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Make 'em beg!

This is part three in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.

Look at that kid. Pathetic, isn’t he? I wonder what he’s begging for. Candy? Ice cream, maybe? Five more minutes to play? Whatever it is, do you think he’s going to get it?

Fat chance.

If you’ve read part 1 and part 2 of this series, you know that the first two stages in the five stages of grief are denial and anger. After that comes bargaining, or as it’s better known to any parent whose kids are at least three years of age, hopelessly pathetic begging.

Psychologically, here’s what’s going on. When you encounter an unpleasant surprise, you first go through denial, which gets you nowhere. Next, you experience anger, because the unpleasant surprise represents an affront to your mental view of how the world should be. But anger doesn’t change anything either. You’re still left with the same unpleasant surprise you had in the beginning. Now you’re beginning to get worried: You might actually have to deal with this unpleasant surprise, and who wants that? No thanks!

So what do you do next? You appeal to a higher power. You plead with whoever or whatever seems to have actual control over the situation. If you’re a kid, it’s probably your mom or dad. If you’re a person who just received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, the authority figure is probably your doctor. If you’ve simply experienced an ordinary bit of random bad luck, the authority figure might be God.

Whoever or whatever it is, you beg. You shamelessly and desperately beg.

Psychologists call this stage “bargaining,” but if you ask me that’s completely wrong. Bargaining implies a rational discussion between peers, which this definitely isn’t. This stage of the emotional process of coming to terms with misfortunes, whether great or small, is anything but rational. In this stage, people flat-out beg. They’ll abase themselves horribly in the slim hope of somehow avoiding the problem.

Regardless, to call it begging or bargaining is still missing the point. Begging and bargaining are just behaviors, the outer representations of an inner emotional state:

Desperation.

Truly, desperation is what comes after anger. That’s what we writers need to focus on. In the same way that anger is merely an outer response to recognizing the unavoidable reality of something you don’t like, begging is just the outer response to an inner emotion of desperation.

Begging is just a stalling tactic. It is the ragged shreds of hope that, somehow, if some higher authority deigns to intervene on your behalf, you might just squeak by and avoid having to face that unavoidable reality after all. Underneath those surface actions, anger yields to a desperate desire not to face the problem. That desire often comes out in the form of begging.

Degrees of desperation

But not always. Of the five stages, I would argue that this one is the most dispensable. In your novels, you can more easily skip this stage than any other. You’ll have to decide whether that’s a good idea, but in my opinion readers are less likely to question your characters if they skip the begging than any other stage.

This is because people have a pretty wide range in terms of how well they handle bad news. Kids don’t handle it well at all. When you say “Come on, Sam, it’s time to go home,” the first thing they do is say “No!” That’s denial. Then they throw a tantrum. Anger. Then they beg for five more minutes, pleeeeze!

People who have learned how to handle responsibility tend to bargain less in the face of bad news. People who have learned the life lessons about the necessity of taking action in order to shape their fate, tend to look at a bad situation and say “ok, that sucks. Now what can I do about it?” People who haven’t learned these things, they beg.

Did you catch the character development lesson there? Bargaining signals desperation, which is a itself a sign of emotional immaturity. It is a sign of someone who isn’t facing the responsibility that is properly theirs.

To show a responsible, mature person, skip the bargaining. Or offer it up in a form that the character doesn’t expect to be taken seriously. Let the character make a joke about it, or express a brief moment of bargaining through a clearly rhetorical question that they don’t expect anyone to take seriously.

For example, put your character in a restaurant. When the bill arrives, let her discover she has left her purse in the car. She could smile sheepishly at the waiter and say “I don’t suppose you’d take an IOU?” Of course he wouldn’t. She knows she’s going to have to endure some social embarrassment in asking someone from the restaurant to escort her to the car to retrieve her purse so they know she won’t run out on the bill. Her own mistake has caused a situation she’d rather avoid, but she’s mature enough to take responsibility for it, and thus she doesn’t beg.

An immature character, on the other hand, might well try hard to talk her way out of the situation. “Oh, you know me! I’m good for it. I come in here all the time. Just let me write you an IOU, I’ll make sure to come here for lunch tomorrow and pay for it then. Come on, please? I’ll give you a really big tip.” Beg, beg, beg. It’s pathetic, desperate, and everyone can see it except the character herself.

Why begging works

Or, I should say, the reason begging works in your novel is exactly because it almost never works for the character. You think the waiter or the restaurant manager is really going to just let the begging lady walk out without paying? Hardly. The reason begging works to show desperation, the reason it’s an effective strategy for showing this emotional state in your characters, is because begging almost never yields the desired result for the beggar.

