Archives for October, 2009
Who moved my cheese?
I don’t know what it is with me and cheese, but since I seem to think in dairy-related terms, I’m going to go with it. I’m going to embrace my inner cow, and talk about showing a character’s personality through the props that are central to their lives. Moo.
The book Who Moved my Cheese? is all about dealing with change in one’s life, which is akin to what this metaphor is about for authors, too.
What’s your character’s cheese?
That is, what object in your character’s life is so important to them that if it gets lost, stolen, broken, or abducted by aliens, the character will be pushed out of equilibrium.
We’ve all heard about baseball players who go into a slump when their lucky bat breaks, or some ill-mannered fan steals their lucky glove. What that shows about them is that they have externalized their success on the playing field into an object. Rather than taking credit for their skills themselves (and ownership for their failures), they credit or blame the bat, the glove, the set of cleats they’ve had since high school. Losing the bat or the glove is a clear opportunity for them to internalize their success and reclaim it, or not to and wash out of the Majors.
What works in real life works in novels. If you’re struggling for a way to smoothly and believably show something about your character—their insecurity, their faith in God, their love for their family—consider building a relationship between that trait and a physical object.
You can relate insecurity to a comfort object, like a worry stone, a ratty old baby blanket, or 12 year old scotch. Whatever they use to comfort themselves. You can relate faith in God to a set of rosary beads, a crucifix, a Saint’s Medallion, or really anything at all if it’s something that the character’s backstory connects to an intensely spiritual moment in the character’s life. Love for family can be connected to the trappings of life that we use in taking care of our families. Like a mother who expresses love through food, but who believes that the secret to her cooking lies with the old fashioned cast iron skillet that belonged to her mother and her grandmother before her.
In my earlier articles on backstory and relating character arcs to story arcs, I described a character, Dr. Lisle, who had externalized her love for her mother through the making of cheese. I showed how that could be entwined with Dr. Lisle’s outer story arc, so that her cheese becomes central to the plot resolution. But what else can we do with it?
Move their cheese
Well, we could move her cheese. This is why I suggest that you relate the character trait you want to show to a physical object, specifically because it’s something you can take away. Make it a real prop. Ok, so cheese isn’t the most traditional prop, but it can still be taken away. I could have poor Dr. Lisle develop a dairy allergy so she can neither make nor eat cheese anymore.
Now how is she going to feel? Given the degree to which she has come to rely on cheese as an integral part of the emotional sense of order in her life, she’s not likely to take it well. She may not understand exactly why, in the beginning, but she’s probably going to find herself missing her mother more. Feeling somehow adrift in the world, less connected to other people than she wants to be. All because I moved her cheese.
Aren’t I mean? Yeah, but that’s an author’s job.
It’s ok, though. She’ll get over it. Eventually, she’ll figure out that making cheese was filling an emotional role in her life formerly played by her mother, and that nothing about how she feels about her deceased mother has actually changed. She can internalize those feelings, let go of the need for the cheese, and move on.
Making it work
Ok, so you’ve decided that this strategy can fit with your current Work In Progress. To make it work, you’re going to set it up. The character’s reaction to having their cheese moved won’t be credible to the reader if you don’t first establish a couple of things. First, and most obviously, what is your character’s particular cheese? Is it a love letter from a high school sweetheart? A beat up old penny? A deck of well-worn playing cards? Whatever it is, the reader had better know that it’s important to the character.
Second, why is it important? And here, I remind each and every one, it is critical to SHOW, not to tell. You could try tossing this somewhere in chapter one:
Joe’s father taught him to play solitaire at the tender age of nine with this very deck of cards, so after his father died Joe played it all the time and even now he still plays solitaire when he’s feeling stressed.
But it won’t carry any emotional weight in chapter seven 7 when the deck cards slips out of Joe’s hand and drops down a storm drain. No. You have to show it, which means letting us know how Joe came to have the deck of cards, but also showing him actually playing cards in stressful situations several times leading up to the point where you make him lose them.
Once you’ve set up the importance of the cheese, you can go lots of different ways with it. Is the prop something your character would go to great lengths to keep? How about getting it back if it were lost or stolen? What would they do? How far would they go for it? If they’d go to extreme lengths—say, sifting an entire beach’s worth of sand to find that old beat-up penny—your setup had better support that.
Another variation isn’t to move their cheese, but merely to threaten their cheese. Ask yourself if you can create tension and drama by putting the cheese in danger. If a swarm of rats represents a significant threat to a warehouse full of cheese, ask yourself what’s the equivalent threat for the prop you’ve chosen.
