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Swimming to find your characters

What lies beneath

Leaving aside for a moment that icebergs probably don’t really glow like that on their undersides, the iceberg still makes a nice metaphor for the characters in your book. Or rather, for the process of coming to know who those characters are.

I’d argue that when we think about our novels ahead of time, our conceptions of the characters are much like the visible part of the iceberg. Pretty, but not nearly the whole picture.

The water hides everything else. You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until—and unless—you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing.

The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.

I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet.

Two case studies

This has never been more evident to me than this past November, during National Novel Writing Month. But somehow, this year’s experience helped me understand the iceberg and the water in a new way, so I thought I’d share.

Now first, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I spend a lot of time before writing figuring out how the story is going to develop, which in turn means figuring out a lot about my main protagonists and antagonists ahead of time. Even before setting out on page one of my novel, I can tell you how my protagonist feels about her general situation in life. I can tell you what she wants. What she’s mad about. I can tell you the same for her mother, her father, and the antagonist who’s going to hound my protagonist’s family for the whole book. For these people, the visible part of the iceberg is a bit bigger. It has to be, because characters drive stories; the plot and the personalities have to mesh just-so in order for the whole thing to work out.

But I don’t spend much time on the minor characters. Their icebergs barely poke up above the water. Before I write, I know their names and how they function in the plot. I have vague mental images of them, but that’s really all. For all my planning, they were barely even one-dimensional characters.

It was only when I jumped into the water this November that I discovered who they were. They became three-dimensional people as I swam around in their scenes. I want to share that process with you, because the thinking behind it isn’t specific to this story. It should work for any writer, and any character, in any scene.

And just to set the stage for you, this novel’s one-sentence pitch is “A frontier girl, the daughter of German immigrants, must help save her family’s homestead from the corrupt railroad barons who would drive them off their land.” It’s a middle-grade western, set in 1863, in the Nebraska Territory.

Mr. Harper

Here’s what I had about Mr. Harper before I started writing. Mr. Harper is a bachelor who lives a country mile down the road from my protagonist’s homestead. He’s good with horses. That’s it. It’s not much to go on, is it? But I figured, he’s a minor character anyway, what does it matter?

Come on. Every character matters.

The first time my 10 year old protagonist Maria meets Mr. Harper, she’s in a bit of a pickle. She has been out on the prairie, away from home, longer than she should. Now night is falling and she has to get home and she knows she’s already going to be in trouble for being out so late. As it happens, she came past Mr. Harper’s homestead on the way back to her own. I wasn’t exactly expecting Mr. Harper to appear at quite this point in the story, but that’s how the preceding scene evolved, so I went with it.

Suddenly, I had to know how Mr. Harper was going to react to Maria’s unexpected, evening arrival at his homestead. His reaction depends entirely on his own attitudes, wishes, and goals—in short, on what he wants—but I didn’t know what that was.

I know what Maria wants. She wants a ride home. And she probably wants a third-party, someone outside of the family, to be around when she gets home in order to temper the severity of her parents’ angry response.

But what does Mr. Harper want? Right there, in that at-the-keyboard moment of working this out, my vague notions of who Mr. Harper might be crashed headlong into my planning of how the story is going to unfold later, with modern-day readers’ mental image of what frontier life was like and how people acted back then, et cetera.

Mr. Harper might want anything. Maybe he’s a greedy rascal and only wants money. Maybe he’s a reclusive type who only wants solitude. There is a whole gamut of things Mr. Harper might want—goals he might have—which will drive his response to Maria’s arrival.

Except I have a story to write, and I need certain things out of him. And when he does those things, I need them to come across as believable expressions of the man I have previously shown him to be. Starting right here with this first time Maria meets him.

In particular, I need readers and Maria’s family to like him, because of things that happen later in the story. He ends up helping them with a lame horse, and when I raise the stakes later, it’s by also threatening his homestead. That won’t play strongly unless readers care about him, too.

All of which means I need him to be nice in this scene. To help her out. That makes sense: out on the prairie you never know when you might need a good neighbor’s help, so even in selfish terms, helping Maria now gives him a store of good will with neighbors who may help him later.

Filtering the spectrum of possible Mr. Harpers through the prism of what the story needs now and will need later, was enough for me to zero in on what kind of guy he is. Simply thinking through the scene from his point of view—even a barely sketched out point of view—was enough to figure out how he’d react.