Nor should it.

Let that sink in. If your character begs for a get-out-of-jail-free card, and you give it to them, you’re succumbing to the deadliest urge a writer can fall prey to: being too kind to your characters. Don’t do it. It destroys the drama of the situation, and, in fact, of the whole book. If you let a character beg their way out of trouble, it tells the reader you’re not serious about letting your character ever face genuine danger. It’s exactly the same as if you let your kids successfully beg for five more minutes of TV before bed. All that tells them is that you’re not really serious about the rules you’re setting for them.

Conclusion. Psychologists call this stage bargaining, but never forget what it’s really about: desperation. The degree of bargaining your characters show is a dead-on clue to the reader about how mature the character is in facing problematic situations. This does two good things for you.

First, it’s prime territory for a character arc. Let your character beg—and fail—early in the book, but grow and mature as the book proceeds until at the end, in a pivotal moment, she doesn’t beg at all but simply gets down to work.

Second, letting your character fail to talk her way out of a bad situation early in the book does wonders for building your credibility with the reader. If they see you resisting that deadly urge to go easy on her—if they see you letting her fail to talk her way out of a speeding ticket, which then leads to her insurance rates going up such that she can’t afford to have her car anymore—then when you get to that big pivotal moment at the book’s climax, they’ll believe that the stakes are real. They’ll believe in the danger the character is facing, because they’ll believe you’re serious about enforcing the consequences.

< Back to part 2: Anger | Forward to part 4: Depression >

March 31, 2010 17:18 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, bargaining, desperation, credibility, responsibility

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I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!

This is part two in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.

After denial comes anger. Pictured here is Peter Finch’s character from the movie Network, in which he delivers what is perhaps the original epic rant, culminating in the immortal line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Finch’s character is a TV news anchor. He has been living in denial for too long—expressed in the “ignore it and carry on as if nothing happened” mode—about the dysfunctional relationship between the media, the public, and the corporate and governmental powers that control our lives. This scene is where his denial finally gives way to anger.

If you haven’t seen this movie—and a lot of readers may not have, as the movie itself never achieved quite the mass consciousness that Finch’s immortal quote has—it’s worth watching for this scene alone. Watch it, and feel the dramatic power of that anger unleashed. Pay attention to how right it feels, emotionally, when Finch’s character finally stops denying an ugly truth he has ignored for so long.

Anger is the first sign of recognition

After all, you can’t really be mad at something that doesn’t exist, nor can you be mad at something you don’t see as a problem. And the previous stage, denial, is all about preventing your characters from recognizing the existence and problematic nature of the misfortunes that you, the writer, throw at them.

So give us some anger to signal this critical change in the character’s view of the situation. It may be a Finchian epic rant. It may pass by in a moment, with little more than a look of rage flashing across someone’s face. But we’d better see some anger or we won’t really believe that the character truly gets the situation. Anger is your tool for showing the reader that the character understands.

Anger is incredibly versatile in how you show it. I hardly think you need me to list different ways of showing anger—if you do, I’ll have to ask what planet you grew up on first. However, anger isn’t just a one-trick pony. It can do a lot more than simply show that change from denial of a problem to recognition of it. Anger also shows a lot (really, really a lot) about your characters. When you’re deciding what form the anger should take, it pays to ask yourself these three questions:

How is the character expressing the anger? You’ve got two broad options here, inwardly or outwardly. Some people seethe in a quiet rage. Others—like Finch—explode. Consider your character’s personality. If he’s a quiet, introspective thinker, you can go with a more inwardly directed form of anger. If your character is a more impulsive, action oriented person, then an outwardly visible expression may serve you better.

Who or what is the character directing the anger at? Anger comes from many sources, but remember, here we’re talking about the anger that follows denial. Inherently, this type of anger that stems from situations a character doesn’t like. But that leaves the character with a bit of a dilemma in expressing the anger: where do you direct it? You can’t exactly yell at a situation. It won’t hear you.

But you can yell at people around you. You could go stare in the bathroom mirror and yell at yourself. You could punch a hole in a wall. We talk metaphorically about “releasing” anger, as though it were a some noxious gas held in a pressurized bottle. Literally, that’s not true but it’s a great metaphor because it helps you think about how a character can plausibly express the anger. When released—when converted into outward expression—it has to go somewhere.

