Vocabulary and Word Choices

The other week at work, I heard an announcement for a Miss Ginger Lee to meet her party at a specified location. I thought about the announcement for a moment, then turned to a co-worker and told him I thought it might be a prank. After all, Ginger Lee, gingerly?

He had no idea what I was talking about. I decided fair enough, he wasn’t a native English speaker and it wasn’t a common word. So I mentioned it to another co-worker, an older woman who to the best of my knowledge is a native English speaker. She didn’t know what I was talking about either.

Is ‘gingerly’ that uncommon a word? I truly couldn’t say. I don’t think it terribly uncommon, and have actually read a story that had that word in use since. Personally, I think it’s a very useful word. I described it as ‘like how you carry eggs’. Would I hesitate to use ‘gingerly’ in my own writing? No, I wouldn’t.

What vocabulary level should you use when writing? Is it our job as writers to be clear and concise without room for error; or to teach and elevate the mind to new words and ideas? While both can be desired, at some point you have to compromise one for the other.

I read a lot. I live in a family where everyone reads a lot. My father in particular loves to use grandiose words. But large sections of my vocabulary come from reading. You can tell which sections because those are the words I don’t know how to pronounce. Does that mean that as a writer, I should be striving to teach new words?

Answer: I don’t know. I think it’s very much a careful balance. You can’t talk down to your readers, they will know and resent it. But if you try to show off by using verbal flourishes and extravagant words, they’ll resent that too. And nobody is going to sit down, reading your book with a dictionary beside them so they can look up the dozen strange words you sprinkle on every page. They will either guess, ignore them, or more likely, stop reading.

Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word was the difference between lightning and lightning bug. So my suggestion is that you use what you believe to be the right word. If some people learn a new word, great. If your readers already understand, that’s great too.

An article I read years ago, can’t remember where or what the title was, said that the more advanced the text, the smaller the audience. It was specifically talking about poetry. Robert Frost has many fans (I’m one of them), because his poetry is easy to read and has themes that are understandable to many people. T. S. Eliot has many fewer fans (again, I’m one of them) because his poetry is so much harder to read and understand.

So, you want to write something that is at the pinnacle of wordplay and vocabulary? Well, why? If you want to write it because that’s what you enjoy, than go for it. Just be aware that your audience may be small. If you want to write it because it shows how smart you are? I’d avoid that.

Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to use a word that you are not absolutely sure of the definition. Ever. To paraphrase ‘How Not to Write a Novel’ (awesome writing guide, really) Ask yourself ‘do I know this word?’ If the answer is no, then you do not know the word. And someone else will know the word, and know your mistake.

Be aware of connotation and denotation. For those who haven’t used those words since high school English class; denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. Connotation is what people think about when they hear it. I see infamous and notorious used a lot. Sometimes supposed to be a good thing. But dictionary definition of infamous flat out says, known as evil. Notorious has a similar connotation, but can have a milder denotation.

How do you know if your vocabulary is unusual? After all, you’ve been using it all the time. Check with others, particularly others who are not people you associate with all the time. The people who run in the same circles as you do, probably have similar vocabularies.

How about characters? Can they have fancy vocabularies? Absolutely. But make it fit. An English Professor will speak differently than someone who dropped out of high school. Someone who uses elaborate words to show off will use different words than someone who uses elaborate words because they like the sound of them. Children will develop their vocabularies based on those around them. So even a very young child can have an extensive vocabulary if that is what they are being taught.

Next time, we’ll talk about regionalism, dialects, jargon and slang.

P.S. It turned out not to be a prank. She came through my line, and I saw her ID. Ginger-lee (Last name withheld).


Characters, Plot, Drama, and Stupidity

Thank you for the support (I’m assuming the likes are a way of being supportive instead of saying you’re glad I can’t post 😉 ). I don’t know what happened or why but the gremlins infesting my devices seem to have gone. My computer is still sluggish at times, but not nearly as bad as it was. And my phone is being less finicky about charging. So I am not currently replacing either, though I may do so in the not-so-distant future. Anyway, for now, I’m back. This week’s Pinterest, in addition to writing pins, I’m going to include a few personal ones. Be sure to check it out. Not sure what FaceBook will be yet, but hopefully that will be interesting too.