But remember, whatever flavor cheese you pick, it’s there to be an outward vehicle for showing some inner character trait. So long as anything you do with the cheese results in a response from the character that involves the related personality trait, your story will be the better for it.
October 30, 2009 22:47 UTC
Character Corner: "Huge," by James Fuerst
[Note: I’m starting a new semi-regular feature here on the blog. “Character Corner” is book reviews from the perspective of showing character, not plot. Here we go!]
Last night I finished reading Huge, the debut novel by James Fuerst. We’ll get to the character stuff in a minute, but let me gush about the book in generic book review terms for a minute:
I loved this book. I give it four, maybe four and a half stars. It was awesome. Funny. Poignant. Moving in places. Very well set in its time and place (New Jersey in the 1980s). Funny. Wait, did I just say that? I did. But it was. This book had me giggling from cover to cover, and busting out laughing at its high points. It was flat out hilarious, but not just in throwaway silliness. The humor was inherent in the truly amusing circumstances Fuerst put his characters in.
Ok. Enough of that. What I really loved, and what Fuerst absolutely nails in this novel better than a lot of successful career novelists I could name, is the characterization. It’s hard to discuss characterizaton in a meaningful way without also spoiling the plot, but I’m going to try because y’all really should read this book and it would be a crime if I went and spoiled it for you.
The main character is a pre-teen boy named Eugene Smalls. Everyone calls him “Genie,” but he has decided he’d rather be called “Huge” instead, despite his diminutive physical stature. Huge Smalls. Classic. Now, you’re going to think I wrote last Friday’s article on purpose, because Huge Smalls is such a perfect example of what I was talking about, but I didn’t. Sometimes things just work out like that.
What I mean is that Huge’s view of himself is wildly at odds with how others see him. This is pretty obvious from very early on in the book. So you know that at some point he’s going to have that moment of epiphany where he realizes this and has to deal with it. Fuerst handles it brilliantly; what I won’t reveal is which of the three strategies I explained in that last article Fuerst chose for dealing with it.
Huge also has a chip on his shoulder that’s so big I’m surprised it doesn’t crush him. I’m not a big fan of this, because generally it is just a sign of an overblown ego, but I was surprised to see what Fuerst did with it. Huge’s chip on his shoulder wasn’t so much about ego as it was about armor. Fuerst did a beautiful job of portraying that particular character flaw as a defense mechanism, which did wonders to help make Huge—a difficult kid to love—into more sympathetic character.
As wonderful a character as Huge Smalls himself is, I have to tell you, I particularly liked the frog. Yes, the book has character who is a frog. No, the book is not a paranormal piece, it’s not magical realism, it’s not wizard fiction or anything like that. It’s straight-up real world stuff, but there’s a frog in it. Not only that, but the frog is actually an integral supporting cast member and a distinctive character in his own right. If that piques your interest—how can a writer turn a frog into real character without resorting to fantasy?—it should. Go read the book.
It would have been easy for Fuerst to simply make the frog be like any other person. We’ve all read talking animal stories at some point, so we’re all familiar with animal characters who, despite being four legged, nevertheless think and act pretty much like people do. My guess is that Fuerst could have gone that route and still managed to have the frog serve its necessary function in relation to the plot and Huge’s character arc.
I’m glad he didn’t, because that would have sucked compared to what he did do, which was to go deep into the mindset of a frog. The frog has froggy opinions and attitudes about the world and about Huge’s life. The frog’s perspective is completely different from Huge’s. Yet, once you understand that this frog is supposed to be an actual frog instead of a frog-shaped person, his perspective fits so exactly what you might imagine a real frog thinking and saying that the character becomes really believable.
It’s a tour-de-force of characterization. I’m tempted to make “good writers know how to think like a frog” into my new motto. The relationship between Huge and the frog is also intricate yet very well portrayed, but I can’t really tell you much more than that without getting into spoiler territory, so I won’t. Go read the book.
James Fuerst: a writer to watch
All in all Huge was a great read, and a very impressive showing for anybody, let alone a first-time novelist. I envy Fuerst’s ability to craft really funny scenes and yet blend them with a ‘huge’ amount of pathos. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what he comes up with next.
October 26, 2009 17:29 UTC
Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?
We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.
Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.
Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?
Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her
For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.
The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.
So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.
Outer character arc
An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.
The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.
For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.
I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?
Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.
Nobody is ever exactly how they seem
That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.
Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.
This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.
Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.
This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.
Do change the character after all.
This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.
An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!
October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC
Dramatic frustration: remember to keep the emotions real
Last week I wrote about how you can steal your character’s shoes in order to bring a dull character to life and create a mounting sense of drama in your plot. It’s an effective technique, but it’s not the only one for achieving those ends.