A character’s choice of who or what they direct that situational anger at tells the reader volumes about their personality. Someone who punches a hole in a wall is very different than someone who goes to the gym, puts on a pair of puffy gloves, and takes their anger out on an innocent punching bag. They are both outward, violent expressions of anger directed towards inanimate objects. Yet, the difference could not be clearer: one is impulsive and reckless, risks a broken hand, and only creates another mess to deal with later. The other recognizes the anger, the need to deal with it, and the wisdom of dealing with it in a way that isn’t going to harm anyone or cause any messes.

Why is the character expressing anger this way? That may seem like a silly question, since of course the character is angry because of some situation he doesn’t like. But that’s not the question I want you to ask. Don’t confuse “why is the character angry?” with “why is the character expressing his anger in this particular way?” That is, does the character have any other motives for choosing this particular mode of venting his anger?

Again, let’s look at Peter Finch’s character from Network. The situation that has him so riled up, the root cause of his anger, is that he is finally admitting that the TV news media isn’t doing a good job of engaging with the public so as to cause the public to be properly incensed at what’s going around them. The news media are down-playing real and serious social injustices that Finch’s character believes people ought to be mad about. Thus he has chosen to engage in a live, on-air epic rant with a purpose. He wants to wake people up, to energize them towards a higher purpose of demanding better from their world. In that sense, it is a very noble expression of anger.

On the flip side, you have characters who go ballistic simply because they lack any internal self-governance. They flip out because they aren’t mature enough to do anything more useful with their anger. You can use these two alternatives—conscientious anger versus pointless anger—or something in between to show differences both in maturity and intellect: if a character has an opportunity to direct their anger in a way that helps address the underlying situation, then certainly it would be clever of them to do so.

Conclusion. When a character is done with denial, give us some anger. But be strategic in the kind of anger you let the character show. Ask yourself the how, the who-and-what, and the why behind the character’s expression of anger. Use it to do more for your scene, for your character, and for your book than simply to signal the shift from denial to recognition.

< Back to part 1: Denial | Forward to part 3: Bargaining >

March 29, 2010 18:57 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, anger

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If you only knew the power of denial

Some time ago, I wrote an article on the Five Stages of Grief as a roadmap for helping you portray your characters’ emotional responses more realistically. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do a series exploring each of those five stages in greater depth. This is part one.

Remember this scene from Empire Strikes Back? Of course you do. It’s only one of the more iconic moments in all of cinema history. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader engage in a pitched light-saber duel. Vader cuts off Luke’s hand, and the wounded Luke crawls out to a precarious perch on the end of a metal gantry. Vader walks out and utters the immortal line “I am your father.” What are the next words out of Luke’s mouth?

“No. That’s not true. That’s impossible!”

They are pure denial. Emotionally, that’s why this scene works. A whole film’s worth of dramatic plot has led up to this one moment at the film’s heart. And in this moment, the success of the film rests on the believability of Luke’s reaction to this news.

And whatever you may think of George Lucas’s later Star Wars films, you have to give him credit here. In this moment, Lucas absolutely nails it. [Addendum: YouTube has this scene here. Enjoy!]

Denial.

It is the core, instinctive response human beings give when confronted with events, situations, and news they don’t like. Really, anything that counts as an unpleasant surprise—of any kind and any severity—calls for a commensurate show of denial.

Vader goes on to say “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.” And deep down, Luke probably does. But Luke Skywalker’s denial in this scene is so strong it dictates what happens next. Rather than admit what Vader has said, he instead chooses death. He lets go of his tenuous hold on the gantry, plunging into the depths below. He lets go, fully expecting to die, rather than face the truth. And we believe every second of it.

The power of denial

In the scene, Darth Vader waxes on about the power of the dark side, but what we see here is the power of denial to utterly engage the viewer’s belief in the emotional reality of the scene. We believe it because that’s how real people behave, and having spent our lives being and interacting with real people, we all know it.

That’s it in a nutshell. When we give our characters unpleasant surprises, they need to react with denial. Furthermore, the duration and intensity of the denial should be in proportion to the severity of the unpleasant surprise. Big things demand denial, but even little things deserve it too.

For example, if you open the refrigerator to grab some milk for your morning coffee, but you’re unexpectedly out of milk because your spouse got up for a midnight snack and drank it all, that’s an unpleasant surprise. It’s a conflict between expectations and reality. Your immediate reaction is “What? We’re out of milk?” Quite likely you will bend down to take a closer look inside the fridge, just in case the carton got shoved to the back or something. That’s denial.