If anyone is curious, I did not win NaNoWriMo this year, only made it about half-way. It didn’t help that my work schedule increased and that two weeks in a row I spent my days off work traveling. I considered trying to push the last week, maybe even pull an all-nighter or two, but I was already sick, and it didn’t seem a wise plan. Especially since I was struggling with plot ideas. Moon Fox 3 will come, but I’m putting it on the back burner for now.

Now, the post. This is going to be interesting because I actually somewhat changed my mind on the topic I’m posting on.

I was at the gym last week, and on one of the TV’s, Supernatural was playing. I personally don’t watch the show because I have a low fright threshold, but my sister is a fan, so I was able to recognize it and the main characters. I knew that salt was used at thresholds to keep the bad things out, or in. They didn’t come up with that, salt was a universal deterrent against ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night. I’ve used it in a few works myself. Well, someone tampered with the line of salt and a red shirt * got eviscerated (I don’t have a very high gross-out threshold either, which is another reason I don’t watch the show.) When the main character came in the room and spotted the poor dead red shirt, the traitor who claimed they found him like that, and the break in the line, he confronted the traitor. They got in an argument, and the traitor started monolog-ing. And I yelled at the tv twice telling him to stop arguing and fix the salt!

He didn’t and only escaped a messy death by a contrived coincidence* that barely avoided being a deus ex machina. Now, to clarify, I am not saying that Supernatural is a dumb show or that the character is stupid. Supernatural is an extremely popular show that must be doing something right, and I’m told that character is generally pretty smart. Maybe he is, but that was a dumb move on his part. And let’s face it, if the audience is irritated with your character for making dumb choices, then they probably aren’t enjoying your story. To give the show credit, they got a viewer (me) who wasn’t familiar with the show and had no emotional investment in the characters and who couldn’t even hear the show (I was reading captions) interested enough to scold the character for being an idiot. And remember the incident almost a week later.

My original plan was to talk about how to create drama without your character making really dumb choices. But I changed my mind somewhat.

I’m a cashier as my day job. I was ringing up a woman who had two kids with her in the ten to twelve year old range. The boy was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt but only the hood part. I asked him if he was a modern day Little Red Riding Hood. He laughed and agreed. His mother and I agreed that he shouldn’t talk to wolves. I followed up with something like, “After all, if Little Red Riding Hood had run away when that wolf talked to her… then she wouldn’t have been immortalized in literature. Her sister, Little Brown Riding Hood did run away, and no one’s heard of her. Have you heard of her?” The woman agreed she hadn’t. “Neither have I. Because I made her up just now.”

Humorously enough, the woman suggested I write a book. I told her I had written several though none were about Little Red Riding Hood. Later I realized that wasn’t quite true. I had written a short story variation of Little Red Riding Hood, where I twisted everything.

But my main premise is that your story might require your character to make stupid decisions. Or at least, not the wisest choice possible. Go with what the story requires, but also go with what’s in character. And why not see if you can create the same level of drama and conflict by having the main character make smart decisions? Might be a way to avoid clichés.

Find a way to make staying in the Haunted House scary even when your main character is smart enough to avoid the basement, refuse to split the party, and strongly suggests that maybe they shouldn’t try to stay past midnight, they can come back in the daylight. Armed. Write the first contact story where the two races don’t assume that the others are necessarily like them and that their misunderstandings may be misunderstandings, not necessarily a prelude to war. Not that they shouldn’t be prepared, just in case. And once, just once, I want to see the inevitable fight in a burning building stop with the parties agreeing to a temporary truce at least until they get outside the building.

Your characters will make mistakes. Even smart people do dumb things sometimes. They’re human (or whatever race they may be). But make sure those mistakes are in character. Remember that the average reader only has so much patience for a character they consider an idiot. How much time do you think the average reader will spend on a story where they spend a significant amount of time wanting to smack some sense into the characters?

Mind you, there may be times where that happens. I wrote a scene in Nightmare’s Revenge where if I wrote it right, the readers will want to shake some sense into the characters. But it not only is required by the plot (and it is), it makes sense with the characters.

So, best of luck.

By the way, is anyone interested in reading my totally twisted mixed up version of Little Red Riding Hood?

