Celebrate *Discovering Characters*!

Celebrate with Writers Ink! Discovering Characters is 2.

One of the hardest things to do in writing is to create characters that readers  will care about, that will make them have to read on. ~ Noah Luke

Discovering Characters is like investigating a house we want to buy.

No, I’m serious. Characters have an exterior façade that we comment upon as we drive past. Through the windows we catch glimpses of interior lives.

Even in cookie-cutter boxy cliques, characters have individual characteristics, just as the suburbia ranch houses have their garden plantings and the urban row houses have their painted doorways. These small touches create individual homes in neighborhoods.

Some characters enjoy the bright city lights. Some are loners, nestled against a national forest.  Characters, houses—each have individual personalities. Some are blingie, with the latest décor while others enjoy the comfort of yoga pants and old sneakers.

As writers, we capture these individual characters and save them from the cookie-cutter boxy stereotypes. We delve into interior rooms for glimpses of formative baggage. Finding their backstory is a search through attics and cellars, storage closets and garages. Characters hide their pain and fears, painting them over and adding distracting artwork.

Our job as writers is to find every detail of our characters then use snippets so our readers will see our characters as they drive through our books. We hint at the foundations while opening doors to their plans and purposes.

Discovering Characters is designed to help writers find the exteriors and interiors, public and private. We’ll dig around the foundations and climb to the roof. We’ll explore the open rooms and the storage closets. We’ll peek into rooms inhabited by such characters as diverse as Elizabeth and Darcy, the Iron Man, Aragorn and Frodo, Travis McGee, Medea, Macbeth, and Nanny McPhee.

Five areas comprise this guidebook. Just as characters—and houses—are individual, this info is individual. You won’t need every bit. Dip in and out, skim around. When you reach locked rooms, come back and explore to discover the keys to your characters.

  1. Starting Points ~ offering templates and character interviews
  2. Classifications ~ common and uncommon ways of discovering characters
  3. Relationships ~ couples, teams, allies, enemies, mentors, etc.
  4. Special Touches ~ progressions, transgressions, and transitions for character arcs
  5. Significant Lists ~ archetypal characters and much more

Discovering Characters, with 44,000-plus words, is the second book in the Discovering set, part of the Think like a Pro Writer series for writers new to the game as well as those wanting to up their game.

Click this link to take advantage of special summer savings.

Writer M.A. Lee has been indie-publishing fiction and non-fiction since 2015. She has over 25 books published under her pseudonyms. Visit www.writersinkbooks.com to discover more information.

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Creating Emphasis

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by M.A. Lee of Writers Ink Books. Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Writers Ink is on a much-needed vacation. This blog post is the first and very rough draft on Emphasis, part of the Repetitions chapter in Discovering Sentence Craft. 

Poets will find Discovering Sentence Craft very helpful in improving their craft at the words and phrases and sentence levels. (The previous blog on the Three Unities is an example of the whole-concept craft.) Find DiscSentCraft here. 

Creating Emphasis ~ More than the Subject Position

Fun with words?

Yes, it’s possible. And practical. Especially practice-able when we want to create emphasis. (Yes, “practicable” is a word. It means “able to put into practice”, which is what we do in our writing with literary and rhetorical devices.)

Easiest is simple repetition.

“And the highwayman came riding–riding–riding / Up to the old inn-door.” (Noyes, “The Highwayman”)

Pick a key word, and it becomes the key element.

Be careful, though, for repetition becomes a key gimmick, as we know from reading “The Highwayman”: “A red-coat troop came marching—marching—marching”. From mid-point on, the repetition is too much.

Play with Incremental Repetition.

An increment is a small amount. Incremental Repetition is a small change at the next repeat of the word or phrase.

Again, from “The Highwayman”: “And they shot him down on the highway / Down like a dog on the highway.”

The slight change miraculously adds strength.

For a clever version of incremental repetition, check out Judy Collins’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, (We also covered Mitchell’s song on April 15. You can head back there to read our analysis.)

Grow for Emphasis.

Once we start considering how repetition increase emphasis, we encounter a clever Greek word auxesis, which means “growth” or “increase”, but is really a fancy way to say climactic ordering.

In Robinson Jeffers’ translation of Euripides’ Medea, our main character contemplates the murders of those who have wronged her: “Grind. Crush. Burn.” She, of course, chooses the last method, the one most painful and enduring. No quick deaths for Medea.

