Category Archives: Characters

Developing Fresh Story Concepts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Characters, Concept And Development, Plot, Setting or Story World

Killing Off Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Filed under Action, Antagonists, Characters, Inner Conflict, Motive

MICE In Your Story

Especially for writers who are planning to participate in NaNoWriMo starting in less than a week, it might be helpful to consider something Orson Scott Card introduces in his writing books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction. I came upon the concept in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, to which Card contributed several chapters.

Here’s the key concept: “All stories contain four elements that can determine structure: Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event” (Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, p. 77). MICE, for short.

Milieu has to do with the story world–its physical, social, political, economic aspects.

Idea refers to new bits of information that characters discover in the process of the story.

Character relates, not just to who the main player is in a story, but how he changes.

Finally, Events show what takes place to correct a wrong in the normal order of things.

All stories have all these elements, but according to Card, one of the four takes central stage. The Milieu dominates Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example. Then Idea might be considered central to Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. In Til We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, the Character change would be the key component and in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also by Lewis, the Events that put the world to rights, both in Narnia and in the Pevensie family, would dominate the story.

I’m intrigued by this way of looking at stories. I can see a particularly useful application because Card teaches that whatever dominant element shows itself in the beginning will also end the story. If a novel starts out as a murder mystery, for instance (Idea), but doesn’t end with the discovery of the perpetrator, readers will be frustrated no matter how well-told the story might be of the police detective’s recovery of his self-confidence (Character).

In some ways, I think this view of stories can help writers decide where their story starts and where it should end. If they begin with a character, for example, who has reached a point where he is so “unhappy, impatient, or angry in his present role that he begins the process of change” then it will end “when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not)” (ibid., p. 81).

As you may have realized, I’m qualifying my reaction to this approach to stories. Card himself says all stories have all the MICE elements, and I agree with this point. I’m not so sure, however, that one dominates.

As an example of Milieu, for instance, Card mentions The Wizard of Oz.

The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home. Milieu stories always follow that structure An observer who will see things as we would see them gets to the strange place, sees all the things that are interesting, is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new man . . . Likewise, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t end when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. It ends when Dorothy leaves Oz and goes home to Kansas. (Ibid., pp 77-78)

I agree with this assessment, but believe The Wizard of Oz could just as easily be used as an example of a Character story which Card says is “about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him” (Ibid., p. 80). Clearly, Dorothy’s role in her family is central to the story. She was unhappy in the beginning and learned by the end that there’s no place like home.

A case might even be made that The Wizard of Oz is an Event story, starting with something wrong in the fabric of the world which needs to be set right. Dorothy’s unhappiness and determination to run away has unsettled her world; when she reaches Oz, it’s apparent that their world has been unsettled, too. As Dorothy goes about doing what she does to fix her own situation, she also puts to right what ails Oz.

characters-and-viewpoint-second_edition_mediumMy point is this: I tend to think that the best stories skillfully weave all the elements together so that the dominant one isn’t overpowering, and the subservient ones aren’t invisible–or worse, predictable and clichéd.

Is there any advantage in knowing what kind of story a writer is undertaking? Perhaps. If a writer isn’t sure how to end a story, then the dominant element can serve as a guide. Or the reverse. If a writer isn’t sure where to start the story, then the type of story he’s written can help him determine where the proper beginning lies.

The main take-away for me is that all four elements need to be present in a story. Whichever turns out to be the star, the others still must be present, still must pull their weight.

What do you think? Orson Scott Card is pretty hard to argue with. Do you think he’s right that one of these four elements will dominate a story? Or do the best stories bring all elements, or most, along with nearly equal strength? Can you give an example?

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Filed under Character Developmet, Concept And Development, Plot, Setting or Story World, Story

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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Beyond Internal And External Goals

outdoor-eatingWriters must know their characters, but to accomplish this we must plunge beneath the skin. In “Know Your Characters” we established the fact that an author must know his characters’ internal and external goals. Surprise, surprise, we can still do better.