From there, it was natural to imagine how he would talk to her in a way that was friendly and neighbor-like. In the course of writing that scene, I discovered a congenial southern drawl that seemed to come naturally to him. He became a genuinely friendly guy, the kind of guy who if he lived in 2011 instead of 1863, would just as soon hug you as shake your hand and you’d be ok with that.

Could I have planned this ahead of time? Maybe. But I liked doing it this way better. I think it has a more spontaneous, organic feeling to it than if I’d have tried to over-specify this minor character ahead of time. He was a lot more fun this way, and is actually kind of a scene-stealer.

Mr. LeClerc

Mr. LeClerc is a French-Canadian guy who runs the dry goods store in the nearby frontier town of Columbus. Again, not much to go on. Again, it was only when I jumped into the waters of his first scene that I could see who this character was supposed to be.

Maria meets Mr. LeClerc on the occasion of selling him some baskets she and her mother have made. She and her father are in town to attend to various business, and her father got it into his head that Maria needed to be the one to handle the selling of the baskets, even though she had never done business with anybody before in her life. I didn’t plan that part either, but it seemed like the kind of thing her father would do, so I went with it.

So Maria has to negotiate a price with this Mr. LeClerc, a stranger she has never met before, and the poor thing starts out by asking for a price that’s way, way too low. She has no experience with money. She has no idea what anything really costs, so she blows it. She asks for a nickel each—about $1.25 in today’s money—not nearly enough. When in doubt, make things worse, right?

Now, how does Mr. LeClerc react? Again, his goals are terribly relevant. What does any shopkeeper want? To build up a good business and do well for himself. So maybe he knows a great deal when he sees it, and buys the baskets for a song, never letting on how much she’s getting screwed on the deal.

Maybe, but not so fast. I have a story to write, and things that need to happen later. Next time she sees Mr. LeClerc, in fact, I need for her to trust him. And that’s not going to happen if she gets home and her mother yells at her for not getting a fair price for the baskets. She’ll know she got screwed. I’m left with needing a way for Mr. LeClerc to get her up to a fair price, even though on the surface, he would naturally love to buy a bunch of nicely made baskets for cheap.

Thinking it through from his broader point of view, considering more than just the opportunity of the moment, I realized that it’s not a contradictory situation at all. Mr. LeClerc is a frontier shopkeeper. His clientele is kind of limited. It’s a small town, and he can’t afford to be alienating his customers. This includes Maria’s father. So LeClerc knows that if he screws Maria on the deal, it will likely cost him business later.

From there, it was easy. Once I had thought through LeClerc’s goals within the context of that situation, a solution presented itself. I let him reveal that he wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of her in that way: He said, “No! If I buy them for one nickel only, I cannot sleep at night!” From there, they worked out a fair price, and I got what I needed too: the plot moved where I wanted, Maria now has reason to trust him later (because he treated her fairly here), and as a bonus, I got some additional insight into what kind of man he is. He’s a basically honest guy, and kind enough to give Maria a way out of her mistake which didn’t humiliate her.

You must swim the waters

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you the idea. When you’re stuck in a scene for knowing how someone will act, think about what it is they want to get out of the scene. What are their goals and desires? And think about what you need in order to for the story to go where you intend it to. Between the two of those factors, you will be able to figure out what kind of person will give you a reaction that works. That’s how you see the rest of the iceberg.

December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC

Tags: character, writing, NaNoWriMo, character motivation, personality

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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

A month ago, I confessed to you all that I hadn’t finished a manuscript in the past three years. Finishing is a habit, just like writing, and I had gotten into a bad one. I set out into NaNoWriMo this year with the goal not only of getting my 50,000 words, but of finishing the damn manuscript.

And I did it.

I am convinced that the difference between this year and the past three is that I went into November not just with a plan for what the story was going to be, but with a plan for how I was going to finish it in the month. A story plotted out in 29 scenes. One scene per day, with a day’s worth of wiggle-room.

Lo and behold, it worked. Yesterday, I wrote the final scene. I didn’t even end up needing the wiggle room. And it shows in my wordcount graph, which I don’t think has ever been as steady-looking as this:

Sure, some days I wrote less, some days I wrote more. I missed a couple of Sundays and Turkey Day. But having a plan, knowing “I need to get to scene number 17 today,” kept everything on track. I knew there would be days when what I thought was one going to be one scene would morph into two, or I’d think of a new scene to add that I hadn’t when I was planning. And sure enough, that happened. But this year, it didn’t derail me because those additions did not change the cold fact that “I need to get to scene 17 today.”