*Site has NSFW Language.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

Wow! Last week’s post is the most popular I’ve ever written. I’m torn between ‘You guys are amazing!’ and ‘What did I write?’. Well, you are awesome. And I hope this post doesn’t disappoint. I’m a little worried about it, to be honest. A simple google search will reveal a ton of articles on this subject.

Writing a story is every bit as much a journey as reading a good story is. And like every journey, how you get there can be as important as where you go.

It’s possible to take a trip where you plan out everything in advance to the point of knowing where each stop will be and how long you’ll stay there. It’s possible to just get in a car and drive, going wherever your fancy takes you. Most people probably do something in between most of the time.

Writing is exactly the same. Some people know exactly where the story is going to go, every twist and turn, before they put words to paper. Useful for more complex works or mysteries. Also you seldom end up lost. But then again, you may miss some of the joy of discovery. Others just start writing and see where it takes them. NaNoWriMo is especially made for these people. Stories are generally less predictable, but it is possible to write yourself into a corner or just end up blocked.

I suspect most of us try a middle ground. (Sometimes called Plantsing). We have some idea of where we want the story to go, but continue to make up things as we go along. This is what I usually do. With a pretty heavy side of pantsing. My current story, I have little to no idea what’s going to happen. Even with its’ prequel, my most planned out story yet, I ended up coming up with a major side plot just because I decided that there was no reason for the Main Character to get the information she wanted just yet. It was too early.

So, which one is best?

None of them.

These are tools. What works for you may not work for me and vice versa. If I waited until I knew everything in a story, I would never get a thing written. But my stories are disorganized in the first draft and need a fair amount of revision and it isn’t uncommon for me to just blank out at various spots. A little more organization would probably help me out. Other people would be driven mad trying to write with as little to go on as I sometimes have.

Not one of these is better than the others. It’s simply what works for you. Experiment. If you’re used to planning everything out, why not try a little more freewriting. You make everything up as you go along? Try plotting things out a little more. Use your Writer’s Bible. Not every story needs the same combination. Maybe a little more planning for a mystery, maybe a little less for a romance. (Or switch them, see what happens). Have fun. If the journey isn’t fun for you, what’s the point?

Speaking of journeys, I missed last week’s Pinterest and Facebook updating, partially because of travel, but I plan to update them both this week. For any traveling this week, safe journeys. And Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.

Impostor Syndrome and Writer’s Envy

Sorry about being late posting this week. Yesterday was supposed to be spent catching up on my NaNoWriMo word count, and I didn’t really succeed on that either. I also appolgize for changing the topic I had planned. I still plan to do a Holidays Part Two (probably next week), but wanted to cover an issue (two, really) that I’m struggling with a bit right now.

First off, Impostor Syndrome. The feeling that you are actually a failure, and sooner or later, everyone is going to catch on. It’s actually extremely common, and ironically, it becomes more common the more successful you become.

I’m working on a new book, and the plot simply isn’t coming. I don’t know what I’m going to write. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I definitely don’t know if I’m going to finish fifty thousand word this November. I’ve been okay with rewriting, but have had a hard time coming up with anything new for almost a year. Maybe my creativity has run out…

No, it hasn’t. And I know it. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling that way sometimes. Doesn’t stop me from wondering what right do I have to advise other writers. Doesn’t stop me from wondering why I even bother to write.

But I know why I write. Because I can’t not write. Sure, times will happen when I have a dry spell, maybe even a long one. But I’ve been there before, and that time will pass. I will come up with new ideas, and while the book I’m working on (Book three of the Moonlit Memories series) may not be written this month, it will get written.

Which comes to the other part. Will it be any good? Will people want to read it? What right do I have to convince people to spend their hard-earned money on my books? Is my writing good enough?

I re-read my work, and I see the flaws. I see the stupid typos and mistakes that somehow made it through despite the story being checked by three different people. I see the factual mistakes I made despite checking for the truth. I see the lousy sentences, the places where the plot is thin, where the characters don’t act like they should. I read the story I’m currently working on and it’s lousy in parts.

But it’s a first draft. All first drafts are lousy. It’s the nature of first drafts. There are a small, infinitesimal number of people who can write a good first draft, but most of us, are re-writers. If we get a good finished product, does it really matter if it was draft one or draft fifty-one?