To paint a character who is three dimensional and with whom readers connect, a writer needs to tap into the character’s convictions. According to philosopher and theologian Michael Novak (as reported by Yancey C. Arrington), people have three levels of conviction.

First is the level of public conviction. This is what a person, or for the writer’s purposes, a character, publicly says he believes. Second is the level of private convictions–things which a person thinks he believes. Finally, each person has core convictions–things that govern his actions.

For example, a person might say publicly that he believes in democracy. He might think he believes in democracy, but the level of conviction he has to democracy comes out in whether or not he votes or gets involved in the democratic process in other ways.

On a more personal scale, a person may say she will meet her friend for lunch (public conviction). She may think, however, that she doesn’t want to spend the time with her and would like to find an excuse to break the appointment (private conviction). What she actually ends up doing (going to lunch but inviting two other women along) will reveal her core convictions.

Another illustration, possibly true, possibly apocryphal, is the story of tightrope walker Charles Blondin who was known for his stunts as he crossed dangerous terrain like Niagara Falls on a high wire. One of those feats was to push a wheelbarrow across.

After successfully completing the trek, to thunderous applause from the hundreds of onlookers, so the story goes, he turned to the crowd and said, Do you think I can do it again?

Yes, absolutely, of course you can, they shouted, clapping and urging him to push the wheelbarrow across again. He waited for them to quiet.

I’m touched by your faith in me, he said, so I’ll make the return trip. I just need a volunteer, someone who will get into the wheelbarrow.

No one stepped forward.

The public convictions of the people in the crowd showed when they said he could push the wheelbarrow back to the other side.

Some in the audience may have thought that in fact he could. Others may have thought he might be able to, and some might have thought, given the fatigue factor, or an increased wind, or a growing wetness on the wire, that he might not make it. Those thoughts are private and no one will ever know who thought what.

However, we do in fact know those people’s core convictions. Their belief did not turn into action. They may have said they believed he could make it, they may have thought he could make it, but until they did something about their conviction, it was not something that reached their core.

The interesting thing for the writer to note is that all three of these convictions–public, private, and core–do not necessarily align. So one question an author can ask in order to get to know his characters better is, does what my characters say and think align with what they do?

Little_Red_Riding_HoodFairy tales are often good examples of story telling principles, and this particular idea regarding convictions is no exception. For instance, in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the story hinges on the fact that the title character held a different core belief from her public or private convictions.

As the story goes, her mother called her and gave her the task of taking some food and drink to her ill grandmother. Among other things, she gave Little Red Riding Hood these instructions:

Set out before it gets hot, and when you are going, walk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path.

Little Red Riding Hood disclosed her public conviction that she would do as she was told:

‘I will take great care,’ said Little Red Riding Hood to her mother, and gave her hand on it.

For a time, it would seem, the young girl held the private conviction that she would obey her mother’s directions:

So [the wolf–who had joined her on the way] walked for a short time by the side of Little Red Riding Hood, and then he said: ‘See, Little Red Riding Hood, how pretty the flowers are about here – why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.’ (emphasis mine)

She walked gravely along in obedience to her mother.

What comes next is a short struggle between Red Riding Hood’s private conviction and her core conviction. She finds reasons to change the former to conform to the latter.

Little Red Riding Hood raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought: ‘Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time.’

So she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers.

Her core convictions manifest by what she does, not by what she says or what she thinks.

How well do you know your characters? What areas do their public, private, and core convictions align? In what areas do they diverge? Is your character surprised that she doesn’t do what she says she believes? Does she try to change?

Get beyond your character’s internal and external goals by taking a close look at her three types of convictions.

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Know Your Characters

teen with attitude-1109209-mPerhaps nothing is more important for a novelist than to know his characters, and this fact is true regardless if the story is “plot driven” or “character driven.” In reality, the difference between those two types of stories is dependent upon the type of conflict that dominates the story–external or internal.

Clearly a story dealing primarily with a character’s internal flaw or need will depend upon knowing how that character is wired. But those stories aren’t the only ones that require an author to know his characters.