A related technique is not to steal their shoes, but rather, to make their shoes irrelevant to the task at hand. Show them that they’ve got the wrong tools for the job.
The goal is to find whatever skills and strengths makes your protagonist and everyone else believe she’s the right woman for the job, then reveal that the job isn’t what everybody thought it was so those skills are no good after all. It’s like shoe stealing, in that it forces the character to develop new skills or rely on abilities she isn’t confident about, but there’s a critical difference.
The character’s emotional response isn’t the same
If you steal the character’s shoes—if you literally make character’s assets unavailable—the character should respond with some form of the Five Stages of Grief. You’ve just subjected them to a loss. Any loss, whether it’s killing off the character’s beloved sidekick or simply taking away your sharpshooter heroine’s sniper rifle, should evoke the same pattern of emotional responses. The only difference is degree.
However, if you let the character keep her shoes but make the shoes useless, the character should show a different emotional response. There are a variety of emotions that would be believable, in response to realizing that there’s a mismatch between the character’s skills or tools, and the job at hand, depending on the situation. You’ll have to put on your empathy hat to figure out which one is right, but then, we writers ought to have that hat sewn onto our heads permanently anyway:
Frustration. This choice is apt when it’s the mismatch is the character’s own fault, or when she can credibly believe it’s her own fault. Think about how you feel when you set out to do some little odd job around the house, like tightening a loose screw on a cupboard door, only to find that you’ve trudged all the way down to the garage and back up to the kitchen with a Phillips-head screwdriver instead of a flathead. Frustrating. If the job has to be done under any sort of time pressure or other chaotic situation, that only compounds the feeling.
Anger. This is a good choice when the mismatch isn’t the character’s fault. If someone sent the highly trained sharpshooter heroine on a mission that turns out to involve sabotaging a battalion’s worth of the enemy’s heavy artillery, she would justifiably be angry about it. The core response is some version of “Why the hell did they send me?”
Fear. Consider a fear response when the stakes are high, and the mismatch elevates the danger of death or injury from failing to get the job done. The character’s sudden realization that she isn’t nearly as well equipped for the job as she thought could easily trigger a fear response. This applies to male characters just as well as female characters.
Humor. Let’s face it, sometimes a mismatch is just plain funny. Surprise is the core element of much humor, and on some level it’s going to be a surprise to turn the character’s expectations how she’s will deal with the situation on their ear. You can do this to lighten the tone of the book, at least briefly, if things have been dark and heavy for a while. Give the characters—and the reader—a little emotional high spot in the middle of the drama.
Mix it up Try combining some of these four core emotional responses into more complex, nuanced feelings. For example, combine fear and humor into a terrified character letting out a desperate laugh. Let her be laughing not in the face of danger, but simply because it’s the only way to keep her sanity while trying to survive the situation. This can create not only a vivid scene, but can work to underscore the sensation of crisis.
Always keep the emotions real.
Whatever you do, the strategy remains the same: create an obstacle for your protagonist by changing the situation she previously felt confident about into one she is ill-equipped to deal with. Watch her struggle through it, and while she does, pay careful attention to creating a believable display of emotions. Nothing sabotages a character faster than when her emotions don’t match the situation.
October 16, 2009 19:40 UTC
How to inspire readers with ordinary characters
_Editor’s Note: after discussing this subject at greater length with people on the NaNoWriMo forums, I realize I didn’t do a very good job explaining myself, so this is a re-draft of the original post. Just so you know. Even editors have to edit their own work sometimes._
Unless you have been cryogenically frozen since roughly 1995, you can’t have failed to notice that paranormal books are hot right now. H-O-T, as evidenced by Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and about a zillion others. People love them because they’re really fun. There’s no denying that.
But if you’re writing a paranormal book for younger readers, I’m going to ask you please to consider one thing.
Consider whether your protagonist really needs to have any powers.
I’m not trying to tell anybody want to do, I’m just asking that you think about it. And let me just say right up front: My reason for asking has nothing to do with plot. Your choice on the matter can certainly affect your plot in ways which may add or subtract from the overall drama, but that’s a subject for a whole other discussion. Plot is not what I’m talking about.
Perfectly fine, rip-roaring paranormal adventures, romances, detective thrillers, westerns, et cetera can and have been written using protagonists who have all kinds of paranormal abilities. If that’s what you’re keen to write, great. Those books are hot right now. Again, this isn’t about plot.
It’s about the deeper message your book sends to readers.
A YA book (and middle-grade books, too, but for purposes of this article I’m going to lump them together) can hardly avoid carrying with it a “meta” message, one that the author may or may not intend or be aware of. The message stems from how the reader empathizes or fails to empathize with the main character, in relation to the means by which the main character overcomes obstacles in the plot.
