Wordy Wednesday (“Show the Complete Picture”)

Reminder that you have through November 7th at midnight eastern time to enter to win a signed copy of Veronica Roth’s Allegiant!

Also, Hannah and I are giving away an Allegiant poster on our vlog: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN_WvA9BeDQ

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a Writing Process post about how all you need to write a complex character is a single photograph.


I post a lot of pictures of myself on this blog. Partly because I have a tendency of being (more than) a bit of an attention hog (them creative types, ya know?), partly to be ironic (because selfies, guys–selfies), and partly because that old adage is true: a single picture is worth a thousand words.

One of my weaknesses in writing is creating complex, relateable characters readers want to trust and believe in. I didn’t realize it until recently, but now that I know it’s one of my problems, I’ve been really focusing on how to fix it. And the answer came from a surprising place.

A photograph.

Specifically, this one, taken by a friend while I was in England this past summer:

I’ve always liked this picture, because even though I don’t look the greatest in it, you can learn a lot about me if you know how to look at it right.

This shot’s not the usual, posed school picture in which everyone tilts their head to the same side, with their hair combed just right and teeth freshly brushed. Instead it’s me, standing at the top of Warwick Castle with the wind beating against my face and my stomach twisting into knots, dizzy and breathing just a little too hard, because I have a phobia of high, wide open spaces and the walkways along the tops of castles in England have this weird way of qualifying for that. I’m leaning against the wall just a little bit because of the dizziness thing (unlike most people, I get vertigo from looking up rather than down), and my hands are mid-action; I wasn’t sure whether to plant them against the stone or not, trying to decide which would look better for the shot.

My smile is uneasy–nervous, embarrassed–happy, proud–trying to repress the way my stomach dipped every time I stepped away from the inner wall, closer to the open air and space. Because that’s the thing: I have a phobia of high up, open spaces. You can see how my hair’s pushed back like I have on a headband, but the headband is nowhere in sight, because part of the panic my phobia induces manifests in the fear that I’ll lose something, so when we visited Warwick Castle, all potentially loose articles I had on me (headband, cell phone, etc) got stuffed into my bag the moment I walked out on the first tower. But I’m there anyway. I fought my irrational, idiotic fear and walked all the pathways, all the towers, along the top of Warwick Castle. And it was great, getting to look out at the beautiful English countryside and breathe in the history all around me. And I have this photograph to show for it.

Other things you can tell from this, if you know how to look: I’m wearing skinny jeans, because I’m naturally thin, and regular, straight-legged jeans have a tendency of ballooning around my legs because of it. I’m wearing a sweater from Oxford, which we’d just visited the day before. I chose to wear the sweater that day because Oxford is one of my dream schools to learn at, and because it was sort of a running joke for the rest of the trip that all of us would wear our Oxford stuff EVERYWHERE (even to Cambridge).

My bag is worn out and the white stripes aren’t very white anymore–I bought it in Costa Rica a few years back at a fair trade shop and had been using it endlessly ever since. My hair is in a ponytail–practical. I have on a grey, baggy wool cardigan that had seen better days and a green rain jacket–it was cool and wet out (so basically an average day in England). My nails are painted bright pink and I’m wearing a necklace and makeup, which means that I’m a little high-maintenance despite trying to be practical with everything else. Everything I’m wearing is some sort of color, because wearing bright colors makes me happy.

Basically: You can tell a lot about me just from this one picture. I could give back story galore about the decision behind everything I’m wearing, and my weirdo phobia, and the color of my hair. I could tell you how I came to stand atop that tower in England, and why I love Oxford so much, and the meaning behind every single thing in my bag.

I am a human being. I am a complex, relatable character. You can learn so much about me, just from one photograph–if you have the right back story to bring out all the intricate details.

Every single character you write should be the same way. They should live entire lives, not just what’s immediately important to the story. Maybe a lot of that doesn’t make it onto the page, but it should exist anyway. You should know why Character One likes to paint her nails sky blue and Character Two thinks baggy t-shirts are trash. You should know their favorite foods, colors, hobbies, and memories. You should know their least favorite ones. You should know what they think is important and what they think is stupid and what they think about political issues and, if they could change one thing about themselves, what it would be.

Look at how specific my phobia is: A fear of high up, wide open spaces. Put me on the top floor of a New York City skyscraper, and I’m fine. Crack open a window, thus connecting me with all that space outside, and I can’t handle it. It’s not something I have control over–believe me, I’d rather not be afraid of something so stupid and not dangerous. But I am. And it’s a complex fear that has developed over the course of many years, many experiences.