Having that plan, holding myself to it, made all the difference.

All the pre-planning didn’t stifle my creativity for the writing phase. It didn’t shackle me into notions of the story that could not then change. All it did was put me in a position to say “sure, I can make this change now, but it means I’ll have to write more today, or tomorrow, to stay on track.”

I say this not to gloat (ok, maybe just a wee bit) but because if it worked for me, I don’t see why it can’t work for anybody. It’s so simple I kind of feel stupid even to explain it. It’s just math. How many scenes do you need? How many days do you have? Divide.

Why haven’t I been doing this all along?

This doesn’t mean I can write any novel in a month. What it means is that I now understand how I can write and finish any manuscript before any reasonable deadline. I like a NaNoWriMo-sized novel. It’s enough to be challenging, and to tell a good story. I have a list of other NaNoWriMo-sized novels to take on in future years. But I also have some in mind which are going to be bigger than that. Substantially bigger.

Those novels have felt daunting. And I suppose they still do. But from where I stand today, they feel less daunting than they did 30 days ago. Thirty days ago, those big projects still had the aura of chaos about them. They held a whiff of unwieldy danger, that I might not be able to wrangle them to the finish. But now, I know how to fix them within finite bounds before I begin writing. Now they become tractable.

Still big, but tractable.

Perhaps you are a bolder writer than I. For your sake, I hope so. But for anyone who has had trouble finishing a manuscript, perhaps taking your planning process this one final step may help.

November 30, 2011 19:03 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

Gentle readers, I have a confession.

I love NaNoWriMo. I have done it every year since 2005, and I have never failed to get my 50,000 words. Sometimes it has been close—like 2008, when post-election burnout induced me to slack of for twelve whole days after the annual Seattle-area Halloween midnight kickoff write-in. Boy did I have to write HARD after that to finish—but I’ve always made it. And I’m proud of that.

That’s not my confession, though. My confession is this: I haven’t finished a manuscript in three years. There, I said it.

That 2008 novel? Aside from blowing off 12 days out of the month, part of why it was so hard is that it wasn’t coming together. It felt forced. Fake. It was supposed to be this YA sci-fi/horror thing, and while I still think the core premise is a worthy one, it just didn’t have the overall feeling I was going for. I got to 50,005 words on November 30th, with basically just the novel’s big climax scene to go, and just... stopped. So close, but I just couldn’t make myself finish it on December 1st. I didn’t like it.

In 2009, I hit November 30th and 54,350 at about the 2/3 point in the novel, coincident with a part in the storyline I hadn’t planned out as carefully as other parts. I kind of lost steam through December and the holidays, and somehow, just never got back to it. But I still love that story, and I insist I’ll come back to it one day.

In 2010, I won NaNoWriMo with 53,587, again just shy of the novel’s climax. And trust me, it’s going to be an awesome climax. But last year my book doctoring business was really taking off, so when December came around I had to get back to my client work, and there went my evening writing time.

Blah, blah, blah. It’s always something. Those aren’t reasons for not finishing so much as excuses. I may just as well say “the dog ate my thumb-drive.”

Stephen King said something in On Writing that I can’t quote verbatim from memory, but goes something like this: the reason writers establish writing routines is because finishing things is a habit, and not finishing things is a habit, too. I have gotten myself into a pretty bad habit, here.

So this year, I am determined not only to win NaNoWriMo—I’ve got that habit squarely established. I know exactly what it takes to get to 50,000 words—but to finish as well.

This year, I have a plan.

I’ve always been a plotter. I can’t start NaNoWriMo without a solid outline for my story. It’s a defense against writer’s block, really, but hey. Whatever it takes, right? I can write my way to 50,000 words no problem, so long as I’ve got that plot outline to follow. What I’m apparently lousy at doing, though, is gauging how many words it will take me to convert that outline into a story.

Well, not words. The words aren’t the problem. It’s more like I’m not good at knowing how many scenes it will take. My natural scene length is around 2000 words, which is basically a day’s work, so when a section in my outline I thought would be one scene turns into three, suddenly I’m behind. Not behind in word count, but behind in pacing the novel to the month of November.