It’s small and believable denial—it is in proportion to the event—but it’s still denial. Conversely, you wouldn’t run out to the nearest gun store, buy a semi-automatic, and go on a shooting rampage just because you were out of milk. That would be out of proportion and hard to believe without some prior indications that you were mentally unbalanced. Unless you do have a character who is unhinged, keep it in proportion.

So how do you show it in your novels? There are endless ways to show denial, but they boil down to three broad strategies:

Outright rejection of the unpleasant surprise. This is the one Luke Skywalker uses in Empire. It’s a good choice for big events. Find a way for your character to literally reject what she’s seeing, hearing, or experiencing. This may be verbally, as when Luke says “That’s impossible!” It may be through actions, as when Luke lets go of the gantry. The choices are almost limitless, but whatever you choose it needs to be something that conveys the rejection of truth.

Ignore it. This is when a character receives the unpleasant surprise, but then blithely carries on as though nothing at all had happened. This is a good choice when the unpleasant surprise is something that violates accepted norms of social behavior. It’s that impulse to think “if I ignore it, maybe it’ll go away” or “if I ignore it, maybe nobody else will notice it either.” By way of example, I can only tell the following true-life story.

A couple of years ago, I was at the zoo with my kids. We passed through the chimpanzee habitat, where we came upon a cluster of visitors all crowding around one view window. Now, as you may know, chimps groom each other. It’s just one of their social rituals, helping pick bugs out of each other’s fur and so forth. Being tall, I could look over the heads of the crowd to see that in this case one chimp was grooming another’s genitals, and the latter seemed to be quite relaxed and enjoying the attention.

Never have I seen such a strong nothing to see here, move along reaction from the parents around me. My kids were too young to understand why this was funny or embarrassing to anybody (and I was pleased not to have to explain it to them), but the parents of older kids’ parents were in full scale ignore-it denial mode.

Rationalization and justification. This is a different form of denial, in which the character recognizes the problem but denies that it is actually a problem. Classically (and tragically) we see this very often with domestic violence and drug abuse situations. Battered wives blame themselves, rather than the husband. Alcoholics recognize that they drink a lot, but they deny that it’s affecting their lives. Or they justify it by saying that they need to drink in order to cope with the difficulties in their lives.

What’s really going on in these situations is that the person is not in denial about the problem itself, but rather, about the solution. The battered wife may not want to leave the abusive husband, because that means uprooting her whole life and the lives of her children. The alcoholic doesn’t want to give up drinking, because there are genuinely pleasurable aspects to it. The solutions these people are fully aware of are themselves difficult, and thus are scary, and thus cause this form of denial.

Conclusion. Fiction thrives on conflict, which at its heart is about facing characters with problems, misfortunes, tragedies, and all other manner of unpleasant surprises. At its best, fiction succeeds by showing us how characters overcome these events. Yet, too often writers want to go from the problem straight to the solution. They want to jump from the tragedy, straight to the cathartic moment of healing. They want, as it were, to jump straight to the end of the five stages of grief.

You can do that, but it won’t be emotionally believable to the reader. To make it believable you have to show the full five-stage response. And it always starts with denial.

Forward to part 2: Anger >

March 26, 2010 18:57 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, denial

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The other half of the sympathy equation

In my last post, I discussed why it is important for a novel’s protagonist to not only take actions within the story, but also display believable emotional reactions to the situations you put him in. When you have both, you create a sympathetic character for the reader. Those two elements—action and emotion—create a character readers will inherently want to root for.

In the comments on that post, astute reader Leah Raeder points out that there is more to it than that:

We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them.

She is absolutely right. Her point goes to the question of stakes: what does your character stand to gain or lose in any given scene? Compelling stakes are so powerful in enticing readers to sympathize with a character that they can actually rescue a story in which the protagonist fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

James Bond is a perfect example, which is exactly why the high-stakes poker game scene from Casino Royale jumped to mind as an illustration for this article. James Bond utterly fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

I give him full marks for action: Bond displays decisiveness in spades, and never delays an opportunity to take action. But emotionally, he fails. He doesn’t show us believable emotional responses. His cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor even in the hottest situations, and his devil-may-care attitude towards danger are not particularly realistic.

Yes, there are people in the world like that. That’s not the point. The point is, your readers probably aren’t like that themselves. Your readers are much more likely to be normal people who, you know, feel fear and stuff. They’re going to have trouble relating to someone who doesn’t.

Yet no one can argue that the character of James Bond has enjoyed wild success. Why? Because he’s always playing for very compelling, very high stakes. More than once, the fate of Queen and Country or even the whole world has rested on the outcomes of James Bond’s death-defying heroism.

