A Character’s Voice

    Agents agree: the single most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice. Voice is what defines both your story and your narrating character. Think of voice as kind of like your story’s unique fingerprint. If your book were a band, this would be the sound that makes it recognizable.
    —K.M. Weiland “How to Find Your Character’s Voice”

mouth-837375-mOver and over I’ve read or heard straight from writing professionals’ mouths that voice is one of the elements that sells a book to agents and editors. But what is “voice” when you’re reading words on a page?

The briefest explanation is, voice is personality. In fiction, of course, there are two personalities front and center–the author’s and the point-of-view character’s. In this post, I’m interested in the latter though the two overlap.

First, why is a character’s voice, a character’s personality, so important? Because readers care about characters. They don’t want to read about stock, two-dimensional, plastic people who all act and sound the same. Rather, a character who engages readers comes across as one of a kind, not a boilerplate copy.

Writers, therefore, need to look for ways to bring their character’s personality forward. But how to do that?

The most obvious way is by what the character says. In dialogue each character, not just the point of view character, needs to sound like himself. His personality needs to come out in what he says but also in how he says it.

Voice in dialogue, then, is the fusion of content with delivery.

Content has to do with what the character says–does he swear, apologize profusely, speak in analogies, brag, comment on every particular, ask lots of questions, take conversations on tangents, and so on.

Delivery has to do with her word choice, sentence structure, tone, and manner. Does she bark out orders, clip her words, speak in fragments, drawl, elaborate her answers, speak with urgency, use humor, use down-home sayings, spout job-related jargon, and more.

In other words, each character should sound like an individual with his own way of speaking.

Recently on a website allowing writers to critique various aspects of each other’s work, there was a session for dialogue. Here are a few lines from one entry which illustrate how content and delivery can create a strong, engaging voice:

“I thought you said you had a dog,” he says, dubiously eying the door.

“I do. I also said she was small.”

“That doesn’t sound like a dog. It sounds like a chipmunk on crack.”

I can’t really argue. She does. The door is barely open before she bursts outside, looping around my ankles and barking at Will, hopping on all fours with every outburst.

“That’s a dog?”

“So I’m told.”

“That is not a dog,” he tells me. “It’s a wind-up toy.” He looks into the apartment’s depths, then back down at the frantic pup. “Where’s the rest of it?” (“Talking Heads #13,” from Miss Snark’s First Victim)

small-dog-745346-mIn just these short lines, a picture of the character Will forms. He’s got strong opinions and expectations laced with humor. But the first person character also shows a bit of her personality, not as much by what she says but by what she’s chosen. After all, this little barking menace is the dog she picked for a pet.

Character decisions, then, are a key component for creating a strong voice. Does she choose to hold her tongue instead of confronting the worker who regularly clocks out early? Or does she go straight to the boss? Does he drive the speed limit when his wife is in the car, then let it all out when he’s alone? Does he promise to be home at six for dinner and arrive a half hour early or does call to say he has a business dinner he can’t miss so won’t be home until late?

Each decision a character makes contributes to his voice. But to create a unique voice for her characters, an author must stretch her thinking so that she doesn’t rely on the done and done again—the cranky school teacher, the stuffy judge, the dumb-blond cheerleader, the inattentive babysitter. To develop a character with a captivating voice, an author needs to think beyond the norm.

At the same time, characters need parameters. School teachers do have certain commonalities. Having a teacher decide to come to school in shorts instead of the usual staff dress code is not a way to show his strong voice. It’s the way to have your character get fired. A writer may wish to show that the teacher is caring instead of cranky, but she can’t decide to leave her class unattended so she can counsel a troubled teen. In other ways, teachers must behave like teachers, to a point, and lawyers must behave like lawyers, firemen like firemen and so on.

There’s a balancing act, then, between creating a character who acts in a recognizable way for his position and who acts in a unique way consistent with his personality.

A third tool writers have at their disposal is internal discourse or monologue, used primarily with a point of view character. A character’s thoughts should reveal his attitudes about society, his friends, God, himself, authority, business, money, recreation—really, all of life.

Is she an optimist or a pessimist? Is she hopeful about the future or is she cynical? Does she love her family or is she trying to find one who will adopt her? Does she care about human trafficking or is she thinking about looking for work in the sex industry?

