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Four tips for portraying young adult characters

I asked Karly Kirkpatrick, who had the fortune to be my 500th follower on Twitter, what character development question she’d like me to tackle next on my blog. She asked for tips on portraying young adult characters. So here you go, Karly, this one’s for you.

There’s a pretty wide (and somewhat ill-defined) range for what ages put a character into YA territory, but for our purposes let’s call it 13 through 17, those often difficult and awkward teen years before the responsibility of adulthood is fully thrust upon one’s shoulders.

Personally, I think it’s somewhat ridiculous to lump all those ages into a single category, because let’s face it: people change an enormous amount from age 13 to 17. To do the subject justice would probably take a five-volume set of books, one per year, rather than a blog post. But a blog is what I’ve got, so here goes. Four tips for writing YA characters.

Treat dialogue as dialect. Kids these days, with their texting and their sometimes impenetrable idioms drawn from video games and slices of pop culture adults don’t often partake of, might just as well be speaking a different language sometimes. It’s not—it’s still English. Mostly—but it does come to resemble a new and ever-changing dialect. If you do a good job capturing the flavor of that dialect in your books, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

Here’s the kicker. YA dialect really is ever-changing. The nuances of it are highly sensitive to the time period of your novel. A novel with YA characters set in the year 2010 will have a different YA dialect than one set in 2000. And James Dean may well have been Hollywood’s ultimate YA icon, daddy-o, but nobody talks like him anymore. YA dialect is also hugely influenced by subcultures—inner city versus suburban, skater doodz versus goths (we still have goths, right?) versus jocks—every little subculture has its own vernacular, and it’s your job to get it right. So treat dialogue as dialect, but do your research.

Attitudes. Not to paint with an overly-broad brush or anything, but let’s face it, there are definitely some recurring themes among the attitudes of young adults. Obviously not every young adult feels or acts the same, but these tropes are sufficiently well-grounded in reality that they’ll help with the believability of your characters. Your job is to portray them vividly, without being clichéd. Here are just a few of them.

Separating from parents. The YA years are when kids experiment with independence, and intentionally create distance from their parents. Having had their entire lives defined by dependence on parents, kids are often eager for a change. This is why moms who may have been best friends with their daughters may suddenly find that the daughter no longer wants to hang out with mom on the weekends to shop or go to a movie.

Pushing boundaries. Young adults rebel against externally imposed boundaries. Be home by ten? No way, you can’t control me! This is kids experimenting to find out how far they can go, what they can get away with, motivated by a desire to set their own rules. And can you blame them? If somebody had been telling me what I could and couldn’t do for 13, 14, or 15 years, I’d be fed up with it too.

Frustration. I wish I had a more specific, pithy tag for this one but I don’t. Follow me here. Kids have been growing up, from birth to the YA years, undergoing an enormous character arc. They’ve learned so much, they’ve grown so much, they’ve changed so much they’re hardly the same person anymore. And they know it. They’ve experienced an overwhelming inner character arc, resulting in a new view of themselves. Where they had previously viewed themselves as generally incapable and dependent on others, they can now see their capabilities, and have a newfound belief in their own ability to be independent. They feel like adults, even though they aren’t fully there yet.

Actual adults know this; these kids’ parents and teachers know full well that the chicks aren’t quite ready to leave the nest. So there’s a mismatch, as the kids feel like adults but nobody treats them that way. Result: frustration, and all the emotions that come with it. This is a big topic, and for more on the difference between inner and outer character arcs, I’d encourage you to read this article from last October.

Know-it-all syndrome. In the YA years, kids finally start to get a clue about life and how life works. The world stops being quite so confusing. When that happens, illusory superiority sets in: kids misinterpret having a clue about life as being an expert about life. Result? You can’t tell ‘em anything. They’re convinced they already know. It’s a problem, because often they don’t already know yet they reject information and advice from adults because they’re over-estimating their own expertise at this whole life thing.

Power struggles and bad choices. Young adults will vigorously fight to get their own way, even if their way looks dumb to a more experienced adult, simply because they are desperate to be in control of their own lives. Thus, the ability to make any choice at all, about anything, often takes on significance out of proportion to the choice itself. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the YA years, because kids will often make bad choices—ones they know to be bad—simply because they can. Because it’s a choice they can make, that they know their parents can’t stop them from making. It’s all about being in control.

