This is the sixth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Just Happened? – The Moment Before

This part is essential for an actor, as it determines his character’s state immediately before the scene starts. Does he come in calm, cool, and collected, or does he enter in a rush, frazzled, beside himself. The moment before matters. It’s vital. It determines the audience’s first glimpse of that character in that particular scene.

But what if you’re a novelist? Does the moment before matter for your characters on the page?

Maybe it matters more than it does to an actor.

The Moment Before Can Be Told

For an actor, the moment before is only shown through the lens of behavior; the audience will never see it, unless it’s from the scene immediately preceding. For a writer… ah, for a writer the moment before can come alive on the page.

Remember, the unique strength of prose is that it reveals the characters’ inner lives. Their internal voices. For a writer, their characters’ moments before not only can be told, those moments must be told for the narrative to make sense.

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. You know the apparent event, the actual event, the environment, a relationship, the conflict, and now you give your hero a moment before. She’s just been evicted. She’s effectively homeless now.

Would that change the way she approaches the conflict? Absolutely, desperation makes people do odd things. Would being evicted change the way she approaches the apparent event? Of course, maybe she now thinks she has nothing to lose… or, maybe she’s already lost too much and needs to re-think things.

The Resolution Of A Scene Leads To The Next Moment Before

This only stands to reason, but so many writers forget it. No matter how the particular scene you’re writing ends, it’s the moment before for the next scene. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as it were.

In our example, let’s say our hero musters up the courage to go through with it, and tell her ex-husband she’s moving across the country with their son. How does the husband react? Not well, obviously, or there wouldn’t be much of a story. But say he threatens the hero, tells her that she can run but she can’t hide. He’s going to find her no matter what.

What does the hero do next? Whatever it is, it’s going to be with that threat hanging over her head.

Of course, the resolution of the scene for the ex-husband is also his moment before his next scene.

Next time: we’ll put it all together.

This is the fifth of a 6-part series on the W’s. Coming into the home stretch.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Is The Obstacle? – Conflict

Every scene needs conflict, otherwise, why spend your precious word count on it? But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what, exactly, conflict is. Does it mean a fistfight? Well… obviously. But every scene can’t have a fistfight, unless it’s one of the Fast and Furious movies.

Think of ‘conflict’ as something that stands between the hero and her goals for that scene. Let’s remember that there’s always an Actual event for your main characters, something they want to achieve, a goal they need to reach. The conflict is something that prevents them from reaching that goal.

If you want to take a third-grade understanding of this, the obstacle is a physical thing. An actual barrier. If you’re writing an adventure story then a physical barrier is a real possibility. That big rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you’re writing a story about star-crossed lovers, however, the obstacle is almost never going to be physical, it’s going to be emotional. The boy is forbidden by his parents from seeing the girl, who is herself torn between the safe choice and the boy. The path of true love never runs straight.

The Obstacle Can Be Another W

Let’s go back to our birthday party example. We have the hero who intends to tell her ex-husband she’s taking their son across country. Why can’t she just come up and tell him? Tear the band-aid off, metaphorically speaking?

Good question. If a dilemma could be solved by people simply talking, the world would be a much nicer place. But it wouldn’t be dramatically interesting. In our hero’s case, the obstacle – the conflict – could be that she’s done this before. Maybe she did it a few years ago, and faced legal repercussions because of it. Or maybe the obstacle is that her husband is an angry control freak, and she knows that when she tells him she’s leaving, he’s going to marshal all his considerable resources to stop her. Or maybe the obstacle is the son himself, who learns of his mother’s intentions and tells his father he doesn’t want to go before the hero can.

In all these cases, it’s the Character and Relationship that provide the conflict.

Conflict Should Be Resolved, Not Necessarily Overcome

The hero doesn’t need to physically conquer every obstacle. A story like that quickly becomes boring. Let’s think about Indiana Jones. He didn’t conquer that rolling boulder, he didn’t stop it, he didn’t divert it, he didn’t step out of its way. He ran. As fast and as far as he could until he got out of the cave and the boulder rolled away somewhere harmless. He didn’t overcome that boulder, he out-ran it.