Who the character is, what he’s struggling with comes out in his “private” thoughts. An author should capitalize on the opportunity to bring the life of the character into these thoughts. They should not be generic, ones that any other twenty-five-year-old police rookie would have or ones that any other pioneer woman heading out West in the 1850s would have.

In conclusion a strong character voice depends upon the author knowing the character’s personality, developing it uniquely, and showing it through dialogue, decisions, and internal discourse.

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Flawed Characters Can Be Too Flawed

Frankenstein_monsterI wanted to chuck the book, but it belonged to my friend. I wanted to quit reading, at least, but he promised me the story would get better. And he was right. Had he not convinced me, I would have missed out on one of my favorite series, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, because the main character acted heinously.

First, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, was a sick, sad man. He had leprosy, a disease that few understood and fewer tolerated. He was isolated from society, and to a degree, isolated from himself because his illness destroyed his nerve endings, robbing him of the ability to feel. But one day, he fell into a parallel world where he was no longer sick. Believing that what he was experiencing was not real, he did a horrible thing. He raped a girl who had befriended him.

See why I wanted to chuck the book? Thomas Covenant was not someone I liked, and I really didn’t want to keep reading about him. I know of people who, in fact, did stop reading and never picked the book up again.

The point is simple. To be believable, characters need flaws, but if their flaws overshadow their higher nature, readers may not care enough to continue on the reading journey with them.

As Angela Ackerman put it in her February 2014 Writer’s Digest guest article, “When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikeable Characters”

There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range.

I’ve had occasion more than once to read a novel written in first person–which is fine, except I didn’t care for the protagonist. The character was either too whiny or too morose or complained too much or thought ill of his colleagues all the time or was focused on her own cares to a point of distraction. Especially in a novel in which the reader must live in the character’s head for upwards of three hundred pages, an unlikeable protagonist is a problem.

But a story is about character development–how a person changes. Does the young boy learn responsibility, does the woman allow herself to love again, will the hero find the strength within to over come? These are storylines which demand a character grows or admits failure.

The point is, the story begins with a young boy who is irresponsible, a woman who is cold and stand-offish, a weak person thrust into a situation requiring strength. In short, the story starts with a character in need because of his flaw.

How, then, is a writer to portray this flaw without making it fatal for the book? How can a broken, warped, imperfect character still be someone who engages readers?

First, the character’s flaw must have an understandable reason for existence. Who hurt the character or failed him or bullied him? Who used her or betrayed her or demanded more than she could handle? If readers understand why a character acts badly, often they will be inclined to tolerate more.

Furthermore, if the character’s flaw is a result of his own suffering, readers may be willing to forgive him and hope for change.

Showing the character’s backstory provides his motive, including for his flawed actions or angsty attitudes. The key to using what happened in the past in this way is to treat it like any other bit of backstory. It must not be delivered up front or in lengthy paragraphs or presented in a speech. It must serve the plot. It must only be delivered when readers are ready and want to know what happened before. (See previous posts on Backstory).

Besides giving reasons for a character’s flaws, another way an author can keep those from overshadowing a character is by counterbalancing them with winsome traits.

Ackerman explains:

no matter how impatient, uptight, angsty or spoiled your character is, hint to the reader that there’s more beneath the surface. A small action or internal observation can show the character in a positive light and should happen in the first scene (frequently referred to as a Save The Cat moment.) It can be a positive quality, like a great sense of humor, or a simple act that shows something redeeming about the character.

A-Cast-of-StonesRecently I read The Staff & The Sword fantasy trilogy by Patrick Carr. The story opens in book one, A Cast of Stones, with a character, Errol Stone, who is drunk. He, in fact, is the main character, and he isn’t just drunk on that one day. He happens to be the town drunk. How is a character with such an obvious and dominating flaw to be someone readers care about?

First Carr showed other characters–ones who were in respected positions in the story–who sympathized with Errol Stone. They even did all they could to help him. Some provided him with work, some allowed him a place to sleep off his drunk.

They also acknowledged his value and identified an area in which he excelled beyond anyone else in the village. In other words, readers see through their eyes that Errol has value.