Trying on new identities. This is a big one, too. Young adults are becoming aware that there’s a whole range of options for what kind of person they could be. They’re cluing in to white collar / blue collar class and professional distinctions, to the variety of careers, modes of dress, subcultures, et cetera that they could potentially belong to. Life’s whole palette is becoming visible to them, and while it’s exciting as hell, they don’t yet know which of those choices is right for them.

So they experiment. They try out different personas, different political and spiritual attitudes. They may begin to champion a social cause, such as suddenly declaring “meat is murder!” and going hard-core vegan. They may join and leave a variety of cliques at school. Experiment with being straight, gay, or bisexual. Come home from school with their hair suddenly dyed blue. The variety here is endless, but if you’re looking to show a teen who can’t yet answer the question “who am I?” this is a great way to go.

Steal from your own life. We were all kids once. Not to discount the few gifted teenage novelists out there or anything, but most of us writers are well past the YA years ourselves, which gives us an edge. We’ve been there. We’ve lived through it. We can look back on our own youths with a much different perspective, and by all rights this ought to give us some good insights into how to write YA characters.

If ever there were an excuse to “write what you know", this is it. Just look back on your own youth. Try to remember how it felt. What struggles you faced. What made you really mad. What giant arguments you had with your parents. Think about them, and try to figure out why those things happened. Maybe they happened for some of the reasons I’ve discussed here, or maybe for other reasons entirely. When you figure it out, I promise you a little light will go on in your head for how you can apply that to your own YA characters.

May 28, 2010 17:32 UTC

Tags: character, young-adult, dialect, slang, attitude, inner character arc, power, choice, identity

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Fight! Fight! Fight!

Keep conflict in every scene, right? That’s what they say. It’s among the best advice out there for keeping up the pace in your novel, or at the very least, for warding off your readers’ boredom.

But while you’re at it, don’t forget to use conflict to show what kinds of people your characters are. While the word “conflict” is very broad when applied to novel writing, here I’m using it more narrowly to refer to situations where two characters are in direct, personal opposition to one another, when in one another’s company. You know, fights and arguments.

You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road

When it comes to the what, why, and how of an argument, there are a few major axes that define the participants’ varying styles of argument. For each axis, there’s a high road and a low road which speak to the kinds of people the characters are.

The source of the conflict. How many TV sit-coms or prime time dramas have you seen where characters end up fighting over a simple misunderstanding? Situations where, if they had simply talked with each other a little bit, everything would have been fine? Me, too many to count. This is partly why I don’t watch much TV anymore. The writing is such crap. What’s going on there? The characters took the low road: They jumped to erroneous conclusions about the other, and never bothered to verify their beliefs. Had they taken the high road, said “I’m upset because you said X,” then the other person could have said, “No, that’s not what I meant. I meant Y instead.” “Oh, that’s fine then. Let’s go get some lunch.”

Take the low road, and you paint your characters as judgmental, quick to condemn. Take the high road, and you get characters who are mature, reliable, fair-minded, logical, and trustworthy. Note, taking the high road does not mean short-circuiting the entire conflict. After all, a high-road character can just as easily end up confirming that his conclusions about the source of the conflict were correct. Then, at least he knows he’s justified in putting up a fight.

Question or dictate. In any argument, there are lots of ways to get your point across. Ask anybody who ever participated in a debate club, and they’ll tell you how you frame your viewpoints can be just as important as the viewpoints themselves. The high road on this axis is engaging your opponent by asking questions. They can be very leading questions, of course, but the point is to ask questions. The low road is to state flat-out opinions which practically dare your opponent to disagree.

Let’s say you have an environmentalist character arguing with a pro-development character over the value of wilderness preservation. The environmentalist might take the low road by saying “We must preserve wild spaces for future generations! We have no right to pave the planet at our grandchildren’s expense!” You know how the developer is going to react, and it’s not by caving to the argument. Instead, the environmentalist might take the high road by asking a leading question: “Are you saying, then, that there is no possibility at all that there might be some value ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now in still having some robust wild spaces on the planet? That there’s no chance we might learn something over the next century about the world that might make us say ‘gee, I wish we still had some rain forest?’”

Make your high-road character’s point through a question, because a question implicitly demands an answer. Construct the question so that there’s only one reasonable answer at all, and that answer aligns with the character’s goals. Simply by putting a character’s point in the form of a question, you force the other character to at least consider the question before answering.

What, or who. Too many arguments go south because the participants slip into the low road of arguing about each other rather than arguing about the actual source of the conflict. The low road here is to use overly personal language — “You’re an idiot if you think that! You’re forgetting entirely about X!” — rather than staying focused on the subject at hand. The high road is obvious: Keep the character’s statements phrased in terms of the subject rather than the opponent. “But that doesn’t make sense in light of X.”