You’ve probably heard that rule of thumb about how YA readers like to read books with protagonists that are generally speaking a couple of years older than themselves. Obviously it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it tends to be the case. The reason is because those readers are looking for guidance about what’s coming for them a couple of years down the line.
Readers ask “can I see myself doing that?"
If they’re reading a vampire book, obviously they don’t expect that in a couple of years they’ll have to grow fangs or whatever. That would be stupid. But what they are looking for is a realistic portrayal of the emotional and social development of someone a couple of years older than themselves. They’re looking to see an example of what they can expect from themselves down the road a little bit.
YA readers are not usually aware of it, but that’s a great part of the appeal of those books for them. It’s an opportunity to test drive an older persona for a couple hundred pages to see how it feels. Fiction, especially fiction written in the first-person or third-person limited POV, offers a unique capacity to deliver this vicarious experience.
What’s your meta message?
If what readers see in your book is that someone a couple of years older than them is able to handle—even if it’s hard—situations the reader feels would completely overwhelm them, then that’s inspirational. That’s a positive, forward-looking message that says “Hang in there, kid. You’ll get there. Just give yourself time.”
The opposite is also true. When a reader sees a character who is older than them struggle with a difficult situation and succeed by using a paranormal ability, the meta message is completely different. Your novel may still convey an intentional message of good triumphing over evil, or the value of never giving up, or whatever it may happen to be, but below that intentional message is a meta message that this character succeeded where you, reader, would surely have failed because you don’t have a paranormal ability.
It doesn’t mean the book is a bad book (this isn’t about plot). It doesn’t mean the book isn’t fun (plenty of such books are). It doesn’t mean the writer is a bad writer or a mean, horrible, crusher of souls. That’s not what I’m saying.
Think beyond your book.
What I’m saying is that I believe YA writers have a particular opportunity to positively inspire our readers, specifically because of where our readers are in their own development and what they’re watching for in the characters they experience in books, TV, movies, and games. And with so much pressure on kids these days to grow up fast, to be dating younger and acting more mature than they’re really ready for, I think YA readers need every “Hey, relax. Slow down a bit. It’s cool” message they can get.
Think beyond your book. People didn’t used to be so sensitive to the presentation of women in fashion and cosmetics advertizing. But we’ve come to realize that the intentional “buy this!” message of the ads cannot help but carry with it an unintentional meta message about which body types are and aren’t valued in society at large. And since body type is largely out of anybody’s personal control—it’s hugely genetic—you get a lot of girls starving themselves or worse trying to conform to a shape that just isn’t natural for them.
The meta message matters, and now that people have come to recognize this about advertizing, we’re starting to see changes to mainstream ads in order to carry a more positive meta message.
The same is true for fiction as for advertizing. Any book, but YA books especially, will carry a meta message along with it. We can’t prevent that. The best we can do as authors is recognize it and keep it in the back of our minds as we make our choices about plot and character.
Have your cake, and eat it too.
There’s a valid middle ground that a lot of people on the NaNoWriMo forums weren’t shy about sharing with me, and I’d be remiss not to touch on it briefly because it makes a lot of sense: Go ahead and give your protagonist super powers, if that’s what the story calls for, but let the character’s ultimate success come not from the powers but from innate human qualities such as compassion, bravery, cleverness, self sacrifice, et cetera.
These are all perfectly ordinary abilities that any reader can aspire to develop in themselves. I’ll have to think on this some more, but a paranormally-endowed character who succeeds by virtue of ordinary human traits may even carry a stronger inspirational meta message to YA readers than a non-endowed character.
It’s a compelling argument, if only by virtue of J.K. Rowling singular example of it with Harry Potter. By the end of the series, Harry has developed considerable magical talent yet his ultimate success comes not from that but from his genuine love for his friends and his willingness to sacrifice himself for them. That, I have to admit, is inspirational.
All I’m asking is that you consider it.
You may have totally different goals for your book, and that’s fine. Your plot may require paranormal abilities in order to hang together. So be it. But ask yourself if it’s really necessary. “What if my character didn’t have any powers? How would that change things? Would the meta-message be different? If so, would it be different enough to warrant the change?”
Ultimately it is and always shall be your book, not mine. But it can’t hurt to ask “what if,” can it?
October 14, 2009 22:33 UTC
Why you should steal your character's shoes
Have you ever struggled with a character who just wouldn’t come to life? Who seemed great in your head, but who just laid there like a dead fish once you put him on the page?
Maybe you need to steal his shoes.
It may be that the character has too many advantages. You may, as the saying goes, need to make things worse before the book can get better. I learned this lesson from a fantasy novel I critiqued once, although I believe the principle applies in any genre.