The same principle applies to more metaphorical challenges. In our birthday party example, say the son tells his father what the hero – his mother – intends. So what’s our hero going to do about that? Stand and fight? Face off against her ex-husband who has far more cash and friends in high places? No, she’s going to thinks sideways. Maybe she’ll just up and leave anyway and take the boy with her. Or maybe she’ll pretend to go on a road trip, which is really her absconding. Which, of course, creates an entirely new obstacle for her to overcome.

However you do it, you need to resolve the conflicts you set up. This is the pay-off for the set-up. It doesn’t have to be smooth, or elegant, or even pleasant. But it has to work with the other Ws.

This is the third of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

Where Are You? – The Environment

The environment for the scene is the set dressing. This includes the stuff your characters can touch, like tables, chairs, rocket ships, guns, salad forks, powdered wigs, piles of severed limbs, etc. etc. etc.

The environment also includes the stuff your character can’t touch, like the wind, or darkness, or humidity. Or the seething emotion of a crowd about to turn into a mob. Or the gentle, welcoming smile of a grandmother.

In our birthday party example, your character probably is going to see a cake, some decorations, maybe some presents, and other people gathered around. But a birthday party in a bowling alley is going to have a very different environment than one on a billionaire’s yacht. Think about the fixtures and furniture you’d see in each place, aside from the cake and presents. Think about the people in attendance. It’s the same event (ostensibly) but the environments are completely different.

Story Drives The Environment

If your story is a hard-boiled noir, the hero probably won’t be seeing any androids or Jetsons-style moving sidewalks. By the same token, if your story is a high fantasy, your hero probably won’t be watching TV or driving a car.

Your story will have tropes, it’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that tropes are necessarily bad. Used properly, they can give your reader something to latch onto, a familiar entry point. A lonely lakehouse, for example, would be right at home in a romance. It could also be the setting for a horror tale. The rest of the environment fills in the story. A romance would have sweet carvings of initials on the boathouse; a horror story would have a charnal-smelling basement where muffled screams echo at night.

The story you want to tell will determine your environment.

Environment Drives The Story

And yet… as you move along in your story, the environment has a lot to say about the direction your characters might take.

In our birthday party example, aside from the cake, candles, presents, and attendees, the event takes place at a Roaring-20s Gatsby mansion. So there are idle rich, and servants, and opulent appointments, and maybe a live jazz band. And maybe your hero hates her party and hates everyone there, but somehow finds a kindred spirit in the hip, dropout drum player from the band.

Well, now there’s a story. Rich socialite, grubby jazz musician, 1925, too much champagne, negligently unguarded revolvers… the environment has just moved the plot along.

Put The First Three Together

When you determine the apparent event for your characters, the actual event, and the environment, you’re well on your way to constructing a good, meaty scene.

Only three more Ws to go.

This is the second of a 6-part series on the W’s.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

What Do You Want? – Actual Event

The Actual Event is the meat of the scene. What the scene’s about. If the Apparent Event is what you see through a keyhole, the Actual Event is a plot point. A story element.

Okay… so what are those things? For the Apparent Event, we used the example of a birthday party. Everyone knows what a birthday party looks like: candles, cake, singing, presents, etc. etc. And for 99% of birthday parties, the Actual Event is also a birthday party.

But not your story. No, the Actual Event at your characters’ birthday party is something completely different. Maybe it’s when the detective realizes the murderer is his own wife. Or when the villain confesses everything, knowing that no one will believe his confessor. Or when the star-crossed lovers finally come together, at last.

The Actual Event Is The Story

Every scene must involve change. Either the plot moves along (the story changes), or the character grows (the character changes). Or both. A scene that does neither serves no purpose.

The Actual Event does not have to be positive. Most of your story should be setbacks for the characters; if every development is positive, you’ll have to twists to your tale.

If your main character has a birthday party, the fallout should be dramatic. He thinks he’s going to get cake and a few well-intentioned but ultimately useless gifts. Instead, he gets the news that his mother isn’t his real mother, she’s his grandmother, and the woman he thought was his older sister is really his mother, and has been all along.

That would be devastating news to anyone. Maybe positive in the (very) long term, but at that moment – at that party – the news is a definite blow to the character, and a setback. How’s he going to deal with this? What about his plans to get married? Is she really his cousin? How can he know for sure? And on, and on, and on.