“Both Sides Now” uses auxesis to present ascending significance. The first stanzas discuss clouds (innocent, childlike naïveté), the next discuss love (the focus of our teens and twenties), and the last discuss life (maturity in considering our world).

We can take power away by descending in importance. Remember the lesson of the trolls? Removing power can be a useful technique. [The lesson of the trolls is also in DiscSentCraft, part of chapter on “Sequentials”.)

Work in Threes.

Once is not remarkable. Twice seems coincidence. Thrice is serendipity.

Look above at how many times threes are used. In “The Highwayman” who is “riding — riding — riding.” In Mitchell’s three stanzas and three life progressions. In Medea’s contemplation of three methods of death, each more torturous than the one before.

And watch for all the repetition by threes that are coming up as examples.

Set the Right Pace.

We can slow down the speed of our repetition and auxesis by adding conjunctions: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day” (Macbeth’s famous speech by Shakespeare). This is called a polysyndeton.

We speed up by removing conjunctions: “Out, out, brief candle” is the asyndeton from the same speech by Macbeth.

Front and Back.

Repetition can occur at the beginning of a series of sentences, which creates an anaphora:

From Winston Churchill’s June 1940 speech: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight … in the air, we shall defend our island … we shall fight on the beaches … we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Opposite to the anaphora is the epistrophe.

From Sam’l Beckett: “Where now? Who now? When now?” (The Unnamable)

From Shakespeare’s J.Caesar: “Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended.” (Brutus)

This example comes from Jeffers’ Medea: “They were full of cold pride, they ruled all this country–they are down in the ashes, crying like dogs, cowering in the ashes, in their own ashes.”

Keep a light touch.

Don’t overwork the repetition. With a light touch, its simple occurrence creates power on the page.

Use it to remind of elements of character. This is often called a character tag.

Use it to develop setting with a quick glance or a lingering view >> setting tag.

Crime scene images. Events in a mano-y-mano battle. Workings of a spell. Effects of a kiss.

Repetition creates emphasis.

Concept and Execution :: 3 Unities

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by emmiD of Writers Ink Books. Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Three Unities.




All writing can sprawl into unnecessary digressions.

The job of the writer, any writer, is to control the words flowing onto the page so that those unnecessary digressions are avoided.

For example, remember the Death of Agamemnon in Greek mythology? He sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the winds so that the Greek warriors could sail to Troy. On his return, his wife Clytemnestra killed him, in revenge for Iphigenia. The ancient law of lex talionis demanded vengeance. Therefore, their son Orestes had to avenge his father which meant he had to kill his mother. Twisted stuff, you know.

When relating the story of father killing daughter, wife killing husband in revenge, and son killing mother to restore a balance, any writer might be tempted to stray away from the central storyline. Aeschylus managed to stay focused for his trilogy The Oresteia, and he didn’t have the Three Unities to guide him.

I am tempted, just from that previous sentence, to comment 1] that The Oresteia wiped out every family relation or 2] that killing doesn’t restore balance to the scales of justice, even in Greek myth with its differences between revenge and justice and its taboo on kin-killing. See? It’s hard to let things go. Orestes had to argue with the Furies to get them to leave him alone for re-balancing the scales of justice. And Aeschylus took three dramas to tell that one story.

Action. Time. Place.

Aristotle laid down the law about the Three Unities. These three “laws” help structure any writer’s work.

To create the law of Three Unities, Aristotle looked at the most impressive dramas (tragedy and comedy) and classified the reasons for their success.

The story should focus on one action occurring over a tightly controlled time frame within a closely bounded place. For ancient dramas, this meant one conflict occurring during one day and situated in one place, such as the front steps to a palace.

The law of the Three Unities, however, is not limited to ancient Greek dramas.

Novelists are similar enough to dramatists that no persuasive evidence is necessary. Short stories maintain a tighter control on all three elements while novels might address one single conflict (with subplots) over several days yet still in a closely-bounded culture.

The James Bond sagas focus on one antagonist to be defeated with a close-monitored ticking clock within the culture of the British spy game.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring saga seems to sprawl all across Middle Earth [place] as the Fellowship gathers allies in order to defeat Sauron [action] before he becomes too powerful [time].

When poets work with the Three Unities, something unexpected and extraordinary occurs.

Frost and the Three Unities

Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific” presents Aristotle’s Three Unities. These present the concept that Frost wants to work with; placing them into the poem is his execution of that concept.

