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Be Bold and Assertive

March 4, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 4, 2017

To create strong stories, fiction writers need to be bold and assertive.

Are you normally a quiet or maybe a retiring person, one who doesn’t often boldly declare your feelings and views? Do you withhold your opinions and recommendations, not wanting to appear ignorant or out of step? Do you imagine that the opinions of others are always more commendable than your own?

If this is your behavior in your daily life, you need to change that behavior when you write fiction.

When you’re fleshing out a story, trying on characteristics for each character, you may be unsure about which traits those characters might ultimately possess. So in your first or second draft, characters may not be fully formed. Or they may change from one scene to the next. Or they may not be strong enough for what they need to accomplish in your story.

But once you’ve worked through the plot and have begun draft two or three, you should be making firm decisions regarding characters. They should no longer be hazy but solid, with personalities and experiences and plans. You need to take a stand on your characters and decide what your story world is truly like.

As the creator of characters and a fictional story world, your word is law. You give final approval for everything that takes place in your fiction, everything that readers ever discover about your story world. And because you’re the only one who can reveal what happens in your fictional world, you’ve got to act with confidence when you write, as though what you write is an exact representation of the way it is in that world.

It’s okay (and necessary) to make strong declarations about characters and events and setting. You don’t have to hold back, looking for approval from others. You don’t have to hesitate or wait to hear what others think. You are creator; you’ve got to make the decisions.

If you are hesitant or undecided or timid about what’s happening in the story world—because you’re worried that readers won’t like a character or won’t like what happens to characters—that hesitancy will show through and your story won’t be nearly as strong as it could be. Not nearly as strong as it should be.

When you hold a character back, diluting his personality or making him only half the man he should be, the story suffers. When you don’t declare what happened in a scene but use euphemisms instead, or you gloss over scene elements that instead should be highlighted in order to stir the readers’ emotions, you shortchange the story.

I often encourage writers to let their characters speak and act boldly, but I want to encourage you to be bold as well. Declare what’s happening to your characters. Declare who the characters are. Let them be unapologetically themselves, people with both depth and weaknesses.

Don’t apologize for your characters, whitewashing their stories even as you tell them. You don’t have to hide your characters’ flaws. You certainly don’t have to make them look good all the time or hold back from writing them as they deserve to be written.

Characters can have depth, but they don’t have to be all things to all people. They can be imperfect. They can lack some skills. They can call attention to themselves because of what they say, what they do, and even what they wear.

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If you find yourself hesitating to unleash a character’s full personality or have the urge to cut a scene short because you imagine it might be too much for the reader, shove the hesitation and the urge aside and write the character and scene as they should be written, with power and sharp edges. Write—or rewrite—with certainty. Push fear aside and be a decisive writer, one who writes declarations rather than uncertainties or half truths.

Make decisions. Rather than allow events to happen to your characters, create events that fit those characters, that make them react and dig deep to reveal their inner selves.

Act like a resolute and forceful CEO who makes decisions without wavering. Commit to the characters you write. Commit to their personalities. Commit to a scene whose events might reveal a character as something other than perfect, as someone other than Mr. or Mrs. Nice Guy all day every day.

Write a scene that will make readers cry or rage rather than simply turn the page.

Whether you’re assertive and decisive or even arrogant in your day-to-day life or you’re diffident and never push your own agenda, you don’t want to hold back when you write. Your characters are not you; they can do and say what you can’t. This is one time when it’s more than okay for you to boldly speak your mind and have things exactly the way you want them, so make your characters and story happenings meaningful and memorable.

If you’re past the early stages of a story, maybe working on a second draft, look for places where you need to make decisions about a character or action or scene. Look for fuzzy characters or mixed messages about what’s going on. Find the weak places in your stories and make them strong.

If while reading you have no memory of the last scene you read, that scene is a candidate for a shakeup.

If major characters don’t have any outstanding characteristics or memorable traits, make some decisions about them, giving them notable traits or behaviors or beliefs. It’s good for characters to stand out rather than blend in.

Tell your stories as if the events in them actually happened, as if the characters in them really exist and posses bold personalities. If you’re unsure about what happened and why, or if you try to hide or downplay uncomfortable issues, readers will fail to connect with both characters and the story. If you don’t treat story events and characters as real, readers won’t buy into the fictional dream.

If you’re hesitant, the story world will feel nebulous and unreal.

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Don’t apologize for your characters, for what they do and say. Don’t think that you need to whisper about a story’s events, as if they were something you wouldn’t do or approve of. You are not your characters. You’re allowed to make them hard or mean or nasty or cold. You’re allowed to show them in a bad light. They’re allowed—encouraged—to be imperfect.