I know that I am not the best writer in the entire world, because there is no such thing. Your favorite writers are not my favorite writers, and writing is subjective anyway. By the same quality, I’m not the worst writer in the world.

I believe that I am a good writer. I know that there are others who like my writing. It is my hope that someday there will be a lot more people who enjoy my writing. Will I suffer from Impostor Syndrome in the future? Undoubtedly.  But in my case, knowing that others, even ones as famous as Maya Angelou  and Neil Gaiman (Do read the Neil Gaimon link, it’s great!) suffered from it too, helps.  Hopefully it helps you too.

In a weird irony, I think Impostor Syndrome is linked to Writer’s Envy. Basically, the other side of the same coin. “I’m a better writer than …. Why are they so successful and I’m still struggling?” Or, “I deserve this award more than…” Or, “How did so and so sell ten thousand copies of their book, and I only sold three thousand? Or none.”

It takes a certain amount of arrogance to be a writer. To assume that others will actually want to read your thoughts, your stories. We have to assume that our work is worth reading.

And the cool thing is, it is! Your work does have worth, and no matter how good or bad your writing is, there will be people who love it. And there will be people who hate it. Because you can’t please everybody. And there is no guaranteed way to please the majority either.

But it can be hard sometimes, comparing yourself to others. Wondering why they get success and you don’t. I’m running a sale on Secrets of the Moon Fox on kindle, ($0.99 right now). It’s been going on for almost a week and the sale ends tomorrow. It hasn’t sold a single copy yet. Despite my advertising it here, Facebook, and Pinterest. I’ve had two new books come out, and so far, neither have sold a single copy. I don’t think I need to tell you how discouraging that is.

But it is not because I am a lousy writer. People who read my books seem to enjoy them. I get likes on these blog posts. I know I can write.

It’s because I am an obscure writer. So I continue. The only way to succeed is through continuing until I am less obscure. But only I can determine what success is for me. And if I continue to compare myself to others (“I’m not successful until I’ve sold as many copies as …”), then I will only make myself miserable. And that kind of comparison has the tendency to move the goal posts. First we have to sell two stories like John did, then, when we do that, we have to get at least as positive a review as Susan did, then we have to sell a book like Luke did…

Remember, we’re all writers. We’re all a little crazy in our own way, and while our work is just as worthy to be read as someone else’s, that someone else’s work is just as worthy to be read as yours. The writing world is big enough for all of us.


P.S. You could make me deliriously happy by buying a book, or even just reading them in the Kindle lending library. First chapter of Secrets of the Moon Fox is available for free online here, for those who like to try before they buy. I am also made happy by likes and comments on my blog posts, likes and comments on Facebook, and saves on Pinterest. And I love positive reviews. Basically, any interaction makes me happy.

Worldbuilding 101: Food and Drink

On first appearance, this might seem like too narrow a topic for a blog post. After all, does it really matter? Can’t you write a whole book without ever bothering to mention what your characters ate or drank? Yes, you can. And it might even be a good book. Will your book be any better for mentioning food and/or drink? Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider this. Eating has deep emotive roots for humans. Who we eat with, what we eat, when we eat it; it all matters. A dinner for two by candlelight, a giant cake shared by friends, chips and pretzels at a sports party, cold pizza eaten alone at breakfast. They all bring up different emotional responses. Why not spend an extra few minutes considering what your characters do or don’t eat?

Who does one typically eat with?

Are most meals communal? Do families separate? Do men eat one place, women another, children a third? Is eating an intensely private thing? What happens when characters from communities that have different practices collide?

What is eaten when?

Are certain foods reserved for or forbidden at special times? Fruitcake is generally a Christmas treat. Most Jews avoid yeast at Passover. You don’t eat oysters in a month that doesn’t have an ‘R’ in it. Is the reason for this practical (the oysters), traditional (fruitcake), or religious (yeast)? Or a combination of the above?

What is taboo?

I don’t recommend necessarily using your own diet as a guide here. We are fortunate enough to live in a time and place where we as a society can afford to be picky. Not everyone does. Americans, by and large, balk at the idea of eating insects while much of the rest of the world doesn’t blink an eye at that. Like the above, is your reason for the taboo practical, tradition, or religious? Is a sacred animal not eaten? Eaten only at certain times and in certain ways?