A story with external conflict front and center will have the kinds of events that deal with attempts to overcome this outside problem. Different characters will go about trying to solve the problems that confront them in different ways. Hence, an author needs to know what type of person he’s creating.

White_Collar_2009_logo.svgTake for example the main character in the TV show White Collar. He is a criminal working as a consultant to the FBI in order to stay out of prison. His methods of “consulting” vary a great deal from the detectives in a show like NCSI: Los Angeles.

He does what he does best–con, break and enter, forge, blackmail, things those on the legal side of the law can’t do. But is he nothing but a user? Something about him makes viewers care for him and cheer for him to turn from his criminal past.

Episode after episode, there is a criminal who needs to be caught, and our hero must work on behalf of the law by using his skills as a criminal. At the same time he has his own mysterious goals which sometimes put his actions on behalf of the FBI on a collision course with his actions meant to achieve his own ends.

The only way the plots for this show can work is if the writers know the character. What motivates him? What secret is he withholding from his handler?

When characters are involved, relationships develop. But relationships hinge on the inner qualities of each person. An author, therefore, must know how her character will relate to the various people in her story.

teen on cell-phone-959697-mWill a teen trust her new boyfriend or be suspicious of his intentions? Will a manager hire a yes-man for his assistant or will he find the best go-getter he can who might end up jumping ahead of him for promotion? Will a grandmother lie to protect her grandson from the policeman who accuses him of stealing from their neighbor or will she tell the truth, knowing he’ll be taken from her and put into the juvenile system?

In short, who are these people in your story? Not, what color eyes they have or how old they are, but what will they do when life turns against them, and why?

What makes them tick and how do they respond when they receive an expensive gift, learn they have cancer, watch their team win the Super Bowl, run into the boss who fired them?

As Art Holcomb said in a guest post at StoryFix, “We’re all predictably different . . . and so must our characters be.”

Unless an author intentionally crafts them to be different, however, they well might end up being stereotypical teens, or managers, or grandmothers. But if they are different, even quirky, they must have a believable reason for being different from the average person in their same shoes.

What separates them from others and why?

The better an author knows her characters, the deeper the story and the more impact it can have on readers.

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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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Filed under Action, Character Developmet, Motive, Revision, Voice, Worldview

A Story’s Bare Bones

1187803_skeleton_1What IS a story? The dictionary isn’t particularly helpful. The Oxford English Dictionary says a story is “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

Perhaps the key lies in the “for entertainment” part of the definition. Clearly anyone can give an account of a group of characters and what they do without actually telling a story.

For example, my neighbors across the street held a yard sale today, and the man down the block is mowing his lawn. Another set of neighbors is holding a party and playing loud music. Earlier today, my downstairs neighbor did her laundry in our new washer and drier.

Entertained yet?

I fulfilled the first two requirements–gave you characters and events. But entertain? Not unless you have some strange fascination with what happens in my neighborhood. 😉

The “for entertainment” part of the definition, then, is actually the place where story lives.

Perhaps the easiest way to examine a story is to take one apart. Here’s the shortest one I know:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. (by Mother Goose)

Humpty_Dumpty_In the first line we are introduced to the main character and we’re given an opening that shows us what “regular” life was like. This is critical to the success of any story.

Too many writers are in a hurry to write something blood-pumping, that will move readers to the edge of their chairs. But those scenes don’t happen unless the reader cares.

If I tell you Jeff drowned in the ocean, I doubt if anyone would think twice about the statement. We don’t know who Jeff is or why he was in the ocean. If, however, I say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean, now we might be a little intrigued. What if I changed it to say, A lifeguard named Jeff drowned in the ocean while trying to rescue a ten-year-old boy. Now there’s another level of intrigue, but not enough. We could think Jeff did something foolish or wasn’t skilled enough for the job. If we learned that a warning just went out about a riptide, that Jeff was putting up the red flag when the boy went into the water, the story begins to take shape.