Reaching an impasse. It may be that two characters simply cannot come to an agreement. Perhaps they disagree on something so fundamental to their individual world views that neither one can ever change. What then? There’s still the high road and the low road. The high road is agreeing to disagree. Saying “Ok. I guess we just don’t agree then.” The high road is to end the conversation with respect, so both parties can live and let live.

The low road is to escalate. The low road is one character refusing to accept that the other won’t bend to his will. The low road is to decide—whether expressed out loud or not—to make some kind of disproportionate response. To declare literal or metaphorical war on the other person. To bear a grudge, to start a blood feud, to slander them, to blacklist, or in some other way make the person suffer for having not agreed. There’s a lot of drama in the low road, but be clear what it says about the character who takes that road: this person is unreasonable, venal and petty out of all proportion.


It takes two to fight, though, so what happens when the two sides in an argument opt not to take the same road, high or low, on one of the above axes? It’s a conflict on a higher level, a second conflict about the rules for arguing the first conflict. Obviously, by invoking meta-conflicts, you tap into a wide variety of mix-and-match options. What if one person is interested in at least agreeing about the source of the conflict while the other isn’t? What if one person consistently asks engaging questions, while the other resorts to dis-engaging dictums? There are lots of meta-conflicts you can employ, but they all share one use to the writer: they excel at showing a contrast between two characters. And in most cases, readers will naturally side with the character who is at least trying to take the high road.

Violent conflicts

Low-road conflicts can, and often do, escalate into violence. Characters come to blows, guns are drawn, armies are sent into battle. But even there, even when using physical force, your characters have choices. A high road, and a low road. We all have, through our upbringing and the norms of whatever cultures we grew up in, standards for what is considered fighting fair versus fighting dirty.

Why do you think, in so many movies, when the good guy and the bad guy fight the bad guy inevitably ends up throwing sand in the good guy’s face? Because that’s a low-road move, and it clearly demonstrates just how much of a snake the bad guy is. There’s a scene in the Oscar-winning movie Breaking Away where the protagonist Dave Stoller is in a cycling race along with his idols, the Italian team. The Italians jam something into Dave’s spokes and make him crash. Total low-road move, and it’s effective because it utterly demolishes Dave’s reverent image of the Italians. Even in war, there’s the high road of fighting in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and the low road of taking actions without regard to civilian casualties.

Fights are great. Conflicts of all kinds—verbal or physical, between individuals or nations—are wonderful for keeping the pace of your novels up and for keeping readers engaged in your story. Conflict means somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose, and that’s as good a hook as any for keeping readers turning those pages. But in all your conflicts, consider the tactics. There are always high roads and low roads, and you can make careful choices about which ones your characters take to vividly portray what kinds of people they are.

May 25, 2010 23:48 UTC

Tags: character, conflict

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Five steps to building a believable character arc

A commenter in my last article on crafting breakout stories asked for tips on how to demonstrate believable progress during the process of a character’s emotional growth.

It’s a fabulous question, because all too often I see writers take the all-at-once approach: a character has a problem, realizes it, decides to act differently, and is thenceforth cured. Like magic!

It’s exactly like magic, in as much as that’s not how life actually works.

In the real world, personal growth takes time and practice. We don’t usually just decide to be better in some way, and then presto, we’re better. For real people, it takes time. Fortunately, there’s a framework for personal growth you can use as a blueprint for how to show it in your novels.

  1. The character’s internal shortcomings cause external problems. This makes sense. If some facet of his personality isn’t causing problems in his life, it’s probably not something he needs to change. The only things about which he needs to experience growth are the things that cause problems for him. So first of all, just to set the stage for your main character arc, you need to show the character failing at something because of his shortcomings.

  2. The character experiences failure but doesn’t understand why. This is all about how the character reacts to his failures in step 1. It’s important to show the reaction, because not understanding why the failures are occurring sets the emotional conditions for growth. Not understanding why is bound to cause some negative emotions: anger, frustration, resentment, et cetera. These are what fuel a character’s growth; when he gets fed up with failing, he’ll do something to prevent it. Note, the character may not understand why he’s failing for a couple of different reasons. One, he may not be aware that the problem he has even exists. He may exist in a state of complete ignorance about the problem, and when confronted with it, his emotional reactions will include “gosh, I didn’t even know that was a thing, let alone a problem!” Two, he may recognize the existence of the problem, but is in denial that he has the problem. This latter is usually easier to defend in a novel.