Salt has an interesting enough history to write a novel solely about it. There were times salt was worth more than it’s weight in gold. In some cultures, sharing salt with someone was the same as a binding peace treaty. Wars have been fought over salt and the access to it. In Russia, when a young couple marry, upon their return from their honeymoon, they are supposed to be presented with bread and salt.

If you have non-humans, things can get even more interesting. There is no reason in the world that your non-humans should have the same exact diet range as a human. In the Moonlight Memories series, Liska’s food allergies have been used as minor plot points. In the Hyde Chronicles, Violet makes a point not to pay too much attention to what others eat, because some of it is really disturbing from a human point of use. Can these differences be plot relevant? No reason why not. Maybe something healthy to one is poisonous to another. Tell me you can’t make a plot point out of that.

Even if you are using humans, if they are in a different world, they will eat different things. One of my works in progress is a fantasy world where they don’t have horses (though unicorns do exist, but they are aggressive and you don’t want to get near them), but there are giant lizards that are used as pack animals. It occurred to me that such a society would probably use as much of the lizard as possible. Lizard leather, lizard meat, etc. Much like the ancient Mongols used horses for everything, and some still do. Horse meat, mare’s milk, horse hair, etc. Can’t use lizard milk because lizards aren’t mammals, but close enough.

Consider the society you are using. Nomads should have a different diet than farmers who have a different diet than fishermen. Those who spend most of the hours of the day working aren’t likely to spend much time and effort into making the food look better, unless that is their work. What’s the level of technology? If there isn’t much in the way of refrigeration, foods have to be preserved or eaten quickly. Try some research into other time periods and see some of the things they did with food. Even in the middle ages, for banquets, the food was supposed to be decorative as well as tasty. Can’t say I would necessarily want to eat a lot of it, but they took pride in their work just as we do today.

No, I haven’t forgotten drink. It’s easy to overlook the possibilities for beverages. Water is a given, no matter how dry a climate may be. If there is no water, there is no life. Fermented beverages usually came next. Mostly from grapes and similar, but mead comes from honey, and a popular drink in Russia called kvass, is made from bread mold. That comes in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. In places where the water quality is bad, it might actually be safer to drink alcohol.  Milk is common though not always from cows. Milk can come from any lactating mammal. Goat’s milk is relatively common even in this society, and I’ve heard of people drinking mare’s milk. Other possible sources are sheep, camel, reindeer, buffalo, donkey, yak, and moose. Why not consider some of the options in your world? Don’t forget teas of various sorts whether they include actual tea leaves or not. These can be used for refreshment, for medicine, for magic or religious ceremonies. Most fruits and some vegetables can be made into juice. Perhaps they all can but some are less appealing than others.

Some books talk a lot about food, some do not. Neither is inherently wrong. It’s just another layer you can use. Definitely something worth considering. You can always add recipes as an added bonus for your readers. Bon Appetit!

First Lines

I think almost every author will agree with me when I say that first lines can be the hardest thing to write. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to start a story, known what I wanted to say, and just stared at the empty document because I couldn’t figure out how to begin.

Unfortunately, first lines are also vital. A brilliant first line hooks the reader, leaving them wanting more. An okay first line at least leads them to read the second, hopefully the third… and so on.

I believe that pressure is one of the things that leads to the trouble of coming up with the first line. We look at brilliant first lines from famous books, and feel self-conscious, trying to come up with one just as good.

Honestly, I think some first lines are considered good because of what story they are from. Take the opening line of ‘Moby Dick’, “Call me Ishmael.” Definitely iconic, but I think that ‘Moby Dick’ made the line iconic, rather than the line making ‘Moby Dick’ a classic. Other stories, the first line is undeniably good. I remember reading a book where the first page left me wishing I had written it. Ironically enough, I still haven’t finished reading the book, meaning a great opening is not the end all and be all of catching a reader’s attention.

What makes a good first line? The ideal first line gives a small sense of situation, place, and/or character, while raising questions in the reader. The first line must make the reader want to read the second. Modern readers don’t have the patience to read a few chapters before the story gets good. You have to have them by the end of the first page.

Your story doesn’t have to start with a bang. No one has to get shot, or murdered. Nothing has to be stolen. The ancient gods don’t have to rise up against mortals or the space shuttles flee a dying earth on the first page. You can start with that, if that’s how the story demands to be written. But there are a few caveats.