The Scene Can Have More Than One Actual Event

If your scene has more than one character, there can be more than one actual event. This is tricky to pull off, and delicate balancing act, but it can be done. When it’s done right, it’s usually a smorgasbord of dramatic irony.

I would avoid doing this with any but main characters. To be honest, secondary and tertiary characters are there to serve the plot and the needs of the main characters. I wouldn’t bother giving them an actual event. Sometimes a bartender is just there to serve drinks. But if your hero and your villain find themselves at the same birthday party… someone’s gonna win and someone’s gonna lose. And it may not be who you expect.

This is the first of a 6-part series on the W’s. This is a foundational tool I learned as an actor that’s become my go-to as a writer. I use the Ws for every scene I write, every time.

WHAT is happening? – Apparent Event
WHAT do you want? – Actual Event
WHERE are you? – Environment
WHO are you? – Character and Relationship
WHAT is the obstacle? – Conflict
WHAT just happened? – The Moment Before

WHAT Is Happening? – Apparent Event

The Apparent Event is not the set dressing. That’s the Environment. The Apparent Event is what someone looking through a keyhole might see going on; what’s happening in a very broad and obvious sense.

For example: a birthday party. To Western eyes, at least, every birthday party follows a certain pattern. Just think of all the YouTube videos you’ve seen of a birthday party: if you turn off the sound, the scene could be set anywhere in the world, there’s nothing unique about candles on a birthday cake to tell you where in the world that party’s taking place.

Another example: bad news in a doctor’s office. Same thing, if you turn off the sound on any bad-news scene, you can still tell immediately what’s going on. Doctor comes in, hesitates, patients looks on with hope until she realizes that the doctor’s not going to have good news. Shake of the head, sincere look, tears.

A third example: being called into your boss’s office. The worker’s at his desk. The boss appears over his shoulder. Some brief words. The boss returns to her office. The worker hesitates – is it good news or bad? – then follows.

The Apparent Event Grounds The Action

When you set the apparent event – and all scenes must have an apparent event – you immediately have a handle on what’s taking place. You can then move your characters around inside that event as you see fit.

If the scene’s at a birthday party, for instance, you know the beats of that process. Your character will (probably) know the beats of that process too. They’ll react to what’s going on according to the other Ws – see the list above – and to their own nature. Do they hate birthday parties? Love them? Resent the people attending?

You Can Subvert The Apparent Event

What does this mean? Sticking with the birthday party example, suppose you follow the regular beats of a birthday party, but we find out the birthday ‘cake’ is a vegetable concoction instead of devil’s food chocolate. And suppose your main character only discovers the old switcheroo when she’s handed a piece of the broccoli-beet cake.

In that example, your apparent event has changed from ‘birthday party’ to ‘terrible birthday party the main character never expected.’ We’re still not into the actual event, or even the environment (aside from the specific about the cake), we’ve just subverted the audience’s expectation of what the event really is. This is perfectly acceptable. Just not every time.

How quickly should you move your story along? That depends, what kind of story are you telling?

I think the biggest structural mistakes I see in writers’ work is the wrong pace for the material. You need to pick your pace as carefully as you pick your scenes and your characters.

A Big Story Needs A Fast Pace

Let’s say that, for some reason, you’ve decided to write the next ‘War and Peace.’ That’s a huge story, and, full disclosure, takes its time like a stoned sloth staring at wallpaper. But it’s not the 19th Century and you’re not Leo Tolstoy, your writing needs to move faster than his did.

A big story is going to have a lot of characters, and a lot of plot points, and a lot of incidental characterization and detail. You absolutely cannot take your time with that kind of story. You have to hammer it out, rapid-fire. Get it done.

Imagine you’re explaining your story in detail to an interested party. Imagine also that you can see their eyes start to droop. You’re losing them. Every part of your story that you’d gloss over for the purpose of keeping them interested you can probably lose from your first draft. If it’s not vital to the ‘and then…’ part of storytelling, dump it.

A Smaller Story Can Go Slower

Notice I didn’t say ‘less dramatic’ or ‘less important.’ Instead of ‘War and Peace’ you’re going to write the story of a man’s slow failing and transformation as his marriage dissolves after the death of his only child.