The stakes in every Bond caper are so high they outweigh the protagonist’s stunted emotional development. Or, as Donald Maass put it very well 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.

When something important is at risk, we naturally expect characters to take extreme measures to eliminate that risk. Ask yourself, does every scene in your novel—like every scene in Casino Royale—bear directly on that risk or its consequences? If so, and especially if you get the first half of the sympathy equation right too, you might just have another Bond on your hands.

March 22, 2010 18:12 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, stakes, James Bond, Donald Maass

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What makes a sympathetic hero?

One of my favorite writers on Twitter, K.M. Weiland, posed a question today as to what qualities make a protagonist into a sympathetic hero. That is, what is it that makes readers care about the character? What makes readers view the character as a hero? It’s a great question.

K.M. will probably give her own notions on her blog, and I hope she does, but in the meantime here’s my take on it. In answering, I’m going to tackle heroism first.

Heroism Heroes are characterized by action. The hero actually does things. He or she doesn’t sit around watching things happen, or waiting for situations to resolve themselves. You may have a protagonist who is passive like that—although I wouldn’t recommend it—but readers won’t view that person as a hero.

What distinguishes heroes from other characters is a personality that turns toward action when faced with problems. That’s the hero’s default response: to decide what to do, and then do it. Other characters may, by default, run away. They may put their blinders on and ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. But not a hero. A hero faces the problem in all its possibly terrifying ugliness, and gets to work. That’s what makes a hero.

And please, don’t let the word “action” confuse you. While this does apply to action novels, it’s broader than that. I’m talking about “choices a character makes and follows through on.” It’s not just, for example, running into the burning building to save a child, or barreling into a firefight with guns drawn against the bad guys. In the right circumstances, simple things like picking up the phone to call your mother can be every bit as dramatic and heroic as any death-defying act.

Sympathy That said, actions alone do not guarantee that a hero will be sympathetic. You can have a character who is the most action-oriented hero in the world—decisive, never at a loss for what to do—and yet still fail to have readers care about him in the least.

To get sympathy, you need emotion, not action. To engender sympathy in your readers, you need to your hero to display believable emotional responses to the difficult, terrifying problems you throw at them. An iconic example that jumps to mind is from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones runs from the boulder. Classic.

It works, because Indy shows obvious fear in the situation. He doesn’t just see the boulder, calmly say “Oh, a boulder,” and scoot away. No, he RUNS! away. Hard. Fast. Terrified. Showing the obvious and believable emotion creates sympathy because viewers know how they would feel in that situation. Most of them would be similarly terrified. I know I would.

It works the same in books too. Confront your character with a dramatic problem, and readers will know how they themselves would feel in that situation. When your character feels the same way or a similar way, that creates sympathy.

A sympathetic hero, then, is a hero who has ordinary, believable feelings about difficult situations, but who isn’t paralyzed by those feelings. A hero is character who acts anyway, despite those feelings.

Mix it up While you’re busy creating all these emotionally difficult moments of action, take care provide some variety. Why? Because readers aren’t all the same. Let’s take some classic phobias as examples. Some people are afraid of heights. Others, of spiders. Or snakes. Or confined spaces. Or the number 13. Some people are afraid of confrontation. Or of people being upset with them. Or of social situations.

Emotional challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and your readers won’t actually sympathize with all of them. That’s why you should mix it up.

Let’s say your hero is afraid of heights. So, naturally, you set a pivotal moment of action on top of a tall high-rise building. The kind that’s tall enough that if you fall, you’re going to have plenty of time to think about it on the way down. Stepping out onto that roof top in order to take action is going to be an emotionally challenging moment for the character. But in order to act, he or she needs to bypass the fear and do it anyway.

For readers who are also afraid of heights, this scene is going to resonate with them like crazy. They are totally going to sympathize with the character’s fear, and when they see the character overcome it, they’re going to totally view that character as a hero.

But not me. I actually enjoy heights. On some intellectual level, yes, I can recognize and appreciate the character’s difficulty. But it’s just not going to create the same sense of sympathy in me as it would in an acrophobic reader.

However, I’m not such a big fan of social situations and being the center of attention. Public speaking is very, very hard for me. So, show me a character who is shy like me but is called upon to convince a crowd of skeptical listeners to go march on City Hall, and I’m there. You’ve got my sympathy.

I’m not saying to make your characters into total neurotic wrecks so as to resonate with the fears of as many readers as possible. But if it fits with your story, try to give us more than one. Your character will feel more real, more fully developed that way, and will inevitably be more sympathetic for it.