  3. The character still fails, but understands why. This is the natural next step after getting past denial. Like they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it. Ok, we’re calling it step three, but you get the idea. The character is still blindsided by failures, but after they happen, can understand why. The character can reflect on the situation, and understand how his personal shortcoming led to the failure. Hindsight is 20/20.

  4. The character sees failures coming, but still can’t avoid them. Next, the character gains enough experience that the failures don’t blindside him anymore. Now, he can see them coming but is still powerless to stop them. This is your alcoholic who knows he drinks too much, but can’t stop himself. Or your abusive spouse who knows his rage issues stem from how his father treated him, but can’t stop himself from using his fists to express his own displeasure. The character understands the dynamics of the situation, but hasn’t yet figured out how to act differently to produce a different result. Pro tip: Don’t shortchange stage four! There is enormous dramatic potential in this stage, because at heart it is a profoundly sad and distressing time for the character. This maps very closely to the depression stage of the five stages of grief, because just like in that situation, the character feels powerless against larger forces which seem to be controlling him. This stage can get ugly, and you shouldn’t be afraid to let it.

  5. The character succeeds. Finally, after seeing enough failures coming, the character realizes how to act differently and thus can intervene with himself to make different choices. That’s emotional growth. That’s the culmination of the character arc. Pro tip: If you’re clever, you’ll time this moment to coincide with your plot’s climax, when the stakes are at their highest point. A chain of failures leading up to success at a critical moment can be a win-win-win: Believable, incredibly dramatic, and satisfying to read all at once. But only if you’ve supported it with a fully developed arc.

Emotional growth is nothing more than learning a new emotional skill.

It’s just like any other skill, such as surfing. Look at that kid in the picture. He’s gonna get dunked. You can tell just by looking at him. He’s got some failures ahead of him yet. But he’s up on the board and his hair is dry, so he must know something. He’s getting there. His first time out, he probably got dunked by even the tiniest waves. And he’s going to get dunked, time and time again, as he learns to read the water, feel the board—see failure coming—and adjust his actions. It’s going to take a lot of failures to teach him what he needs to know.

He’s lucky, though. He’s got his dad there in the background giving him helpful advice, helping him see the issues he didn’t even know he had. “Scoot back. You’re standing too far forward!” “Thanks, Dad, I didn’t know that was a problem!” But no matter what, it takes time. Neither this kid nor anybody else can immediately become an expert surfer just by listening to an expert explain how they do it, and yet novelists often try to turn a single moment of failure into an immediate and successful change of behavior. Doesn’t work that way.

Make it your own

You don’t have to follow this blueprint from end to end, just be aware that it exists. Plenty of great arc-driven novels have started at stage two or even stage three. Depending on the nature of the personal shortcoming facing your character, you may be able to skip some of the earlier steps. A character may make some progress but then slip back to an earlier stage.

However you do it, just remember that a single failure does not teach us everything we need to know to become an expert. At best, a single failure can teach us one little component of what we need to know. There’s a journey of many failures in going from being unaware that you have a shortcoming to having fully conquered the shortcoming so it doesn’t cause you problems anymore. Break that journey down into whatever smaller steps—and whatever sequence of failures—makes sense for your story, and use this framework to help you show a little bit of growth at each one.

Addendum: To give credit where credit is due, this post would not be what it is, nor would I be the person I am, if not for this poem. If anyone can point me towards the original source for this poem, I would be grateful. Thank you.

May 20, 2010 21:28 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, growth, failure, success, depression, skills

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Three steps to a breakout story

Have you ever finished reading a novel only to find yourself standing in awe of the author’s ability to craft a story and portray the characters? Have you found yourself wondering how on earth the author ever managed to work so many great twists and turns, complications and subplots into the story, without having any of it feel extraneous? Have you ever despaired of ever being able to write that well yourself?

Yes? Good. That means you’re at least a savvy enough writer to recognize what you ought to be doing, even if you don’t quite know how to do it yet. That gives you a goal (hey, we need goals as much as our characters do). Speaking of characters and goals, I’m going to help you figure out how to do it by giving you three steps for choosing great goals for your characters that will in turn help you achieve your goals in crafting a stellar story.

1. Pick a compelling goal

Goals matter. And in choosing a goal, you have a bit of a Goldilocks problem in finding a story goal that’s “just right.” One that is significant enough to motivate your protagonist, but isn’t so high-stakes as to be implausible. A babysitter finding herself in a plot where it’s up to her to save the President’s life would challenge all but the most credulous readers. On the flip side, nobody’s going to care about your book if the babysitter’s goal is simply to choose what color nail polish goes best with her prom dress.