That’s some serious, serious storytelling. Heart-wrenching drama that will probably make your reader cry. But it’s not a ‘big’ story. You can and should take your time with this kind of story, because the meat is in the characters’ internal voices, and in their sad, inevitable interactions with one another. There’s no war or peace with this kid of story, no tales of sacrifice and heroism, just the very real tale of one man’s misery. Take your time.

Know What Kind Of Story You’re Telling

I’ve seen people with big, big, stories spend far too much time on their characters’ internal lives, while outside the world is ending. Maybe you can pull that kind of juxtaposition off, but you probably can’t. Big stories mean big choices, and big choices mean broad strokes at the keyboard.

Alternatively, I’ve seen authors try to tell small stories with smash-cut urgency, which no one can sustain. It’s exhausting to read, and those stories tend to reach several conclusions as the author pads the word count to reach novel length.

Be honest with yourself as you plan your story. Is it big or is it small? Then pace accordingly.

Say what? Ignore Joseph Cambell? Blasphemy!
But… if you want to dispense with formula, if you want to tell your own story your own way, you’re going to have to shun the crowd and show Mr. Campbell the door.

Campbell Was An Academic, Not A Novelist

Of course saying that Campbell was an academic is soft-pedaling the truth, he was a highly-accomplished, highly-regarded academic, a teacher who later in life found his ideas embraced by Hollywood.

Did you know that Campbell wrote fiction? He did, early on in his career, but that’s not what he’s known for. He’s known for his studies in comparative mythology and the hero’s journey, and it’s his scholarly work that’s been embraced. And misued. His ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’ book – published in 1949, let’s remember – forms the foundation for almost every big film coming out of Hollywood today.

If Campbell’s ideas had stayed academic, I wouldn’t have a problem with him.

Campbell’s Ideas Have Become Dogma

Joseph Campbell showed us one way to tell one kind of story, God bless him, but Hollywood turned that into the only way to tell every kind of story. And that’s what’s wrong with Hollywood story telling today.

The Hero’s Journey works fine for Star Wars – and by that I mean the first movie, Star Wars, not the rest of them – but with that movie’s overwhelming success, Hollywood glommed onto the formula as the surefire way to box office gold.

The fact that most Hollywood movies actually lose money is lost on those who insist that The Hero’s Journey is the One True Path. If you step back and take an objective look, using Campbell’s myth outline to tell a story about revenge, or about a love affair, or about anything other than a myth is a straight path to Hollywood failure.

Which doesn’t keep people from trying over and over again to apply a formula to the kind of success that defies categorization. As they say, there is a lot of stupid money in Hollywood.

Mediocrities Write To Formula

Notice I didn’t say ‘unsuccessful mediocrities.’ There are some very, very successful folks – monetarily speaking – churning out very, very formulaic, very, very stupid stuff. You could become a one-percenter doing very, very bad work. But you probably won’t.

Your story needs to spark wonder in you. It needs to make you eager to tell it to other people. It needs to get you excited. Writing to a formula won’t do that at all. Especially if the formula originates with bean-counters trying to factory-produce financial success. If you get to page 50 in your manuscript and you turn to a checklist wondering what you need to include and which story beat comes after that, you’ve lost. You’re never going to sell what you’re working on because you don’t believe in it. You’ve become an assembly-line worker instead of a writer.

Here’s the one storytelling formula you absolutely must know, embrace, and practice: Beginning – Middle – End. Everything else is optional.

This post isn’t so much about the content of your writing, or about technique, it’s about your environment. Believe it or not, your environment can make a world of difference to your creative output. Pay attention to it.

Whatever Space You Have, Make It Your Own

I’m lucky, I have a house with a spare bedroom that I’ve turned into my office. I have a desk, and a desk lamp, a nifty computer, a crazy-expensive office chair, and walls painted a soothing maroon. This is where I write.

But I didn’t always have this. I have written on planes, on trains, in ratty efficiency apartments, in hotels, even outside on a porch. The one thing all these environment have in common is that I took a little bit of time to make them my own.

Wherever you write, even if it’s temporary (or especially if it’s temporary), take a few minutes to rearrange things. Move a chair around, clear off the coffee table, vacuum the carpet, close the blinds, place your laptop just-so… whatever it takes to announce to yourself that this is your environment and this is where you write.

