Category Archives: Characters

Finally! Power Elements Of Character Development Released

PowerElementsCharacterDevelopment[1000][1]Back in March, I posted a preview of the Kindle ebook Power Elements Of Character Development, Book 2 in my Power Elements Of Fiction Series. Before I could put the book up on Amazon, I needed to work out some technology issues which took far longer than I expected, but at long last, it’s complete.

So I’m happy (and relieved) to announce the release of this new book, with the actual cover, not the pre-release cover I posted before.

As part of the promotion for the book, I’ve made Book 1, Power Elements Of Story Structure free for a limited time—until midnight Tuesday, May 19.

By the way, here’s your chance to critique an editor, something most writers would LOVE to do! 😉 If you download and read either Story Structure (the free one) or Character Development (the new one), you’d help me out a great deal by writing a review—whether you like the book or hate it.

With all that preliminary out of the way, here’s the description of the book and another sample chapter. (Blog readers always get the inside scoop and the special deals! 🙂 )

Description

Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.

Excerpt

Chapter 9: Qualities Of Good Characters, Part 1

Critical to the process of creating a story that matters is creating characters who matter. Readers must care about the people in a story in order to care about the story itself. However, readers will put down books that are nothing more than long-winded character sketches. Something has to happen, but it has to happen to characters who matter.

What precisely makes a character matter to a reader? From my study, I’ve identified a few qualities that seem to draw readers. Here, in no special order, are three:

* Strong, yet vulnerable. The character is capable, admirable, winsome, but has a touch of weakness that makes him realistic as well as endearing. It’s a bit like Superman disguised as Clark Kent.

Bilbo is another good example of this type of character. He was small and not so very adventurous. He didn’t have any experience away from the Shire, but as Gandalf pointed out from time to time, there was more to him than met the eye. He was smart and intuitive and persistent and loyal. He was not invincible, but when he became invisible, it nearly seemed so. Yet Gollum could hear him and Smaug could smell him and the elves of Murkwood knew someone—a great warrior, they thought—lurked in their halls.

But if Bilbo were a man or a dwarf or an elf instead of a hobbit, he would not have been as endearing. His fuzzy feet and love of second breakfasts made him seem less than ferocious. His vulnerability was the perfect counterbalance to his strength of character.

* Influential. The protagonist isn’t a follower. She is generally the trendsetter, the leader, the catalyst. She sees the solution when no one else can, takes the path least trodden, faces the insurmountable odds when everyone else runs. She is the one who sets herself apart with her choice for a career or her choice to renounce her career. She’s willing to go it alone or sacrifice for others or try the impossible. Readers admire her confident leadership.

The protagonist in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables is such a character. Though Anne tries to conform to the expectations of her adoptive parents, tries to fit in with her classmates, tries to stay out of trouble in their small community, she simply has too much imagination, too much ingenuity, too much power of persuasion. She draws people to her like a magnet draws iron, and she woos and wins the hardest heart, the strictest disciplinarian, the greatest tease. She turns enemies into friends and friends into bosom buddies or kindred spirits.

* Active. The main character must not exist to experience whatever befalls him. He must take the initiative, decide to engage his world, and, for right or wrong, make things happen. Along this line, he is self-aware. He knows he has weaknesses and wants to overcome them. In fact, much of what moves him to act is his desire to be better than he knows himself to be.

Lady Marguerite St. Just Blakeney, the heroine in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s historical novel set during the French Revolution, as well as her husband Sir Percy Blakeney, is an active character who does not merely react to events threatening her, but takes steps to forestall evils.

Percy is crafty, daring, beguiling, a protector, a rescuer, a leader. He sees people dying in France for no reason other than their parentage or perhaps because of those with whom they had some past association, and he determines to help them escape. Marguerite does what she does for love—first for the sake of her brother and later for the sake of her husband. She is no less courageous and daring than Percy, though perhaps not as duplicitous. But both of them are active. They take the fight to the villains and because of their willingness to act, readers readily cheer them on.

