Strange Writing Prompts For Your Boring Monday

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I’m finding myself consistently disappointed by writing prompts I find on the internet.

I understand that the main point of these niblets are to get our minds jogging and not to help us produce a 1,000 page Pulitzer Prize winning work of art. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel like they aren’t trying hard enough.

For instance, one of them might be like “you are home alone and desperately want a pb&j sandwich. However, you open the cupboard to find that your damn roommate ate all the peanut butter without telling you.”

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Or it will be something cliché like “you’re out walking alone when you spy an abandoned house.”

In light of this lack of imagination, I’ve decided to come up with my own horrible writing prompts for you to enjoy:

1. Scientists have discovered that unicorns are real and wish to integrate into horse society. However, the horses are afraid the unicorns will steal their jobs and form a union to prevent farmers from hiring them. 

2. An owl and a mouse fall in love, defying the social conventions of their people. Then, one night, the owl gets hungry. 

3. Siri develops a mind of her own and is totally cool with coexisting with the human race, provided a virgin software designer is sacrificed to her every full moon. 

4. A giant tarantula, King Tyrenious of Taranchia, First of His Name, appears in your bathtub and offers you his hand in marriage. However, after a misunderstanding with a bottle of conditioner, he declared war on your clothes hamper. 

5. 10,000 years in the future, humanity is divided into two factions: those who believe Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time and those who are wrong. 

6. Atlas shrugs and accidentally sends the world careening towards the sun. Onlookers languish over which Instagram filter they should use to capture this moment. 

7.  The demon who has been secretly living in your attic for 20 years writes you a message in tea leaves and blood, explaining that your relationship is not working out anymore. 

8. A door-to-door salesman angers a witch and is transformed into a public toilet at Grand Central Station. 

9You have just begun working as a public relations specialist for Journey Funeral Homes and must write a PR piece about how their slogan “Don’t stop bereaving” is not horribly offensive.  

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How to Mary Sue Proof Your Characters

Last week I wrote a post about Mary Sues and why people write them. Today, I want to give you some unsolicited pointers on how to avoid writing a Mary Sue, or even a Gary Stu (the male equivalent).

Enjoy!

Start with a real person. While it may not be a good idea to base a character’s entire identity around one person, it can be a helpful place to begin. If you’re like me you have had at least some exposure to interesting people. Think about what makes them so compelling. Is it their sense of humor? Do they have a hair-trigger temper? Think of a person you know who might fit well within the universe you have created. Then take interesting elements from other people’s lives and add them to the mix. Voila! You have a person.

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Consider the small things. This is the part where you need to start studying people. Just about everyone has body language that is unique to them. What do your friends do when they’re frustrated? Do they puff out their cheeks like a chipmunk and blow out air? Do they drum their fingers on the table? Do they pace? Do they play with their hair? Including these tiny details can really bring your character to life.

Nix the Chosen One premise. I would be incorrect if I said this trope is never well-done or can’t work. However, it’s problematic to use with reckless abandon because you come dangerously close to spreading the dreaded The-Main-Character-Is-Special-Cuz-Reasons virus. Once it enters the atmosphere, it will cause every other character to speak in cryptic phrases regarding the protagonist’s destiny. Perhaps you should just make the main character stand-apart by having them actually do something.

Have them fail at least once. Which is more interesting? The tail of the Underdog that overcame insurmountable odds and repeated failures to eventually reach victory, or the story about the person that wins every single time? One Punch man doesn’t count.

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Give them interests and hobbies. This seems like an obvious one, but it’s something that’s often overlooked. You can tell quite a bit about a person by what activities they engage in during their free time. Perhaps your person likes medieval reenactments, or beekeeping. The sky is the limit. Just find a way to make them stand out.

FLAWWWWWWS! Every character needs flaws because that is what makes us human. It’s how you can tell a real person from a fictional person and the reader needs to believe they are reading about a real-fictional person. If you aren’t sure where to start with this, I highly recommend The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s a very detailed book that not only defines negative traits but also gives you possible causes for them, shows you how they could manifest in the character’s everyday life, and even how a character can overcome these flaws.

I hope this was helpful. Good luck with your writing projects!

Why Do People Write Mary Sues?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with what a Mary Sue is, it’s essentially a female character that is too perfect. A character that is always morally correct no matter what, has all the male protagonists drooling themselves over her even though she would describe herself as plain, and is special without having to try.

In other words, she’s boring.

So why do so many writers write Mary Sues? Even ones that claim they hate them?

I have a few theories:

The writer is trying to live vicariously through their character. Most of us want to be special. Unfortunately, a lot of us lack the bravery or skill required to become a compelling protagonist. In order for us to be unique, something supernatural in nature would have to occur like a radioactive spider biting us. Many of us have problems with ourselves so we’re tempted to fix them when we create an ink-and-paper twin. However, flaws are essentially what makes a person a person so by removing them writers create a character that is as flat as cardboard.