Action:  God considers re-making the world as he did with the Deluge.

Place: The great ocean crashes on to a shoreline saved only because it is “lucky in being backed by continent”.

Tme: “A night of dark intent / Was coming”, and it could be that the dark night might turn into an age of destruction.

Everything else is description.

Several of Frost’s poems use the Three Unities to control their meaning.

“Acquainted with the Night” and “Design” are examples of two sonnets also controlled by Action, Time, and Place.


Action: Solitary Walk. Place: Streets of a town. Time: Late loneliness, “neither wrong nor right”.


Action: A white spider catches a white moth, life and death entwined, the one feeding on the other. Place: a white heal-all flower (more irony). Time: the very moment when the spider snares its prey.

His narrative poem “Home Burial” reads like an ancient Greek drama. Husband and wife have lost their future together since the day she watched him bury their child in the family cemetery. He cannot express his emotions; she cannot control hers.

All action concerns the grieving wife’s decision to leave her husband. Frost captures the moments in time that lead up to the decision: what is she doing? What is he doing? What are they both thinking—and not saying? Place triggers the decision: the stair landing that gives a view of the cemetery where their child is buried. There she stands when the husband is out.

Frost’s found poem “Out, Out—” is a Greek tragedy of futility and unexpected disaster. Action: The son is cutting wood while the sister stands close by (Place). Since the boy does not keep close watch on what he is doing (classic hubris:  challenging Fate), the chainsaw leaps out to take his hand. His death at the end (Time) with the understated “little – less – nothing” has all the unexplainable mystery of Doom.

“My November Guest” approaches the Action as if it were a reported conversation between a man and his love:  “My Sorrow when she’s here with me, / Thinks these dark days of autumn rain / Are beautiful as days can be . . . She talks, and I am fain to list”. The Time is the unexpected beauty of November and the setting is the simple beauty of the desolated land:  “the bare, the withered trees” and “silver now with clinging mist”.

“Mending Wall” is another unexpected use of the three unities. Two neighbors are in unexpressed disagreement over the wall between their properties:  one is instinct, delighting in the fairy shifts to the rock wall, while the other is plodding logic that dislikes sudden changes. They meet on an appointed day and repair the wall.

Millay and the Three Unities

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Time Does Not Bring Relief” covers all Three Unities.

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

The first line begins with the conflict that she must resolve:  her love is gone, and she must go about forgetting him so she can move on.

Time ~ Her entire existence is taken up with remembering him and their love. Every day of her past year she has tried to forget him only to have her grief renewed:  the rainy season, last autumn, and winter have passed, yet her heartbreak remains acute.

Place ~ Typical romantic places have also served as reminders of him, therefore increasing her loss:  the oceanside, the mountains, country lanes. We can assume the city from the “weeping of the rain.”

Left unmentioned is Action. Since time and place have not eased her pain, the Bohemian Millay may move on to action to bring her relief.

A Petrarchan sonnet without the stiff formality of the 19th century and earlier, Millay presents her mastery of the sonnet by providing rhyme we barely notice. Only occasionally do we slow to read her meter-based lines, which lesser poets must twist to create.

Three coupled images tighten up her structure:  “I miss him / I want him” and “Last year’s leaves / Last year’s bitter loving” and “So with his memory / So remembering him”. The first two sets are coupled together; the last set are separated, just as the couple is broken apart.

Wrapping Up

Millay constructs her poetry more tightly than Frost does, but both are masters of the poetic line reading like conversation. With Aristotle’s Three Unities, we can grasp their methods of writing.

  • They begin with an idea and find a foundation to build on.
  • The foundation isn’t the sonnet; the foundation is the execution of concept, how the idea will develop.
  • The sonnet, then, becomes the poetic craft, fitting the ideas into a form for the reader.
  • The structure—the form that the lines take, that comes last.

The Three Unities can form the foundations for our ideas. In the hands of masters like Frost and Millay, the audience will not notice the framework that develops the poetic lines.

For novelists and dramatists, those Three Unities should also fade into unnoticed unless we stop to analyze.

As we go forward, we’ll look at the poetic craft, the way the words are put into poetic form. Structure.

Rhyme and rhythm help structure Pure Verse. Rhetorical devices from Classical Antiquity structure Free Verse. Where does Blank Verse fit into this structural decision-making by poets?

First, however, in September, we begin with those unexpected devices that poets use to structure their works.