When I had roommates, I didn’t have any permanent writing space. So every time I needed to write, I set up my space. This also let them know that I meant business. It’s a psychological crutch for you, too, kind of like putting on your golf shoes before you head for the links. ( I imagine, I don’t golf, but you get the idea ).

Your Chair Makes A Tremendous Difference

I know, it sounds like grandpa advice, but it’s true. Don’t shortchange yourself on a chair.

If you have a permanent writing space, get yourself the best chair you can afford. You’re going to spend a huge amount of time at your desk, in front of your computer, and you need to take care of your back and shoulders. You don’t want to cripple yourself for your art. And, if you think of the money you spend vs. the amount of time your butt’s in that seat, even the most expensive chair will be very cheap on a per-minute basis.

If you don’t have a permanent space, creating a comfortable chair is part of claiming your space. Believe it or not, a beanbag is often a decent solution. A kitchen chair is usually not. Yes, if you have to set up in the dining room you have to deal with what you get. But if that’s your situation, please work to make the chair better for your back. Kitchen chairs and dining room chairs might be sturdy, but they’re not designed for you to sit in them for any period of time longer than a meal.

Remember, if you do it right, you’ll be writing for the rest of your life. Take care of your body like you take care of your mind.

Let There Be Light!

I cannot stress this enough. Turn on the lights. Please. You’re a human being, not a troll under a bridge, darkness is not your friend.

I’ve seen people working in darkness, with the only light coming from their computer. This is SOOOOOOOO bad for your eyes. Don’t do it. Whatever your environment, turn on the lights. If you have to, bring in a light from somewhere else and plug it in.

Don’t Snack ( At The Desk )

Sacreliege! Snacking while writing is how we know how far we’ve gotten. Half of a pound bag of M&Ms means we’re almost done with a chapter, right?

If you have snacks – or, God forbid, meals – at your writing desk, you’re blending two things. It’ll be very easy to get into the habit of eating ALL THE TIME while you’re writing. If you’re lucky, you’ll be writing a lot, which means you’ll be eating a lot. A LOT. Which means you’ll get fatty, fat fat. And at your age that’s not charming, it’s unhealthy.

I do snack. Probably too much. But I do it in front of the TV like regular folks. No food allowed in my office, only drinks. When I’m working it’s all business. Pleasure, like eating, is for other parts of the house.

Your goal as a writer is to get published. Probably. If you’re one of those people who writes solely for love of the craft, then more power to you. You’re a better man than I. Most of you want to see your name on the shelf in a bookstore, though.

It’s difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst. Your inclination is to try to write for the market, to try to guess what agents or publishers want to see and give them that.

Don’t do it.

Publishing Lead Time Is At Least A Year

It’s the Internet age, you say. Things move at the speed of cat memes. If the hot thing right now is sparkly vampires, then you’re going to write the best damn sparkly vampire story you can, so you can dip your ladle into the river of money that is publishing.

Despite what you may have heard, or thought, or felt in your bones, publishing is still a very plodding industry. From the moment a publisher accepts your manuscript, you have at least a year until publication. Sometimes two years. That sparkly vampire story on the shelves now? It got the green light twelve to twenty-four months ago.

What’s Hot Now Is Cold To Agents And Publishers

By the time you – a publishing outsider – notice a trend, that trend is already old and stale as far as the publishing insiders see it. They don’t want your sparkly vampire story, they’ve already seen thousands of them in the past two years. Your attempt, no matter how well-done, isn’t going to rise to their notice.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a chance your story will break through. Just like there’s a chance you’ll win the lottery if you buy a ticket twice a week. But you’re probably not that lucky.

Writing For The Market Is Cynical

I know. A cynical writer. What a concept…

But seriously, if you try to write for the market you’re not going to do your best work. If you’re passionate about your project that will show up in your finished product. If you have a story you absolutely need to get out of you and onto paper, your readers will be able to tell. Your work will reflect your sincerity.

If you’re not all that into sparkly vampires, and if you think deep down they’re stupid and wrong (I mean, what kind of vampire is sparkly in the sunlight?), your vampire story is going to be terrible. Not to say that sparkly vampire stories aren’t terrible from jump street, but yours will never rise above the level of background noise. You’ll be spending a lot of effort for what is almost guaranteed to be zero return.