Where things go wrong: Most writers don’t err by setting the stakes too low. We hear some variant on “when in doubt, raise the stakes” so often that I think most people know not to do that. Where writers often fail is in picking a high-stakes goal that is only high-stakes externally to the character. The stakes matter to the world at large (i.e., it really is a big deal if someone’s gunning for the President), but the protagonist doesn’t matter to the stakes. The key pitfall is failing to answer the question “why this protagonist?” If you want to have a babysitter save the President’s life, that’s fine, but make sure you have a damn good answer to the question of why it’s her job to do it.

2. Show that the goal is worthy

It isn’t enough for the protagonist to be the only one who can achieve the goal. You may have convinced your protagonist that she’s the only one who can save the cat (or the President), but you still need to prove to the reader that this goal is worth an entire novel.

Where things go wrong: Even the most compelling of external goals can fall flat if you don’t show that the goal matters to the protagonist. At the point where the protagonist is contemplating the goal and whether she should do anything about it, you need to portray and contrast two possible views of the world: one in which the goal is accomplished, and one in which it is not. The babysitter has to see (and we have to see her seeing) how her life would be better in one scenario and worse in the other. Not only must the babysitter matter to the goal of saving the President, it has to matter to her that the President is saved.

3. Go after the goal

Steps 1 and 2 are critical, but only because they set the stage. Step 3 is where all the fun is, where the majority of your storyline takes place, as the protagonist pursues her goal. Here, you want to make use of every piece of advice you’ve ever read about keeping conflict in every scene, using every scene to advance the story, and so forth. But that’s not enough. If your goal is to write a breakout novel at the level of the novels that have knocked your socks off, just following that kind of advice isn’t going to do it.

To knock your readers’ socks off, you have to follow all that advice while keeping everything focused on the protagonist. That doesn’t mean keeping her in every scene. It means giving the protagonist a set of increasingly difficult challenges on the path towards the goal. The moment the Babysitter decides it’s up to her to save the President, the next thing on her mind had better be “ok, what’s the first thing I have to do?” Maybe she needs information. Maybe she needs access to some kind of tools (Babysitter with a sniper rifle!) or resources. Maybe she needs to go somewhere else. The specifics don’t matter, so long as you can find an immediate goal that is in service to her ultimate goal. Then you need another challenge, and another and another.

Where things go wrong: Even the most carefully crafted sequence of challenges and obstacles can end up feeling as boring and downright formulaic as National Treasure if they are all fundamentally external to the protagonist. To really elevate your novel to breakout status (or at least to take some steps in that direction) you need to relate the protagonist’s progress towards the goal to her own character arc.

That is, she must experience some failures along the way, failures caused by her own shortcomings. But let her grow as a person through those experiences, and let that growth give her the keys to achieving her ultimate goal. It’s all well and good for a character to need to acquire some sort of MacGuffin as well, but to be really satisfying, you need personal growth to play a part too. Just like the Harry Potter from Philosopher’s Stone could never have defeated Voldemort while the Harry Potter from Deathly Hallows could, your babysitter needs to experience personal growth that in some manner enables her to save the President.

Make it personal

If you were savvy enough to answer “yes” to the question at the beginning of this article, chances are you’ve noticed the theme behind all three of these steps. At every opportunity, make it personal, in goals, in stakes, and in growth. Don’t just pick compelling goals, make them compelling personal goals. Show us why the babysitter has to be the one to save the President, and also why saving the President matters to her. Then, whenever possible, make the turning points in the story relate to the babysitter’s growth as a person.

That’s it. Three steps to a breakout story, all boiled down to one piece of advice: make it personal. We stand in awe of writers better than ourselves, but there’s no impenetrable magic about what they do. When it comes to writing a breakout story, you can conquer your personal goals by helping your protagonists conquer theirs.

May 17, 2010 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, goals, stakes, character arc, MacGuffin

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Seven ways to show character growth

The best novels offer a strong storyline coupled with a strong character arc. A character arc is nothing more than the inner process by which a character becomes a better person. When the events in a storyline, coupled with how a character reacts to them, cause the character to become in some way a more mature person, that’s a character arc.

Readers love character arcs because when the storyline is over, the character’s final moments of personal growth leave the reader with the feeling that the story had a higher purpose to it. That it wasn’t just a fun adventure romp, spy thriller, or whatever. You leave the reader with the feeling that the book meant something.

