Tag Archives: Characters

Characters Need To Act–Even In Pitches

“Conference season” is approaching. Well, perhaps it’s in full bloom. At any rate, chances are, serious writers are considering a conference or two they’d like to attend this year because they will have the opportunity to meet agents and editors and perhaps pitch their story.

So what is a pitch? I thought this might be the time to reprise the article about crafting the pitch for a story. Here’s the revised version of the one that appeared here in November 2012.

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I’ve read too many novels in which the main character has no plan of action. Things happen, and he responds when necessary. In other words, he is reactive, which means outside forces are largely responsible for any character development that might occur.

Some time ago agent Rachelle Gardner allowed writers to post in the comments section of her blog one-sentence story pitches which whittle a novel to its bare bones—the premise.

According to former agent Nathan Bransford, there are three necessary elements in a twenty-five word pitch:

– The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
– The obstacle
– The quest

Gardner expands on this to include the following:

→ A character or two
→ Their choice, conflict, or goal
→ What’s at stake (may be implied)
→ Action that will get them to the goal
→ Setting (if important) [emphasis mine]

In the template she borrowed from Mr. Bransford, the character is to “overcome the conflict.” She then gives an example pitch she borrowed from Randy Ingermanson of a well-known story in which the character “battles for his life.” (Examples are always helpful!)

In response to Gardner’s invitation, many writers bravely put their pitches out for critique. However, I noticed one commonality—not universal, but frequent: the recurring actions in which the characters engaged in these pitches were things like “revealing” or “discovering” or “finding.”

Yes, those are verbs and therefore actions, but they are not graphic or explicit. They aren’t necessarily reactive, but they don’t show what the character is actively pursuing.

I’ll be the first to admit—writing an active pitch is not easy.

For one thing, not every story has a character hunt down the killer or free the princess. Some stories key in on the protagonist’s inner struggle, but the key word there is “struggle.” The hard work of facing life as a victim of rape or of recovering from a divorce or fighting out of addiction or any of the other cataclysmic events that can change a person, must still come through as active in a pitch.

A character can defeat her doubts or conquer her fears, but she can also do something more particular in your novel. The more unique or original, and active, the verb in your pitch, the more likely it will catch an agent’s or editor’s attention.

Here’s the pitch I wrote of a few familiar stories (fictitious or true). Do they sound intriguing? Do you recognize them or are they too general?

  • When a trusting king expects instant riches from the miller’s daughter, she must outsmart a magical imp to save her life and that of her firstborn son.
  • When a rebellious prophet sails away from God, he must survive the stormy consequences of his rebellion and repent in order to escape a watery grave.
  • When a family leaves their secluded home for a day, they must solve the mystery of the disturbing break-in that decimated their daughter’s belongings.
  • A loyal lieutenant must escape through a window and live like a fugitive in order to avoid the undeserved murderous rage of his father-in-law, the king.

No doubt you can improve on these, but each contains action. And action is what you want to show those reading your pitch.

Now it’s your turn.

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Repetition Has Many Faces

statue-many-facesGenerally repetition in writing refers to the author’s use of a word or phrase more than once within a passage such as a sentence or perhaps a paragraph or scene. Unless used intentionally, such repetition can be distracting (See “Repetition And Redundancy” for a closer look at this type of repetition) .

However, repetition has more than one face.

For instance, an author may unintentionally give several characters the same quirk. The main character may “worry her bottom lip” in the first chapter, third chapter, and fourth. That’s her tic. But then in chapter five in waltzes a minor character who begins to “worry her bottom lip.” If the mother-in-law and then the pastor’s wife and the sheriff’s deputy all start “worrying their bottom lip,” we have a serious problem.

But even if the repetition doesn’t spread that far, it’s still problematic. Certainly people share nervous habits and even quirks, but the author has used the same wording, which prevents the readers from seeing the peculiarity of the way these two characters, who share the habit, carry it out.

This same principle applies to dialogue as well. If one character has a pet word or ends sentences with something out of the ordinary such as, “so how about that?” no other character should share that tell.

Sometimes the dialogue repetitions are more subtle—the cadence of a sentence, a questioning inflection, specific vocabulary. Each character should have his or her own voice, but when the unusual pops up in Dorothy’s speech and Jasmine’s speech and Miguel’s speech, there’s a problem. Unless the author intentionally shows the characters mimicking each other or coming from an environment that would reasonably influence them to talk in similar ways.