When you write a story, you are entering in an implied contract with the reader. You are telling the reader that your story is worth the money spent buying it, and the time spent reading it. To be fair, you have to let your reader know what kind of story they are getting into as quickly as possible. A tender love story should not start with a brutal murder. A thriller romance on the other hand, can. However exciting your opening is, you have to top it later. A high tension opening should lead to a high tension book. Not that the tension won’t relax in places, but the tension should remain high and even increase.  Other genres expect a slower build. Some romances, literary fiction, etc. won’t expect, or even want a high impact beginning. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are more versatile. Good stories of both genres have been written with high tension beginnings or lower tension beginnings.

Two, keep in mind that we don’t know these characters yet. Even if this is a series, consider that some readers may not have read any previous stories. This could be their introduction. Putting a character in danger only works so well if the reader hasn’t had time to care about them yet. No, putting them in danger won’t make a reader care. Yes, we all feel something when we see the baby stroller start to roll into traffic, but it won’t be nearly as much as we feel if you show us first the parents, who had struggled to have a child for years, and are so overjoyed to finally have one, even as they grieve that the doctors say they can never have another. That, and unless you are writing a very dark story, we all know that the baby will be fine. TV Tropes calls it ‘Infant Immortality’. (possible NSFW language). If you are writing a story that dark, I recommend letting the readers know before something happens to the baby.

Back to openings. With all this pressure, how do we ever begin? Well, one exercise I enjoy doing is to open a blank document and writing ten sentences that could begin a story. Don’t hold back, don’t censure yourself. Don’t even worry if they don’t make sense. Don’t limit your genre either. It’s actually surprising the way a story can twist. The same sentence can lead to a comedy, a tragedy, or even more.

After I’ve written my sentences, I like to pick one and see what kind of story it leads to. Sometimes I find that my first sentence doesn’t remain my first sentence, and that’s fine too. Others, I haven’t written, but I hope to someday because I really want to know where they go.

One sentence I came up with was I don’t bleed anymore. I’ve written a story with that, almost two. The first version, which I enjoyed, was a rather pulpy style monologue of a woman transformed into something who was confronting her killer. The first paragraph went like this:

I don’t bleed anymore. Never thought I would miss it either. I do though. Not so much the blood itself. But what it means. When I bled, I was human. I breathed. I felt pain. I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t know what I am, either.

Personally, I think that’s a decent opening. Possibly better than the opening in the second draft, which focused more on a man who woke up in the middle of the night to find something that accused him of killing her. The first paragraph went like this:

Jacob Reaves woke up and stared at the ceiling through bleary eyes. It was a few minutes before he was able to think past the headache, and nasty taste in his mouth to realize the slightly familiar ceiling wasn’t his bedroom ceiling. Shuttering his eyes, he reached out with a leg. Yup, he’d passed out on the couch. Again.

Maybe you think the second opening is better, I don’t know. Actually, I would love to know which opening you prefer. So, why did I change it? Because I believe the second version of the story is better. The reader finds out more about the characters for one. Not everything is left to the reader’s imagination. That said, I am still fond of the first version. Perhaps someday I’ll put together a collection of short stories and include it as a bonus.

Other sentences I haven’t done anything with, but am curious to see what will happen. This is the story of how I drove to work and ended up three states away with an angry possum in the back seat. Or how about: I decided to quit chocolate the day the emus robbed the store. Personally, I really want to know how those are connected. Then there’s Helios bridled his horses, wondering again if it was time to retire. I don’t think that’s a retelling of the formation of the Milky Way, but I suppose it might be.

There are others, but that’s not the point. The point is that this exercise can give you a starting point. A way to play creatively. This exercise can also be done as a group. Maybe have everyone write three to five sentences and pass them to someone else. That person has to pick one and use it as a starting point for a story.

Most of all, remember that with writing, anything can change up until it’s published. Just start. You can come up with the perfect gem later.

Diversity in writing

The world we live in is a rich, diverse place with people who come in different genders, from different national and cultural backgrounds, and different races. (Yes, we are all of the human race, but it still makes handy shorthand). That doesn’t even consider different sexual orientations, political factions, or religious affiliations. So, shouldn’t our writing reflect that?