The novel in question was a pretty straightforward fantasy arc: hero has to brave a bunch of dangers in order to save the princess. Nothing wrong with that at all. But the hero was, well, too heroic.
He was terribly strong, with the strength of three ordinary men. He wielded an enormous sword that most men couldn’t even lift. He was an exceptional swordsman, having been trained by the best swordmaster in all the land.
Thus fully prepared, he set off to battle.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a place in the world for hack-and-slash fantasy novels, where heroes with rippling muscles lay waste to armies of the enemy, then retire to the local tavern for a tankard of well-earned ale and a wench (not necessarily in that order). Plenty of books like that have sold plenty of copies.
However, the characterization in them is rather thin. And since this blog is all about characterization, let’s fix that.
This setup wasn’t very dramatic because the hero was too well matched to the task. His backstory eliminated any real challenge from his task. No challenge, no drama. The hero was such a bad-ass, right out of the gate, that of course we expect him to succeed. That’s boring. We need to saddle the hero with some misfortunes. We need to take him down a few pegs before we’ll have any interesting drama to work with.
We need, in other words, to steal his shoes. You can go two ways here:
Change the backstory: This is a form of shoe-stealing that takes place before the hero ever gets the shoes to begin with. Rather than having the hero be a muscle-bound, swordmaster jock, make him a skinny weakling. A shoeshine boy or barrel-maker’s apprentice or something. Give him a background that is totally ill-suited to braving dangers and saving princesses. Then, of course, put him in a position where if he doesn’t save the princess, nobody else will.
Oh, let the mighty fall By this I mean go ahead and start with the super-jock, but before he gets to the real adventure, systematically strip him of everything he thinks he needs in order to succeed. Have him break his sword. Give him a case of mono (or, it being fantasy, a curse) that saps his strength and stamina. Let a mugger rob him blind. Steal his actual shoes. Leave him bereft of everything except himself, his own inner drive to succeed, then see whether he still has the heart to brave the dangers and save the princess.
Either way is good. I mean, who do you admire more? A cookie-cutter hero who does something heroic, or a non-hero/fallen-hero facing certain death who plunges in anyway and gets the job done?
I find the latter enormously more interesting: Take away all his advantages—or never give him any to begin with—then we’ll see what he’s really made of in a crisis.
Both strategies inherently bring your character’s inner self to the fore, while heightening the danger and thus the drama. But what both strategies also do for you, as a writer, is that they also steal your crutches.
It’s easy to structure a plot in which the ubermensch hero wins. It’s seductively easy to rely on the character’s great strengths to get out of any jam or solve any problem. Sadly, things that are easy are rarely much good. But when the hero can’t win through brute force, you’ll have to create a plot in which he uses cleverness and other innate qualities to win the day. I guarantee you, it will be a much more interesting plot to read, with a much more fully developed hero.
October 09, 2009 16:12 UTC
Drive a stake through your character's heart--but in a good way!
I suspect most writers would agree with what literary super-agent Donald Maass wrote in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.
And while my name doesn’t quite carry the authoritative weight of Mr. Maass (not yet, anyway!), I hope you would equally agree with one of my recent articles on the value of intertwining plot and character arc.
Today we’ll look at how to do both—raise the stakes and intertwine the plot with the character arc—in one shot:
Give your character an identity crisis: An identity crisis is an immediate ticket to character arc. An identity crisis forces a character to question who he really is, and ultimately to grow, mature, and become wiser. An identity crisis can also destroy your character, so readers can watch him rebuild into a newer, stronger, better version of himself.
The cool part is that there is a practically limitless array of potential identity crises you can draw from to find a close connection to your plot. Linking the resolution of the plot to the character’s resolution of the identity crisis immediately raises the stakes, because it adds the character’s need for self-understanding to whatever the outer stakes of the plot happen to be.
First, let’s take a quick look under the covers to see exactly what an identity crisis is, so we can then figure out how to create one that raises the stakes. An identity crisis stems from undermining something a character feels to be deeply true about himself. It can be anything:
Belief: I am my mother and father’s biological child. Undermining: Surprise! You were adopted.
That particular example has been done a lot (in fact, I’m set to do it again next month during NaNoWriMo) but you get the idea. Find something that is an utter rock-bottom, totally taken for granted part of the character’s set of beliefs, and change it.
When you do that, you force the character to start wondering “Well, if that was a lie, what else should I stop believing in?”
Undermining beliefs about relationships creates drama because relationships are so important in people’s lives. This is why the adoption one is so common, because parental relationships are among the most important in anyone’s life. But you can make it be about anything:
Belief: When I was four I fell down on a glass bottle and it broke and that’s how I got this scar on my side. Undermining: Surprise! When you were four, one of your kidneys was removed and donated to someone else.