A third face of repetition is that of scenes. Especially in romance and action adventure, love scenes and fight scenes should have a uniqueness so that readers don’t think they lost their place and are re-reading an earlier scene. There should be something different about each battle, about each romantic encounter. Otherwise, that which should engender emotion becomes a source of boredom.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve experienced this kind of ho-hum attitude in some superhero movies. Another monster tipping over cars and kidnapping the hero’s love interest and smashing buildings. Wake me when it’s over. I suppose for those who love the special effects or who haven’t watched a superhero movie before, all the explosions and near misses can be exciting. But the repetition of them reduces tension since we’ve seen that scene before. And reduced tension kills fiction.

Finally, characters can be repeats. No, not precisely so, not in every facet. But authors would be wise to vary some basic character components, starting with physical features. I’ve read manuscripts, for example, with an inordinate number of blue-eyed characters. Or green-eyed. Or both.

In one of my early drafts, I realized I had created all my characters tall. In the same way, be sure that all your characters aren’t beautiful or muscular.

Character social status should also be varied. Besides making my characters tall, I created all of them single. Not particularly realistic. Of course, not every character should be married, either. In fact, not every character should be rich or middle class. Not every character should come from a sordid past. Not every character should live in the suburbs. Not every character should be brilliant or talented or college-educated. Not every character should attend the same church, nor should they all reject religion. Unless, of course, the storyworld you’ve created requires this kind of uniformity.

Aphid_on_dandelionOne more thing writers should avoid when creating characters—making them all the same age. People your story with old as well as young, those facing death and those about to be born, the newly married and the fifty-something’s celebrating their silver anniversary.

A story with variety is much more interesting than one seeded with repetition. Be aware of repetition’s many faces so you can squeeze the life out of the ones you don’t intentionally plant in your story.

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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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Vocabulary, Word Choice, And Fiction

SpellingBee2011-JamacianContestantAn author’s vocabulary and word choice are closely associated, as I realized when reading Stephen R. Lawhead‘s The Skin Map, Book 1 of the Bright Empires series.

Vocabulary is at the heart of language, and therefore, of writing. An author cannot use words he does not know. Consequently, it seems prudent for any serious writer to do whatever he can to improve his vocabulary.

The easiest method, perhaps, is to read widely. However, some writers take such pleasure in words, they regularly study them. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins is just such a writer. As a blogger at Forensics and Faith, she shared weekly a new set of words (see for example this vocabulary post), and frequently tweets a new word.

In The Skin Map, I encountered a steady offering of new words—conurbation, telluric, feculent, aubergine, imprimatur. Often the meaning of these words was clear in context. On occasion, I paused in my reading to look up a new offering.

And there is the question—should an author include words that might not be widely understood, chancing that a break in comprehension will damage the “fictive dream” to the extent that the reader won’t want to continue, or will, at least, pause before again buying a book by that author?

The answer to this question actually brings the discussion to word choice. Presumably an author such as Mr. Lawhead who would use a word like feculent could just as easily have chosen to write foul, filthy, or polluted instead. He did not, meaning that he chose a more precise, though less used, word for a reason.

What should an author consider when making such word choices? I don’t think “most common” should be the hard and fast rule, or books will all descend to the level of fifth grade readers, much as TV writing has. At the same time, peppering a story with “fifty dollar” words for the sake of sounding erudite is foolish.

Writing is first and foremost communication. Words that obscure meaning must go. Words that may be difficult can stay as long as the author has a reason for them and creates a context that makes their meaning accessible. Look, for example, at Mr. Lawhead’s use of telluric.

Into the invisible square the old man drew a straight diagonal line. “A ley line,” he said, speaking slowly—as one might to a dog, or dull-wited child, “is what might be called a field of force, a trail of telluric energy. There are hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, all over Britain, and they have been around since the Stone Age.” (from The Skin Map, p. 18)

Notice that the word I’ve labeled “difficult” is describing a type of energy and is renaming “a field of force.” Though this passage may not give a reader enough to come up with a synonym for “telluric,” it nevertheless gives enough for someone unfamiliar with the word to keep reading without having missed anything central to the scene.

In addition, the word appears in dialogue. Much of word choice in fiction must be made in relation to the characters. Is a word too sophisticated for a street urchin? To common for an aristocrat? Too antiquated for a twenty-first century teen?

Choosing words with characters in mind is especially important when writing in a close third person narrative. An author has more latitude when writing, as Mr. Lawhead was in The Skin Map, in an omniscient point of view with an unseen narrator. Beyond dialogue, he could choose words that fit with the narrator persona or with the main character of each particular scene.

In summary, an author should make it his goal to expand his vocabulary. Then, when making word choices from the wealth of his vocabulary, he must consider how clearly his words communicate as well as how consistently they represent his characters.

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This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Vocabulary and Word Choice” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in November 2010.

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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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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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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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