Writers Dreaming

Hu Jundi

Hu Jundi







This is the writer’s journey, the deeper we dig into our characters, the more we are able to unmask monsters of our own. 

Rock Me

A cardboard cradle inhabits my character’s dream.

Cardboard rockers, cardboard corners fitted by torn slots.

A cradle that’s dwelt in its dream house for years,

rockers stilled on bare hardwood, gathering dust. Staled

by air it reeks like only old cardboard can, a scritch-scratch-scritch

from inside as if tiny claws or limbs scrabble to climb out.

A top has been fitted loosely on the cardboard cradle,

and the whole thing might be cleverly, or crudely made

to keep that crawling thing in or allow its escape.

Who knows? We’re always left to ponder,

paused in the trap of our nightly hallucinations,

questions such as these.

Not the best poetry, but dreams are useful things for writers. You might have noticed this is my character’s dream. And I’m using it to uncover something about her.

We’ve all heard the stories, inspiration for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web came to E. B. White through his dreams. A gift that has also come to singers, scientists and artists of all kinds. But this exercise is a bit different, this is about deepening your characters by letting them dream.

A friend of mine who studies Jungian psychology tells me the best way to understand a dream is to ask yourself what each element represents of you. In other words, you are not just the dreamer, but the cradle, the bed, the walls, the floor, and yes, the creepy creature trying to get out. What about your character? What does she dream? What images belong to her at night? How do they manifest and illuminate her deepest fears and desires? If each element represents her, what does this dream say about her?

Like the poem suggests, our dreams are nightly hallucinations, necessary to our psyche’s balance during the day. Which means your character’s dreams are full of telling details. Especially when her dreams turn, as ours do, from pleasure to torture, and express daytime tension and conflict as nightmares.

A word about disturbing dreams. My dream expert says that when you’re being chased in a dream, or otherwise overwhelmed by some dream villain, Jungian theory holds you should stop running, turn and confront the monster. This is how we discover what’s behind the monster curtain, because standing up to it reveals it for what it really is. And when it’s revealed, it loses power.

How like the hero’s journey this is. When your character uses her new tools to return to the fray, suck it up and confront the villain, she’s really confronting her own deepest fears. In other words, the real monster is not the physical thing, the villain, but the fear in the hero that she must overcome to face the villain. And how a character grapples with this fear throughout the story creates her emotional arc. You can use your character’s dreams to help you uncover and strengthen this arc.

I like doing this in free form poetry, present tense, but to relax your critical mind you might also try writing or drawing a character’s dream with your non-dominate hand.

Your character’s dreams may not always show up in your final manuscript, but they can help your character show up. A casual observer might not see it, but for me, the dream analysis below revealed what I’d been missing about my character’s inability to connect with others, that she’s a foster child.

Digging Down the Dream

If I am the cradle I have held up as such

through years of dust and disinterest.

If I am the room I have good, solid floors,

but my walls are plain and stark.

If I am the bed I feel empty and bare,

barely slept in. If I am the dreamer

I am puzzled and wry, lucidly dreaming

myself. If I am the creature

inside the cradle I am trapped

of my own accord.

                                        –zu vincent



Let’s Get Physical

Maybe it’s my stage of life, or maybe it’s working in middle schools, or maybe it’s a matter of diversity, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but I’ve been thinking about bodies. (However, this particular post will stay G-rated, family friendly.)

pirate-7In my writing I’ve never been interested in descriptions of my characters’ physical being. For me what matters, and what I am most interested in, is their inner workings of emotions and thoughts. The outside shell simply is a vessel to hold the stuff that matters. And yet, that outer shell is what others react to. It’s our most reliable way read someone else’s emotions. Sometimes we get those reading wrong, but other times it’s a fairly accurate assessment.

We often make assumptions based on those physical forms – which is where things can get slippery. That’s where a lot of messages get mixed or misinterpreted.

pirate-6But we also make choices as to how we project our inner selves. Clothes, accessories, hair styles, all work together to create a visual signpost and introduction. Sometimes we have more control over these external clues than others. We can’t change our gender or race or body type, and sometimes we have to wear something we’d rather avoid (why hello, hospital gowns and fast-food uniforms!) – but other times we choose what people see first. (And yet… who is that masked man – or is it a woman? Superhero or bandit?)

The physical world of your character can tap into the physical experience of your reader. This is why sensory details add richness to our writing. Consider your character’s physical body and explore ways to make it more personal. Change is one way to explore and examine physicality.

  • Give your character a physical injury – temporary or permanent.
  • Have his/her weight change dramatically.
  • Put her/him in different kinds of weather.
  • Force him/her to wear something uncomfortable.

The physical body and circumstance can be a way to start a story, too. Get your own body involved and create an image to represent a character. One rough and simple physical brainstorming exercise utilizes doodling or sketching. Start with a simple circle – the head as a vessel to hold all the inner workings, then accessorize. Here I’ve gone with two basic articles – an eye patch, which conjures the idea of a pirate, and a crown, which usually means royalty – and then mixed them a bit.









If you create your own physical images and cues of the external world – you might be surprised where your mind takes you. I think some of the most satisfying stories are the ones that start with the expected, then change it up! Surprise and curiosity goes a long way in engaging a reader. This can create more poignancy, humor, or intensity.

Let’s get physical!

~Sarah Tomp

No wimps! A Checklist for Writing Active Characters

lounging women
At one point or another, most of us writers will be told that our character feels passive in a certain scene, and this can happen even in an action adventure story where our character is being chased or shot at.