Writers love them, too, because threading a strong character arc into your storyline is a wonderful way to add a layer of complexity and interest to a story. A strong character arc can be the difference between rejections that say “good, but not right for me” and “I would like to represent this book.”

Seven strategies to create a strong character arc

  1. Gain direction, motivation, drive, or ambition. Take a character from being a boring lump with an unfocused, undirected life, and fix that. Give the character a goal, a raison d’etre, something to get him out of bed in the morning.

  2. Get active. Take a character who from being a passive pushover, and let her start taking charge of her own life. Show her making decisions, making plans, and by all means, taking actions.

  3. Shake up the old, boring routine. Show the character working free of a familiar and confining—if comfortable—routine life. Show him trying new things and embracing the world. Let him travel, see the world, and make new friends. Hint: if your storyline already involves travel, build the arc the other way around by saddling the character with a hum-drum routine of a life at the beginning of the book.

  4. Expand your mind. Let the character learn something. Show her finding a new interest, pursuing it with joyful zeal. Should she self-study or go back to school? Stay in her garage and experiment, inventing something? Who knows, but if you can tie her chosen interest to the rest of your storyline, you’re golden.

  5. Lose the ego. Start with a very me-focused character, and let him start to think about other people. Make him shut up about himself for a change. This can be a very effective arc strategy for stories that involve the “haves” getting involved in the lives of the “have-nots.”

  6. Limber up. Mentally speaking, that is. Take a character who is rigid in her viewpoints and force her to loosen up. Let her begin to consider new evidence, to challenge her own assumptions. Let her fail a few times early on because she assumed she was right when she wasn’t, and from that, learn a lesson in humility: after all, you’re not always as right as you think you are. Don’t forget to let this new-found self-skepticism save her from a critical mistake or lead her towards a critical victory later, when the stakes are highest.

  7. Refocus on the basics. A well-worn technique (well-worn because it’s effective) is to show a character’s disorganized, chaotic inner life by means of a slovenly, unkempt, unhealthy outer life. These are characters who are overweight, who drink and smoke, whose apartments haven’t been vacuumed since the Reagan administration, and who are failing to take decent care of themselves. They’re ignoring their responsibilities at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. For them, you can reflect inner growth by showing them taking a new-found interest in their physical needs. Let them start to eat right, exercise, and occasionally even iron their laundry.

Every one of these strategies involves meaningful change somewhere in the character’s life. Some are changes in attitude, some in behavior, some in outlook or priorities. These are all inner changes, substantive ones that affect a character’s personality. It’s more than just changing your wardrobe. Character arcs are always deep changes that must be reflected in the surface levels of a character’s actions.

Note, this is another application of the famous Show, don’t Tell rule: The surface actions you tell the reader about are what show the character’s underlying growth.

Oh, and one final note. Are you planning a series and wondering how to manage a multi-book character arc? Why not start with a deeply flawed but loveable character, and in each volume let the storyline lead the character to growth in one of the above areas. There’s your seven-book saga, right there.

May 14, 2010 21:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, taking action, passivity, goals, sidekicks, hierarchy of needs, Maslow, show don't tell

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Are you using the power of nicknames?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

That, from Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii, has got to be among the most clichéd lines of anything Shakespeare ever wrote. Yet, for all that Shakespeare was an amazing writer, it is equally amazing the degree to which he shows Juliet totally missing power of names. One could argue that Juliet is a clueless teenage girl and so it is right that she should be so profoundly blind to the power of names, but that Shakespeare himself must surely have known.

For the Bard’s sake, I’ll go with that theory.

First, a word about given names to explain why I don’t want to talk about them: Given names are boring. Given names are bestowed on us when we are but vaguely defined blobs of flesh and poop and spit-up. Our parents bestow our given names upon us in the absence of any real information about what kinds of people we will become. For novelists, this makes given names useless for anything except as labels by which we and our readers can keep our characters straight, and as superficial indicators of cultural/ethnic background. Sure, that’s useful, but it’s boring.

Nicknames, on the other hand aren’t boring at all. Nicknames have tremendous power, and those are what I want to focus on here.

Nicknames are pronouns on steroids

Face it, on the one hand you don’t want to have to name all the bit players in your books: the taxi drivers, the waitresses, the post office workers your real characters may happen to meet. But you also want those people to feel real. You want them to be more than a cookie-cutter stereotype of their role, if even just a little bit. For that, nicknames used in the context of narrative are incredibly handy. Like this:

Letter in hand, I raced to the mailbox, arriving as it happened just as the delivery truck pulled up to a stop. The mailman stepped out, giving me a friendly nod. The guy was, there’s no other way to put it, impossibly tall. NBA tall. Seven and a half feet, at least. I couldn’t help but wonder how he folds himself up into that little mail truck all day, and whether his back hurts from bending down all the time to put people’s junk mail into their boxes.