Strong, yet vulnerable; influential; active: these three traits are at the top of the list of qualities that make a character matter to readers.

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Preview: How To Develop A Character

Power Elements of Character Development sample cover2I will soon be releasing the second volume of the series Power Elements Of Fiction, this one all about characters. This book, like the first on story structure reworks and organizes things I’ve written over the years both here and on my personal blog.

The thing is, true to the nature of writing, the reworking of a post often means it has new examples or better cohesion. Plus, the juxtaposition of one topic to another can reinforce important things about developing characters.

All that to say, this post is a shameless advertisement for the coming book Power Elements Of Character Development. Watch this space for details.

And now, without further kerfuffle, Chapter Two, How To Develop A Character:

Fundamental to any good novel is a good character, but what makes a character “good”?

When I first started writing, I had a story in mind, and my characters were almost incidentals. Since then, I’ve learned how flat such a story is. Characters make readers care about the events that happen, but in turn, the events are the testing grounds which allow characters to grow.

So which comes first? I believe that’s an immaterial question. A good story must have both a good plot and good characters—the non-flat kind.

In developing main characters, a writer needs to give each something he wants and something he needs. The “want” is generally outside him (to destroy the One Ring, to marry Ashley Wilkes, to escape the Safe Lands), and the need is that internal thing that drives him (to find purpose, to do the right thing, to be loved). The internal may not be something the character is aware of consciously. For example, in Jonathan Rogers’s excellent middle grade novel The Charlatan’s Boy, young orphaned Grady doesn’t go around saying, I need to be loved and accepted, but the reader fairly quickly understands this about him.

Secondly, having given the protagonist a want and need, the author must also put him on a path to gain what he wants. However, as the story moves forward, this initial want may change. If the character wants to reach point A, he may discover upon arrival that his need is not met, so he now sets out to reach point B. Or, along the way he may realize that he only thought he wanted A, but in actuality wants B; consequently, he abandons the quest for A and aims for B.

Another important aspect of character development is the increase of a character’s self-awareness. The protagonist should have strengths and weaknesses, and as the story progresses, his understanding of how to use his strengths and/or change his weaknesses should expand.

Fourth, the character should make progress, both in achieving what he wants and acquiring what he needs. Yet success can’t come too easily or there really is no story. But to make no progress defeats the character and the reader, dyeing the story in hopelessness.

Notice that all these first character development points have little to do with hair style or eye color. Often those are the things writers settle on as the most important when they start putting a character together. Is he tall? Does he like football? Is she a shopper?

Those things are secondary to the wants/needs understanding. If a character like Grady wants to be loved, then how does that affect his choices—his aspirations, the way he dresses, what he does with the hours in his day, the type of job he seeks, and so on.

Part of understanding these aspects of the character depends on the personality of this individual. Is he a “can do” sort, so he looks at obstacles as challenges, or is he burdened by his wants and needs, fighting to keep from despair?

Notice that in either instance, the character is fighting. In contrast, a character who takes a passive approach to life as opposed to taking action, is not someone readers will connect with easily.

One more important element—a writer needs to think of his character as an individual. What are the quirks that he has that no one else has? Or the gestures, the speech patterns, the thinking style?

Know your character, inside and out. Then put him in any circumstance you wish, and you will know what he will do. Someone as spacey as your character would do something silly when the pressure’s on. Someone shy and retiring would never make herself a spectacle but would probably have a favorite get-away spot where she hides from the world.

Throughout the story, authors test their characters and grow them and change them so that in the end they do more than even they thought possible.

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The Character Arc

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A number of writing instructors refer to the character arc, or the path a protagonist takes from the beginning of the story to the end, as a tool for the novelist. In many respects it is an artificial construct best recognized after the fact. Except, what happens to the main character really is the story.

