Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shadowing Your Story (Elizabeth)

When I saw the blog schedule, I knew I was in trouble.
My name was on February 2nd, when I was going to post, and underneath it were the words: On Writing. 

I’d been dreading this topic for a while. After all, I’m a fairly inexperienced writer with no publishing experience, and after reading my friend Hannah’s fantabulous post on fantasy world building, I knew the bar had been raised high. I could try to jump, but I was pretty sure I’d trip over the hurdle instead.

So, I prayed about it and wrote down a few topics. After murmuring a thanks heavenward, I asked, “Okay, God, now which one of these topics do I write about? Which of these topics has the information that someone needs?” The earth didn’t quake. No lighting split the sky. No ominous, booming voice revealed the answer. Just sitting makes me restless. As one of my stocking stuffers for Christmas, I’d gotten a big coloring poster. I started coloring it a bit at a time when I wanted to do something spontaneous or relax while listening for God.

I recently finished listening to the recording of the Continuing Education, The Wildness of Writing With God, which is from the 2015 ACFW conference, so this was part of my effort to create with God. As I finished shading a few pink bubbles, inspiration (or God) hit me. I’d also been listening to Kristen Heitzmann’s Continuing Education, Keys to Compelling Stories for the third time. (On a side note, the recordings of the ACFW conference are an awesome value. The Continuing Education sessions alone are over 27 hours worth of writing information. If you can buy one or save for a recording, it’s so worth it!) The last topic in the recording I’d listened to was Characters that Connect. Kristen Heitzmann was saying how everyone experiences temptation and attraction, how you want a faith struggle in your story, and how you should write in a way that can appeal to non-Christian readers. I wrote a little note that says: Shadows add depth. So, all these events (the Christmas stocking stuffer, the Continuing Education sessions) collided into one post :)

Sorry for the lengthy introduction, but I felt that it was necessary to include that. Here’s the before and after picture of a leaf on my poster:

At first, I drew the leaf with really light shades of green, but instead of making the leaf appear full of light, it looks washed out, flat, lifeless. It’s still a passable leaf, but it’s certainly not noteworthy.

Even though I have rather amateur shading skills, the shaded leaf is much more eye-catching. It has the same colors and only subtle changes, but the difference gives this leaf depth and vibrancy. So, what’s changed?

Of course, you already know the answer. One leaf is shaded, one is not. I think we can apply this same concept to our characters. No one wants to follow a perfect character on their journey. We can’t understand or relate to perfection, and who doesn’t love the nitty, gritty conflict found in good stories and, to a lesser extent, everyday life? Conflict doesn’t only draw the reader in; it gives them strength and answers. It gives them something they can take away from the story and carry with them for the rest of their lives. As silly as it sounds, I often find that I push myself physically using fictional characters as an example. If Parvin can face wolves and exile, I can finish this jog. In essence, the conflict within your characters is the message of your story.

Someone who’s 100% perfect has no need for God, and someone who’s 100% evil has no want for God. While it might be nice to have a character that’s a perfect Christian, it doesn’t really help us. Having a perfect character eliminates the need for a faith struggle. Look back at the leaves again. You can see where the source of light is coming from on the shaded leaf, but not on the un-shaded leaf. Shadowing allows you to see the source of the light. By having some darkness in our stories and characters, we’re giving God a chance to shine. You can’t really see where the light’s coming from at all unless you have a few shadows for contrast. We’re born imperfect, incomplete… and—I can’t believe I’m saying this—but I’m glad. Without some sort of hole inside of me, I wouldn’t have a place for God to fit. He’s my missing puzzle piece.
We should show that absence in our stories. We’re not spreading or encouraging darkness by doing so, we’re just leaving room for God.

Now, this is great and all, but it’s easier said than done. Even though shadowing is a subtle change, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy change. You have all of this information, but how can you apply it? 

First of all, start with the characters. Do all of them have realistic flaws? Do you show that struggle internally and externally? Do your villains have likable traits? Do they have soft spots? If you find a character lacking, you can either add flaws/likable traits as necessary, or you can check out The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The PositiveTrait Thesaurus. Both have great advice on adding depth and certain traits to your character. 
The Negative and Positive Trait Thesaurus
(The cover isn't actually like this, of course. I
 merged the covers to make the picture more fun :)
Aim to give your character more flaws than their lie requires, maybe even an extra lie. I’ve found that this is great if you’re going to do a series and need your character to have more than one arc. Aside from characters, you can also shadow descriptions and settings. Again, don’t make anything all good or all bad. If something appears beautiful, be realistic and point out a few flaws. If something is hideous, look for the pinpoints of light. Doing this will make the light brighter and the dark darker. We call this juxtaposition, which is something I’m still trying to master.

Now you guys know how shadowing makes characters realistic and relatable, how it leaves room for God to shine, and how to apply the technique. I hope you’ve gained something from this post—I know I have. From this point forward, I, Elizabeth Newsom, shall no longer fear blog posts On Writing. In fact, I’m looking forward to the next one. I can’t wait to see what God has to tell me and what creative methods he’ll use to reach me.

Are there any characters in your stories that could use some shadowing? Do you know of a character in a book/movie that could use shadowing? What are some of your favorite likable traits and flaws in a character? How are you going to use juxtaposition in your writing?

Hope this helps!