Update: Due to a particularly brilliant comment on this post by one of my readers, there is now a Part 2 article that looks at another very (very!) useful way to create sympathy. James Bond uses it all the time, and look at how successful that character is!

March 17, 2010 19:46 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, action, phobias, emotion

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Great characters are like origami

At the start of a book, readers face the book’s characters in much the same way as the writer faces the book itself: as a blank page. The characters are flat and featureless. Readers don’t know who these people are, what they can do, what they care about, what pisses them off. We don’t know any of that stuff, until you show us.

Certain broad strokes—and fairly irrelevant ones—such as name, age, gender, height, weight, and socio-economic class can be established quickly, and I would argue that you should do so. While these are surface features that don’t relate to the substance of your characters, surface features do help the reader to picture the characters and keep straight who’s who. So do that first, and do it quickly.

But once you’re into the substance of a character, once you’re showing us features of a person that really matter to how they think and act, complications arise.

Static personality features

A person may have many substantive qualities. Positive ones, like bravery, intelligence, chivalry, kindness, generosity, as well as negatives like cowardice, selfishness, arrogance, and cruelty. These are essentially fixed for the character, and we don’t expect them to change.

But you can’t show them all at once. Let’s say you have a protagonist who is smart, well off without being filthy rich, generous towards his friends and family, but with very little tolerance for idiots and people who make poor choices. As characters go, that’s a pretty well-rounded description. There’s a lot there for you to work with in the course of your novel. But you can’t show us all this stuff at once. It’s just too much.

I suppose you could create some kind of bizarre, tortured scene in which all of these come into play, but I doubt it would feel natural. You have to spread it out over several scenes, letting each scene touch on one or maybe two personality features, until we have the whole picture. Further, let these scenes be natural to the story, ones that arise in clear relationship to the plot, so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs. The last thing you want is readers thinking to themselves “Ah, this seemingly irrelevant scene must exist in order to show the guy’s generosity.”

Dynamic personality features

The other category of personality features are the ones that do change. These are the ones that constitute your novel’s character arc, in which your protagonist undergoes some kind of personal growth. Often this growth relates to those negative personality attributes, and by addressing them through the novel’s character arc, the protagonist becomes a better person by the end of the story.

For example, maybe that character described above learns to have some tolerance for “idiots and people who make poor choices.” You could involve him in the lives of people who are not well off at all, or you could attack his own financial situation. In the end he could come to see that not everyone has it as easy as he does (or did), and would learn that what he thought was evidence of bad choices by people he perceived as idiots, wasn’t. What he was actually seeing were reasonable and sensible people making the best choices they could under very difficult circumstances. Sometimes life deals you a bad hand, and your best options still suck.

You can’t show character arcs all at once either. You can’t have your protagonist be short tempered with the downtrodden for the first 20 chapters, then suddenly have him switch in chapter 21. Ask anyone who has had to change their eating habits to fend off heart disease, or who has had to overcome a substance abuse problem, and they’ll tell you: these things don’t happen overnight. Neither can we expect people’s substantive personality traits to change overnight. You need to craft a sequence of scenes which sets the stage for the change, creates an epiphany moment for the character, and then shows the new thinking taking hold as the plot progresses.

Many steps make a path

Why are great characters like origami? Because origami models and characters in novels both start from blank paper, and both take many steps to get where they’re going.

In origami, you don’t go from flat square to crane in one step. Every step, every fold, adds complexity and refines the model’s shape. Some steps are simple mountain and valley folds. Some steps are tricky petal folds, squash folds, or outside reverse folds, but in the end, you have a beautiful crane.

In writing, you don’t go from blank page to fully realized character in one step. Every experience you subject the character to adds complexity and interest. Every realization a character makes about his life, the world, or other people is another scene—another fold or crease. Some scenes will be simple and straightforward to construct, others will bedevil you, but take the time to get them right. In the end, you have a beautifully realized character who is a joy to write for and a joy to read.

March 12, 2010 17:42 UTC

Tags: character, personality, character arc

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Are you accidentally dismembering your characters?

Yes, this really happens. Writers do, occasionally and completely by accident, dismember their characters. There’s this quip about helicopters that is oddly relevant: “a helicopter is a large collection of parts all flying in formation.” Sometimes writers do that to their characters, with unfortunate results.