So what exactly does it mean when our character appears “passive,” and how do we remedy that? Here’s a checklist that can help you identify problem spots in your story and how to fix them.

  1. Is your character silent during an argument or throwing back retorts in their head? An active character will voice their opinions, concerns and desires rather than glare silently, roll their eyes or mutter “whatever.” And the scene will be more interesting if the person they’re arguing with hears what the main character thinks.
  2. Does your character walk away when he or she is embarrassed, angry, or confused? Weak characters leave instead of engaging in an attempt to resolve or clarify a situation, while active characters dare to engage.
  3. Is your character letting someone else make decisions for them? An active character is in charge of decisions that affect them, or at least involved in the discussion of which direction to choose. This doesn’t mean that your character must dominate every decision in a story, but to be active, they must have a voice.
  4. Is your character letting things happen to them? When your character is active, things happen because of your character. Their choices and actions propel the story action forward.
  5. Is your character gazing at the ocean, binge watching television, or waiting for something to happen? Scenes in which a character is physically inactive can make the character feel passive, but no amount of physical activity can fix a character who always does what others think he or she should do.
  6. Does your character act to satisfy their wants and needs? Active characters are driven to get what they need. They will create a plan, try and fail, often more than once, on their journey.
  7. Does a teacher or ally appear and insist on teaching your character the skills they need to overcome the antagonist? Active characters search out people to give them the knowledge they need to prevail. They work hard to acquire new skills, and even fight for the right to obtain the knowledge they desperately need.
  8. Does your character allow another person to save them? Active characters are in the fight and their actions contribute to the successful downfall of the antagonist. Think of the latest generation of Disney heroines who aren’t waiting around for a prince to slay a dragon or release them from a spell. These girls make their own happy endings.

Good luck and happy writing!

Catherine Linka is the author of A Girl Called Fearless. The sequel and conclusion, A Girl Undone will be released by St. Martin’s Press on June 23, 2015. 

Friends, Enemies, and Family—Crafting Relationships to strengthen character and intensify plot

Relationships are KEY to a story: The way a relationship evolves and changes is often much of what IS the story and plot.

A character learns and grows and struggles because of interacting with other characters.

Also, interactions between characters are often at the intersection of action and emotions, and these relationships convince the reader to care about what happens to the characters.


I love relationship arcs.

As part of my revision process I analyze my manuscript’s relationship arcs. This arc is the up and down between two characters. In the same way that a character has a character arc and a book has a plot arc, relationships also have an arc. I visualize them as the typical plot diagram–with ups and downs and usually a climax.

Similar to a plot arc, a relationship arc will have turning points, reversals, and sometimes a climax. Sometimes the relationship arc is, at the core, also a subplot. (I could also argue that most subplots would be a relationship arc.)

[For more info about plot arcs visit Ingred Sundberg’s Story Structure Diagrams.]

I have found that considering relationship arcs helps me catch all sorts of both plot and character details that need tweaking or sometimes more intensive revision. It also makes me more aware of the relationships between characters.

As I look at relationship arcs, I focus separately on each important and significant relationship in the story. In most cases the relationships I examine are the relationship between the main character and a secondary character.

How do I usually approach each relationship arc?

(Keeping track of the relationship between characters will depend on the writer and the relationship being examined. One can do it as a chart or graph, written out by scene, or in one’s head, or with sticky notes or note cards . . . . . whatever works.)

1. I find every scene where the two characters appear and consider the following questions.

  • Where and how do things change between the characters?
  • What are their actions and emotions?
  • What are the ups? The downs?
  • Is there a climax?
  • Does the other character disappear for a long period of time? (It is fine to have a character not in a series of scenes–but this means the author needs to not forget that relationships develop off-stage.)
  • What is the purpose of this relationship? Is this relationship critical for the story, or is there no change between the characters, or is a character a flat stand-in-character who does not pull his weight?
  • How does the relationship change throughout the story?
  • If this relationship is a subplot I ask myself if there is some sort of interaction that can be layered on top of the main plot line in any scene.

I also consider if these scenes are in their proper places, in the proper order, and that the “right” amount of space exists between the scenes for this relationship.

2. After I have considered all the above questions, I use plot theory and character theory and apply that to the specific relationship I’m looking at.

  • Where is the beginning, the turning points, reversals, climax, change and growth, conflict, and complications of the relationship?
  • If these items don’t exist–is that relationship needed? Or does the missing element need to be added?

3. Emotional points. In addition to the physical plot of the relationship, there will also be an emotional layer. If there isn’t an emotional aspect to every relationship, I question if it belongs.

4. We can also consider the thematic considerations and if possible, make the relationship a mirror or repetition or variation of the physical or emotional plots of the book.

Basically, the Relationship Arc will have turning points like a plot arc and have emotional change like a character arc.

I repeat the above steps with each significant relationship. Don’t worry–in many cases, it can be a fairly quick process. A writer does not need to analyze every relationship. Even laying out the most important 2 to 4 relationships which the main character has can be super helpful.


After looking at major relationships, I look at how and where the relationships layer. By having turning points of different relationships coming frequently, the tension on the page will make the story more intense.

I find that by separating out and looking at major relationship arcs, I insure that each character is needed, gain another perspective on characterization, can fine-tune my plot and keep the tension nice, and well, fix all sorts of problems that arise in drafts.

Relationships and the interactions between characters are often the engine that move the story forward, creating plot, while showing who that character is.

Sarah Blake Johnson