Posts Tagged Emotion Thesaurus Angela Ackerman Becca Puglisi
Today I have two very special guests. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are here to talk about a more advanced concept in fiction—symbol. Take it way, ladies!
We all want our writing to be layered. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. In stories, this depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, I think symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.
Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful in representing what you’re trying to get across in your story; readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean.
But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute, but as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize it for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer of depth to a character or story. But where do we find these symbols? How do we choose which object or thing should represent the important theme in a story? Well, it may not be the first answer that comes to mind, but…
The setting is actually the perfect place to find symbols—because they’re built into every location.
Sometimes, the setting itself can stand for something. Kristen touched on this in her excellent post last week, where she used Shutter Island as an example. The prison is a prison, yes, but it also represents the guilt that keeps US Marshall Teddy Daniels locked away inside his own mind.
Other setting symbols?
A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary. A church could symbolize either hope or corruption, depending on the prevailing culture or the character’s experience. A city, a business, a natural landmark—whether you’ve chosen a rural or urban setting for your scene, the location can often represent an important idea that you want to reinforce for readers.
But more often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live in another town or thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize.
Choosing something closer to home within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently.
In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
As you can see, whatever settings you choose for your story can be mined for emotionally charged symbols and motifs. Sometimes it can be tough to figure out which one to go with, though; the good news is that symbols can be added at any point in the writing process.
If you know beforehand what your theme will be, consider choosing settings that could reinforce that idea. If your theme emerges organically as you write, you can bolster it by adding motifs later with objects that naturally inhabit the locations you’ve chosen. Either way, if you need a little help coming up with symbols for your story, you can always check out the “Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus” at One Stop for Writers, which explores a boatload of popular themes and possible symbols that can be used for them.
The setting is such a versatile tool that most of us frankly underuse. Make it pull its own weight by unearthing the symbols within it. And for more information on making your setting work harder for your story, see our latest books, The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you Angela and Becca! remember that comment love for guests counts double for my ongoing contest.
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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So You Want to Write a Novel THIS FRIDAY!!!!!
June 24th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35
Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.
We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.
Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)
July 6th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35
All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.
This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.
This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
I love to think of myself as having a special eye for talent, and when I find gems like Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, it just makes a gal go “SQUEEEE!” I’ve been following these ladies for a loooong time since they were relatively new in their careers.
Back up because they are a powerhouse and they offer up some of the most excellent writing instruction in the business. They are the authors of the legendary Emotion Thesaurus which eventually gave rise to stacks of other writing tools (I recommend and use them ALL) and now they are launching something truly special.
And, since they are rockstars, they have given me, the W.A.N.A. Mama a very cool deal to share with you guys at the end of this post. This is HUGE! This is the new state-of -the-art-site every writer needs. One place for all the tools we use, and Becca is here to tell us some more about how One Stop will help you reach your dreams and how to get it. You need this. You deserve it. NaNo is coming. You will thank me later 😉 .
But, the best editors will always say, show don’t tell so this isn’t simply a sales pitch. Becca is here to talk about how story elements must work together and then use that to introduce how One Stop helps make that happen (and then the super sweet deal) …
Take it away Becca!
When it comes to writing a successful story, people tend to think in terms of two elements: plot and characters. Obviously, these are incredibly important, and if you want to write a story that readers will appreciate, you’ve got to get these two pieces right.
But there’s so much more to a good story: setting, symbolism, theme, emotion, voice. And as important as it is to do all of these things well, it’s just as important that they fit together.
Look at The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Characterization is a huge part of this story—particularly for the hobbits. The opening scene is Bilbo’s birthday party, and we see right off that hobbits in general are fun-loving, laidback foodie types who like their tankards almost as much as their pipes.
But it’s difficult to define this people-group without also referencing The Shire.
Their passion for this place, their organic connection to the hills and rivers and trees: Tolkien didn’t just pick a setting out of thin air. He created one that fits with the characters like a missing puzzle piece. The characters and the setting go hand in hand; you can’t imagine one without the other.
Which is why, when evil arrives, Frodo’s decision to take it far away and preserve the Shire is a no-brainer.
I find it interesting that the symbol for evil is a gold ring: something that really has nothing in common with the hobbits or their home. They’re simple people; yes they have whole rooms devoted to clothes and they’re proud of their residences, but gold and silver and coins aren’t a huge deal to them.
