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I’ve struggled over the years with taking notes on my various writing classes. No one tells you how other than generally pointing in the direction of what we did in school. But note-taking has also taken off, partially because of Zettelkasten. One person wrote about it as if all you needed to do was assemble lots of notes and the articles would write themselves.

I think a lot of people misunderstand what good notes are.

They aren’t about simply collecting information and then magic happens. If you are having trouble coming up with ideas, a junk drawer of random information ain’t going to help.

They are about deliberately choosing what you want to save and writing it out yourself (not copying it with Evernote).  It’s possible the less you save, the better your notes might be because now you’ve gotten to the important stuff.

I found a tool called TheBrain and have been enjoying playing with it for my notes. It’s a mind-mapping tool (and does have a free option, though it’s not obvious). I started going through my various writing classes and blog posts, originally done in Evernote and later in Obsidian. It surprised me how many notes I took and how much didn’t make the cut when I started choosing more deliberately.

These are the ones I pulled on characterization and characters.

Make your characters complex, not your plot.

This comes from Kevin Eikenberry and was mind-blowing for me. Plot is easy to describe step-by-step, so the books I read in the 80s focus on this, not on characterization. This resulted in me adding more and more plot on a project that ran too short in an attempt to shore it up. Suddenly I could keep the events relatively simple and focus on something more fun!

Plot doesn’t hold readers in a book. It’s character.

This is from Dean Wesley Smith. It piggybacks off what Kevin Eikenberry says. Many writers ask questions like “Are you plot-focused or character-focused?” or “Do you start with plot or characters?” Since plot consists of the events in a story (definitions, people, please!) in the story, you can’t have plot unless you have characters first. If you just throw a bunch of mannequin characters in with a series of action scenes, readers will go “Meh.” Hollywood’s already done this enough!

“The best characters live on the page because the author thinks of them as people. If you think of their ‘arc,’ you’re thinking of them as words on the page.”

This quote is from Kristine Kathryn Rusch on character arcs. Whenever writers on message boards asked “What’s your character arc?” it mystified me. They started talking about defining how the character changed. And I kept thinking that doing that felt wrong, kind of mechanical. The character arc thinking comes out of MFAs and came in with those books in the 1980s.  If you read Dwight V. Swain’s Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, he doesn’t talk about arcs. Mr. Swain is one of the original sources. Jack Bickham built off him, Deborah Chester off Bickham, and Jim Butcher off Deborah Chester.

Character worksheets don’t create characterization

I’m pretty sure this was in a comment on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In college, I ran across my first character worksheet in a textbook. I remember looking through it, puzzled, trying to understand how identifying a character’s favorite color or—yikes!—their flaw developed the character.  It was like all those books in the 1980s advocating outlining—except you were outlining a character. And again, very mechanical.  Then again, characterization is very hard to do, especially with the way books today are teaching outlining. Description is a key foundation for characterization and needs to be done using the character’s viewpoint. Instead, it’s often done in exercises independently of the character, and then writers are told to do description in “drips and drabs” because it’s boring. Well, yeah, if you don’t use the character’s viewpoint to describe, it would be boring.

All of these are simple sentences, and yet very complex thinking on a topic that’s often dumbed down.

Any burning writing topics you want me to dig out some of these on? Let me know.