NBA saw me staring. “Can I help you?”

“I just need to mail this.” I extended my hand, and he took the letter from me.

The nickname does two things. First, it gives the guy a label so you can avoid saying “the impossibly-tall mailman” all over the place. Second, it’s a label that reenforces his description. Give these bit players one memorable attribute, and then use a nickname that reminds the reader about that attribute. I can say this, two chapters or five chapters later, and readers will know immediately who I’m talking about:

The doorbell rang. I squinted through the peep-hole. It was NBA.

I opened the door. “Yes?”

“You got a registered letter,” NBA said. “You need to sign for it.”

I don’t have to remind readers that this is the same helpful mailman from before. I don’t have to remind them that he’s a certifiable giant. The nickname does all that for me.

Think of these kinds of bit-player nicknames like pronouns on steroids: they refer to people even in the absence of a name, just like “he” or “she” would do, but they carry with them whatever mental image the reader created at the time you first introduced the character. This technique works especially well in first-person narratives, and when the narrator has a sarcastic, humorous, or snarky attitude.

Nicknames are manipulative

But what about nicknames used in dialogue? That’s a whole other can of worms. A nickname in narrative is a private thing, between the narrator and the reader alone. A nickname in dialogue is public to the narrator, reader, and other characters in the book.

Because nicknames in dialogue are public, Theory of mind suggests that both speaker and listener understand that a nickname is not the given name of whoever it refers to. Consider the difference between the above example and this:

The doorbell rang. I squinted through the peep-hole. It was NBA.

I opened the door. “Hey, NBA! What’s up?”

His face hardened and he jabbed a clipboard out to me. “You need to sign for this.”

No question there that the narrator has offended the mailman, who is probably sick to death of people making jokes about his height. The power of nicknames to offend or belittle—even unintentionally—is enormous so tread carefully there.

However, this power can also be used intentionally, and for other purposes. To name a thing is to define it in your own terms. To nickname a person, especially through a nickname based on an attribute about them that ¬you select, is to define them in your own terms. This is a form of social domination. It’s a power-play.

If I can name you and make the name stick, then at least within the social framework that the two of us co-exist in, I own you and I can use my power of ownership to support you or repress you. If I choose a respectful nickname based on some positive quality of yours, I enhance your social standing through the nickname. But if I pick a nickname to make fun of your big ears—"hey Dumbo"—I undermine your standing.

For this reason, you can use nicknaming to show that desire to dominate. It is signal of cocksure arrogance, to believe that you can get away with re-defining people at your whim. However, nicknaming can also be a sign of insecurity. A character might try to nickname everybody as a means of claiming social power he doesn’t really have.

Whether a nicknaming character comes across as cocky or insecure mostly depends on how you handle the outcomes of the character’s attempts to label people. For instance, if the nicknames stick, it’s a sure sign that the character has genuine social power. If they don’t, more likely it’s evidence of a desperate power-play.

This happens in real life all the time. Playground bullies give nicknames to the weaker kids exactly to re-enforce the image of them as week, and to support their own position at the top of the pecking order. In sports, teammates often give each other locker room nicknames as badges of honor to recognize particular skills each player excels at. President George Bush was famous for assigning nicknames to everyone around him—members of the White House press pool, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, foreign heads of state—heck, even his mother got a nickname!


The giving of names is a powerful thing. While “a rose is a rose,” and while having the surname Montague didn’t change one little thing about who Romeo was as a person, nicknames are another matter. To name a person is to define them. To name them is to make them yours. To name someone is control how other people see them.

Your characters can use this power for good or for ill. Just make sure you know which one you want them to be doing.

May 07, 2010 18:08 UTC

Tags: character, names, nicknames, attributes, control

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How writers can use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some decades ago, a researcher named Abraham Maslow got this idea that people have priorities. Brilliant, eh? Well, no. The clever bit was when he realized that any priority you care to name, whether it’s “I should go put on a sweater because I feel cold” or “Gosh, I’d really like to publish a novel one day,” fits into a hierarchy with well-defined levels.