Further, Errol Stone suffers beatings at the hand of the local pater, ostensibly to cure him of his public drunkenness. Very soon it’s clear that Errol is suffering unfair ill treatment.

Fourth, Errol faces a life-and-death surprise attack and shows by his wit and agility that he has skills a reader can admire. The reader learns there’s more to him than his addiction.

This latter hints at one of the points Ackerman mentions: if a character faces hardship, readers are more willing to be patient with his bad behavior. However, his reaction to hardship must give some reason to believe he can conquer what he’s up against.

If the hero has a rough road ahead, the reader makes allowances for his behavior, as long as he doesn’t wallow in gloom and doom. It isn’t hardship that creates empathy, it’s how a character behaves despite that hardship, giving us a window into who he really is.

Errol Stone not only survived an attack, but the next day his quick thinking and decisive action saved the lives of two other men. Clearly he was more than the town drunk, and I for one was cheering for him to overcome on many levels. Patrick Carr had made sure that his flawed protagonist didn’t fail by being too flawed.

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Do Your Homework

Harbor_Fwy_One of the reasons why writing fantasy appealed to me many years ago was because I was under the delusion that fantasy writers didn’t have to do any research. Since those days, I’ve learned that (1) fantasy writers aren’t immune to the need to do research and (2) research these days is pretty quick and easy.

As I’ve learned more about writing fiction, I’ve discovered that we all must do some measure of research. Contemporary writers, for example, need to research the places, professions, and devices they include in their stories.

Some years ago I read a novel set in the Los Angeles area–near where I live. At one point there was a car-chase scene that took the protagonist onto a freeway with which I was quite familiar. Sadly, the author didn’t paint the details anywhere near the way they actually are. As I read, I started yelling at the book: A sidewalk? There’s no sidewalk there. Pedestrians? No one who wants to keep living would walk along that freeway. And he wants us to believe there are dozens of people? Paa-leeeze!

Clearly, the inaccurate description of the area pulled me out of the story. Of course, not everyone knows the specifics about an area, but careless handling of the particulars is bound to stand out to any local residents who read the story.

The same is true of activities and events. I read another contemporary novel that featured a basketball player–a professional whose team made it to the NBA finals. The problem was, the author hadn’t done her homework, apparently, and didn’t know that the format for the finals is different from the early rounds. Consequently, the team with the best record opens the seven-game series at home for the first two games. They then move to the lower seed’s home for the next three games before returning, if necessary, to the home of the higher seed. So this author had her protagonist playing games five and six in the wrong cities.

Does it matter? For writers who want readers to immerse themselves in the fictive dream, yes, it should matter. Inaccuracies pull readers out of the story.

Mysteries, military thrillers, suspense, even contemporary romances all have similar requirements when it comes to getting the details right.

Writers of historical fiction or of history or memoirs, for that matter, have an even greater burden. They need to know the details of a place but also the details of the time period in which they’re writing if they are to avoid anachronisms. Hence, they must be sure their character actually could be listening to the radio or talking on the phone–that those things had been invented and were in common use. They must be sure that Benny Goodman had become a national figure, that cars had starters instead of cranks, that bifocals existed.

Again, some might question whether these details are important. My guess is, those who read historical fiction, and surely those who read history or memoirs, are already familiar with the time period in which the story or events are taking place. Consequently, these readers will quickly recognize mistakes. The credibility of the author is undermined with each error. The seriousness of the work comes into question.

Hard science fiction carries a similar stringent requirement. The science needs to be accurate and the futuristic suppositions tied to what already exists. Consequently, the writer needs to know about that science.

Big_Cypress_National_Preserve_swampWhich brings me back to fantasy. Aren’t the worlds pretty much all imagined? They are. And yet, a swamp must still have the properties of a swamp and a desert, those of a desert. Otherwise, there is no swamp. There’s a new thing that requires a new name with a description of its hybrid properties.

An author is absolutely free to make up a swamp in the middle of the desert–if he can make it plausible and if he is consistent with its use. Certain conditions can’t create a swamdirt, for instance, in one location and a wilderness in a different location. The conditions would have to be different and the author needs to keep track of which elements create which geological feature.