The point is, first readers need to know who this person is so that they can care about him, all without boring them to death with a lot of backstory.

Line two of our example gives us the inciting incident–Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Something happened that interrupted his regular routine, that set in motion a sequence of events.

In most stories, those events are put in motion by the protagonist as a way to solve the problem which the inciting incident created. In our example, however, Humpty Dumpty is in no shape to do anything about his predicament. Instead, enter the minor characters who work on his behalf. All the kings’ horses–not one or two, but all of them–and all the kings’ men worked to rescue Humpty Dumpty. Each action increases the tension, ups the conflict. At last there is only one more horse, one more man, and they fail.

This story resolves in a sad way. Nothing they did solved Humpty Dumpty’s problem. Most stories resolve in a more hopeful or positive way, but certainly not all. But “resolve” they must. At the end of the story, readers want to know “what happened.”

How detailed the resolution, of course, is up to the author. What did the kings’ men do with what was left of Humpty Dumpty? Some authors might write that as part of their resolution.

These then are the bare bones of a story. Yes, there are muscle and flesh and skin that need to be added, but without the bones, the story won’t hang together, so it’s a good place to start.

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Filed under Characters, Inciting Incident, Plot, Story, Structure

Keep ‘Em On The Line

Fishermans_with_fish_silver_salmonSo readers are hooked with a great beginning. How does the novelist keep them engaged from that point on? Perhaps the best way to look at this subject is to start with what does not keep readers turning pages.

One way is to employ “FALSE STARTS.” If the opening scene does it’s job and intrigues, readers should be asking, what happens next?

If, instead, the writer delivers glumps of backstory, excessive description, or the “flash forward,” readers may be tempted to put the book down.

Backstory tells readers about things in which they aren’t yet interested. Excessive description requires a story to grind to a halt as the writer paints a picture (always a fun thing to watch 😉 ).

It’s so easy for a writer to think the reader will “get” that the backstory and the character or setting descriptions are vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is. Sadly, I’ve learned the hard way, this just isn’t so.

What about the flash forward?

In a writing instruction article in The Writer, Hallie Ephron says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

Prologues sometimes (often?) employ this device. The technique is designed to show a tense and intriguing scene, then stop at a cliff hanger, and go back to the beginning to show readers “how we got here.”

The story question, then, is something like, what brought this smart, capable woman to the point where her boss was so mad he fired her, forcing her to sell her home and move in with her crotchety maiden aunt? Unfortunately, the “how we got here,” which makes up the bulk of the story, by definition lacks the tension of the beginning forward action. There is no rising action because the novel started with the greatest point of tension.

If writers should avoid backstory, excessive description, and flash forwards, then what should come next? What ought to follow an opening so that it won’t come off like a false start? Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off?

Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. They must be interesting and believable, but they must also be people with whom readers can empathize.

One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with. Few people know such people in real life and fewer understand what makes them tick. Characters that are don’t connect with readers create an automatic strike against the story.

But there’s more. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through their story with no intention. These have a strike against them too.

Well-drawn characters must not only be interesting and believable, people with whom readers can empathize, they must do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through fiction, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something so integral has been missing that I could easily close the book and not finish reading. I just didn’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

An engaging character is only one element. Another is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says.

One way to create tension is to create the legitimate possibility of failure. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a story that kept readers wondering if the protagonists would succeed or fail. Frodo’s ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, his spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, even his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end?

I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal where Sauron could see him, the fellowship broke apart, King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

Finally, there needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t look like the kind of winning the reader was hoping for.

In summary, if writers are to keep readers turning pages after they’ve hooked them with a great opening, they need to avoid false starts. Openings should not fall victim to chunks of backstory, excessive description, or fast forward gimmicks.

Writers also need to create characters with whom readers can relate and for whom they can cheer.

Finally, writers must put tension on every page. Winning can’t come easily or quickly, and not necessarily in the expected manner.

With these elements in place, readers are bound to be scrambling for more time with the book so they can keep the pages turning.

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Filed under Action, Backstory, Plot