Not saying your protagonist should have irrational phobias, but everything about them should be that way: Complex. Both parts precise and still in the process of solidifying. Something they, and the reader, can understand without having to think too deeply into it, while still knowing that more exists beneath the surface.

Everything about your characters should be so detailed that not only the characters, but their lives, become real.

Stop and close your eyes. Imagine a character. Picture how she has a high forehead that she tries to hide behind bangs, only her cowlick and perpetually greasy skin make it difficult; picture how she wears a watch that she inherited from a favorite relative, because it makes her think of them, only it’s beginning to break so she babies it a bit now. Think of the reasoning behind everything, behind her thought processes. Think about her fears and her strengths and how they correlate with the way she presents herself to the world.

Think about all of these things, until you could draw a picture as beautiful and flawed and complex as any single one of you.

A photograph is just an instant–one snapshot in time–but just one photograph leads to an entire flood of information, and other snapshots, and memories. Look at a picture from the right angle, and you could eventually learn everything about a person.

You should use every single word of your story to deepen and further your character development. If a narrator describes another character in a certain way, be aware that that description defines both the character described and the narrator.

Show the complete picture. Don’t make your character a stick figure you fill in, fill out here and there, when it’s needed. Make them a living, breathing human being, more complete than any story could ever entirely portray.





PS. Here’s another picture from that day. Take from it what you will.

England Trip Recap (Part 2)

If you missed the first post about my recent trip to the UK, detailing the first two and a half days there, you can read it HERE.

Otherwise, let’s continue with these travel-shenanigans.


Day 3 (continued)

As mentioned in the last post, Day 3 was our last true day in London, and we spent it touring the Globe Theatre (and seeing The Taming of the Shrew as groundlings), making fun of the art at the Tate Modern next door, and dodging rain storms at the Tower of London.

The view from the “Royal Box” of the Globe Theatre.

Walking the Millennium Bridge, also known as the “Wobbly Bridge,” also known as the bridge they blow up at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince.

See that school right there? The City of London School for Boys? That’s the school both Daniel Radcliffe and Skandar Keynes attended before becoming Harry Potter and Edmund Pevensie, respectively.

This is one of my favorite pieces at the Tate Modern. It’s called “Untitled Painting.” It is literally just a mirror glued to a canvas hung on the wall.

This is my other favorite piece. It’s canvas painted white, cut out in a random octagonal shape, glued to the wall. Artist be trolling.

We walked London Bridge on our way to the Tower of London. Luckily, it did not fall down.

This is the Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London. They used to stuff their baddies back behind these bars and then wait for the Thames to reach high-tide, at which point everyone drowned. (Cruel and unusual punishment, anyone?)

LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THIS BOOK. This was the ordinance book for the guards working in the Tower. Can you imagine how many rules they had to follow? IT’S EVEN WORSE THAN MAMA UMBRIDGE.

At the end of the day, we ended up back at the Globe for Taming of the Shrew. We stood in the very first row of the groundlings, which for most people involved leaning their elbows on the stage while watching. Only I’m actually too short to do that, so instead I was literally at eye level with the stage. Like a crocodile spying on its prey. (In other news: HOW BEAUTIFUL. IS THE “SKY.” ON THIS STAGE?)


Day 4

Day 4 saw our group leaving London to explore other parts of England. We made stops in Oxford (now one of my favorite places on Earth–I’m hoping to study there next summer), the Cotswolds, and then continued on to Statford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s grave and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It.

Not sure if you can tell, because of my iPhone’s kind of crappy picture quality and all, but that sign reads “Alice’s Shop.” Oxford University is basically Heaven for literary types. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Caroll, was a professor at Oxford and this adorable shop is located in town.


You might recognize this as a Harry Potter shooting location. Harry Potter was a biiig part of our trip.

… Speaking of Harry Potter, this dining hall inspired the Great Hall. (Sorry the photo’s so blurry. We weren’t allowed to stop walking as they hurried us through with the bazillion and one other tourists, and as I already mentioned in Part 1: I’m so bad at walking without taking pictures at the same time that you’re lucky it’s even this clear.)

After touring campus, we stopped in at the Eagle and Child, which is the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, among other writers, used to meet weekly. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. If I could meet any historical figure, it would be C.S. Lewis. (And if I ever got to, I would probably then melt into a weeping mess in front of him, because I love his writing and philosophy on life and everything SO MUCH.) So yeah. It was sort of a big deal for me to go to the Eagle and Child.

