Category Archives: Motive

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 Their Struggles

Cinderella-Offterdinger_Aschenbrodel_(1)A story needs characters, and generally one stands out as the central figure, the person about whom the events will revolve.

I suggest the above description of a main character is a recipe for an unpublished novel. While it may be true, it misses key points regarding characters who appear in well-read fiction.

First, the definition implies a disconnect between the events and the character. In page-turning stories, things ought not happen to a character. Rather, the character ought to go out and make things happen. The events aren’t centered on the character as much as the character is causing the events.

Secondly, the character as agent develops because of his wants and needs. These twin motivating passions have to do with both external and internal desires.

The external refers to something a character perceives will solve a problem, fulfill a longing, advance a goal. Harry Potter needs to attend Hogwarts, Cinderella longs to go to the ball, Dorothy must return home.

The internal has to do with an inner desires fueling a character and may be things she doesn’t realize at first. In fact these passions may be so ingrained in a character, she doesn’t understand these are motivating her. Harry Potter wants revenge, Cinderella longs to be loved, Dorothy wants to be loving.

Often a character reaches a point of revelation and comes to a place of clarity. She might then embrace what she finds or she may determine to change. Scarlet O’Hara determines she will never go hungry again, Bilbo Baggins embraces his role as “burglar,” Lucy Pevensie realizes she should do what Aslan tells her even if no one else believes her.

Internal and external wants and needs motivate the main character to action. He makes a plan and determines how he should go about acquiring what he perceives to be his greatest need. His plan may be involved, it may lead to a second plan or a revised plan, it may unfold in stages. The point is, the character is not passively waiting for things to happen to him. He is an instigator.

He is not the only instigator, however. The story also has antagonists who act. They are bent on foiling the main character’s plan or changing his intentions. They create obstacles that delay or derail his plans, causing him to revisit his goals and readjust what he’d hoped to accomplish.

Dorothy wants to go home but learns only the Wizard of Oz can help her. Her plan, then, is to go to Oz and put her petition before the Wizard. When she at last gains an audience with him, he promises to help her only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her a new goal. Throughout the story Dorothy alters her plan and aims for something different as a stepping stone to her ultimate goal–returning home.

In essence, that desire drives the story, and the events that make up the story stem from Dorothy’s efforts to accomplish her goal. Put another way, Dorothy’s efforts are the story. The key is, whether succeeding or failing, Dorothy is striving to achieve what she wants.

She may succeed or fail in her efforts, but readers are firmly behind her, hoping the best for her because she’s active. She struggles to accomplish what she believes the circumstances require.

Dorothy doesn’t act alone. None of the characters do. Cinderella attended the ball only because of her fairy godmother’s gifts, Gandalf provided Bilbo with the help he needed to unite the Five Armies, and the Weasleys showed Harry Potter how to reach Platform 9 3/4 where he would catch the train to Hogwarts.

But the help these characters received in no way canceled out their need to struggle against the obstacles and work toward their goal. After all, that’s what a story is about.

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The Effect Of Setting On Characters

ambulanceMany writers may think the effect of a story setting upon characters is obvious. If the events unfold in a city, a character will likely act in completely different ways than if they unfold in a rural setting.

For example, a woman in her mid-sixties falls and fractures her wrist. What does her husband do? In the city, he most likely calls 9-1-1 if she’s in a great deal of pain, or drives her to a hospital emergency room. But if this happens miles and miles from any medical facility? The husband would likely have to splint the arm himself or try to make contact with the nearest medical person, who might be a midwife, not a doctor.

So yes, we understand that setting affects characters. They act differently in different settings. However, there’s more to setting than the obvious overall affect on a character’s actions. Place and time have particular nuances that can and should influence characters.

For example, the character in a novel, a young man just out of university, is planning to immigrate from France to New York. If this story is contemporary, he may happily take his leave of his family, promising to visit the following year. He may phone them from the airport upon his arrival. He may set up a regular time each week to Skype them. Although he lives in a different country across the Atlantic, he can still maintain close ties with his family.

However, if this same young man is in a story unfolding two hundred years earlier, his decision to leave his home may have a feeling of permanence. He might never see his family again. When he reaches his destination, he may post a letter back home, but it will be weeks before it arrives and weeks more before he can expect an answer. Whatever ties he had with his family will be seriously weaker now.

But there’s more. Writers need to think about what kind of person would leave home knowing he may never return, knowing he is weakening and perhaps breaking ties with his family. The setting dictates a character’s personality and development. A cautious individual or someone particularly satisfied with his situation wouldn’t think of heading off into the unknown.

Even characters with more adventurous spirits or with dissatisfaction in their present circumstances would need a reason to travel so far. What would drive a young Frenchman to take such a bold, dangerous step? Has his father disowned him? Is he escaping a failed love affair? Is he distancing himself from scandal? For example, is our hero driven from his home by a jealous husband for being too forward toward his wife?