The key to good fantasy, then, is consistency. The real “research” is nothing more than keeping track of the rules of the imagined world. But that, too, my friends, is homework, and it needs to be done.

Fortunately in this age of the Internet, research is easier than ever. I’ve had a variety of magazine article assignments over the years, most on subjects with which I had little first hand knowledge. A few hours on the Internet, however, and I have learned as much or more as I might from an afternoon in the library.

Of course Internet research comes with a few cautions. First, not all information is accurate. Some is intentionally misleading if the subject is controversial–the author may be using the old tricks of indoctrination, such as the use of emotionally charged words, the exclusion of some facts, and the exaggeration of others.

Some information on the Internet is incomplete or lacking supporting data. Consequently, it might be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

And thirdly, some Internet research uncovers facts that are flat out wrong. Perhaps the source is misinformed or ill equipped to present information on the topic.

The point is, a writer needs to verify Internet research or to check the reliability of the source. For instance, in doing research for an article about Victorian homes, I discovered a collection of sites saying much the same thing about restoration methods. The quantity served as a good check, but so did the credentials of the site writers–all owners of Victorian homes who were involved with renovations or had already completed them.

Homework. It’s the best kept secret of good writing–fiction and non-fiction. Writers who do their homework can separate themselves from the crowd.

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Writing In Scenes

Hang_glidingNot everyone has the same writing process. And that’s OK. Still, I think those who plan out their stories in advance or those who patch their stories together once they know where they’re going, can all learn by thinking about their story in scenes.

Years and years ago, I picked up a book entitled Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. To be honest, I didn’t understand much about the book at all because he referred to scenes and sequels, but I didn’t understand the terminology. I associated scenes with plays and sequels . . . I didn’t have a clue what that meant in the context of fiction.

Time passed and I learned more about writing. Eventually I re-read Scene and Structure and benefited from it. And still, I didn’t really think in scenes when I was writing.

During one critique session, a member of my writing group asked me what my character wanted in a particular scene. Well, that froze me. What did he want? I hadn’t thought about it before. I was able to mumble some answer, then set the question aside.

I didn’t seriously come back to it until a few weeks ago. I’m reading/studying Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, and she put me back on the scene track. I was nearing the end of Chapter 5: “Showing Change In Your Characters–If I Knew Then What I know Now” and came across these lines:

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint coverAll of this can, I know, sound overwhelming. Dramatizing motivation, dramatizing emotion, dramatizing change, creating sharp concrete details that characterize–and doing it all simultaneously–can seem too much to juggle (not to mention also “becoming the reader” to see how it all looks to someone else). But there is a way to keep control of your material. It is, in fact, the key to keeping control of many other elements of fiction as well, such as plot and emotional arc.

The key is this: Write in scenes.

You don’t have to think about the whole book at once, the entire emotional arc, or the progressive motivations of six different characters. All you have to do right now is write this one scene. (p. 75, emphasis in the original)

When I read that, something clicked.

Understand, I’ve evaluated other authors as part of my editing job. One section of the form I use is about scenes. Here are the particulars I analyze:

A. Goal
B. Conflict
C. Disaster/reaction
D. Dilemma
E. Decision


However, I’m generally writing an assessment of the novel as a whole, so what I say about the scenes is general.

But what if, in my own writing, I looked at those elements as the pillars of my scene as I constructed it? What if I didn’t start writing the scene until I knew what my characters wanted, what would bring the conflict?

So I tried it.

And now I’m a believer!

Truly, I couldn’t believe how unstuck my writing became as soon as I knew what my character wanted as a short term goal. Rather than meandering from place to place with no particular purpose, grousing about this issue and that situation, spewing his angst and whining about his plight, he became active and purposeful, he strove and struggled, and when conflict arose, he figured out how to confront it.

Did he have to give up something in order to make Plan B work? Therein lies the dilemma. Was he successful? Therein lies the disaster, which leads him to a decision about how to proceed, giving him a new goal for the next scene.

And one follows after the other like a line of falling dominoes. They start going down because someone tipped over that first one.

Writing in scenes can have that same feel. Because the first one went down, the next one must follow. Because Johnny punched Billy, the teacher is calling his parents.