Don’t Be One Of A Crowd

Writers who try to write for the market think they’re the only ones doing so. This is the curse of a solitary passion. You never have office buildings full of writers who talk about writing during lunch breaks. We almost all work alone, and we think the ideas we have are unique. Fresh. Never been done.

If you try to write for the market, you’re just one more hack trying to cash in on a trend. That’s not to say there aren’t very successful hacks cashing in every moment of every day. If you want to be one of them, step up your game. Get good at it. Lead the pack of hacks. Be the alpha hack.

If you want to do good work, if you want to have your contribution be worthy and noticed and appreciated, leave the market-chasing to the desperate writers. The ones who have no confidence in their ability to tell a story. The ones who need someone else to tell them what a good story is. There’s plenty of those writers out there. Don’t join them. Hoe your own row.

You’ll see this advice given to struggling writers: write what you know. Is this good advice, or just well-intentioned bad advice?

‘Write What You Know’ Is The Stupidest Advice Ever Given

I’m sure someday I’ll think of some advice that’s stupider, but ‘write what you know’ is at the top of the list for now. Writers use their imaginations to come up with worlds, characters, and situations that have never existed and likely can never exist. If someone nowadays stuck with writing what they know, then we’d only have stories about people living comfortable, boring, middle-class lives where their biggest problem is dogs barking at the UPS guy.

Did J.K. Rowling do an autobiography about her time at Hogwarts? Did Dan Brown mine his meeting notes about his time with the Knights Templar? Did C.S. Lewis refer to his AAA triptych about Naria? Absolutely not, these writers made that stuff up. They didn’t know anything about those places, events, or characters. They created everything.

Same thing with you and your writing. You don’t have to have been a philanderer to write about adultery. You don’t have to have robbed a bank to create a gripping tale about your character doing so. Your job as a writer is to put yourself and your characters in unique situations, and to bring your readers along with your. Write what you know is bogus.

‘Write What You Know’ Can Help Your Writing Immensely

Aw… crap. Here he goes again with saying the opposite of what he said before. Make up your mind, Jack…

I just said ‘writing what you know’ is bogus. So how can it help your writing in any way? You not going to write what you know, you’re going to relate what you’ve lived. The two things are very different. Bring your own experience to your writing. Once you do that, the truth can’t help but shine through.

Say you’ve been a waiter. But your story isn’t about a restaurant or about waiters, or about the felonious cook staff who are always stoned and stealing frozen steaks. How do you write what you know there?

Take a step back. Make your experience general. Abstract. Being a waiter is serving in a low-pay, menial job, where you are pretty close to the bottom rung on the social ladder. The only person lower in the restaurant pecking order is the dish dog. Maybe in your story your main character is struggling, trying to pull herself up by her own bootstraps only to discover she’s not wearing any shoes at all. You can make her experience real – even if she’s in a dystopian future hellscape – by tapping into your own experience as a tipped employee/wage slave/menial laborer.

‘Write What You Know’ might better be said as ‘write your own truth.’

Write Who You Know

Do you want to know a secret? Okay… but you have to promise to keep it to yourself.

The secret to ‘writing what you know’ is actually Writing Who You Know.

Who should you know best? Yourself. Now, while that might not be the case for every writer, you really should be familiar with your preferences, foibles, and flaws, especially if you’re not a child any more. You put yourself in your characters, and if you do it right, you make them very real with almost no effort.

But even if there’s a spark of yourself in every character, not all of them can be you. To make your characters unique – and to tell them apart from one another – you should base them on someone you know. When your characters look at the world through a lens that is not your own, then you can’t pretend to be writing what you know. You’re making stuff up again, as a writer should.

Let’s say you have a character who is an overbearing Olympic coach. A real prick, but a guy whose athletes win championships and medals. Who is that guy? You could take your example from any number of real coaches you’ve seen on the news or seen profiled on the Olympics. But wouldn’t it be better if that coach was modeled after your college art teacher, who was an annoying prick who always thought he was right about everything even though he was wrong most of the time? You don’t know an Olympic coach (probably), but you know that art teacher. And you hated him. Except maybe now you understand him a little better.