Here’s me trying not to look like I was totally about to break down sobbing with joy beside the map of Narnia they’d hung on their supply closet door. (Oh, those punny pub owners!)

Driving through the Cotswolds in our tour bus. The Cotswolds are this area of England composed of gorgeous, gimmicky little tourist towns.

While stopped in Bourton-on-the-Water for a tourist break (we literally went there to “buy souvenirs and enjoy the tourist atmosphere”), I got some cream tea. My friend: You have not lived until you have had cream tea.

I give you: the grave of William Shakespeare. It was crazy seeing his grave, because while I’ve never been a huge Shakespeare fan, I have grown up reading, and performing, and analyzing his work. Shakespeare’s been a big part of my life for years now. But the thing is–he’s always seemed like this really distant figure. Kind of Biblical, in a way. So to see Shakespeare’s grave IN PERSON made him, and all that he did for the literary and theatre worlds, suddenly seem so much more real and present and important to me as an individual. It sounds cheesy, but it truly was a life-changing experience for me. This whole trip was.

Buried with Shakespeare were his wife, daughter, and her two husbands (one died young).

The RSC’s production of As You Like It, right before it started!


Day 5

Day 5 was more Shakespeare, as we toured Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and then we visited Warwick Castle and walked around downtown Statford-upon-Avon during our free time.

The Brits really need to stop complaining about us changing the name of the first Harry Potter book. At least we didn’t mess with the branding GOLD that is “Frosted Flakes.”

This is Mary Baker, descendent of Anne Hathaway and my personal hero. She exploited her connection to Shakespeare to make a profit, by giving the first tours of Anne Hathaway’s childhood cottage and selling items that (secretly) didn’t actually have anything to do with either Shakespeare OR Anne for big bucks. (If I ever happen to have a famous relative, I’m planning on being just like her. Warning to all my relatives.)

Waiting in line to get in to see the Disneyfied version of Shakespeare’s birthplace!

These windows are absolutely COATED in signatures. They’re supposedly from the room Shakespeare was born in, but now they’re cased in glass because so many tourists throughout the centuries had carved their names into them that it was getting ridiculous.

Warwick Castle! This now quite-Disneyfied castle was once a star location of the War of the Roses. Now, it’s owned by Madame Tussaud and is populated by lots of creepy historical wax figures.

For all those random times your castle is under siege, it’s a good idea to keep a catapult lying around.

Table cannon. In case the parchment attacks.

Sword show in the castle courtyard! They debunked the myths of medieval swordplay, including the fact that real sword fights (unlike the media’s interpretation of them) usually lasted less than ten seconds before one man would manage to kill off his opponent.

It wasn’t until after I’d tried on the gift shop battle gear (twice) that I noticed there was a princess option as well. Apparently I haven’t been reading enough romance-y contemporary books this summer.

When we went to begin the tour of the castle towers, a woman at the entrance told us the towers were closed for the next half hour.

“What do you mean?” we asked. “Why are they closed?”

“There’s a bird show going on,” she explained. “We wouldn’t want any of the birds of prey to mistake you for food.”

A few minutes later, this lovely monster landed on the highest tower, checked in with the handler hanging out there, and then flew off again. We thanked the woman for not letting it eat our faces.

Back in Stratford-upon-Avon for the evening, we wandered the town. The River Avon (in this location, known as either the Warwickshire Avon or Shakespeare’s Avon) is beautiful!

Fact: this pub has been around for longer than the United States has.

Day 6

I’m only going to partway cover Day 6 in this post, since most of it was spent freaking out during the Leavesden Studios tour (if you don’t know what the “Leavesden Studios tour” entails, look it up), but I will leave you with a few pictures from our stop at Oxford’s rival, the University of Cambridge.

Outside King’s College.

Inside King’s College Chapel.

I love how many languages they translated “please keep off the grass” into. Like: they REALLY don’t want people walking on the grass.

Cambridge has this really cool tradition of having students take their visitors out on the river for a tour. It’s called “punting,” and the punts (boats) are basically gondolas–the difference is that punts are propelled by poles rather than oars. (PS. There are cows in the background of this picture. To the right. To the left, just across the river, is a smart-looking cafe. How cool is that? You can eat dairy products right next to the cows who produced them!)


Make sure to stay tuned for the last England Trip Recap post, coming soon, which’ll be jam-packed with pictures from the Leavesden Studios tour! Whoohoo!