Tolkien could have used anything to represent evil in his story, but he chose something that had nothing whatsoever to do with The Shire. In doing so, he showed the Shire’s goodness and wholesomeness and the need for its preservation.
I could go on about other writing elements and how they all fit together to make a beautiful, resonant whole, but I think you get the picture. Very likely, none of us are present-day Tolkiens, but his work is the perfect study for how various elements aren’t only successful in isolation; they’re amazing in the way that they work together.
So how do we do accomplish this in our own writing?
When it comes to the various elements of a story, it’s tempting to go with the things that excite us as writers: settings we’ve visited, character traits that we embrace, symbolic trinkets and knickknacks that speak to us. And while those things may work, they probably won’t be the best choices for our stories. When it comes to any writing element, don’t choose randomly. Ask yourself: What makes sense for my character and the story? This is the way to make sure that the elements you choose are the best possible fit.
Start With Characterization
I know, I know. Not every author or story is character-driven. But if you’re looking for ways to tie your elements together, the main character is a good starting point.
For instance, let’s say you’re trying to figure out the setting for an important scene. You could just pick one at random—a restaurant, the school cafeteria, an old barn, etc.—but your scene will have more impact if the setting ties in with your character.
Narrow down the virtually endless set of options by asking these questions: What locations have special significance for my character? What setting is emotionally charged for him or her? By choosing a setting to which your character is already connected, it comes with the potential for tension and high emotion—both of which are good for sustaining reader interest and building empathy.
Symbolism is another element that can be tied to characterization for added effect. In Great Expectations, the stopped clocks in Miss Havisham’s house symbolize her abandonment at the altar—the moment when her life essentially stopped.
Dickens didn’t choose a random, external object for this; he chose a specific time, down to the minute—an intensely personal symbol to represent the most formative event from Miss Havisham’s past. This is a great example of how choosing symbols that are personal to the character can add oomph to a story.
Know Your Characters Well
If you want to bring all the story elements together and you’d like to use a character as the centerpiece, it’s imperative that you know that character well. You don’t have to know every little thing about her; but you do need to have a clear understanding of the important parts of her past so you’ll know not only the kind of person she is in your current story, but also what objects, settings, ideas, and events are going to move her.
For a number of resources on building and understanding your character’s backstory, check out the Writers Helping Writers Tools page.
Bringing all of these elements together can seem daunting. But if you start with a solid working knowledge of your character’s backstory and who he or she is today, you’ll be able to move forward from there.
Once you’ve got that basic knowledge down and you’re ready to bring it all together, you might consider visiting One Stop For Writers. This new online library, dreamed up by Angela Ackerman, Lee Powell (creator of Scrivener for Windows) and me, is full of one-of-a-kind resources to help with various aspects of storytelling.
Its unique thesaurus collection covers symbolism, character traits, emotions, physical features, settings, and more—and it’s all cross-referenced and searchable, making it easier to tie all of these pieces together in a way that makes sense for your story and will resonate with your readers.
Most of us probably don’t aspire to be the next Tolkien or Dickens. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their brilliance. Know your characters well. Choose your elements thoughtfully, and whenever possible, tie them in with your character and your story. If you can do these things, your work will be much tighter and will ring true with readers, which hopefully will lead to more people finishing your books and spreading the word about their new favorite author.
THANK YOU, BECCA!
All right, so last time we talked about channeling that inner Bad Girl (yes, this works for the guys, too 😛 ). No more Mr. Nice Guy. Take some time for yourself. You are important. Your writing is important and people like Becca, Angela and I have worked hard to give you what you need. Now, all you have to do, Sunshine is suck it up and WRITER UP! Give it a try!
Curious about One Stop For Writers? Register to check out the free version and get an idea of what it’s all about, OR take advantage of this sweet launch-week deal: 50% off any first-time subscriber plan—1 month, 6 months, or 1 full year. This deal is only available until October 14th, (6:30 PM EST), so if you’re interested, shake a tail feather and get on over to Writers Helping Writers for all the juicy details.
Becca Puglisi is a speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via her newest endeavor: One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
I’ve read thousands of works, and one quick way to have a “paper doll” is for a character to be all good or all evil. When we begin writing, it’s easy to fall into this trap. Our heroes or heroines are versions of ourselves (minus any imperfections, of course). Our bad guys are every ex or person in high school who picked on us. They are evil personified. But then we soon realize?
Our characters are deep as a puddle, making them dull as dirt.
If we look to some of the most fascinating characters in history, books, and movies, we see a cast that includes Riddick (Chronicles of Riddick), Gordon Gekko (Wall Street), Wyatt Earp (history and the movie Tombstone), Tom Sawyer (literature), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Hannibal of Carthage, Hannibal the Cannibal (Silence of the Lambs), Batman, Iron Man, Poison Ivy, Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr. Maura Isles (from Tess Gerritson’s series of novels and also television), Lestat (Interview with a Vampire), Molly Brown (from history and the movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown)….
and yes, then there is Scarlett…
Today to talk to you about how to create multi-dimensional characters that resonate with readers is WANA International Instructor, Becca Puglisi…
Take it away, Becca!
I was watching Gone with the Wind the other night—because, you know, it was on TV and I had four hours to kill. As a teen, this was the first “grown-up” book I read, and ever since, I’ve had a serious girl-crush on Scarlett O’Hara. Which makes no sense, considering what a horrible person she is. I mean, she spends most of the story scheming to steal her only friend’s husband. When that doesn’t pan out, she marries her sister’s fiancé to get his money.
She’s spoiled, materialistic, manipulative, and utterly self-involved. And yet, I love her as a character. If she wasn’t widely admired, I’d think there was something seriously wrong with me. But even after all these years, she continues to connect with people. Why is this?
For me, part of the reason lies in the duality of her flaws. As a spoiled brat, she embraces boldness to get what she wants. To pursue materialism, she needs to be resourceful. Cleverness goes hand-in-hand with her manipulative nature, and to obtain her selfish goals, she must be persistent.
Scarlett’s flaws aren’t one-dimensional. They have many facets—both positive and negative. This is how real people are. Our flaws, while limiting us and hurting our relationships, have beneficial features, too. Likewise, our positive attributes have associated negative elements.
I’ve come to understand that while most traits fit neatly into either the flaw or positive attribute category, many of them contain both good and bad sides. I recognize this in the traits that define me and the qualities I see in others.
The same should be true of our characters.
Utilizing both sides of a given trait will add realism to a character’s personality and increase your chances of him connecting with readers. Here are a few tips on how to tap into both sides of your character’s traits in the writing process:
Identify Your Character’s DEFINING Traits
This should go without saying, but it’s vital to understand your character’s biggest flaws and attributes. Make a list of which traits he embodies. Then, narrow it down to one primary flaw and one primary attribute. This will keep things clear for you, which will then ensure clarity for the reader.
For help figuring out which traits make sense for your character based on his history, you might find this Reverse Backstory Tool useful.
Explore Defining Traits from EVERY Angle
Once you’ve identified a primary flaw and attribute, brainstorm the behaviors and attitudes—positive and negative—that might manifest in a person who exhibits those traits. For example, if your character is controlling, his list might look something like this:
• micromanages others
• exhibits a lack of trust
• pulls people away from loved ones to increase his control
• manipulates others
• is good at reading people
• is passionate
• shows incredible persistence
Show BOTH Sides
Your list should contain some positive and negative elements for each trait. Utilize the good and the bad to give your character depth. Perhaps his knack for reading people can benefit him in other ways, such as making him a successful cop or judge.
Maybe his passionate nature drives him to give of his time or money to a neighborhood charity. Show both sides of your character’s nature, and you’ll create a hero or villain that smacks of authenticity.
Building realistic characters is a crucial part of writing a successful story. Know your character’s defining traits and tap into the good and the bad that comes with them, and you’ll be on your way to creating multi-dimensional characters that will resonate with readers.
Thanks, Becca! Who are some of your favorite characters in history, books or even movies? Why? Were they flawed? How? How did that flaw just make you adore them even more?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Comments for guests get DOUBLE POINTS.
Becca Puglisi is the co-creator of The Bookshelf Muse, an award winning online resource for writers. She has also authored a number of nonfiction resource books for writers, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Emotion; The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes; and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences, teaches webinars through WANA International, and can be found online at her Writers Helping Writers website.
Happy Friday! We have a real treat. Becca Puglisi is here to give tips to take your writing to a whole new level. All writers struggle, especially when trying to convey emotion. It’s easy to beat the same words until they bleed and WE cry. This is one of the reasons that The Emotion Thesaurus is a must-have reference for writers. Becca and Angela took the time to put together one of the most innovative and valuable writing tools I’ve ever seen. We are thrilled to have Becca here today!
Take it away, Becca!
I considered writing today about that one thing you need to write a truly great story that the reader can’t put down. But we all know that there isn’t just one thing. Voice? Plot? Characterization? Motivation? Sure. All of the above. But since I’ve seen roughly a gajillion blog posts that cover these topics, I’d rather write about another important element that doesn’t get much press: emotion.
When your story lacks the appropriate emotion, the reader quickly loses interest and stops reading. When asked what caused the disconnect, they can’t always articulate it clearly. They say things like…
I couldn’t get into the story.
I didn’t connect with the character.
The stakes were high, but for some reason, I just didn’t care.
The main character wasn’t believable.
It just didn’t grab me.
There are a lot of reasons behind reader apathy. As a rabid reader myself, I can say that many times, when I toss a book aside, it’s because the character emotion isn’t quite right: there’s not enough of it; there’s too much; it’s poorly written; the emotion doesn’t fit the character and so doesn’t ring true.
Whatever the reason, reader apathy is bad. We want the reader to be emotionally invested and fully engaged in the story. We want them to be late to work because they had to read one more chapter to see what happened next.
We want them reading our books under their desks at school when they’re supposed to be studying biology. (I taught school; I’m allowed to say that.) One way to make sure that the reader is plugged in is to use our own experiences to infuse emotion into the story.
The pages should cry. They should sweat and tremble and bleed. The character’s emotion should be so realistic and gripping that the reader can’t help but feel it, too.
So, how do we make that happen?
I recently attended a local conference and sat in on a workshop by Ellen Hopkins—YA author of gritty, hard-hitting, edgy fiction in verse. During that hour and a half, she shared a technique for tapping into your own emotions and injecting them into your story. I thought it was brilliant, and effective, and a little terrifying. So I’d like to share it with you.
First, identify the emotion your character is experiencing—fear, for instance. Think of a time in your past when you clearly felt that emotion, then write that experience as the person you were at the time it occurred: a six-year-old boy, a kid at sleep-away camp, a college freshman, a newly divorced mom.
Writing the memory down will bring specific details to mind—sounds, scents, colors, and textures that you can include in your character’s fear-filled scene. Using these details will help draw the reader in so they experience the emotion along with the character. Then, when you refer to those things later in the story, they’ll trigger that emotion in the reader, and the desired feelings will return
It’s amazing how much you’ll remember when you dig up those old memories—which is scary, I know. We spend a large part of our lives trying to forget anything painful. Remembering makes us re-feel things we never wanted to feel in the first place. But it’s kind of necessary, isn’t it? Because how can we move the reader if we can’t recall and describe those intensely moving emotions?
This is why I truly believe that emotion is one of the must-haves for writers when it comes to engaging the reader. It’s one of the reasons Angela and I wrote The Emotion Thesaurus, to help us figure out how to better write our characters’ emotions. And it’s why we’ve decided to teach a course at WANA on the topic.
Using Nonverbal Communication to Wow Readers covers the techniques for showing character emotion, which will help writers build reader empathy and create an emotional experience that draws readers into the story. Participants will also receive a PDF copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.
So if you’d like more ideas on how to convey emotion, we’d love to see you on March 6th. And if you can’t make it, do try Ellen’s technique on tapping into your own emotions. I hope it comes in handy.
Thanks for having me, Kristen!
ANY TIME! Fabulous post and I love it when you guys make me look good :D. *hugs* I hope you guys will give Becca a round of digital applause.
Becca Puglisi is a YA fantasy/historical fiction writer and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. She is currently hard at work on the next two books in this series, The Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Flaws and The Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Positive Character Attributes, which will be available the summer of 2013. Becca enjoys speaking at workshops and teaching about various writerly topics. Online, you can find her hanging out at her award-winning blog, The Bookshelf Muse.