Hurdle photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/70145217@N07/6940744046">2012 Jaguar Invitational</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">(license)</a>

Puzzle Piece photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/58020577@N06/5542920908">Piece of a jigsaw</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>

The Positive Trait Thesaurus Photo: http://www.amazon.com/The-Positive-Trait-Thesaurus-Attributes-ebook/dp/B00FVZDVS2

The Negative Trait Thesaurus Photo: http://www.amazon.com/The-Negative-Trait-Thesaurus-Character-ebook/dp/B00FVZDZ6K/ref=pd_sim_351_1?ie=UTF8&dpID=51U6e%2BUIcEL&dpSrc=sims&preST=_AC_UL160_SR112%2C160_&refRID=0QEVXWY2W39RG3XC9S1G


  1. Wow, this is a fantastic post! I am actually struggling with this right now. I have a character that is too good and one that... Well, he isn't really evil, but he has no redeeming qualities. Some of my favorite positive traits are intelligence, wit, and fearlessness. It's a lot harder to say which negative traits I like since they are bad by definition, but some flaws I like to see characters struggle against (and obviously overcome) are social ineptitude, dishonesty, and hatred/lack of forgiveness toward a particular person.

    1. Thank you, Hannah! I think I can probably guess which characters ;) If it's the story I've been reading. And I like your positive traits. I'm afraid I need to work more on Annette's intelligence...

  2. And I really want to emphasize this question for those of you who aren't writers: What are some of your favorite like able traits and flaws in a character? I would be very interested in hearing your answer!

  3. Thanks, Liz! I really dislike perfect characters! Thanks for explaining why!

  4. What a great article. Lots of food for thought here. One-dimensional characters are boring and stale. Not to mention predictable - which is possibly the worst thing a story can be! Give me a hero who is complex!
    Favourite flaws? Fears and insecurities about what he/she is doing, speaking before thinking (oooh, that can get a character in a heap of trouble!) impatience, recklessness, or an unclear identity about who they are in Christ.
    Favourite positive traits: loyalty, courage in the face of adversity, looking out for the downtrodden and marginalised.
    I also like it when there are a few hints about why a villain is the way he/she is :-)

    1. I'm a big fan of complex characters too.
      Lol! The speaking before thinking one can be a lot of fun.
      Villains with a back story are so much fun ;)
      Thank you for commenting, Jebraun!

  5. Great post, Liz! I love how you worked in your own insecurities about doing an On Writing post, and you bring up some really important points about the need for depth and complexity in order to have interesting characters and a well-rounded story. My main characters tend to have plenty of flaws, but I think I need to work on including more flaws for my romantic male leads - ha, I can think of a few members of our critique group who may not be happy to hear that :) I also have yet to write a complex villain, so that's a goal of mine going forward.

    1. Nooo, not Rafe! I was going to say he's allowed to have as many flaws as Mr. Darcy, but it occurred to me that most people probably think Mr. Darcy does have flaws, simply because he assumed Lizzy would say yes to his original proposal. *sigh* Oh well.

    2. Ha, don't be too worried - I don't think I'd have the heart to make Rafe too flawed, plus none of you seem too bothered by his lack of flaws anyway :) I think what's great about Mr. Darcy is that he seems flawed at first because of his pride and unfriendliness, but later that all becomes very easy to forgive once you find out more about him, so in the end he's just about perfect :)

    3. I love Rafe too! I'm curious, what kind of a flaw would you give him?

    4. Yes, I completely agree about Mr. Darcy. It makes him complex without being flawed, imo.

    5. I've already hinted at what I consider to be Rafe's primary flaw, which is that he doesn't think things through. I think I mostly need to emphasize it more, so that when Leah points it out the readers don't object so emphatically :)

    6. I'm looking forward to seeing how you bring that out later in the story ;) *sigh* Rafe is such a great character.

  6. Ooh, Kristen Heitzmann was the speaker at my local writer's group meeting a few months ago. She had some great tips.

    One of my favorite positive traits is helping those in need, particularly when it might cause injury (physical, emotional, or otherwise) to the person who is doing the helping. I especially like when it requires looking across class boundaries, or other social boundaries.

    It's strange because I've always preferred "perfect" characters and had a strong dislike of protagonists who have major negative traits. However, many of the negative trait examples being mentioned are things I previously hadn't considered to be negative traits at all. I pictured them as being the idiosyncrasies that set one person apart from another. For instance, I have a character who is impulsive, running headlong into things without taking the time to think about the consequences because he is also impatient. But I figured that was a personality trait of his, not something negative at all. Just as one person might be humorous, or another socially inept. There are times when impulsiveness can save the day, even if it generally has the opposite effect. All that to say, I guess I look at things quite a bit differently than most people do.

    As for favorite negative traits, I suppose I like it (so-to-speak) when someone is vengeful. I can't stand arrogance though. I have stopped reading a number of books because the protagonist's arrogance bothered me that much.

    1. That's so cool! And I love her advice ;)

      Hmm... I guess it depends on your perspective. My character is pretty impulsive too, so I think I'm going to try to temper that with a bit of forethought, since sometimes her impulsiveness makes her unlikable.

      Vengeful can definitely make for an interesting character arc. Oh, I can't stand arrogance either!

      Thank you for commenting! :)

    2. I think there are times when impulsiveness could make a character less likable, but I also think there are times a reader wants a character to act impulsively. There's a great example in The Magician's Nephew. The character Digory stands at a magical bell that has the following inscription:

      Make your choice, adventurous Stranger;
      Strike the bell and bide the danger,
      Or wonder, till it drives you mad,
      What would have followed if you had.

      So of course the smart thing to do would be to walk away, but we readers don't actually mind Digory striking the bell because we really want to know what happens if he does. :)

    3. That's a good point. If the reader is as curious as the character, the character's impulsiveness probably doesn't annoy them as much. I'll keep that in mind for future writing. Thank you!

  7. This is a fantastic post, Liz! Thanks!

    1. My pleasure :) I'm so glad you got something out of it. Sorry I didn't respond earlier!

  8. Wow, Elizabeth! Thank you for directing me to this post. Not surprisingly, you get IT!

    1. Awww, thank you, Tamara :) And thank you for reading my post! That was so sweet of you.


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