So this year, since I’ve got 30 days to work with, I’m plotting out the novel in 30 scenes. One scene per day. That should work, right? NaNoWriMo has this big conception of being done on November 30th. As an event, that’s when it ends. Over. Finished. Maybe your brain works differently (and I hope for your sake that it does), but for me the relief of being done with NaNoWriMo and having reached that 50,000 word goal seems to translate into a feeling of being done with the writing, too. Even if I’m not actually done with the writing. Then, come December 1st, it’s hard to get back in that groove.

But one important lesson NaNoWriMo has taught me, from the first three years when I was somehow able to finish the novel in December, was that writing a novel is hard work and to do it, you grab on to any source of motivation you can find to help you keep going. Anything at all.

Perhaps public shame will do it. I’m desperate, folks, so I’m putting this on my blog to keep myself honest. I’m pledging, out in the public sphere, to keep myself honest and get this puppy done this time. If it works, I’ll hit 50k without any trouble, and should actually finish the damn novel on November 30th.

That, pardon the pun, will be a novel experience. I wonder what it will feel like?

How about you? Now that I’ve spilled my guts, share your NaNoWriMo experiences down in the comments!

October 21, 2011 16:07 UTC

Tags: writing, NaNoWriMo, plotting, finishing

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Why less detail makes more believable characters

The question came up on the NaNoWriMo Forums as to whether to include a little or a lot of character description. I think less is more, and I’ll tell you why. It’s all about believability.

We’ve all seen books where characters are introduced with a lengthy, dry passage of description that sounds more like a police blotter report than anything else:

Jakob walked into the room. 6’2", burly build, wearing pin-striped Armani tailored to perfection. His shoes were black patent leather, with flawless white spats. His hair was a close-cropped buzz cut, greying, but still echoing his background as a Navy Seal. The scar running from the corner of his left eye, downward, then back to the corner of his jaw only re-enforced the image. He stuck one of his huge hands into an inner pocket of his suit, and withdrew a mirror-finish gold cigarette case. I was pretty sure he could crush a coconut in those giant mitts if he wanted to. He lit a smoke and asked, in his low smoky voice, “So. Did you bring the money?”

Boring, isn’t it? And that’s the best I can make it. Detail, detail, detail, hammering on your brain. Remember this! Remember that! Isn’t it vivid now? See see see!

The problem with this is not that any of the particular details are bad. In and of themselves, they’re fine, colorful details. Nor is the problem that the details don’t contribute to a portrayal. They do.

The problem comes in the attempt to paint a fully unambiguous picture of the person, one that leaves no flexibility whatsoever in the reader’s mind as to how you envisioned the character.

Stereotypes are good

When introducing a character, you’re usually better off sticking with broad strokes. The important thing at that point is not what color hair someone has or how tall they are, but rather, what kind of person they are. The important thing is to give the reader a framework for understanding that person and how they might act.

For that, nothing beats a stereotype.

I may get some flak for saying that, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Sure, in real life we strive not to stereotype people, because real people are infinitely varied. When we get to know any real person, we always find that there is more to them than just a stereotype.

But you’re not writing real life. You’re writing a novel. And for that, giving the reader a simple stereotype is a great strategy. In just a few words, you can establish probably 80% of what the reader needs to know. In the process, you set a framework you can later build on. Keep it short:

Jakob walked into the room. Tall. Big. I’ve known enough like him to spot the type. Military, probably ex-Navy Seal if I had to guess. Something about the way he carried himself. “So,” he barked at me, “did you bring the money?”

The stereotype is just a starting point

Just because you start with a stereotype doesn’t mean you’re stuck there. You’re free—and encouraged!—to build on the stereotype with additional telling details. The Armani suit, for example, says something about how well the guy has done since leaving the military.

You can even add even details which contradict the stereotype. But if you’ve got any of that going on, you’re strongly advised to introduce those details early. Do it before the reader becomes convinced by default that the opposite is true. For example, if Jacob was wounded in action and walks with a cane and a severe limp, you’d better tell us that up front:

Jakob walked into the room, slowly and leaning heavily on a cane. Tall. Big. I’ve known enough like him to spot the type. Military, probably ex-Navy Seal if I had to guess. Something about the way he carried himself carried through, in spite of his limp. “So,” he barked at me, “did you bring the money?”

