Characters are People Too

In chapter 5, Jewel Parker Rhodes tells writers we should love all of our characters and approach them as human beings. Sounds great! But what does it mean? Rhodes is talking about NOT creating one dimensional caricatures and stereotypes. And yes, stereotypes can be positive or negative. Characters, like people, are never one way all the time. A character that’s always good, always bad, always kind, always mean, always afraid, always brave, is not human.

Rhodes considers flat, one dimensional characters as dehumanized characters. No one should be dehumanized. Even the “villian” in your story needs to have history, desires, dreams, fears, and the potential for change. Rhodes advises, “You can’t always develop all characters equally, but you should try.”

Because Rhodes’s book talks candidly about race, she warns against portraying all characters “like” ourselves as positive, desirable, and good, and all characters “unlike” us as negative, undesirable, and bad.

To create characters with some humanity, Rhodes says:

“You have to spend enough time to know your character. You’ll need to draw upon your self, your memories, your observations. . . . Who intrigues you? . . . Whom do you feel passionate about? . . . Whom do you imagine? . . . Even a real person has thoughts and feeling which you must imagine.”

To help you see your character as a human and love them, Rhodes offers several exercises. Here’s one I find valuable:

Pretend you are the character, and write two pages of “I” statements, such as I want___. I need___. I fear___.

Using the personal I helps you really empathize with your characters.

For more insight and writing exercises, click the link to get your own copy of Free Within Ourselves.

Reading for Writers 101


It’s a new week! Our featured book is Free Within Ourselves by Jewell Parker Rhodes. In a book loaded with exercises to help young writers develop, Rhodes’s first exercise is READING! She says:

“Just as you can’t breathe without inhaling and exhaling, you can’t develop as a writer without being a devoted reader.”

But Rhodes doesn’t just tell us to read. She helps us think of ways to find time to read and gives us exercises to help us read thoughtfully as writers. Here are some suggestions I’ve pulled from chapter 2.

  • Strive for at least 3 books a month until you make reading a serious habit. Then you can up the number.
  • Read a great variety of books by authors of different nationalities, races, genders, historical periods, life styles, genres, etc.
  • Let reading substitute for other mundane tasks such as watching television, and take a book with you everywhere you go.
  • Write journal responses to the books you read.
  • Highlight, underline, and make notes about passages you find especially well-written.

I’ll let Rhodes explain in her own words how reading is so valuable in developing ourselves as writers:

“When you thoughtfully reread a book and contemplate why you think a passage,  a scene, or a sentence is well done, you are training yourself to read for technique–the ‘how’ of good writing .

With each element you highlight, ask: ‘What did the writer choose to do or not to do?”

Encouraging the habit of more thoughtful reading encourages the habit of more thoughtful and skilled writing!”

This explains my passion for launching this blog. While my posts are about books that explicitly teach craft, writers can learn technique from any book.

Till next time,


Doubt as Critical Thinking

It’s Friday! That brings us to the end of our week discussing Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Today we’re discussing doubt, not the movie, though that’s relevant too.

One question: If “the un-examined life is not worth living,” then how exactly do we examine our lives? Where do we begin?

As an educator, I’ve learned that critical thinking can be taught, guided, practiced, and sharpened. Rilke had his own input on this topic, which he refers to as doubt in his letters:

“And your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it…. don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when… it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the cleverest of all that are building your life.”

See? Even a French writer from the early 1900’s agrees that this critical thinking is a skill that can be developed.

This is important not just for our general lives, but for our writing lives. We have to practice critically examining what we read to know and understand our tastes and standards, “why something is ugly” or appealing. We have to constantly evaluate our writing and demand excellence, “demand proofs from it, test it… insist on arguments.”

I try to teach these self-examining skills to my writing students. Writers don’t always have professors around to mark up their papers, or a workshop to critique the writing. We have to learn how to evaluate our own work. Even when we do receive feedback, we are still the ultimate judge.

Consistently “doubting” our writing the way Rilke explains serves to build it up, make it stronger.

Sadness is a Transition Word


Many writers have dealt with sadness or depression. It is one of the most common ailments for anyone, even non-writers, and there are varying degrees and forms of it.

As common as it is, our culture frowns upon sadness. We get the slight impression that we are “bad” or “less than” or doing something “wrong” if we’re sad. But sadness may actually have a purpose. It may be of more value than we think.

In the eighth letter of Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke consoles Mr. Kappus, the young poet, who was apparently suffering from a type of depression. Rilke’s method of consolation is to suggest a different perspective on the state of sadness:

“Please consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of you being, undergone a change while you were sad?”

We’ve all heard the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” This includes our moments of sadness, but in our limited knowledge, we can’t always identify those reasons. In Rilke’s eloquent words:

“Where it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches. . .perhaps we would  endure our sadness with greater confidence than out joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us. . . .

Many signs indicate that the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens. . . .

Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?”

That last question reminds me of the self-numbing that so many of us use to escape from sadness and pain: alcohol, drugs, sex, food, buying. Not only do these futile tactics drive us into deeper trouble, the resistance to sadness and pain also prevents us from learning from it and becoming stronger as a result of it. So pain can be scary, but we must take courage! Here’s why:

“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened. . . if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen.”

But sadness is a transition word.

“We stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes.”

Sadness is not an end unto itself. Surely our beings are not created to dwell in depression. When we face pain courageously, we can move through it to the next phase of our spiritual evolution.

Rilke nears the end of his eighth letter with a hint about why our souls experience sadness:

“I see that it is now going on beyond the great to long for greater. For this reason it will not cease to be difficult, but for this reason too it will not cease to grow.”

P. S.

You do not have to deal with your sadness alone. If you find that you are unable to transition out of it on your own, please talk to someone about getting help. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the following numbers:

In the U.S. – Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the National Hopeline Network at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433). These toll-free crisis hotlines offer 24-hour suicide prevention and support. Your call is free and confidential.

Outside the U.S. – Visit Befrienders Worldwide to find a helpline in your country.