This year’s Oscar nominees are the most diverse group yet, and I applaud that. While at the same time, I wonder why we aren’t further along. I can’t change the world, but maybe I can do a little to help, and so can you.

Your main characters are going to have to fit the story. Everything about them, from their age, gender, nationality, religious, and political leanings can be important and plot relevant (but might not be). But not every character should be a clone of your main character (unless this is a story about clones, which would still get boring and confusing if you can’t differentiate them). What about other characters? If your protagonist absolutely must be a white male Republican for the story to work, don’t try to force it by making the protagonist a black female Democrat. But unless the story takes place exclusively in a club for white male Republicans, shouldn’t some of the characters he interacts with be different? Maybe his neighbors are from China, and his best friend is a Democrat who likes to debate politics with him. Maybe his wife is a Polish immigrant who runs a daycare with her best friend who happens to be black. Perhaps there is a synagogue a block away that throws the absolute best book sale twice a year. All of this is perfectly possible and can add flavor and depth to the story without changing the character from who he is.

This can be taken too far. If your story takes place in a sixteenth century Irish monastery, the characters should be predominately white and male and any deviations should have a logical and relevant explanation. But even if you are writing a historical fantasy, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to white male characters. Even back then, women did do things, and people did travel, though not as much as they do now.

I like to try to throw in some casual diversity in my stories. For Moon Fox, I made Todd’s best friend and his sister Jamaican immigrants. At first it was just to throw it in, but it did offer me some plot opportunities. In Pawn’s Play, one of Violet’s friends, Denise is mentioned to be darker skinned and from the Bahamas. That hasn’t become plot relevant yet, but it might be at some point. Both stories take place in schools, so of course, some of the professors are female and some are male. Violet definitely has a more diverse list of professors, including a troll, a medusa, a leprechaun, and others. Liska’s professors are all humans, at least.

One book I’m still writing, I have a pantheon of nine gods, four male, four female, and Death which is neither. The main characters are a group of four, two male, two female, with one of them being half one minority, and half another minority. They spend the book traveling and rarely interact with others. I was quite pleased with the balance of the book. Then I realized they had gone at least five chapters without so much as mentioning them seeing another woman. Since the land is mostly gender equal (though definitely not class equal) that was a problem. One I hope to fix more in the rewrite. But I am trying to be more careful going forward. There is no reason they can’t get a blessing from a priestess instead of a priest. Nor any reason that shopkeeper can’t be a female. And why in the world should they be the only travelers on the road? I mean, excluding the fact that travel is extremely dangerous and time consuming.

Can your story pass the Bechdel Test (language warning)?  Do you have two named females who talk to each other about something other than a man or men in general? How about going further. Do you have two named minorities who talk to each other about something other than a white person, or white people in general? How about (if relevant to your story) two named non-humans who talk to each other about something other than a human or humans in general? While passing the test doesn’t mean you have a good story, and you can have a good story without it; you may want to ask why it can’t.

Can your female character pass the sexy lamp test? If your female character can be replaced by a sexy lamp, you don’t have a character. She’s just there for fan service. If she’s just there to give information, that substitute a sexy lamp with a post-it note. No, I didn’t come up with these tests. But I try to use them. One fanfic author summed up the first Harry Potter book with Harry Potter substituted with a Mr. Potato Head doll. The story worked scarily well. If your character, major or minor, can be replaced with an inanimate object, or an inanimate object with a post it note, you may have a problem.

Now, not every character has an important role. Sometimes you need a character that fulfills a specific role, and moves on, never to be heard from again. First body for the Sly Ferret god to possess. The shuttle pilot who just ferries the characters to Mars. Mr. Exposition. Fine. Don’t try to make them as important as the main character. But why not make them a little more interesting? Yes, it could be considered unfortunate implications (language warning) if only your bit characters are females or minorities, but why shouldn’t some of them be? Not to mention some of your more important characters?

‘But can’t make this unpleasant character a woman, minority, etc. People will think I think they’re all like that.’ Yes, they will. If that’s the only one. But why should it be? Okay so, if you make the hysterical, paranoid teacher a black woman, shouldn’t there be at least one or more calm, competent black women as well? They can be flawed in different ways, like every character should be.

Write the characters your story demands, but don’t forget that our world is rich and your characters can and should be too.