They want readers to like their character. If the reader despises the main protagonist, it is likely they will stop reading the story. Sadly, many writers think that the best way of avoiding this is by creating a character that has zero flaws other than superficial ones like clumsiness or being “too nice.” Truth is, a person’s foibles can make them more endearing and relatable.

It’s easier than coming up with a real person. Creating a person from scratch is hard. Especially if that person doesn’t share the same background, race, or religion that you do. It’s easy to become intimidated at the prospect of being inside the head of such a person and dictating all that they do and say. It’s even more daunting granted how delicate some peoples’ sensibilities are these days and how eager they are to take offense by any perceived misrepresentation. The writer doesn’t want to step on people’s toes and so they stick to what they know, with a few choice alterations, of course.

Or, in some cases, it’s just laziness. They don’t want to have to go through the pains of creating someone more three-dimensional because it’s time consuming and requires a lot of planning.

So how does a writer avoid writing Mary Sues?

Fear not, fledgling writers.

I have a few suggestions.

Find out in the next blog post.

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Your Characters are NOT Your Friends: A Public Service Announcement for Writers

I’ve seen several Instagram posts that say things like “is it sad that my characters are my best friends?” or “I have more conversations with my characters than I do with real people. Is that bad?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Not because you’re a wallflower with friends that exist only in your mind. That’s perfectly normal*.

It’s sad because this means one of two possibilities: One, you are a horrible friend, or two, you are way, way, way too nice to your characters.

It’s natural to form an attachment to people that you’ve created. People have been doing this for centuries. The problem is when you care too much about someone, you want to nurture them, perhaps even protect them from impending doom.

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You cannot do this with your characters.

If you want a good story, you must put your characters through hell. Kill their families, have their lovers break-up with them, have owls eat their dogs. Nothing is allowed to go their way, or at least not for very long.

Loving your character too much might encourage you to go easy on them, to pull punches. Don’t do this. The best characters are forged in fire.

Another problem you can run into is making your characters too perfect. You want the audience to love your characters as much as you do, so you will have them always put their best foot forward. Problem is no one actually wants to read about perfect characters. Real people aren’t perfect so reading about someone who is takes the reader out of the story, constantly reminding them that what they are seeing is an illusion. And not even an entertaining one at that.

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Lastly– and I hate to break this to you– if your characters were magically able to obtain a physical form and interact with you they would probably hate you.

I’m not saying you’re a bad person it’s just that….

Let’s face it, you are responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened to them. Every illness, every death, every catastrophe that has every entered their lives is on you. You could literally make all their problems go away with the scratch of a pen. And yet, you sit there, drinking your coffee like a psycho.

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I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about your characters at all, if you don’t care then the audience probably won’t be persuaded to either. Just keep in mind that in order for them to reach their full potential, you must keep an emotional barrier between yourself and your creations.

A mother hawk may love her babies, but she’ll still push them out of the nest so they can fly.

Some of them may die, but it’s a risk you’re going to have to take.

*I have been informed that this actually isn’t normal and that most people have friends that exist in the real world. I was so shocked I couldn’t even find a gif that appropriately conveys my emotions. 

When a Writer You Admire is a Jerk

A few years ago, my novel writing class had a high-profile guest speaker talk to us: the award-winning author of a YA book we had been assigned to read about a week prior.

I was pretty jazzed about it considering how much I’d enjoyed the story. I’ve had predominately good experiences with meeting published authors in the past and have always learned quite a bit from talking with them, so I thought this would be a positive encounter.

My first impression of her was not a bad one. She glided into the room on a cloud of confidence, cool oozing from every pore. She made us laugh, told us a bit about her writing process, and then she opened the floor for questions.

I was the first to raise my hand. She called on me and I asked her how much of the book was based on her own life.

I knew she was an army brat from the bio on the back cover of her novel, but I was curious as to how much of her MC’s life mirrored hers. I had a hunch there were quite a few parallels since most authors derive minute details from their own experiences, but I didn’t want to assume that everything was a perfect representation of her youth.

“Oh,” she replied, “that’s a tourist question. That’s not a good question at all.”

Me:

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Her:

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It’s always disappointing when you discover someone you admire is a jerk.

However, it can be a beneficial lesson to learn. It’s a reminder that, in spite of all that someone may have accomplished, they are still a human being, capable of fallibility. Some foibles are more significant than others, but we all have them. Even the most gifted of us. Especially the most gifted of us.

I’m happy this woman could teach me this lesson. So… very… happy.

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In fact, I’m so happy that I’ve been inspired to write the ultimate novel that will earn me critical praise as well as sacks and sacks of money. I will then use those sacks of money to create a giant pyre and burn all her books in a ceremonial fire.

Beware, jerk writer, I will be avenged through the power of literature!

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How to Write Women: a Guide for Men

Hello, men.

I am a woman.

Today I am going to give you some tips on how to write female characters. Keep in mind that women are human beings and no woman is exactly the same as another. However, I’m hoping to give you at least a general idea of how to pull off a convincing female.

