Writing and Life, and the Advice We're Misusing.

K.M. Weiland work has been posted in the past and probably will be in the future, because it's just good stuff.

Her latest post, "6 Bits of Common Writing Advice You're Misusing," is another great resource for writers, but it's also a great resources of life.

Here are a few most notables:

1. Write a Likable Character

You hear it all the time. If you don’t create characters readers like—and especially a protagonist readers like—why would they ever want to read your story? Stories are made or broken on the strength of their characters, which means you must get readers invested in your main character right from go.

Common writing advice says your protagonist must be likable. But don’t confuse likability with perfection. Readers love flawed characters.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

The problem is that writers sometimes think this means they must write a character who is an utter saint. If he makes a mistake, if he speaks in anger, if he’s selfish, if he sins—readers will instantly judge him, hate him, and drop him. Instead of creating a realistically flawed (andinteresting) human being, these writers end up with either a

a) a self-righteous goody-goody

b) a self-flagellating goody-goody

The irony here is that “perfect” characters are hardly ever likable characters.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

Because we often equate other people’s ability to like us with our ability to avoid of messing up, we think the same must apply to our characters. But (aside from the fact this is an utterly false paradigm) consider some of your favorite characters. I’m willing to bet most of them are egregiously flawed. And don’t you love them the more for those flaws?

When you’re told to “write a likable character,” what you’re really be told is to “write a realistic, compelling, relatable, interesting character.” So give him a relatable motivation and pile on the sins, because readers have a high capacity for forgiveness.

Application to Life:

We love flawed fictional characters because they are relatable. Characters that are to goody-goody become distant because we know ourselves. We know that, try as we might, we are deeply flawed and fully sinful - that we have ghosts

When we read the struggles and failures of fictional characters, we see ourselves, and we have compassion, and we end up loving them more.

Characters like Cora who kills a white boy while trying to escape North, the adulterous John Proctor in The Crucible, and lying, scared, and over emotional disciple, Peter.

But not so much with the non-fictional characters of our daily workplaces, the family members that gather around the Thanksgiving table, and the members of our churches. Their faults are not lovable but deplorable. They drive us apart, they seep into our thoughts while driving or washing the dishes. They're the subjects of our cryptic blog posts. 

Suddenly, the realistic, compelling, relatable, interesting characters that are so lovable in books are our enemies in life.

Patrick Lencioni refers to this as the Fundamental Attribution Error, "The tendency of human beings to attribute the negative or frustrating behaviors of {others} to their intentions and personalities, while attributing their own negative or frustrating behaviors to environmental factors" (The Advantage).

Reading and writing stories can remind that, just as we and our favorite characters are flawed, so to is our neighbor. And that makes them realistic, compelling, relatable, and interesting . . . if only we choose to keep reading and not close the book.

4. Flesh Out Your Minor Characters

Your protagonist may make or break the show, but the supporting cast is just as important to the success of his story. If your minor characters are boring, flat, and clichéd, your entire story will suffer. This means you must lavish just as much attention on the little people as you do your shakers and movers. Even your smallest of walk-on characters need to strike readers with just as much realism and charisma as your larger-than-life protagonist.

Common writing advice says you must flesh out even your minor characters—and you should! But you must do it artfully, using only story-pertinent details.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

Every character is the hero of his own story, right? And that’s exactly what some writers seem bent on doing: writing an entire story for every minor character, however insignificant they actually are within the plot. When you end up telling a minor character’s entire life story just to “flesh him out,” you know you’ve gone too far. In fact, even just sharing a single detail about this character if it is not pertinent to the story is a bridge too far.

If you introduce your walk-on taxi driver with a lengthy conversation about his large family, you’re telling readers this man and his family are important—to the plot, to the protagonist’s development, or to the thematic premise. In short, every minor-character detail you include had better be doing double or triple duty, rather than simply serving to tell readers, “See, look, this guy is a real human being! No, really!”

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

By all means, bring your minor characters to life. But do it deftly. Do it in a way that creates irony and subtext—and most importantly moves the plot forward.