There’s a silly commercial for an alternative to cable TV that plays off this concept. The cable company puts the character on hold, and when that happens, he feels trapped. When he feels trapped, he goes hang gliding, and when he goes hang gliding, he crashes into electric wires. When he crashes into electric wires, the city experiences a black out. When the city experiences a black out, crime rises. When crime rises, the character’s dad gets punched in the stomach by a looter over a can of soup. “So don’t have your dad get punched over a can of soup. Get DirectTV.”

The humor of that commercial is that the resulting actions of each disaster don’t follow a logical progression. The secret to good fiction writing is to make the progression from goal to conflict to reaction to dilemma to decision, a logical progression (just not predictable).

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Writing Groups

PowerElements_of Story Structure finalWriting groups are invaluable. They may provide critiques, encouragement, inspiration, friendship, brainstorming, and beta readers. Maybe all of these.

Some people may not live in a place with easy access to a physical writing group, but in this day and age, the computer solves that problem. There are online critique groups, Yahoo! groups, forums, Facebook pages, team blogs, editor blogs (like this one), writer blogs, agent blogs. There’s even an author, Donita Paul, who holds weekly chats on Mondays (and I just learned that she’s presently discussing Power Elements of Story Structure–how cool is that!?!) If a writer wants to find a community, one is out there waiting to be found.

Some writers may think they don’t need a writing group because they have lots of support and encouragement from their family and friends. Which is great! The problem is, our family and friends may not be as hard on us as we need. And they also may not be as educated in writing techniques us as we need.

Why should they be?

Most lawyers don’t ask their sister or cousin to critique their brief, do they? Not unless those relatives are also lawyers who have studied the law and know what they’re talking about.

Yet we expect anyone to be able to give knowledgeable feedback about fiction or memoirs or devotionals or how-to instruction.

Of course readers can tell writers what they like, and that’s always helpful. But to learn what needs to improve–how to make an argument flow logically, how to structure a story for maximum impact, how to correct passive voice, what point of view is strongest, and a hundred other particulars–other writers who have and are studying the craft will give what non-writers cannot.

Writers are essentially on a continuum, some just starting out and some working on the crowning project of their epic career. Wherever we are in between those extremes, there’s someone we can help and encourage, and there’s someone from whom we can learn and find inspiration. Consequently no one should shy away from a writing group because they think they have nothing to offer or nothing to learn.

I remember years ago attending a local writing workshop. I had considerable insecurity about being there–until I started talking to the people at my table. As it turned out, I was the only person who had been to a writing conference. I’d talked to agents before and to editors. I knew some things about formatting manuscripts and following guidelines. Of course, as the day wore on, I learned a great deal too, from others more experienced than myself who had signed book contracts and had agents.

That’s the way writing groups work.

Mind you, I’m not saying a writer can’t work in isolation. For years, that’s what many writers were forced to do. But even before the Internet, writers sought each other out. See for example, English writers such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley during the Romantic Period or the Inklings in the twentieth century or Americans Emerson and Thoreau during the early 1800s.

Today, with so much information available, and with self-publication on the rise, it seems more necessary to me, not less, that writers take advantage of the opportunities writing groups afford. After all, traditional publication “gatekeepers” aren’t there to tell writers that their work isn’t ready. And honestly, many of us think our work is ready to be in print much sooner than it actually is. That’s because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Other writers, however, might know what we don’t know. And they just might have the unbiased guts to tell us. That’s what you hope to find in a writing group, though it may hurt at times. But honest feedback is the road to better writing, and better writing is the best road to publication, whether via traditional means or through self-publishing.

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Character Motivation Revisited

Character motivation is not a new topic (see these posts) here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework. However, it’s such an important subject that writing teachers of all stripes discuss it from any number of angles. Nancy Kress, in Characters, Emotions & Viewpoint, goes so far as to say this:

Motivation is the key to your entire story. I’m going to say that again, because it’s so important: Motivation is the key to fiction. You can create fascinating characters, with vivid backstories, appearances described in perfect verbal pitch, and settings so real we can smell them, but all of them will remain sketches, vignettes, or travelogues unless your characters do something. And they won’t do anything without motivation. (Emphasis mine.)

family-521707-mSo what precisely creates character motivation? There are a number of possibilities. First, a character is motivated by how she was raised. Was her home loving? Did she receive encouragement from her parents? Was she caught up in a vortex of sibling rivalry? Or was she the product of the foster care system? Was her father an abusive drunk? Did her mother leave her with her grandparents to raise? All these growing up circumstances play a part in molding a person, and therefore should play a part in molding the characters that inhabit our fiction.