Some novels or visual stories, to be sure, have heroes who change little. Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show exhibited little change week after week. The Lone Ranger, first as radio drama, then as a 50s black and white TV favorite, centered on a similar unchanging hero.

Some might consider those types of stories to be plot driven. Except, characters around the iconic protagonists often changed. Each episode, then, was about the growth or character arc of a secondary figure: the woman trying to make a go of a stage line, the creature who lured passing star ships into his prison, the sheriff accused of murder.

Nevertheless, the eye of the reader or the viewer is on the protagonist who does not change. Generally he has a set of values or a code of conduct which guides him from start to finish. He may have flaws, but he is true to his own standards which neither improve nor deteriorate. They are who the character is. Other such characters include Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.

One writing instructor identifies these types of characters as having a flat arc. (And I’m wondering about the geometric possibility of such a shape! 😉 )

By far the greatest number of stories depict characters who exhibit growth throughout their story. At the beginning the protagonist has a problem or story question that drives her actions forward. But she also has an inner life that dovetails with these outer circumstances. By the end of the story, the character has learned what she needs, made what changes her circumstances require, commits to a new course of action, and thus answers the story problem which confronted her at the beginning.

This is obviously a simplistic sketch of the character arc, but it shows an important aspect—the inner life of the character and the outer events of the plot are integrally entwined.

The need for character growth can sometimes be caused by the inaccuracies a character believes about himself or the world or both. These beliefs drive him to make decisions and to act as he acts.

Sometimes his actions bring success, but not permanent change, and he is forced to come up with a better plan. More often, however, his actions fail because they were built on those erroneous views.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara believes she’ll be happy if she can win Ashley Wilkes’ affections. She makes great plans only to hear his announcement that he will marry someone else. She believes she must get him alone and declare her feelings for him, but when she follows through with her plot, he spurns her advances.

Other problems intervene—the Civil War, his marriage, his wife’s devotion to Scarlett—and yet she persists in believing that she would be happy if only she could be with Ashley.

As events unfold, the reader begins to understand that Ashley is not the answer to Scarlett’s happiness. At long last, Scarlett herself comes to realize the truth. She is, in fact, in love with Rhett Butler, and has been for some time. However, when she makes this discovery and declares her love, he tells her she’s realized the truth too late. His love for her has died.

More common are stories in which the protagonist realizes the truth, takes the necessary steps in the right direction, and is rewarded in the end with what he actually needed. However, as with Scarlett, he may not accomplish his goal in the end, though he may find what he needed.

Not every character arc is built upon the character believing a lie. Some show a character’s struggle to overcome a flaw. Initially he may not realize how devastating his character weakness is, but as the story progresses, he has a moment of self-revelation that either pushes him to change or to despair.

Still other characters might believe something true though no one else in his circle does. His story arc, then, might show how his beliefs are tested, how he himself is tempted to doubt in the face of failure after failure. At some point, however, after facing his greatest fears, he chooses to cling to his belief, no matter what.

For example, a boy just out of his teens wants to be a writer. He completes a novel and sends it out to publishers but receives rejection after rejection. As years go by, his friends laugh at his “silly hobby,” his wife encourages him to find “a real job.” He takes odd jobs to make ends meet, but every spare moment he works on another story and another and another. His rejections pile up, but he believes he has the talent, he knows he has the love, and he keeps trying. Eventually his hope wanes.

At last, he experiences the turning point. His wife is threatening divorce. His friends no longer come around. He’s out of money. Again. And he’s no longer a kid. He must get a better job to keep his house and show his wife he cares about the family, or he must publish. Here is his dark night of the soul. What will he do—cling to what he knows is true, that he was born to write; or cave and abandon his life’s work.

What he decides and how the events of the plot resolve in the face of that decision, complete his character arc. He will have either ditched his long held beliefs or held to them more tightly than ever.

Must those stories resolve happily? Clearly not. The character may make a decision to cling to his faith, but dies without seeing a positive result.