Suddenly you have the character wondering how he could fail to remember something like that, why his parents had made up a different story, whether it was morally acceptable for them to do that to him when he was too young to really understand or consent, whether he can ever trust them again, and even whether (since he’s missing an organ) he’s still fully human.
Plot-centric Identity Crises: Now we’re in a good place to figure out how to use our plot—or even more generally, our genre—to pick a good crisis. The trick is to think about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, and look for one that naturally lends itself to a dependency on your plot. Everyone believes a great many things about themselves, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Find that natural connection, then destroy the belief that relies on it.
And just to show that a seemingly random core belief can relate to many different kinds of plots, let’s take some ideas from different genres and see how we could tie that missing kidney crisis to it. For all of these, we’ll assume the unknowing child donor has already become an adult.
Romance: Maybe the unwilling donor’s parents sold the kidney because they were in some sort of severe financial hardship. When he discovers that his parents ended up wasting the money on high living—new car, new TV, imported beer in the fridge—ending up right back where they started from a couple of years later, he comes to feel that something has been stolen from him. He finds he cannot feel whole without knowing where his other kidney ended up. He can’t accept that his unwilling sacrifice didn’t buy something more important than beer. So he searches and finds the recipient. Although he becomes attracted to her, he doesn’t tell her she’s got his kidney. Their flirtations grow more serious, and he falls in love with her. Saving her life, he decides, was a worthy trade. When at last she reciprocates his love, he becomes able to forgive his parents; had they not sold his kidney, he never would have met her. Only on their wedding night does he finally tell her about their deeper connection.
Legal Thriller: The kidney donor has become a District Attorney who is building a case against a black-market organ donor ring. At his annual physical, he is examined by a new resident-in-training, who asks about his scar. He tells the broken bottle story, but she doesn’t believe it. She whips out the portable ultrasound machine, takes a look, and tells him “sorry, you’re down a kidney, pal.” This completely upsets the relationship he thought he had with his parents, who are now deceased. Yet, everything he knows about morality and respect for the law, everything that led him to become a D.A., he learned from those same parents. He begins questioning his own commitment to those ideals. Still, when he recovers from the shock of this news, he digs into what happened. In going through his parents’ old papers, he discovers that the same black market organ ring he’s after performed his operation, and that the kidney went to a twin brother he never knew he had. (Bonus identity crisis: Surprise! You weren’t an only child, either.) But, being a chop-shop affair, his brother got sepsis from the operation and died. The papers contain enough clues about the organ ring that he can bring an indictment both for illegal organ sales and negligent homicide. In putting the case together, he comes to understand his parents’ difficult moral-vs.-emotional choice and comes to a more tempered view of the law itself. After handing off the case to a prosecutor, he resigns his job to pursue a seat as a judge.
Literary: Sometimes it can work well for the identity crisis to drive the plot, and again we’ll use the deceased-twin-brother: Suppose the character has always known he was missing a kidney, but thought it was removed when he was young because of renal cancer. As an adult, he has become a well-known cancer activist who is prominent in cancer-survivor support groups. His whole life unravels when he discovers that, again, his kidney was donated to a sick brother, and worse, it was his brother who had cancer, not him. Having subsumed “cancer survivor” so deeply into his own identity, the revelation that he never had it undermines his whole life and career. Should he keep quiet, or tell everyone the truth about himself? What about all the other survivors who have drawn inspiration from his supposed example of recovery and long-term health? Does he have a moral right to deny them that hope, when for many of them hope is a critical part of why they’re clinging to life at all? How can he maintain the same passion for his work when it’s not personal for him anymore? In the end, he resolves his identity crisis—and the outer plot issues—by shifting that part of his self-identity to “sibling of cancer victim” and establishing a new personal connection to what has become his life’s work.
Conclusion: I derived all of these examples by thinking about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, then looking at the premise and genre to find the specific belief to upend that best serves the story. However you manage it in your own story, whether the plot determines the crisis or vice versa, raise the stakes by driving a stake through your character’s heart.
October 06, 2009 21:14 UTC
Character development tips from K.M. Weiland, author of Behold the Dawn
Ms. Weiland is in the middle of a “blog tour” to promote her book, and has made time in her busy schedule to share with us some of her tips and experiences with creating the kind of lively characters this blog is all about.
Tell us about your favorite character from one of your books, a character that you particularly enjoyed writing. Why does that one stand out for you?