Of course, scandal is different today than it would have been two hundred years ago, too. Our contemporary hero would certainly need a different motive for immigrating because it’s hard to imagine that a little flirting, even with a married woman, would reach the level of scandal. Clearly, setting affects a character’s motives.

The contrast between our contemporary and our nineteenth century heroes points to one more effect of setting–a character’s worldview.

PortraitdelouisfrançoisbaronlejeuneWhat would cause a Frenchman in 1813 to leave his homeland rather than fight in the Napoleonic Wars, to come to America which was embroiled in its own war with England? Does he believe in democracy and oppose the tyranny of an emperor who he thinks betrayed his own country’s fight for equality? Or is he fleeing conscription into Napoleon’s army? Undoubtedly attitudes concerning nationalism and toward war and democracy would color a character’s way of looking at the world.

The contemporary character might be more concerned with economic issues created by the recent global recession or with personal opportunities for success. He might be influenced by a fear of terrorism or by attitudes of, or toward, tolerance.

Clearly, settings play an important role in a story, particularly as they affect the characters. Yes, they dictate action, but they also influence character personality and development, motivations, and worldview.

By the way, authors of speculative fiction are not off the hook. True, they create the world in which their characters live, but those worlds must have consistent rules that govern them. Those rules, in turn, whether they involve space travel or magic, act in the same way that the real world time and place rules do.

About world building in speculative fiction, author Orson Scott Card says

The stories you tell, the world you create, will in many ways be dependent on the decisions you make about the rules of magic [or science fiction]. (Excerpt from Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p.50)

Whether in contemporary fiction, historical, or speculative, the setting of a story has an effect on characters that goes beyond what they do and reaches why they do it, how they are changed, and how they view where they are.

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Heart Surgery

Pig_heart_bypassWhat mother wants to cut out the heart of her child? Even an arm or leg would be unthinkable, and a hand or foot, cruel. But what if surgery were the only way to save the child or to insure quality of life? In those circumstances, a mother might allow a qualified surgeon to operate. But would she be willing to dive in and do the deed herself?

Of course not, we think. She’s not trained.

How many of us writers, who surreptitiously consider our stories our babies, fail to apply the same reasoning to our manuscripts? We may allow cosmetic surgery, but serious amputation or transplantation? Not for MY baby! And not if it means learning how to cut deeply or (worse, in some people’s minds) turning it over to a professional who will do so.

Perhaps I’m the only writer who has had such thoughts, but I’m guessing I’m not.

Here’s the thing we need to consider: if we continue to receive rejection notices from agents, if we are selling only a modicum of books, if our editor has passed on our next novel, or we’re not winning awards for our fiction, perhaps we need to intervene on behalf of our darlings with some manuscript-saving methods, also known as revisions—ones we make or ones we hire an editor to make.

The following bit of advice is for those interested in diving in to learn how to make revisions themselves. As a reminder, I’m not talking about cosmetic changes—fewer speaker tags or eliminating as many adverbs as possible. I’m not even talking about a sentence construction make-over or fixing our comma errors. What we writers need to be willing to do is heart surgery.

The heart of any story, in my view, is the character. Consequently, when we sit down to do serious story revisions, the first thing we should look at is our characters–all of them, but especially our protagonist.

What specifically do we need to be willing to change when it comes to our characters? I believe there are three vital areas upon which the health of a story depends: the character’s (1) desires and goals, (2) motivation, and (3) uniquenesses.

  • Characters need to have desires and goals which fuel their actions.

Too many stories have characters that simply react to the events taking place. At best readers are left hoping the protagonist survives.

Stronger stories that involve readers emotionally, allow them to cheer the protagonist on to victory or worry over them as they careen toward defeat. In other words, the protagonist has a desire and sets out to bring it to fruition; he has a goal that he believes will satisfy his need and sets out to accomplish it. Readers can hope he succeeds or agonize that he has taken a wrong path; they can be shocked by a betrayal that thwarts his plan, or dismayed at a new obstacle that makes it outmoded.

In short, the question writers need to ask first when they are ready to revise their story is this: do my characters want something? Do they have desires and goals?

  • Characters also need to be properly motivated.

Aspirations and needs—what the character consciously or unconsciously wants—serve as the backbone for motivation. But each action he takes must have a reason. In real life we may act on the spur of the moment, without any apparent logical connection to what went before, but in fiction such actions come across as author manipulation. Rather, characters need to act because of. They need to act because of their goals, because of the obstacle, because of what they heard, because of their past.

The question writers ready to tackle revision need to ask, then, is why is my character doing what she is doing?

  • Finally, characters need to be unique.

