We first welcomed author, editor, writing coach, and consultant Alida Winternheimer to the show over two years ago in Episode #58. This week she’s back to give us an update on her career and talk about the most important element of a great story: the characters.
When Alida first appeared on RSP #58, our audience received a fantastic primer on editors, editing services, and how to find a good editor. At the time, Alida had one novel published, A Stone’s Throw, and was busy with her editing company Word Essential.
Since then, she’s published two more novels in her new murder mystery series, The Murder in Skoghall and Dark Corners in Skoghall.
Alida’s also spent the last two years growing her editing company Word Essential by evolving her website into a great resource for authors, appearing on various podcasts, conducting live workshops, offering 60-second writing tips on her YouTube channel, and, of course, lots and lots of editing.
Although Alida’s been branching out more into content marketing, she says her focus isn’t so much on driving traffic as it is connecting with her tribe and building a community. Traffic is great, but she’s a teacher at heart.
“I really consider myself a teacher, so…as a developmental editor, my focus is on helping people become better writers through working on this one specific project and their personal goals.”
Story Works Guide to Writing Fiction series
To further her focus on helping writers, Alida is also in the process of creating a fiction writing series that covers the most important elements of creating great fiction: Characters, Point of View, Revision, Setting, and Plot. Her first book in the series is The Story Works Guide to Writing Characters and will be released in October 2016.
Alida plans to release subsequent titles in three-month intervals, then eventually bundling the whole series into a boxed set.
Although things like plot, point of view, and setting are all crucial parts of writing a great story, the most important element is the characters. As Alida puts it, “The character is the reader’s vehicle through the plot.”
Although you can start off a story with setting, authors should be connecting the reader to the character right away. You can have an intriguing plot line or setting, but what really hooks a reader into a story is a character who is both relatable and fascinating (along with the promise of trouble or change). Relatability elicits empathy and/or sympathy in readers. It’s a means to connect, a way of demonstrating that a character is a real person too. Making a character fascinating catches the reader’s curiosity and keeps them reading.
Alida stresses that writers need to develop their characters no matter their role in the story, not just the protagonist, in order to make their actions believable to their readers. She points out, “You don’t want to be defined by your day job. Your main character doesn’t want to be defined by her plot. So give her friends, and lovers, and a job, and give her things to care about and things that complicate her involvement with the plot and make her a real person with relatable problems.”
It’s also crucial that writers make certain that their characters are actively participating in the story and not just sitting back and watching what will happen.
To that end, Alida has developed a method called the Active Protagonist Agency Tree for writers to make sure that their characters stay in the game and make the best choices. The goal is always fry pan to the fire, raising the stakes and increasing tension. (Listeners can receive a free PDF explaining the Agency Tree, along with a free worksheet, by visiting Alida’s link here.)
In a nutshell, the point of the Agency Tree is to ensure that your character is actively participating in the story in an interesting fashion. Each time a character is faced with a decision, the author needs to ask themselves what are the character’s options at this point, and what decision can the character make that both puts her in charge of her journey and is the most interesting.
Alida offers a fantastic example to illustrate this:
Say a female protagonist discovers that her husband has secretly taken out a life insurance policy on her, forging her signature to obtain it. The protagonist is faced with three possible choices: call her sister for advice regarding this concerning discovery, put the papers back and pretend nothing’s wrong because she wants to trust her husband, or she can take out a matching life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge.
While the first choice seems like a reasonable action, the second one is the character just waiting for something to happen.
The third choice is way more interesting to readers, and it puts the character in the thick of the story. Now the reader is looking forward to what she’s going to do next…especially when the protagonist’s husband announces he’s booked a surprise trip for just the two of them on a boat!
By this protagonist choosing a very proactive approach, she’s claiming her agency. She’s making choices, taking charge, and directing her fate.
It’s important for characters to have agency. The trifecta for writing active characters is having the characters making interesting, active choices; taking action on those choices; and then suffering the consequences of those choices. The more skin in the game your protagonist has, the more riveting your story will be.
According to Chris Fox, Alida’s “the nicest mean person out there.”
Alida admits that when she puts her editor goggles on, she’s just focused on analyzing the manuscript in front of her and figuring out how to make it the best it can be. But her favorite part of her job is Skyping with her clients after she’s given them their edits and interacting with them face to face. It helps to balance out the criticism she offers and allows her to connect better with her writers.
To further develop that connection between her and her tribe, Alida has also created a YouTube channel. She has loads of great blog posts on writing craft and tips on her webiste; however, by offering her experience in an entertaining way via video, she says, “I’m sharing this layer of myself with my audience that people don’t get in text, and I think that’s the human connection that’s missing from a strictly written piece.”
Next Big Thing
Alida’s first book in her writing craft series, Story Works Guide to Writing Characters, is due out at the beginning of October 2016.
She’s also recently started the video series, “Story Works Roundtable: Conversations about Stories and the Craft of Writing,” with her two co-hosts Kathryn Arnold and M.G. Herron. You can watch the videos either on Alida’s YouTube channel or directly at the website.
- Give Alida’s Active Protagonist Agency Tree a try either for writing new characters or analyzing established characters. You can do this on paper and follow up the branches of each of your character’s decisions, or you can download Alida’s free PDF on giving your characters agency, which includes a sample and blank worksheet of the Agency Tree.
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