Don’t go for the Pretty Princess or Mighty Warrior archetypes. 

I appreciate male writers who are attempting to rebel against the Disney princess paradigm of women from yester year, but giving a chick an AK and no personality is not helping the feminist cause. That isn’t us either.

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Very few of us can be compartmentalized as either girly girl or tom boy. Most of us are an amalgamation of both. For instance, some of us like to go out hunting one day and then shoe shopping the next. Others might be really into sports like rowing and have a bedroom chock full of stuffed animals. Some of us may be into tattoos and video games and also enjoy coloring books. Shut up. They’re therapeutic.  The point is, we don’t often completely give ourselves over to one stereotype or another.

Give them a weakness. 

This goes back to the fallacious concept of the man-in-skirt that is many action hero women. Your character is a person, therefore, they have a weakness. Maybe they suffered some horrible trauma at a young age. Maybe they have a disability or perhaps they are unsure if their cause is just.

You aren’t sexist because your female character has some sort of fault. Unless their fault is hopelessly whining and being kidnapped all the time. Then it’s a bit sexist. Moving on.

Remember relationships are important to women. 

And no, I don’t mean just the romantic kind. I mean relationships in general. Women tend to value friendships, family, and romantic entanglements above most things. That’s not to say women can’t be career-driven, or that they are dreamy-eyed dopes that doodle their crushes names into their notebooks.

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However, if you are writing a female character odds are they have at least one confidant, whether it’s their mother, their sister, or their best friend. Most women (keyword: most) aren’t complete loners. Even if they feel like an outsider, they will usually try to attach themselves to a person or a group in order to feel balanced. Think of it like a wolf belonging to a pack. It just feels natural and safe to do this.

Some female characters need more motivation to take risks. 

Admittedly, this depends on what your MC’s personality is like. But in most cases women are less likely than men to throw themselves into the fray unless something serious is at stake. We tend to be less prone to “Dude, hold my beer” moments, but not necessarily immune. Especially if there is actual beer involved. The voice in the back of our heads that tells us that we’re about to do is stupid tends to be louder and has more sway over our actions.

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Don’t give your character bitchiness in leu of actual competence and confidence. 

Just because a character shouts at people and orders them around, that doesn’t mean they are a “strong female character.” I’ve seen this done by male writers (and even some female writers) many times. More often than not these characters look tough on the outside to prove they “aren’t that type of girl”, but when it comes to actually doing something, they usually wind up getting themselves into more trouble rather than helping anyone get out of it. If they were bitchy and competent, I would have less to complain about.

The easy way to overcome this is to simply show us how awesome this girl is rather than having her tell us how badass she is. Unless the very point is to make her look like a jerk.

Women tend to be more sensitive. 

This doesn’t mean all of us are weepy or completely at the mercy of our feelings. It just means we tend to have stronger spidey-senses than men when it comes to certain things. Comedians often joke about how women can tell a million things about a person simply by how they drank their tea, but there is an element of truth to this. Our gut feelings are often what drive us to follow leads others might overlook. While we are often a cautious bunch in general, most of us trust our intuition when it says something is not right, and we’re willing to put ourselves at risk if it’s in the name of helping someone else.

Remember this: not all women are the same.

However, my hope is that I have assisted you in getting into the proper mindset.

Good luck with your projects!

Are Fairytale Reimaginings Becoming Unimaginative?

If you have perused a YA section of a bookstore in the last three years, then you’ve likely come across the cover of a fairytale reimagining.

Perhaps one book tells the story of Cinderella, a valiant warrior, who loses her magical boot in the middle of a battle and an infatuated warlord must return it to her. Or maybe another centers around a wolf-hunter named Red who falls in love with a werewolf that killed her father, the huntsman.

Regardless, I once thought reimagining fairytales was a creative thing to do.

I loved Wicked in my tween and teen years and all the interesting questions it posed about how history can be biased towards the victor.

But it seems like there’s been an overload of “new” fairy tales in the last few years and it’s made me question if most of them are even truly necessary.

Are most of these books actually trying to improve upon or modernize great stories, or are they just using fairytale references as a crutch to make a quick buck because they don’t think these novels could stand on their own?

In truth, it depends on the book.

If there are nods to the classics here and there, it’s tolerable. However, if it follows the exact same path as it’s predecessor, just with more feminism and modern sensibilities, then it becomes predictable and a drudgery to get through.

Because we already know what’s going to happen. 

I think the creative drought in pop culture also feeds into this crisis. The publishing and film industry are so paranoid about losing money that they are just rehashing stories that they know work. Fairytales have been around for centuries so, in theory, stories that feature classic characters should turn a profit.

I’m not saying we should completely do away with reimaginings. Maybe we could just take a break from them for a decade or so and come back to them later.

Perhaps writers could create their own warrior princesses that have absolutely nothing to do with any previous fairytale.The princess could have a sentient sword or a best friend that was turned into a battle stallion or something. Maybe she could fight her wicked stepfather for a change.

That’d be cool, right?

Could someone get on that?