Editors are looking for the fresh and original, but that does not have to mean the strange or bizarre. Rather, freshness entails three things—a unique voice, a distinct outlook, behavior that is beyond generic.

A character’s voice is composed of her vocabulary, sentence structure, topics of conversation, and tone. Is she sarcastic, humorous, serious, matter of fact, down to earth, or pretentious? In addition, her voice should be different from her friend, her sister, her love interest, and from her boss. She also should rise above stereotypes. She can’t sound like all the other Southerners in the 1950s or like the typical school teacher. She can’t be just another female cop. Something needs to set her apart.

In the same way, a character’s outlook on life, or worldview, needs to be distinct. Certainly people share commonalities, but a character that is “run of the mill” doesn’t give a reader reason to care about this particular story. What about the character’s way of looking at life makes her special or out of the ordinary?

Perhaps she is a romantic—not something that sets her apart. What might distinguish her from other romantics? Has she decided not to marry? Why? Perhaps she must care for an aging parent or she is the sole support of her little sister. Perhaps she has a child from an illicit relationship. None of these circumstances sets the character apart in a unique way from stories that have gone on before. What if, instead, she thinks that no man can live up to her ideals and decides to remain single rather than become disillusioned. Now she is a romantic who takes on a different shape from the average romantic.

sunglasses by-the-poolThirdly, if a character is to be thoroughly unique, he needs to have behavior that is particular to him. Everyone’s heart races at times, and everyone walks or turns or looks. What action can a character take that is out of the norm, that other people are less inclined to do? These are the actions that make a character seem like one of a kind, a real person, a distinct individual. Perhaps she constantly forgets to take off her sunglasses until she’s in the pool. Maybe he turns off the car radio and asks people not to talk when he’s driving.

The final question, then, which writers need to ask as they are about to revise their finished rough draft is have I made my characters unique?

By asking these three key questions, a writer can diagnose the problem areas in her manuscript that may need surgery. No number of story make-overs will cure a character who is terminally lacking a desire or goal, who isn’t properly motivated, or who isn’t unique. Only the hard work of revision can do that, and doing surgery on her characters should be an author’s first revision concern.

This article is a re-post of the  original which published as a guest spot at author Marian Merritt’s site.

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Could Readers Convict Your Characters?

We’ve all watched the detective and lawyer shows. The good guys need proof that they’re after the real perp. They want means, opportunity, and the headliner–motive–before they can put him behind bars.

So if your readers were on a jury, would they find enough motive behind your character’s actions to put him away?

I’m only being halfway facetious with that question. The thing above all others that makes a character believable is that he acts in a way that is consistent with how the author has created him. A thoughtful planner, then, should not make the crucial move in the story based on a whim. It just isn’t him.

Unless the author has provided a motive for the character to act against his usual self. In other words, something greater or more powerful is working against what he would normally do.

The truth is, humans are mixed bags of confusing fears and desires. Which one will win out in which situation? It’s the writer’s job first to be sure the character is not a one-way street. Then it is her job to put pressure on the character so that he isn’t in his normal comfort zone. Now the circumstances are in place that would make the “out of character” actions believable.

Let’s say, for example, that your character is calm and confident, and in full control of his world. He’s that planner we mentioned earlier, and he likes order. But one day, he meets a woman who becomes the love of his life. Suddenly his world feels a little chaotic and unpredictable. He’s not above doing the spontaneous now because he has a reason to do the spontaneous.

From the Writer’s Digest article “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great” by Elizabeth Sims which we looked at last week in connection to body language:

Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).

One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.

Properly motivated characters, then, are not properly behaving ones. They can, and should, do surprising things, just as long as they have their reasons and those reasons seem plausible to the reader.

The character of Adrian Monk in the TV show Monk serves as a good example. This brilliant detective suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the extent that he rarely shakes hands and when he does, must immediately have a sanitizer wipe to clean away the germs. But being a detective, he has a way of getting into situations that put his desire to catch the criminal or to save a colleague in direct conflict with his OCD behavior.

His fears prove to be the perfect counterbalance to his astute observational powers, and he’s a much more interesting character as a result. His hesitations or reticence is believable because the writers have properly set up his obsessions as motivating factors. But his sense of right, his desire to return to the police force, his care and concern for those he works with are also clearly drawn.

Here is a “mixed bag” character. His decisions, then, can be driven by either his fears or his desires, and viewers believe them.

How about your characters? Are they mixed bags (much like the mixed metaphors in this post 😉 ) or are they one way streets?

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Confusion Or Curiosity

I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. My friend Sally Apokedak once said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off columnist Steve Almond‘s examples in a June 2008 Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Helpful guidelines, I think.

This article is a repost of one that appeared at A Christian Worldview of Fiction June 17, 2008.

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Filed under Foreshadowing, Motive, Suspense