This happens when writers put a character’s parts in the forefront—feet, ears, eyes—instead of the character herself. It can happen with non-corporeal parts of a character too, particularly the senses. In paranormal and fantasy literature, it includes non-standard abilities as well, far-sight and the like. Here’s an example:

Susan’s worry rose, blocking out all other thought. Where’s Alex? He should be here by now. Her eyes scanned the theater lobby, the sidewalk outside, the parking lot, looking for him. But he was nowhere to be seen.

On the surface, it’s not literally true. Susan’s worry didn’t, itself, actually do anything. Susan is the one who did the worrying. Similarly, her eyes did not, in and of themselves, scan her surroundings. Susan scanned her surroundings, using her eyes.

This grammatical elevation of body parts to the subject position of a sentence may seem like a simple matter of style. After all, reasonable readers take the intended meaning just fine. They don’t automatically jump to the erroneous literal interpretation of those words. If that’s all it was, I wouldn’t be writing this post.

But under the surface, something much worse is going on. Every time you put one or more of a character’s composite parts in the subject position of the sentence, you rob the character of just a little bit of power. You take the whole character out of control, in favor of a mere portion of the character.

It may be a cliche that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” but in this case it’s absolutely true. A whole character, a whole person, creates much stronger resonance with the reader than the result of presenting the character’s parts one by one. Even if you include all the parts.

By putting a character’s parts to the fore, you make the overall character seem more passive, less action-oriented. Every time you do it, you send a subtle message that the character isn’t really in charge. That she, the whole person, is but a slave to her parts. When Susan’s senses reach out, when her parts act while, grammatically speaking, she sits idly by, it undermines the reader’s ability to believe in Susan as a strong agent of action in the story.

I suppose that this could work to great effect, if done well, in certain kinds of psychological dramas where a character suffers from some kind of dissociative mental problem. Or maybe in demonic possession stories. But for your ordinary sympathetic characters, it’s a problem.

There are some exceptions even for characters who aren’t mentally afflicted. Involuntary actions are chief among them. These are uncontrollable physiological responses to whatever’s happening in the story. When the heart quickens, it does so without our conscious bidding. When a sudden fright causes adrenaline to dump into our bloodstream, that’s automatic. Anything going on with a character’s body that is outside the character’s conscious control is fair game to put into the subject position of the sentence. In those circumstances, it’s really true that the character isn’t in control and therefore something else has to occupy the subject position.

The other notable exception is for the hands. Hands are so closely associated with the exercise of ordinary human will as to carve out their own exceptions. At least in English, it is almost idiomatic that hands stand in for our will. That is, this is perfectly fine:

John’s hand flew across the page as he penned the lines of a sonnet he was sure would win him the Frost Medal.

We all take John’s hand to be a tool in this usage.

Hands are so closely associated with the will that reversing this expectation creates a powerful effect. Horror fiction and movies, in fact, seem to delight in turning characters’ hands against them. It is a well-worn trope in horror to show demonic possession by making someone’s hands attack them. The character of Ash, from the Evil Dead movies, is the classic example: Ash had to resort to dismembering his own hand before it killed him.

Look at the reversal going on there, and how Ash’s response portrays him. Ash’s hand begins to attack him. It punches him. It tries to choke him. Ash is rightfully shocked. Ash is out of control of his own body. Part of him has become possessed. In order to reassert control and save himself, he fights back. He tries to pull the evil hand away from his neck using his unafflicted hand. But ultimately Ash must physically separate himself—willfully—from his own hand. It’s a powerful and dramatic action, and it utterly convinces the viewer that Ash is someone who will take action no matter how personally painful it might be.

Audiences root for him so strongly because even when his hand took the subject position, Ash remained the ultimate agent of action.

Obviously, that’s the exception. The rest of the time, in normal circumstances with normal characters, don’t dismember them by accident. Leave the whole person as the agent of action, and let the body parts remain tools of the will as they properly are.

March 08, 2010 19:54 UTC

Tags: character, will, grammar, body parts, senses

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Who is the Robin to your novel's Batman?

Ah, sidekicks. Those indispensable minor characters who, if you do them right, can add life to a book or even threaten to steal the show. Sidekicks come in two basic forms: new friends and old friends. Each has different applications in story-craft.

Make new friends

Sidekicks are often new acquaintances for your main character. There is a lot to be said for these new friends. They give you many wonderful opportunities for showing your readers what your main character is all about. New friends can act as stand-ins for your reader. They learn about your protagonist at the same time your readers do. New friends also create opportunities for mystery and drama.