However, death should bear out that the character made the right choice. In the case of the writer, he may become famous and receive awards posthumously. Or in a different story, a young girl may end up dying so that others she has lived for go free.

If the character dies and his view of the world or himself are not validated, his character arc makes him out to be a fool. I’m not sure many readers would care to read a story about a character who held firmly to his beliefs only to be proved wrong in the end.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley came close to utilizing this character arc. Savage, the main character, dies and his beliefs are not validated in the story world, but they are validated in the hearts and minds of readers. At least they were validated in part in the heart of this reader.

To sum up, the change in the inner life of a character from beginning to end forms the character arc of a story. A handful of iconic characters don’t show change, though others around them will. Stories begin with a character believing a lie, struggling against a flaw, or clinging against all odds to a truth he believes.

Not all stories resolve happily with the character making positive change and finding success because of it. However, if the end resolves badly for the character, his character arc may still be positive if what he believed or learned is validated as the right course for him to take.

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Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

Darth VaderThe conventional wisdom today is that antagonists in fiction, in order to be believable, must have a “pet the dog” moment to show that they have a human side, that they are realistic, since real-life people are a mixed bag of good deeds and evil desires.

In an earlier blog post, “Antagonists Are Real People Too,” I made a case for a different way of creating realistic antagonists: give them appropriate motivation.

Then too, an antagonist may not actually be evil. They might simply be in conflict with the hero, the way the San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is in conflict with the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw.

But sometimes the antagonist is evil.

I think, however, writers tend to overlook the fact that there are different types of evil. The general picture of an antagonist is a character who wants total control no matter who he hurts to get it. Certainly that antagonist works, whether he wants total control of a family, a church, a business, a country, or the world.

His number one tactic is force. He aims to break knee caps or kidnap children or murder cousins just to force people to do his bidding. He is made in the image of the Godfather. Or Hitler.

But violent, power-hungry megalomaniacs are not the only people who are evil. What about the charmer who talks people out of their life savings? He’s evil on a different level. He can cheat people but also undermine their trust in others—perhaps a worse result of this evil person’s actions than the loss of money.

Or how about frauds? Or liars in general. These are people who don’t need to cheat—they are healthy, able-bodied, smart and capable, but they’d rather figure out a way to cheat the government or lie to their boss or to their business partner or their clients. They are constantly looking for an edge so their “half” is a little bigger than your “half.” These are the people who steal identities so they can benefit from someone else’s hard work.

Another type of evil is the computer hacker or spammer. This person wants to create havoc because he likes to see other people scramble around and try to undo what he’s done. He might do something malicious like put people’s lives in danger because of his tampering with other computers. Or he might operate like the arsonist—start a virus and see where it goes and what all people have to do to get it under control. He might like seeing his work talked about in the media. He might get a sense of accomplishment by bringing entities more powerful than he, to their knees.

Another type of evil is the sexual predator. Many suspense stories feature this type of antagonist, so I don’t have to elaborate. There are varieties of sexual predators, however. Black widow movies, for example, came into their own when writers realized that women could also be sexual predators.

Other familiar bad guys, but perhaps not utilized as antagonist very often, are people who are prejudice. I’m not referring to the obvious white supremacist or Ku Klux Klan member. I’m talking about the people today who might whisper to their neighbor about “those people,” or start a petition against a certain religion or ethnicity. Or, for a real twist, favor a certain gender over and above the other (and clearly, women can be favored over an above men just as easily as the reverse).

Another effective bad guy is the one who is out to get the story hero and no one else. He may be motivated by revenge, so his aim is to destroy the hero, one way or the other. His hate is focused and white hot so he won’t consider the illegality of his own actions or the danger to others in his way.

Showing antagonists with a bent toward a specific evil is the writer’s first step toward making them realistic. And no dog needs to be petted in the process.

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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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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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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.”

– – – – –

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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