Marcus Annan, the hero of my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn, is easily one of my all-time favorites. He was one of those special characters who leapt off the page and took on a life of his own. He was inspired, largely, by the real-life knight William Marshall, who was considered the “greatest knight who ever lived.” I read a children’s book about this son of a lord, who, because of his lack of inheritance as a second-born child, sought his fortune in the tourneys. I was instantly fascinated by these huge mock battles, which were repeatedly banned by the popes and yet remained wildly popular, and I began wondering how the lives of the competitors would have been shaped by their brutal and dangerous exploits. In Marcus Annan, I got to explore at least one answer to that question.
What’s your take on backstory? How much do you create for your characters, and how much of it ends up in the book?
I’m actually a tremendous fan of backstory. I have to laugh sometimes when I look at my stories, because their backstories are often twice the size of the stories themselves! Ernest Hemingway once spoke about how a good story is like an iceberg: nine-tenths of it is underwater and out of sight. That’s pretty much how I approach backstory. I want to know everything I possibly can about my characters, and I often fill up whole notepads with my character sketches and interviews. The information I uncover during these exercises is invaluable. It gives me depth, character motivation, and sometimes entirely unforeseen plot twists—as in the case of Behold the Dawn. As far as I’m concerned, backstory is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.
However, it’s vital to keep all this intoxicating information in perspective. The best backstories are those that carry the story proper, instead of weighing it down. As with research, it can be tempting to share everything with the reader, either because you’re mistakenly convinced they’ll find it just as interesting as you do—or as a way of patting yourself on the back for all your hard work. Backstory, for the most part, needs to remain invisible. Its proper place, after all, is in back of the story.
Tell us about a character who pushed your story in an unexpected direction.
Characters always push stories in unexpected directions. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be much point, would there? If a character fails to pop off the page, then he isn’t worth my time. That isn’t to say, of course, that I haven’t struggled with certain characters, trying to figure them out and find the magic button that will bring them to life. But every character in every one of my completed novels has taken on a life of his own. And, to one extent or another, they’ve all manipulated their stories to suit themselves.
How important are character arcs to your novels? What’s your strategy for relating the outer plot events to the characters’ inner personal journeys?
My stories are plot-driven, but they start and end with characters and the thematic depth they bring to the table. The stories that move me most are those that exhibit great depth and, inevitably, growth in the life of the main characters. I am inspired and I am challenged by these stories. That same reaction is what I’m seeking from my own readers.
Character arcs and themes are inseparable; to have strength in one area, you must also have strength in the other. So I usually start my search for a character arc by searching out a character’s core needs and motivations. Buried somewhere within one of those, I usually find the pulse of the theme. I would say I look for the lesson the character needs to learn, but that sounds too moralistic. The key to strong themes is that they flow organically from the heart of the characters. Subtlety is vital. I’m a novelist, an entertainer. It’s not my job to bash people over the head with lessons. But I do strive, through the growth of my characters, to give readers something deeper than just entertainment. I want my stories to have take-away value; I want them to be remembered, not just for dialogue or action scenes, but for some truth that connected with the reader on a primal level.
Whose books should we be reading for great examples of well drawn, fully three-dimensional characters? What do those authors do particularly well in their characterization?
Patrick O’Brian. His historical Aubrey/Maturin series is mind-blowing. I’ve never read an author who made it look so effortless, so seamless. In fact, he’s one of the few authors who almost entirely disguises himself working behind the scenes. He wrote, not as though he was creating these characters from scratch, but as if he were simply recording the lives of people who really lived and breathed. You put down one of his books and almost forget it’s not real.
I’m also a big fan of Orson Scott Card. His body of work is uneven, but when he’s on, he’s on. I remain particularly impressed with how skillfully he revealed his main character through the actions of other characters in Speaker for the Dead.
What character building tip would you like to share with my readers?
Interviews. As an in-depth outliner, I’m very comfortable spending months on “pre-production” work, and one of the most important steps in that work is my character sketches. Over the years, I’ve created an extensive list of “interview” questions, which I use as a guideline when crafting characters. It’s important to me to know my characters backwards and forwards, so my questions cover even such seemingly inconsequential details as favorite foods, birthdays, and collections. I answer the questions longhand because, for some reason, my semi-illegible handwriting gives me the permission to eschew perfectionism and really tap into the vagaries of my subconscious. I interview different characters at varying depths. POV characters get the full interview, while minor characters and antagonists often get only a sketch of their personal histories. Anyone interested in my list of interview questions can find them on my blog, Wordplay.
Thank you, K.M. Weiland, for appearing as the first guest interview on Show Some Character! There’s some great advice in there that I’m sure readers will appreciate; I know I can’t wait to interview the heroine in my work-in-progress. May you have every success with Behold the Dawn!