Without pulling a veil over events, show readers what happens in your story world. And then show the consequences of events and character behavior.

Make declarations and do away with fuzzy writing. Do away with your own double-mindedness and be firm about who your characters are and what they’re capable of. Write compelling stories that grab readers and pull them deep.

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16 Responses to “Be Bold and Assertive”

  1. Thank you for this article, Beth. Perfect timing! My current author has trouble creating bold, flawed characters, and I’m sending her this link. I’m so grateful for your blog — there’s almost always something to share with my authors.

    • Thanks, Arlene. This can be a tough issue for writers since everyone wants others to like them—we worry that readers won’t like our characters. But readers love vibrant characters who have flaws and who overcome them or at least learn how to deal with them. (Plus flaws allow us to create some great conflict.) And stories that remain hazy, with characters and events undefined, simply don’t hold the attention of readers. Once writers realize that it’s okay to write characters who aren’t always nice, realize that it’s okay to write dark scenes or negative events, then those writers often write much more entertaining stories. It’s as if the brakes are off and the writer is ever racing forward.

  2. Mark Schultz says:

    Another winning post! Beth you have hit the nail on the head! No wishy-washy writing for you!

  3. Marisa Garau says:

    Thank you so much Beth for this very clear post. I’ve just completed my first novel and I use your posts to check where I can make my novel stronger. I’m happy to say that my characters are bold and there’s no fuzzy writing trying to cover up events :-))) You help me to check on my work, then feel confident about it!

    • Marisa, that’s great to hear, that your characters are bold and there’s no fuzziness in the story. Yeah! And congratulations about finishing your first novel. I hope you celebrate in style.

      And thanks for letting me know that the articles have been useful. I love that they’re accomplishing good results.

  4. Awesome post Beth for sharing information for how to make your novel stronger and attractive with words .

  5. As introverted as I am, I realized long ago that writing is the one area where I’m 100% confident. I have no doubt in my abilities to create believable characters and the credible worlds in which they reside. I base many characters on people I’ve known and situations on those in which I’ve been involved. I just change the names to protect myself. Writing – especially my journal writing – has always been a refuge for me.

  6. Thanks so much for this insight into characterization and conflict. I always appreciate the tips you offer to writers. I’ve shared this post online.

  7. Darien says:

    I just recently delved into some super dark waters. Thanks for the encouragement.

    What do you think about F-bombs? So many reviews of books complain about it. Even I was reading one recently and every other word was f*** or f***ing, and it was for every character too!

    I always think a little goes a long way, and it loses it’s emphasis when it’s everywhere!

    When I edit, I have been known to remove a few, or say screwed instead, but when you have to swear, you have to swear, LOL!

    Thanks as always for your inspiring articles!

  8. Phil Huston says:

    recent research indicated that the average person swears up to 90 times a day. That would leave thr church lady and others out of it, but I have had priests tell me traffic and parking lots will bring on a distinctly in-priest like vocabulary with accompanying hand gestures. We’re all human. But vocabulary choices drive characters and scenes. Even when actors do it without the proper emphasis it has become a staple of the stream channel productions. I’ve been busted for potty mouth characters, but often what happens in the real world is edited out for a fictional one. I promise you, even as a teenager had I been Harry Potter?

  9. Darien says:

    Thanks Phil,

    I tend to agree. I went to a friend’s party the other day and I was shocked how many times he swore, like every other sentence. It wasn’t even a rant . . .

    My good-guy cop swears a lot when agitated. His partner is more frickin’ and frig, but occasionally says “that sick f**k” and my young character only uses it for a rant or an outburst.

    The rest never use it, and not even on purpose. I notice more now because I’m editing and paying attention.

    Anyway, thanks again for weighing in!

  10. Darien, while you want to be realistic, you also don’t want to bore or annoy your readers. Any word used too often—realistic or not—can turn into an annoyance.

    One character might say “you know” all the time, but you wouldn’t have him say it in every sentence. Same with swear words. Hint at the flavor of a character’s speech without trying to faithfully replicate it.

    There’s nothing wrong with including swear words. But like any element, they shouldn’t take over.

    • Darien says:

      Thanks Beth, and agreed!

      It is easier to spot the overuse in re-writes. When I’m writing they just curse up a blue streak, lol!

      Listening to my writing really helps me spot the overuse too. And that goes for anything repetitious.

      Good to know a little cussing is okay.

      :)