move there

Setting is one area that I have a pretty difficult time with. I know where my characters are, but it becomes very vague in my writing. Sometimes that’s okay; my readers don’t need to see 100% what I see. But often, my settings become a white room in the middle of nowhere, and that loses readers. Instead of just having a general idea of your setting, get inside it. If you know details of the land and layout, it will come through in your writing, even if all those details don’t get mentioned. Think about Hogwarts. We all know Hogwarts. We can feel it. We know about the lake and the forbidden forest and Hagrid’s hut. We know about the moving staircases, secret passages and talking portraits. We are familiar with the common rooms and the dorms. If we paid attention, we know there are 7 floors and 142 staircases (No, I did not have to look that up). How many of those details that we’ve assimilated helped Hogwarts feel real? How many did JKR come up with on the fly and how many do you think she sat down and painstakingly figured out before she ever wrote a book? I imagine far more of them were planned than not.

My short story “Gypsy of the Sea” takes place in an inn. It’s a small location, so I was able to plan out every detail. Because of this, it has a grounded sense of place. If you’ve “moved in” to your setting, you’ll have better descriptions, and your readers will feel like they’re there too.

Once you’ve done these three things, things will flow more smoothly. You may still get blocked from time to time, but you can get through it.

 

Change is Hard

If you’re like me, you have trouble setting and keeping goals. Improvement is hard, yet we all crave it. I doubt there is a person on earth who wouldn’t like to do something better. There are a lot of things I’d like to change about myself. 

One of the biggest problems I face in setting goals is wanting to change everything all at once. I look around and want to sweep the house, do the laundry, keep my site up, take care of the baby, edit for other people and do my own writing all at the same time. Then, once I’ve listed all the things I’d like to do, I’m so exhausted by the thought of it all that I do none of it (except take care of the baby; that’s a necessity). I can’t even set one goal. There’s so much I want to improve that I don’t know where to start.

Rubik's cube in sunlight

Goals are like a Rubik’s Cube

This isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve felt this way. For those who don’t know, I am a Mormon. From October 2012 to April 2014, I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines Urdaneta Mission. It was awesome, but often then, as now, I got overwhelmed with just how much I need to do better.

While in the Philippines, I discovered a metaphor that helped me wrap my head around what I needed to do and set one goal at a time. Think of goals as a Rubik’s cube.

 

Well, now that you’re even more stressed out, let me explain. When solving a Rubik’s cube, you can’t solve the whole thing at once. There is a certain order to it. When you look at an unsolved cube, you might find yourself overwhelmed with it. There are so many colors, and they move weird, and every time you move one into place, another one gets put out of place, and there are over 43 billion billion ways to do it wrong (no kidding; look). It’s stressful for sure.

That is, if you don’t know how to do it.

When I got my first cube, it came with a handy dandy little guide with tips and patterns to follow to solve it. Some may say that learning to do it this way is cheating, but I’ve learned lots of things from a book, and no one has a problem with those. Anyway, the first step was to decide which side was going to be the top.

Yup, it’s that simple. Which side is the top? (I usually pick white.)

After that, you solve the cube layer by layer, not color by color. Following the patterns, it was easy. After a while, I didn’t need the patterns anymore; I could do it easily. Sometimes without even looking while I moved the squares in their memorized sequences.

 

several mixed Rubik's cubes

“The first step is to pick which side is the top.”

Set One Goal at a Time

Setting and meeting goals is like solving the cube. First you’ve got to pick the top. Which goal is your top priority? If you’re writing, which story do you want to work on first? Or is it that you need to establish a daily habit or work on a specific part of the craft that is harder for you? Whatever it is, choose just one, and put it on top.

After you’ve set one goal, work on it. Put all the white squares on top.

One thing about working layer by layer on a cube is that you don’t actually ignore the other colors while you are focused on the white. Each square has more than one color, so you do have to make sure the ones that are white and red go between the white and red sides. But that’s secondary. The focus is getting the white done. After that, you move on to the next layer.

Rubik's cube top layer turnedWhile it’s not a perfect metaphor, thinking of goals as a Rubik’s cube helps me not to panic. I can take one of these many things I want to improve and build it up until it’s where I want it to be. Then, I work on something else. Do things slip from time to time? Of course they do. But you have to move the white squares to get the second and third layers into place. As long as you’re paying attention, those habits will last.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the progress you haven’t made, just remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. Set one goal, take it layer by layer, and you will solve it eventually.

Welcome to My New Website!

Welcome to my new website and blog, cecelialefgren.com. Within a month, my old site will be retiring, and everything will be handled through this new site. As you can see, most of the utility of my old site has transferred to this one already. While I intend to continue tweaking and updating, cecelialefgren.com is ready to go!

I’m very happy with this new site, and I hope you like it too. 

~Cecelia Lefgren

 

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