Join us.

Poetry: Burning Candles

For poetry lovers, we have a series of blogs, Poetry Lessons, guest-hosted by emmiD of Writers Ink Books. Visit our page on every 5th  (5th, 15th, and 25th) to see which poem has inspired a lesson in thinking and writing.

Burning Candles

“First Fig”

The entire poem, from poemhunter

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig” is a rich gem. An unassuming jewel of four deceptively simple lines preceded by a clever title, the poem seems merely to celebrate the bravado and esprit of the bohemian lifestyle:  adventurous, blithe, and insouciant.

Closer examination reveals the poem is crafted with a diamond-cutter’s precision, sparkling with St. Vincent Millay’s talent.

Part of a collection entitled A Few Figs from Thistles and published in 1920, this poem heralded the Roaring Twenties. In many ways, “First Fig” pronounces the prophet’s message for the decade. In concept and execution, “First Fig” rewards deeper analysis with its treasured secrets.

At First Glance

A quick read finds a persona reveling in an unending carouse as the persona burns daylight and nightlife, as stated in line 1. This is the Roaring Twenties, and the persona is a roaring flame through her life.

St. Vincent Millay employs the “brief candle” allusion to Macbeth’s famous speech by Shakespeare (“Out, out, brief candle.”). She burns her metaphor even more quickly than Macbeth did.

Like Macbeth, she may even see the end coming. She remarks that her life “will not last the night”. Yet she does not care what her gossiping “foes” or her worried “friends” will say.

Why doesn’t she care? Her deeds provide “lovely light”. So, now we ask about her deeds? How do we find out?

Return to the first line. How can a candle burn at both ends? It has to be held horizontally and kept balanced to avoid burning the holder. If candle = life, then how does a life “burn” at both ends? It can only do so if the daytime hours are as fully utilized as the nighttime hours.

Like Emily Dickinson’s “labor and leisure, too,” (from “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, perhaps another poem St. Vincent Millay had in mind), we realize the persona is enjoying herself as equally as she is performing her laborious daytime duties.

A Closer Look

The structure reinforces the revelations of the extended metaphor. The clear rhyme of lines 1 & 3 (“ends” to “friends”) and 2 & 4 (“night” & “light”) clues the reader that more is going on than simple rhyming lines.

The rhythm is primarily iambic, which is a traditional meter providing no additional information. A stronger magnification than a simple metrical analysis is needed to comprehend this diamond-cut poem.

The syllabication per line is a clearly cut facet, in sequence 7, 6, 8, and 6. The persona clearly relishes her life which “burns at both ends”. It is perfect to her, and 7 is symbolic of perfection.

Virtually everyone knows the symbolic meaning of 7. Let’s go deeper.

The persona may not achieve what some would call a complete life (symbolized by the number of 10). Friends and foes caution that her life may be cut short, a possible interpretation for line 3 with its 8 syllables (not achieving 10). The persona does not care.

That eight-syllable third line also lets us know that St. Vincent Millay is very careful with her word choice. “Foes” could easily have been enemies; that’s 10 syllables. She wasn’t after 10 syllables, though. She wanted to play out the alliterative F, and the 8 fit with the rapidly burning candle.

Just as she relishes life’s adventures, so may she relish the adventures of the after-existence, the exploration of the greatest mystery that we face ~ thus, the two lines of six syllables, a number of doubled mystery. (I am “reading in” here, but it fits.)

Back to the Title

Since the metaphorical idea and the line structure mirror and reinforce each other, we need to chip away and polish off the title to achieve any deeper meaning.

The title of “First Fig” is an unusual choice. Why not “Burning Bright” or “Single Candle” or “Candlewick”?

Could Millay create a metaphorical allusion with the title just as she does with the candle? Could it be a Biblical allusion to the fig leaves sewn together by Adam and Eve when they first recognize the shame of their nakedness?

Is it an art allusion to the classic fig leaf used to cover a male statue’s genitals? Again, a cover for nakedness.

Is she picking off one leaf after another, revealing a shame others want her to feel but she has no trouble baring to the world?

That fits—but it doesn’t. St. Vincent Millay says “first fig”, not “first fig leaf”.

A fig is a seed-filled fruit. Its sweetness is an acquired taste. And the tiny little seeds are potential that bring growth.

This also fits her poem:  The sweet-tasting events of her life, daytime and nighttime, are seeding her writing. Those sweetly savored events create potential, birthed through each poem in the collection.