Maslow decided that this hierarchy of needs had five levels. On the bottom are your basic life-support needs, keeping yourself fed and whatnot. At the top are your most aspirational goals, getting that novel published. Maslow’s main point was this:

You can’t pursue your higher-level goals until your lower-level needs are met

For we novelists, that’s key. It makes a fundamental kind of sense, too: all else being equal, a person (or a character) will naturally focus on the lowest-level need in their life that is currently going unsatisfied. That is, the freedom to pursue higher-level goals is a luxury compared to keeping one’s lower-level needs met.

If you trap your hero in an underwater cave with a limited supply of air in his scuba tank, pretty much all of his attention is going to be focused on getting out of the cave. You’ve created a pressing low-level need for him, and until he’s got it sorted, higher level concerns can wait. That is, while he’s underwater he won’t be spending a lot of brain-cycles trying to figure out the most romantic possible way to ask his girlfriend to marry him.

Similarly, you can’t get a group of women to organize for Women’s Suffrage if they’re too busy working to put food on the dinner table. This is why Women’s Suffrage movements, both in the U.S. and in England, were driven by middle and upper-class women whose low-level needs were already well assured. The freedom to pursue noble ends such as social justice is a luxury.

Conflicted priorities

This philosophy leads to a point of leverage we writers have with our characters. People generally have a whole set of priorities in their lives, distributed across all levels of the hierarchy. These priorities are also dynamic, changing from moment to moment as circumstances change. This means you can pit a character’s priorities against one another—pit the character against himself—in order to create obstacles for the character to overcome. These types of obstacles will naturally be more compelling and believable than random, externally applied obstacles because every reader knows the frustration of having one’s priorities come into conflict.

Let’s imagine your protagonist’s central goal in the novel is a low-level life and safety goal. That is, the premise of the novel is one that threatens to prevent the character from being able to feed and house himself and maybe also his family. (Hey, raise the stakes, right?) Maybe, for example, your protagonist is an auto-worker who has been taking night classes in computer programming so as to provide a better life for his family. But, with the collapse of the U.S. automobile industry, he gets laid off. Now he has to figure out how to keep his family fed and his mortgage paid, something he previously had under control. If he has to go out and get a couple of lower-paying jobs, working days and nights in order to make ends meet, he’s going to have to give up on those computer classes. Or, maybe, he might take a chance and start applying for programming jobs anyway, even knowing that he’s not ready and might not succeed at that. Make him choose between the safe strategy of keeping his family’s low-level needs met at the expense of his high-level aspirations, and the risky strategy that might just get him both.

You can do it the other way around, too, pitting a character with high-level goals against unexpected low-level needs. Maybe your protagonist is a mid-level employee at some company, working hard to rise up through the ranks. Maybe he really needs a promotion and a raise in order to put his kids through college (a doubly aspirational goal). So he begs his boss for a chance to make a presentation at a meeting with an important client, and the boss says yes. Now create a conflicting priority: In the middle of this situation where he might realize his higher-level aspirations, confront him with a lower level need. Maybe he was nervous before the meeting (who wouldn’t be?) and drank too much coffee as a result. Well, we all know what happens when you drink too much coffee. Make him choose between relieving his low-level need, or soldiering on as best he can. Make him choose between appearing unprofessional by dashing out of the meeting to go potty, or holding his wee and delivering the presentation as best he can despite his physical discomfort.

Inverted priorities

Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t a rigid truth. People aren’t robots. The guy in the meeting actually does have a choice about whether to go deal with his immediate low-level need, or whether to ignore it in pursuit of a higher-level goal. It can be very dramatic to watch characters pursue high-level goals even at the expense of low-level needs. We usually call this “sacrifice,” and you can build wonderful drama with it.

It’s believable, because real life is full of examples. In a rigidly Maslowian world there would be no starving artists (or writers), but in the real world there are (as we well know). In Maslow’s world, there would be no over-achievers who pursue career or social goals to the exclusion of love-and-belonging. But in the real world, there are plenty.

In Maslow’s world, no one would ever dedicate themselves to a higher purpose, but of course some people do and they tend to be the people we most respect, admire, and follow.

Maslow’s hierarchy is just a tool

It’s a very useful tool, but it is only a tool. Much like the five stages of grief, which can come out of order or even skip over some stages, Maslow’s hierarchy is only a guideline for how people typically choose to focus their attention. To that extent, it makes a great framework for thinking about what a character’s goals can and should be in any given situation, and is a very useful strategy for brainstorming new conflicts and obstacles to throw at your characters.

May 05, 2010 19:32 UTC

Tags: character, hierarchy of needs, Maslow, priorities, conflict

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