About the Author: K.M. Weiland ( www.KMWeiland.com ) writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.
October 04, 2009 06:17 UTC
How to make a great novel out of a cheesy premise
Last time we visited our cheese-making pediatrician, we looked at appropriate use of backstory. Today, I’m going to show how we can elevate a novel from good to great by relating the doctor’s emotional needs to the plot she’s embroiled in.
Good novels have good pacing, rising tension, and a satisfying climax, but they leave their characters essentially unchanged. Great novels change their characters along the way, too. The characters leave the book wiser or with a different perspective on life than on page one.
Note: you can’t do this merely by tacking a “So what have we learned, Jimmy?” scene onto the end.
A great novel gives its important characters an emotional need, and uses the events of the plot to explore how that need shapes the character’s choices and beliefs. That is, a great novel has a character arc as well as a story arc. The two are tightly inter-twined, often by forcing the character to confront the emotional need in order to resolve the plot.
Dr. Lisle is a pediatrician, the daughter of a French couple who moved to the states in the early ‘70s. As a hobby, she makes cheese—her specialty is Roquefort—a craft she took up to address her mother’s incessant complaints that she just couldn’t get a good wheel of Roquefort here in the U.S. Now that her mother has passed, Dr. Lisle still makes cheese as a way of maintaining an emotional connection to her mother.
We can discover a plot that supports a character arc from this backstory by alternating between analysis and plotting.
Analysis: We’ve got her backstory already, so what emotional need does Dr. Lisle’s derive from that? She longs for someone dear who is gone. She is lonely. What she needs is a new, deep connection to someone else. But she’s not going to be able to get that until she lets go of her mother. As a doctor she knows the reality of death, yet she hasn’t deeply accepted her own mother’s demise.
Plotting: Let’s say our basic plot, as hinted at in those earlier posts, involves saving the life of a politician’s child. Except we already know that we’re going to need to do something in the plot to force her to face her mother’s death. So maybe, although the life of a child is already pretty high stakes, we need to let the kid die. Sucks, but there it is.
Analysis: Now the politician, Governor Adams, has the same emotional wound as Dr. Lisle. Further, he’s probably pretty pissed at her for not saving his child, even though she did everything she could.
Plotting: Because he’s so angry, and naturally looking for someone to blame and punish, he uses his power to threaten her hospital’s accreditation. If the hospital closes, a lot more people will die because of lack of care, which is raises the stakes nicely. The hospital’s Chief of Medicine orders Dr. Lisle to fix the situation.
Analysis: How can she do that? Well, since they both have the same emotional wound, she knows exactly what he’s going through. If she can get him to see that she empathizes with him, maybe he’ll back off.
Plotting: She shows up at Adams’s office with a wheel of cheese as a peace offering. Naturally he is not thrilled to see her. That’s an obstacle for her to overcome, which she can only do by spilling her guts about her feelings over her mother’s death. When he learns that she actually made the cheese she has brought, rather than simply buying it from a deli, he lets her in.
Analysis: This is a critical spot for the story. Dr. Lisle is herself on the brink of a cathartic moment of healing, but must also guide the Governor through his own grief.
Plotting: They talk. He has some stale crackers in the office left over from a fundraiser the night before. They eat the cheese, share memories of their lost loved ones, and form a bond. He asks her “how did you get past it?” She admits that she hasn’t, except in that moment she realizes she has. In talking about it she can feel herself letting go of the hurt. Not the memories, just the hurt.
Analysis: The cheese has become a metaphor for her emotional pain. In sharing it with Governor Adams—and eating it—it has gone away.
Plotting: In the end, she helps him find a way to stay connected to his son by convincing him to take up his son’s baseball card collecting hobby. He drops his vendetta against her and the hospital. The book ends with the suggestion that the two of them may pursue a deeper relationship of their own.
Conclusion: Who knew that would turn into a romance novel? You follow the story where it takes you. But you can see how at every point we link Dr. Lisle’s emotional wound to the events of the story. We even took the Governor on a journey of his own; it’s not as fully developed as Dr. Lisle’s, but it’s there. He, too, is in a better place at the end of the novel than when we meet him.
That tight coupling between inner and outer journeys is what can elevate a good novel to great. By the time the outer plot is resolved, so is her inner emotional need. Readers are happy not just that the hospital has been saved, but also that Dr. Lisle isn’t so sad about her mother anymore, and that there is hope on the horizon for ending her loneliness, too.
I want you to take a look at your current work-in-progress to see whether you’ve done this. Ask what your main characters’ emotional needs are, and whether those needs are appropriately related to the events of the plot. Make plausible connections wherever you can and you can elevate your novel from good to great too.
October 02, 2009 18:31 UTC