Unless—as with any such rules of writing—it works not to. You might keep a contradictory detail secret if you’re going to spring a big twist with it later. Like, maybe instead of being wounded, Jakob was dishonorably discharged and that’s something you’re going to use to create a plot twist later.

Either way, set the stereotype quickly, as briefly as you can. Use the absolute minimum of details necessary for the scene to carry the emotional weight it needs to, and to avoid “hey, you didn’t tell me he has a limp” type plot holes.

Wait, you said it was all about believability

I did, and that’s true. Because the reason we describe characters at all is to make readers feel and believe certain things about them. Jakob, as portrayed here, is clearly intended to be an intimidating, formidable character. That’s really all we need readers to know, so they can be worried on the protagonist’s behalf. That’s it. Everything else is superfluous, and harmful to believability.

Stereotypes work precisely because they leave more to readers’ imaginations. If we give reader a “looks like an ex-Navy Seal” stereotype, they’ll get whatever mental image they get, based on all the people they’ve ever known, met, and seen in their lives. Whatever any particular reader imagines for himself or herself, will by definition be the most believable representation for that reader. A stereotype, yes, but a stereotype based on real patterns of real people. Different from yours, maybe, but 100% believable to the reader.

Less is more in character descriptions: use stereotypes to create believability; details to create dimensionality.

Use the stereotype to your advantage

A stereotype brings to a wealth of details to the reader’s mind for free, at absolutely zero additional word count. Those details exist, and where they are predictable you can use them to your benefit.

Let’s take eye color as an example. In the NaNoWriMo novel I’m writing this month, I have a young woman of Cuban/Hispanic descent. The reader got that stereotype in the first scene when we met her. Much later, in the first-kiss scene between her and my MC, the stereotype supplied a detail I could work with to flesh out the moment between the characters. Here, they’re sitting on a couch, leaning ever closer to each other:

She’s looking right in my eyes, and we’re so close I can see her eyes aren’t pure black. There’s tiny little dark brown flecks in them.

This works because I can predict with almost 100% certainty that any random reader’s “mid-20s, Cuban/Hispanic woman” stereotype is going to have dark eyes. So when I refer to her eyes as being dark—something that was never mentioned explicitly in her original description—I reward readers by re-enforcing the detail they imagined for themselves. It’s a subtle way of telling them “yes, you have envisioned this character the right way,” and bam! the reader’s belief in the character is cemented forever.

All I have to do is not contradict the stereotype too much. I build on the stereotype, rather than contravening it radically. If, in that scene, I had suddenly said she had piercing blue eyes or something, that would make readers hate me for being a total idiot. And they’d be right to do so; the detail just wouldn’t fit.

Stereotypes create belief; details create dimension

You get a reader’s deep buy-in, their suspension of disbelief, from tapping into the reader’s mental stereotypes and forcing them to imagine the details. And you do that by giving only the minimum of detail necessary to guide the reader to the correct, story-relevant, stereotype.

You get dimensionality, differentiation from the stereotype, by carefully layering small additional details on top of the stereotype, like putting brown flecks in a woman’s black eyes.

Less is More

Less is more because when you toss in too much detail, you’re telling your readers how to envision the character, rather than showing your readers how to envision the character for themselves. That’s a guaranteed losing game, because you’ll never—and I do mean never—be able to tell them anything that’s as convincing and believable as what you can lead them to invent on their own.

All the stereotype does is let you control, limit, and predict what they’re going to invent, so you can keep their imagination in line with your story.

November 17, 2010 00:22 UTC

Tags: character, description, details, stereotypes, NaNoWriMo

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Let's talk about goals

It’s almost NaNoWriMo time again, which means I’ve been hanging out a lot on the NaNoWriMo forums. I find I’ve been spending a lot of time helping other ‘WriMos sort out their plots before November starts, and in particular, helping them figure out the whole question of goals.

Rather than type it out a million times over there, I figured it would be better to simply go over it once, here. After all, goals are a big part of why we believe in and root for a book’s characters, and even the most quirky and interesting character is going to fall flat if the character’s goals don’t feel right.

Short, Medium, Long

Within the context of a novel, I find that characters’ goals usually group into three levels. Short term, medium term, and long term. Every novel will have its own scale—what constitutes a short term goal in a multi-generational family saga might take years, while a short term goal in a “you have 24 hours to stop the terrorist plot” type thriller might only take minutes or even seconds—but within its scale you’ll find all three kinds of goals.