Remember the title? “A Few Figs from Thistles.” This little gem of a poem is just the first in the collection.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

The poem is also a self-referent allusion. Millay’s bohemian lifestyle is an acquired taste, delectable only to her. Thistles are beautiful purple flowers on ugly, spiky stalks. This fig, this “First Fig” taken from a thistle, may prick and seem ugly to others. However, it provides the sustenance she desires (even as other people may not approve of the sustenance she takes).

Mark of Excellence

The burning candle is the obvious metaphor that dominates the first reading. It begins pointing to Millay’s theme. Yet to reach Millay’s overall meaning, we need a harmonious blending of all three elements—metaphor, structure, and title.

This harmonious blending of metaphor, structure, and title is the mark of an excellent poet. To create this blending in four short lines reveal Millay’s touch of inspired genius.

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods inspired poets. That was the only answer for poetic lines, living as if they had the breath of gods in them.

Celebratory of a life that others condemn, Millay’s “First Fig” speaks to the sparkling independence that each individual seeks to craft from life.

Like a rough diamond or the spiky thorns of a thistle, our existence must be polished or pruned of thorns. We must peel away the layers of others’ expectations to reach the glittery heart or sweet fruit of what we desire.

To reach our desires, we may have to burn our candles at both ends, passionately pursuing our labor and our leisure, no matter what our foes and friends advise.

Coming Up

Millay used rhyme and meter as well as extended metaphor to control the structure and meaning of her poem.

On the 25th, we look at another device that poets can use to control structure and meaning. We’re doing Robert Frost and St. Vincent Millay (again). Join us.

Copyright: The law of copyright states that a work is copyrighted for the life of the writer plus 70 years. Millay died in 1950. It’s now 2020, 70 years later. Her work is entering the public domain. On the 25th, when we analyze Frost, we will have to link to his poems rather than reproduce them here. Frost died in 1963; his works won’t be in public domain until 2033. Know your copyright laws.



Alliteration from a Master

Defend the Best in order to Live the Best

Wilfred Owens is British.

What? I thought we were looking at poems by Americans for Americans.

Well, no. Any writer who celebrates freedom and living freely would be appropriate for these July blogs on occasional poetry.

Besides, I used Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (the first poem for the July 5 blog) as one of the first examples of sacrifices reminding us to live our lives, not just drive.

The Wilfred Owens poem selected for this July 25 blog reminds us of the best of life and living that life.

Owens died in 1918, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.

His poetry reflects his years in the war: his rage at the senseless cruelty and devastation of war alongside his compassion for his comrades trapped in the mucky trenches and on the bloody battlefields. Three of his best of these are “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, and “Strange Meeting.”

Yet he’s more than just a war poet. Other poems revel in nature and life and love.

This poem, a practice in alliteration and  consonance, takes as its title “From My Diary, July 1914”.

Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.
Wakening with wonder in the Pyrenees.
Cheerily chirping in the early day.
Singing of summer, scything through the hay.
Shaking the heavy dews from bloom and frond.
Bursting the surface of the ebony pond.
Of swimmers carving the sparkling cold.
Gleaming with wetness to the morning gold.
A mead
Bordered about with warbling waterbrooks.
A maid
Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of looks.
The heat
Throbbing between the upland and the peak.
Her heart
Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek.
Of floating flames across the mountain brow.
Of stillness; and a sighing of the bough.
Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers;
Expanding with the starr-d nocturnal flowers.


July closes our three-month focus on Occasional Poems—Mother’s and Father’s Days, Memorial and Flag Day, and these three July blogs on what we should remember as we celebrate our independence in the mid-summer.

I’m preaching, aren’t I? Sorry. Not.

Should you have a question about copyright, please refer to the July 5 blog.

On August 5 we have the promised Rock Allegory, “Hotel California.” While you’re checking that song out, try a bit of Carmina Burana as well.

Occasional Poetry: Speech as Poem

Abraham Lincoln

Sacrifices are Necessary to Retain Freedom for All

Lincoln. Our 16th President. Writer of the Emancipation Proclamation. Assassinated before the bleeding sides resolved the War of Brother against Brother.

And a poet working in the form of speeches.

The Gettysburg Address is his best work. Here it is, taken out of its prose form and constructed as if Walt Whitman had stuck out a finger and shifted the line lengths. Continue reading “Occasional Poetry: Speech as Poem”