New friends mean new relationships. When a relationship starts, platonic or otherwise, both parties must share of themselves in order to build trust with the other. What they choose to share and how they share it speaks volumes. Is your main character warm and open with this new friend, inviting and generous with his or her time and attention? Or is your main character stand-offish, closed and guarded, seeming always to give the new sidekick the brush-off as quickly as possible? These types of personality traits, ones that have to do with how people treat one another, can be shown very clearly in watching a character develop a relationship with a new sidekick.

New friends are clueless. I don’t mean they’re stupid (and I hope they’re not), they’re simply not up to speed on your main character’s life. The sidekick hasn’t yet learned what the protagonist can do, what he knows, what he has been through, what practical and political realities matter to the protagonist’s life. This is wonderful, because it gives you natural opportunities to explain things to the reader while the protagonist is explaining it to the sidekick, without resorting to an infodump. If the reader truly needs to know that the bridge leading into town was built by a sleazy, lowball contractor, chances are the sidekick does too. And if the sidekick is a new friend from out of town, the protagonist has every reason in the world to explain it. It feels natural because, in that situation, it is.

But, as unknown as the new friend is to the protagonist, the reverse is also true. The protagonist starts out clueless about the sidekick. The sidekick must work to earn the protagonist’s trust and the reader’s trust as well. This gives you the delicious opportunity to create some drama and mystery, if that’s appropriate for your story, as the protagonist wonders whether the sidekick is on the up-and-up.

Especially in mysteries crime dramas, and other such mainstream genres, dangling the tantalizing possibility that a trusted sidekick might really be a spy, a mole, or a back-stabber can really ratchet up the drama in the book. In this situation, it is the protagonist who is the stand-in for the reader. That’s half the fun of reading an engaging novel, taking turns putting yourself into the shoes of different characters.

But keep the old

Old friends, sidekicks who are presumed to be well acquainted with the protagonist when the book starts, are tremendously useful but give you different options and challenges.

Old friends already have a rapport with your protagonist. They’ve been pals for a long time, so readers will naturally expect your protagonist to behave more openly and honestly with this type of sidekick. How your protagonist acts around his old friend—and how he interacts with that old friend—indicates his true personality. But be warned: it isn’t always easy to portray a well-established friendship because you, the writer, haven’t lived that particular relationship yourself. You have to invent and stay true to the myriad in-jokes and verbal shortcuts that old friends have with each other. Either that, or borrow these markers of deep friendship from your own life.

Old friends are also a smooth vehicle for revealing your protagonist’s backstory, because the old friend already knows it and can refer to it. Your old friends already know all your dirty laundry. Not only have they already seen the skeletons in your closet, they probably know how those bones got there. This means that in times when your protagonist is wrestling with a choice or trying to figure out how to proceed, the old friend can quite naturally bring up some relevant fact from the protagonist’s background. You can show this fact to the reader in the course of reminding the protagonist about it. Take care not to go overboard—the old friend will merely refer to this fact, he won’t recount the story in full detail. After all, the protagonist has his own memory of it. You need to keep the dialogue short and to the point; make it revealing without being overly explicit.

There is a danger with old friends, though: readers don’t know about them until you introduce them to the story. If you introduce a supposed old friend late in the story at a point where that friend’s influence or connections or resources are suddenly of critical importance to your protagonist, but the reader has never heard of this person before, it falls flat. It feels like a deus ex machina solution to a plot problem, rather than a character naturally calling on his network of friends and acquaintances in time of need.

Old friends can present a problem for writers, because on the one hand people do have old friends who they are very close to, but who they may only see on rare occasions. Never the less, these old friends still have strong connections to us through our past. The same is presumably true for any protagonist who is old enough to have a past.

For example, if I needed a piece of legal advice I could call up my friend Mike from High School, who I haven’t seen in quite some time. He’d probably take my call and help me out. But if an observer in the story of my life had no idea Mike existed, this would be a surprising and too-convenient thing for me to do. The observer—and your reader—will be much less surprised and much more likely to believe this had Mike been introduced earlier in the story.

It’s a fine line between introducing the friend early and often enough so as to be believable when the need for that friend’s help arises, while not giving that friend so much screen time throughout the story that you telegraph the friend’s ultimate importance. You have to be believable, without undermining the drama.

One is silver, and the other gold

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but relationships can be a big bay window to the personality. Use sidekicks, whether new friends or old, and the relationships they have to your protagonists to show readers what makes your protagonists tick.

March 05, 2010 20:03 UTC

Tags: character, sidekicks, relationships, trust, backstory, infodumps, batman, robin

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