Short term goals are what characters want to achieve right now. Within the immediate scene, usually, or even within a paragraph. Typically, the short term goal is the one which is the most pressing for the character, right at that very minute. It is the thing they can least afford to ignore.

Medium term goals take longer to achieve. They are almost always more difficult to achieve. And this is the important part, they often correspond with the character’s overall story goal. If you look forward to your plot’s climax, a character’s medium-term goal is the thing he or she is either going to succeed or fail at when the big moment comes.

You would think that long term goals are the ones that would drive the story, but they’re not, because characters have (at least, so we imagine) lives outside of and beyond the confines of the plot you’re writing. As far as the character is concerned the plot is probably just one episode, albeit a dramatic one, within the context of a larger life.

Which leads us to the long term goals. Long term goals are most typically life goals, the great, meaningful, important things the character aspires towards. These are goals like “get a promotion,” “buy a house,” or “write my novel.” Anything you can add the word “someday” to, without substantially changing the sentiment of the goal, is a long term goal.

Long term goals may be very important to the character personally, but they are often put on the back burner in favor of pursuing short term and medium term goals. After all, short term and medium term goals almost always feel more pressing and immediate, when you’re making decisions about how to use your time. Yes, you may deeply want to save up money to buy that house, but right now the car’s out of gas and your kid needs new shoes. We all know what this is like in our own lives, and if you’re striving to portray a realistic character (as opposed to a relentlessly logical one), it helps to show this tension between satisfying the needs of the moment and planning for the long term.

Goals and Maslow

Short, medium, and long term goals also fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Short term goals often correspond to the lower, more immediate, survival-oriented levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Food, shelter, and so forth. Long term goals, being more aspirational, tend to fit into the upper levels of the hierarchy. There, you find achievement, professional success, and the like. In the middle, you tend to find your story goals. For example, the entire (and mind-bogglingly prolific) genre of romance novels trades on story goals that fit smack into the middle “Love and Belonging” layer of the hierarchy.

These are not hard and fast rules, by any means. And while many a thriller novel has made hay on story goals that sit on the lower, “Safety” layer of the hierarchy, you’ll find that from scene to scene your characters’ goals may well jump around as circumstances warrant. That’s fine. The point here is that when you get stuck, when you’re not exactly sure what goal makes sense in a given scene, you might look to see if the hierarchy of needs can point you towards something that will work.

Know What Everybody Wants

Try to be aware of all your characters’ goals, on all three levels, all the time. Yes, that’s a tall order. I know it is. But it’s important because goals dictate choices and actions. When characters’ choices fall out of sync with their goals, readers stop believing in them as real people. As well they should.

At a minimum, do this for your protagonists, antagonists, and any other POV characters you may employ. Make sure you know what those people’s goals are. When you’re writing a scene, you can scope your focus down to just the goals of the people in the scene.

Using All Three Levels

Now that you know what everybody wants, what do you do when it comes to writing the book?

Short term goals typically drive your scenes. Why? Because scenes involve characters doing things, and at least by default characters choose to do whatever’s most pressing at the moment. You don’t sit and finish your Sudoku while your house is on fire.

That said, characters often have a lot of choice as to what their short term goals are, because characters are keeping in mind (or rather, you’re doing it for them) their medium term story goals. Therefore, characters pick short term goals that support their medium term goals. In a given scene, characters have a wide (almost unimaginably wide) array of possible choices they can make. Not all of them make sense, but they do exist. Some smaller set of choices will help the character towards achieving the story goal. The smart, believable character will pick a short term scene goal from this smaller set. Short term goals are often a means to an end.

Long term goals, on the other hand, often get left by the wayside and are only pursued when an opportunity happens to present itself. There’s an ironic, almost perverse contradiction short, medium, and long term goals, which almost always works against the direct pursuit of long term goals. There’s a scale of personal importance from short to long term goals, in which the long term goals are indeed the most important ones to a character. Those are the things the character most strongly wants, deep down, to achieve.

But remember, “someday.” Long term goals are “someday” goals, and there is a contradictory scale of immediacy under which short term goals out rank long term ones. And for whatever reason, immediacy seems to trump personal importance every time. This is usually a source of frustration, to the extent characters are aware that their pursuit of short term and medium term goals is pulling them away from their long term goals.

Goals in Opposition

Those contradicting scales of personal importance and immediacy point to a larger, and much more important issue with goal setting in your novels. