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Make Your Story: Make Your Hero

29 Apr

Consider heroism.

Do you grasp your heroism already or are you writing in order to catch a glimpse of it? Either way is good. Just be aware which is you before you start writing.

Be aware that tracking a plot isn’t enough to describe a “hero’s journey,” and rising from nothing isn’t in itself heroic. Exemplary, yes. Brave. But heroism is a trait, not a journey, and I don’t think Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are correct that killing the dragon is enough to be a hero. Many people, kindly grandfathers and selfish douchebags alike, can and should take rightful action to save their own skins.

It’s why someone kills a dragon that matters. Heroes act out of compassion. Heroes are generous. They give it all away to kill that dragon.

It’s important to point this out because the “lowest common denominator” approach to defining heroic status in the wake of Joseph Campbell’s and Carl Jung’s theories about heroism don’t serve narrative or memoir well. The Jungian formula is “You did a thing you were anxious about = You ARE Heroic.”

Now if that’s personally meaningful to you, I approve. That matters. To you.

But when it comes to telling a life-story, you must face the reality that you are opening such a claim to scrutiny. Some say self-sacrifice makes a hero, not just facing dragons. Some say audacious acts of bravery in the face of superior numbers make a hero. Don’t be surprised if many readers are skeptical or simply don’t agree that your story’s protagonist is heroic simply because you’re using the “hero’s journey” as a format.

So consider some questions before you begin.

Am I a hero or a protagonist in my own story? Am I willing to cast myself as “un-heroic”? Am I aiming for realism or heroism?

If you gave your hero a motto, what would it be? Is your heroic motto validated by the story’s end, or will the hero exchange it for another after the climax? Who “wins” in your story: the hero’s motto, the hero, or the world?

Arrange some of the stories/scenes that you want to relate in your life-story on note cards or on a spreadsheet. Divide them up in three piles/sections: SHOWS COMPASSION; SHOWS SELFISHNESS; HAS REVELATION. Does your protagonist seem heroic to you? What do your hero’s revelation/revelations consist of? What is this hero’s particular journey about? Is heroism a status that your character wishes to receive? Do you wish it for your character (who is you)? Why?

Why are you writing this story? Do you have something to give by telling it? Is it, in and of itself, an act of self-sacrifice? Is telling it a heroic act? A gift?

You are always the protagonist in your own story, but are you the real hero of it? Imagine for a minute, it’s not you. Who is the true hero? Who has acted so heroically that you would not be you without their generosity, bravery, audaciousness?

WRITING PROMPT. 500 words right now. Choose one. Or keep writing and use all three. (1) Describe a personal anecdote in which you came off as selfish, egotistical. (2) Describe a personal anecdote in which you showed generosity and were exceedingly selfless. (3) Describe a scene in which someone else acted “heroically” for you.

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 


Make Your Hero

Make Your Story: Welcome to the Beginning

27 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, you should consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Terra incognita. If you don’t, you’ll miss diamonds hiding in the shadows and truths you never considered. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider your life-story’s beginning.

Where would you start? Don’t be too chronological. If you were going to start writing your story right this minute, what would the first scene be? Consider a vibrant welcome for your reader as she walks through the doorway of your story. Consider your most crucial moment. Consider your greatest triumph. Consider what’s actually fascinating to other people. About you.

What’s the hook to being you?


Janus god Sculpture

Janus, Roman God of Doorways

Make Your Story: Treasures from the Underworld

27 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, you should consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Terra incognita. If you don’t, you’ll miss diamonds hiding in the shadows and truths you never considered. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider the darkest. Consider the most painful. Remember that time you had to walk through the underworld.

Do you remember what you were most afraid of being true while you made that trek? So afraid that you probably don’t ever tell that part of your story aloud, because you can’t bear to say the words, report what actually happened?

Let that stay unsaid – keep its mystery potent – but create a single vivid concrete symbol for it. It could be a cursed treasure or a white-eyed demon. Your underworld symbol can be frightening or it could be random, dreamlike. It can be mythic or culturally known, but it’s best if this figure resonates with threat and menace from your unspoken fear so that it hums that way in your story/performance, too.




Gustav Dore, “Cursed wolf, thy fury inward on thyself prey and consume thee.” (1857)



Make Your Story: The Nemesis

27 Apr

Make Your Story is a series of articles by novelist Barth Anderson about things you might consider when writing your life-story, autobiography, or when mining personal material for your art. 

In approaching your life story, you should consider that you might not know it as well as you think you do. Consider your own life the way you might consider a stranger’s. Consider it unknown territory. Terra incognita. If you don’t, you’ll miss diamonds hiding in the shadows and truths you never considered. Consider what you’ve never considered before.

Consider your nemesis.

I don’t think you can know your nemesis at a young age. The maniacal architect of your undoing shapeshifts so many times in the course of a life that you need 2 or 3 tragic demises before you see how your nemesis rolls.

Warning: A true nemesis doesn’t want merely to thwart you like a villain will do in a melodrama. Your nemesis is terrified of you. it fears you resurrecting so it pounces on your missteps, “crimes,” in order to humiliate and demoralize you. A true nemesis doesn’t ever throw a punch. It deceives you in order to convince you to never get up again.

Your nemesis will appear in the silence of a wakeful sleepless night, when you scold and abhor yourself most. It will appear when you think you are strongest, right in front of you, real as rain. Inside. Outside. Nightmares and stark reality. Both. To assume it appears in only one place or the other is to play into the nemesis’s shapeshifting game.

Is there a tell-tale clue that allows you to spot your nemesis before it begins its sadistic art? A sign or tic you’ve identified as belonging to the nemesis? A pop-song that plays in the background when you encounter it? A phrase that it can’t help but repeat? When you spot it, do you know that your demise is about to happen once more?

Consider this when approaching your o0wn life-story.


“Nemesis” by Albrecht Durer, 1501  (more info on the goddess Nemesis here)

Cliches are the Opposite of Truth: KILLING THEM ALL

14 May


Cliches are your worst enemy as a writer.

They’re death to you because a cliche is someone else’s thought, and, worse, it’s a phrase or image from your culture’s collection of junk-thoughts that are most often said to fill up dead, silent, useless space.

Such words are not golden. They’re trash.

Cliche is the mark of someone who is uncomfortable with their own turn of phrase, who doesn’t know how their own creativity works. That’s the opposite of a writer’s task.

Cliches are fine for office emails. But as a writer, you must l-o-v-e LOVE creating your own original thoughts, striking your own observations. Simply repeating the stock phrases, pieces of wisdom, plot devices, character traits, and story lines of so many others is inexcusable for a writer. Read tons and learn to spot tired cliches (or better, trendy statements that will SOON be cliches). Weave diamonds with your sentences and make reality out of thin air.

To do that, you need to write in the truth of the truth. You can’t do that if your brain churns out cliches, which are sentiments, ultimately. Symbols of feeling, and not a feeling itself.

“That’s the way it goes.”

“It is what it is.”

“I love her more than life itself.”

“Curses, foiled again.”

These are symbols of feelings. They’re melodrama, not drama. You can write a cliche in the first draft, that’s cool, if it’s a place marker for where you can drive in your shovel and dig up the gold later.

Let me show you exactly how to do this. Answer me, por favor: In the story you’re writing right now, what does your main character want more than anything? Write it out in a single sentence as an “I” statement. Make it emotional. Make it hurt. Break your own heart with that sentence.

If you need some inspiration, take Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride as an example: What does he want more than anything? Revenge. He says it when he first meets the Man in Black and repeats it frequently throughout The Princess Bride. He wants to kill the six-fingered man and pay him back for killing his father. Boom. That’s it.

Now…that’s a cliche. And in the storybook world in which writer William Goldman operates, he lets that tired cliche stand through the whole movie. But he is going to deliver a twist that makes it all work and freshens the cliche with real feeling. Goldman knows that revenge is not the heart-breaking “I” statement, nor is it the real truth of Inigo Montoya, the real feeling that his character feels in the pit of his heart. REVENGE is something fine to write on a note card next to your hero’s name. But when writers say “write the truth,” this is what they’re really talking about:

“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

That’s the line. Montoya doesn’t want revenge, really, and Goldman knows it. But he holds it back, let’s Montoya come to that line in the most dramatic moment so the line is yanked our of him. Finally, facing the villain of his dreams, Montoya says, “Promise me riches! Promise me everything I desire!” He doesn’t say, “Ha ha! Vengeance is mine!” or “Now I have you!” Goldman is too good a writer for that. In the final moment when Montoya finally has his quarry cornered, Goldman let’s the real feeling out, and it’s like a gunshot. We realize this is not just a cliche storybook fairy tale. There’s a true feeling to be experienced.

That’s your goal in writing your character’s greatest want. If you can’t give yourself a sob, raise a shiver in your own skin, or imagine readers looking up from your book in sheer awe when you distill that character’s longing down to a single sentence (and then use it when it’s most effective in your story), then you haven’t hit the truth of your character’s truth yet. Get closer. Jump the rails and sneak past the symbols of feeling, the sentiment and cliche, the stories your teachers, friends, parents, and family approve of. And write the fuck out of that character.

4 Ways to Write Compelling Characters

20 Mar


Depicting characters — especially supporting cast members — means finding the elements that will tell the most about these people in the least number of words. Do this effectively, and you’ll not only have a living, breathing, interesting person on the page — you’ll have hooked your reader, too.

Many sources on writing that address character will focus on developing a character study — write 36 pages of character descriptions  or you “don’t know your character.” Write down their innermost secrets and the truth they’ve been hiding since childhood. That’s all fine. Do that if it fits your project and/or works for you.

But eventually there’s another step so crucial that it will feel like stepping off a cliff from the 36-page character study: Boiling that preparation down to what actually appears in your story.

This post is going to look at writerly devices for describing characters and doing it economically so that your reader feels they are in the hands of a writer who knows what they’re doing.

Let’s look at 4 methods: Magnification, Compare & Contrast, Listing, and High Concept.


Let’s start with walk-on characters and small parts. Magnifying is maybe the most common method of depicting characters, small or large, and one of the first that you’ll learn to master: Show readers one significant detail, blow it up, and encapsulate the whole character with that significant detail.

Jack Kerouac was a master at this maneuver. Streaming down the river of “On the Road,” we meet far more characters per square inch than most novels, and as an observer of human beings, Kerouac is excellent at defining and painting a character in a very short amount of space. Here he keys on a man’s laugh and magnifies it to cosmic proportions:

Mr. Snow began his laugh from the supper table when his old wife said something casual; he got up, apparently choking, leaned on the wall, looked up to heaven, and started; he staggered through the door, leaning on neighbors’ walls; he was drunk with it, he reeled throughout Mill City in the shadows, raising his whooping triumphant call to the demon god that must have prodded him to do it.

This is as much as we get to see of this man and his laugh — Mr. Snow is pretty much gone from “On the Road” after this description. But what a walk-on. This man’s laugh is memorable both to the narrator-character of Kerouac and to the reader who gets to see him for merely a flash, just as the real-life hitchhiker Kerouac probably did, fitting the entire theme and m.o. of “On the Road” in one sentence.

Try it yourself. Describe a memorable character in your life by magnifying a key detail about them, and do it in just one sentence.


People make a lot of Charles Dickens as an actor and theater man, but more importantly to his career as an author, he was a reporter and editor who wrote in shorthand. While his characterizations owe a great deal to the farces he loved and to theatrical caricatures in general, his ability to quickly and realistically characterize owes far more to his observational skill of real people.

Below, meet Scrooge and his thematic counterpart Mr. Fezziwig from “A Christmas Carol,” which is a very short story and relies on brevity in much the same way that Kerouac relies on it. Here we get two VIP characters, a paragraph each.

Scrooge: Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

And Fezziwig, Scrooge’s boss when he was a young man who had once gone by the name “Ebenezer”:

Old Fezziwig rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself…and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: `Yo ho, there. Ebenezer. Dick.’

To compress these characters, Dickens keys in on telling details and contrasts them: One skinny, one big. One mean, one jovial. One solitary, one expansive. Both have loud voices, but one is grating and the other is comfortable and fun. As a result, we know these two by how they stand apart from one another.

This contrast is further sharpened by the love that Scrooge shows for Fezziwig while recollecting the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, for how different his delightful former boss is from the mean, dried up old man that Ebenezer has become. We’re shown so many layers of contrast, teasing them out by one of the characters being contrasted. Brilliant.

Then there’s Pride and Prejudice, in which master-of-character Jane Austen does the same thing as Dickens, but in a deft, single paragraph, describing Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, the parents of the books’ main protagonists. Here, Austen is comparing and contrasting these key secondary characters:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Unlike Dickens, Austen doesn’t rely on physical description for these compressed comparisons. Indeed, she uses fairly abstract language, which is necessary in order to set up the comedy of manners to follow: One is an odd mixture of parts, the other is easily understood. The lion’s share of Pride and Prejudice is dialogue (which is excellent too of course), so this is pretty much all the contextual description we get for these two characters before the witty repartee starts. One would think for how heavily Austen leans on dialog that her ability to describe might suffer, but not so. She’s a master at telling us exactly what we need to know about her people. To pull off Austen’s technique, you’ll have to distill and condense character information into hard, little diamonds — more like writing poetry.

Stop and try your hand at this method of characterization. Take two vastly different family members, childhood friends, or work colleagues, and compare and contrast them in just one or two paragraphs. What details are most important for you to show the contrasts? Which characteristics best spark against each other and make for good comedy/tragedy/action, etc.?


Listing character traits may sound easy, but you have to know why certain details must be mentioned and when to stop listing. Otherwise you wind up with, well, dull lists, random detail, and a boring read.

Read this paragraph from detective mystery master Raymond Chandler. This is from “The Big Sleep,” a description of a VIP character, the younger Sternwood daughter, Carmen.

She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slategray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pits and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy. “Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

Chandler’s method is quite similar to Dickens who lists physical descriptions of both Scrooge and Fezziwig. But why these details? Why this list? Because this list tells us tons about the main character detective Philip Marlowe — he’s the narrator and main character of “The Big Sleep.” So we’re not just getting a list of Carmen’s characteristics in this paragraph, we’re getting a picture of how this private eye thinks,a man who sounds like he’s reporting details to a cop or fellow detective so that we might identify Carmen Sternwood if we bump into her. In this way, Chandler makes the reader complicit in Marlowe’s jaded, seen-it-all-before attitude. “She smiled with her mouth,” Marlowe says. It’s as if he’s saying, “She doesn’t smile with her eyes. Fake smile, because she’s not interested in actually making friends if you know what I mean.”

Ready to follow Chandler’s lead? Make a list of details about an important person in your life or a key character in your story. How are these characteristics more than just a collection of details? Do they characterize the narrator or someone else in the story somehow? Does the sum of these details tell us something more than just the details you’re listing?


The novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is about a community of people who are, taken as a whole, an actual, functioning character in the story. In the first pages of Zora Neal Hurston’s brilliant book, we see a woman coming to town after burying dead bodies and we get the reactions, judgments, and harsh assessments of this community as it examines her:

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.

Having a group act as a single character challenges our ideas of what identity and personhood is — or what a character can even be. Who is this woman character to the group? Can a group show agency, change, volition? Can they together be personified as a main character? In a book about alienation, what does it mean that a main character is an entire group? These are the central questions of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” of course, a book that tracks these ideas forward into questions of which characters have true, individual voice and what liberty means to the other characters who clearly do not?

Matching voice with theme is a skill found in the terrain of literature (“The Big Sleep” is literature from my POV, not solely a mystery) and “They’re Eyes Were Watching God” is written in a high language that poetically contemplates vast human concerns, not merely plot points. “Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.” This is the kind of line that might get cut from a story concerned only with whodunnit, finding the dingus, killing the monstersand nothing else. But in a story about liberty and voice, Hurston absolutely needs to write and save that line, let us read, re-read, and contemplate what it all means. The character of the community is seemingly a “free” voice and at liberty to judge.  How do we know? Because we are reading words without masters. She’s defining the character of that communal voice and judgment, every bit as much as Dickens describing physical detail of Scrooge’s voice sounding gratin, shrewd.

Try this. Take a theme from your story or your life (desire, aging, grief, birth,  greed) and personify it as an actual character. How real will this character be? How might it change and go through crises? How might be this abstraction interact with other characters? Allow yourself to be poetic and see if a more florid language allows you freedom to describe this character.

Did this help? What other methods for getting characters on the page work best for you? Report back and let me know if this post and/or these exercises were of use to you! I’d love to know.

How I Write a Story

27 Jun
ImageIt’s a little like asking how do you dream. I don’t really kn ow and lots of writers DON’T know. Effective writers channel their dreaming brains in effective ways, I think. This is how I often do it. 
A story always starts with an image or sentence that gets stuck in my head. I’m convinced this is pathological — an OCD or some kind of spectrum disorder tick — many, many writers that I’ve spoken to know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not a playful, whimsical thought or daydreaming. It’s THERE, like a sliver — stuck, and not necessarily pleasant. If I concentrate on any given story of mine, I can remember the tick that started it:
A saint bleeding on her penitents.  A swordsman at the bottom of a latrine, digging through composted poop, looking for…something.

(It doesn’t matter if you know these stories, by the way. They’re just examples, and I’m mostly listing them for my own amusement.)

The heads of three giants poking up through a highway.

A tarot-reader at a restaurant is approached by a magical creature for a reading.

Undead sailors walking across a frozen harbor from their ice-locked ghost ship 

A warrior who ate her enemies and referred to them as “Trophies/Ingredients.”

“‘Apartment.’ Get it? We were ‘meant’ to be ‘apart.'”

Whatever the snatch of text or the image is, I can’t put it aside. My brain returns to it all day-long for days. The story itself usually comes out in layers of paragraphs, more than in a linear narrative, but a straighter through-line emerges once this process gives way to actual storytelling.
My favorite stories to write are the ones whose germ turns out to be the last scene/image. (That’s how my first book “Patron Saint of Plagues” was written.) If the ending is in place and a main character hasn’t emerged, I concentrate on that before anything else. When I started writing “Alone in the House of Mims,” I thought the main character was the drag queen, Honey, from “Lark Till Dawn, Princess.” Honey sort of took over my poor brain before I realized she needed her own story, setting, etc. It’s interesting though.Both stories are about performance and authenticity — read them both, and you might see that they they are just two trees growing out of the same trunk. That’s how I think of them.
Anyway, once the main character an ending are in place, I start the outline, storyboard, and/or block out scenes that carry me up to that first/final germ. “Magician and the Fool” was the opposite of PSOP in this way — the initial germ was the beginning — and I think the book suffered because I didn’t have the ending in mind from the very beginning. That said, I think that book contains maybe my strongest exit (and some of my best prose). I love to read stories that leave me with one, potent, final image.