Application to Life:

"You must lavish just as much attention on the little people as you do your shakers and movers." And how much more this applies to life.

How we treat those who can do nothing for us, who can provide little or no return, defines our character more than anything else. Being kind to those who are kind is easy. Being kind to those who are undeserving, who are cruel and seemingly fully selfish, is not. But it's what makes a "successful story."

In life, there are not minor or flat characters, there is only people - humans who want and love and fail and feel just like the rest of us - who want to be the hero. Lavishing attention on the "little people," those who cannot speak for themselves, fight for themselves, or think for themselves, is the mark and beauty of the best of humanity - it's humility. It's the mark of a hero.

People like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and those whose names will never appear in blogs or headlines because they didn't do what they did for attention, but because it was the right thing to do. And at the end of their lives, their funeral parlor is full.

5. Add Conflict to Every Scene


Here’s one you hear a lot these days: conflict, conflict, conflict. Without it, you have no plot and no story. If characters aren’t fighting, struggling, overcoming in every single scene, the forward momentum of the plot will founder, and readers will grow bored and give up on the book. More than that, conflict is directly related to the pertinence of any scene within your story. If something isn’t happening to push the conflict forward, then chances are high that scene can and should be trimmed from the story.

Common writing advice says you must include conflict in every scene—and you should! But you must make sure it is story-driving conflict, rather than random arguments.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

In their determination to include the magic story elixir of conflict, writers sometimes end up manufacturing it. The result is random conflict—arguments, obstacles, and even physical altercations that actually do nothing to move the plot.

Turns out, conflict all by itself is not a surefire indicator of a scene’s plot-progressing necessity. Too often, writers feel their story is lagging (particularly in the Second Act), so they throw in a random argument between allies—or the neighborhood bully attacks—or there’s a car wreck—or who knows what else. The result is, at best, melodrama. At worst, readers will be just as bored as if the characters really were doing nothing.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

It’s not enough to throw in a random argument to spice things up. Every bit of conflict in every scene must function as part of the overall plot, creating a seamless line of scene dominoes—one knocking into the next—that progresses your story from beginning to end.

Just as importantly, every bit of this conflict must pertinently impact your character’s arc and your story’s theme. If it misfires on any of these three levels—plot, character, or theme—it risks irrelevance and must be reexamined to strengthen it into something with the ability to truly power your story.

Application to Life:

Saying that a story without conflict is boring and will cause the readers to lose interest is perhaps true, but it is also shallow at the least - inaccurate and unhelpful at most because it doesn't relate to life. Try telling a middle school child struggling with the harshness of an overwhelming bully that it's what makes his life - his story- interesting. Tell a father whose searching for answer after losing his job or a wife and mother of three who has recently discovered that she a widow and must carry the burden alone that this is what moves their story along, "from beginning to end," and see if they are comforted. 

It won't. Because the purpose of conflict is not to move the story along. 

Conflict and hardship is a part of life, we know that. But how we interpret conflict can change how we view life.

"It’s not enough to throw in a random argument to spice things up," Weiland writes, and that is true, and it's probably good advice for writers. But in life, there is no "random argument" because, to paraphrase Weiland, every bit of conflict in every moment of life functions as part of the overall story, "creating a seamless line of scene dominoes—one knocking into the next."

The argument with a loved one that seemed to spawn from nothing and that ended nowhere is part of the seamless line of dominoes that was knocked, sometimes days or even years prior.

A blowup is never just a single isolated blowup. Somewhere, someone has pushed a domino. 

Knowing this can remind us perhaps of a few things.

  1. Patience - because if we love that person, we want to know what's really going on. We want to lay a domino on its side and stop the progression.
  2. Empathy - because we know ourselves and that really, when we are frustrated over a dirty kitchen, there is really something bigger we're wrestling with. So we listen.
  3. Forgiveness - when we are close to someone, we are the ones they fall on. And sometimes,, they can't do anything about it - they've just been pushed over. So we bare it.

Thank you K.M. Weiland for the post, and thank you for reading!