A character might also be motivated by a life trauma: witnessing his cousin gunned down in the street, breaking his back in a diving accident, being erroneously arrested and imprisoned for robbing the Seven-Eleven. These kinds of traumatic events change people and can contribute to why a character acts the way he acts.

They are not the sole motivators, however. One person who watches his cousin die in a violent way might join a gang in order to reap revenge. Another might decide to become a cop in order to stop senseless violence. What determines how a person reacts?

One factor is the character’s worldview. Is she prone to seeing life as a victim? Does she hold tightly to religious values? Does she believe that God has a purpose even for the hard things in life? Has she embraced an eye-for-an-eye philosophy?

Of course a character’s worldview doesn’t crop up on its own. Rather it’s an amalgamation of experiences and beliefs that lead her to what seems like a reasonable way of understanding life.

Patty_Hearst_takes_part_in_the_April_1974_Hiberna_bank_raid_with_other_SLA_membersConsequentially, it would be inconsistent to develop a character who has been pampered, loved, and protected, but who suddenly begins a crime spree. Something in her experiences would have to trigger behavior that goes against her norm. Some ideas, some belief system, some key influence must have countered all those years of happy home life. Unless the happy home life was a sham.

Another factor dictating how characters respond to events in their lives is their personality and temperament. Much study has gone into understanding the qualities with which a person is born. Some, such as Dr. David Kersey (Please Understand Me II) and a host of others who derive their ideas from the ancient belief in four rudimentary humors, hold to the idea that there are four basic temperaments, with either a variety of manifestations or blends. Others broaden the scope, but there appears to be agreement that people have innate ways of interacting with the world:

Children are born with their natural style of interacting with or reacting to people, places, and things — their temperament. In the late 1950s, temperament research began with the work of Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, and associates. The New York Longitudinal Study identified nine temperament characteristics or traits. The researchers found that these nine traits were present at birth and continued to influence development in important ways throughout life. By observing a child’s responses to everyday situations, the researchers could assess these temperaments. Temperament is stable and differs from personality, which is a combination of temperament and life experiences, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. (Excerpt from “Understanding Your Child’s Temperament” by Kathy K. Oliver, M.S., Family and Consumer Sciences Agent)

One more factor contributing to motivation is influence. People often determine their behavior and beliefs based on the people they emulate, either individuals or a group. Consequently, a young man who otherwise is not bent toward violence, might commit a violent act because his peer group demands it; a rich heiress might leave her inheritance to marry the chauffeur because she loves him; a woman whose politically connected husband has been caught in an illicit affair might stay in the marriage because of the pressure from his cronies.

The most interesting stories are those in which a character’s motives are at war with one another. The heiress loves her family, but she loves the chauffeur too. The governor wants to make a difference for the people who elected him, but he has to keep happy those who financed his campaign. The Senator’s wife hates infidelity but loves knowing the “right people” who invite her to the “right parties.”

The “what will happen” which drives a story forward becomes entangled with the “what will he do” question, proving Ms. Kress’s point: “Motivation is the key to your story.”

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PowerElementsOfStoryStructure500On a separate note, I’d like to announce that I’ve published an ebook based on the writing tips here and on my personal blog. Power Elements Of Story Structure is the first in the series entitled Power Elements Of Fiction and is available only on Kindle or devices with the free Kindle download.

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Realistic Characters

As Charlotte Brontë famously remarked, reality should “suggest” rather than “dictate” characters. (Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, p. 9)

urban-traffic-768180-mReal people tend to be boring most of the time. They sit in traffic to and from work; they hunker behind desks day after day or drive the same delivery route yet again; they eat dinner with their family and spend the holidays with their relatives. The big excitement comes on the weekend when they go out to a movie or to a concert or party.

Most real people wouldn’t make good characters in books. Rather than attempting to make characters real, authors would be wise to listen to Ms. Brontë and make them realistic instead.

One thing that helps make a character realistic is a complex personality. This imagined person should have rough edges to go along with his heroic qualities. He should get on some people’s nerves some of the time. He should get cranky when he is tired.

But he should also be generous to a fault or so courageous he’s willing to risk his life without a second thought. And he should be selfless. In other words, when a character is a mixed bag of good traits and bad, he seems like a real person.

A second thing that gives a character the allusion of reality is when she has a good reason for doing what she does. In short, her motives make her actions seem logical and therefore believable.

Cop shows on TV often deal with unmotivated action, but they use it as a way to solve a crime. The murder victim does something that appears random, but that inconsistency triggers a hunt. Why was she in that parking lot at that time of night? There needs to be something that motivated her, and that something will give a clue to the identity of the murderer.

Mexicano_marioneta_louAll characters, not just crime victims, need motivation. Why did the gardener lie to his boss about the maid? If his motive isn’t clear, he will come across as the author’s puppet, not as a real person.

The third way an author can make her characters seem real is by giving them emotional reactions to the things that happen. Characters should feel guilty as well as scared, irritated as well as thrilled. They should worry about the test results from the doctor or get nervous before the job interview. And they shouldn’t get over the cause of their emotions too easily.

Characters, whether based on real people or created from scratch in the imagination of the author, are not precisely the same as living, breathing individuals. They are actually more. They face greater challenges, have higher goals, dare nobler deeds. And yet, they must be believable or readers will treat them like cartoons.

Hence, writers must give their characters checkered personalities, motivations for every action, and resulting logical emotional reactions. In this way, larger than life characters can still seem as real as the next door neighbor. Perhaps more so.

Hope you all have a very Merry Christmas!

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Characters And Emotion

angry manCharacters in fiction feel, and one goal we writers have is to evoke readers to feel along with them. However, in my reading I’ve noticed some problems connected with character emotions.

One difficulty comes when an author tells what the character is feeling instead of showing it. For example, she might say,

    Fred excitedly picked up the package.

The adverb in this case tells what Fred was feeling rather than showing it. Showing the emotion might read something like this:

    A grin lit up Fred’s face. He picked up the package and ripped off the wrapping.

Rather than naming the emotion, the second example shows what the point of view character sees. Of course, dialogue can amplify emotion. If the character picks up the package and says, “I’m so excited,” then there’s verbal testimony to back up the actions.

Interestingly, dialogue can also be used to undermine actions, or actions, to expose a line of dialogue as untruthful. If a character says one thing, then does another, the reader is left to decipher which actually reveals the character’s emotion.

A second problem, similar to the first, occurs when an author tells what a character is feeling, instead of showing the emotion through internal monologue.

Our friend Fred in the example above might be the point of view character. Instead of telling his emotions, however, or even showing them through action or dialogue, the author can show them through Fred’s thoughts.

    Fred picked up the package. He’d had his eye on it all week, even risked peeking at the card to be sure it had his name on it. It did, but he couldn’t imagine who would give him such an elaborately wrapped gift. Santa must be real after all.

A third problem I’ve noticed concerning character emotion is its total absence. Sometimes writers don’t tell or show what a character feels about something that has just happened. Has the protagonist just been fired? Has she had an argument with her best friend? Did he witness a bar fight? Was she forced to take a class she didn’t want?

Scenes need to show the appropriate action to communicate what’s happened, but they also should show how the character feels about those things. And often those emotions linger and, rightfully, affect what a character does next.

cemetery-roses-1102775-mConsequently, a fourth problem I’ve detected is a character who recovers emotionally much faster than is reasonable. One day he buries his dad who was his best friend, and the next day he is off to see the world. Or she has been left at the altar by her childhood sweetheart, and the next day she opens up an antique shop.

In other words, an event that has, or ought to have, caused great emotion, seemingly has no effect on the character’s next decision or action. Instead, what happens to a character should matter.

A character who has been mugged, for example, should have some emotional baggage that influences who he trusts or what precautions he takes for his future safety. The events of the story should not continue on as if he has not experienced this trauma.

In short, stories are built on causation. When one thing happens, it should induce a reaction, including an emotional reaction from the character. The author should show this reaction, either through action, dialogue, or internal monologue.

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Developing Fresh Story Concepts

couple in love1384968-mAs most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer, or their love conquers, and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers–cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable (until they are reconciled – ;-) ) differences.

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair, for example. Those are obstacles! Who would even see romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married–a union of convenience or position–and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

ShrekBut now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? One idea is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty, and you have Shrek.

Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else. Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters), and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding which turned out to be a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance look like set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history?

What would a romance look like between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”–the plot lines, characters, or settings that first present themselves when we writers start contemplating a new story.

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Killing Off Characters

cemetery-755456-mIn real life, people die–friends, family, strangers we hear about on the news. Consequently, stories, if they are to reflect reality, should include characters who die. Great writers don’t back away from killing off characters.

Mystery writers, of course, don’t seem to hesitate to kill off characters. Readers expect it. These may be characters that are incidental to the reader, however. They are victims and give a reason for the crime solvers to do their work, but their deaths don’t generate an emotional impact on the reader.

But harder, and more shocking, is the death of a character when the readers were not expecting it. And harder still is the death of a character readers care about deeply. Margaret Mitchell heartlessly killed off Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, then trumped that move by having Rhett and Scarlett’s little girl, Bonnie, die as well.

Perhaps no one killed off her characters more aggressively than J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. From Cedric to Sirius, Dobby, Dumbledore, and Fred, Rowling didn’t hesitate to bring an end to beloved characters.

Some writers have ventured to bring their characters back after they died. J. R. R. Tolkien successfully did so in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by bringing Gandalf back in The Two Towers after he felt to his death in the Mines of Moria during The Fellowship of the Ring. C. S. Lewis also meaningfully killed a character–Aslan–and brought him back in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first in The Chronicles of Narnia.

There are dangers for writers, however, in killing off characters. For example, I read a book years ago in which the main character died at the end, and I have not since picked up another book by that author. More recently [spoiler alert] Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, has been in the eye of the storm of unhappy readers because she killed off her heroine.

I think there are some things writers can learn about killing off characters.

First, killing off characters creates realism. Regardless of the genre, dying ought to be a part of the world the author creates. Therefore he should at least consider adding this element to his story. Not all stories need to show the death of a character, but a good many could benefit from the report of one dying.

The_Paradise_(TV_series)_titlesIn a romance, for example, the death of a beloved grandparent might be an obstacle in the path of the heroine and her love interest. Contemporary or historical stories can use the death of a character and the resulting squabbles over the estate to divide a family or create heartbreak that needs to be overcome. A widower can pine for his dead spouse for years, as did the main character in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (Masterpiece Classic’s The Paradise).

Killing off characters, however, needs to be properly motivated. There needs to be a story reason for ending the life of a character. Doing so for shock value is not sufficient. Rather, a noble sacrifice, a diabolical plot, a horrible accident, an incurable disease can take a character’s life and move the plot forward.

In addition, when a character is taken from the story, relationships change. A child is orphaned, a friend is alone, a spouse is a widow, an employee becomes the boss, a neighbor becomes a suspect.

Therefore, when a character dies, the other characters need to have an emotional response, but also a re-examination of values, a reshuffling of rank, an alteration of position. In short, the death should matter.

Finally, killing characters needs to be properly set up so that it is believable (and so that readers won’t want to throw your book across the room). The death may come as a surprise, but it should not be implausible.

tombstone-844609-mPeople who are young and healthy do die suddenly of some undiagnosed condition, however rarely, but in fiction such an event would read as author manipulation. Rather, a young person who was diagnosed with leukemia might experience a return of cancer, however unexpected. The fact of the earlier condition prepares readers for the eventuality of the character’s death. A character might be engaging in a dangerous hobby like rock climbing or bungee jumping. She might work with toxic material or high voltage electricity. These elements can add tension to a story but also prepare the reader for the possibility of that character dying.

One last point. Characters can be taken from a story without dying. A teen might run away. A parent might walk away from his family. An employee might get fired. A best friend might move across country. These losses can have the same impact as a death and can change the dynamics of a story. They are also part of the real world which needs to be reflected in the story world.

Have you considered killing off one of your characters? What effect would that death have on the other characters? On the direction of your plot?

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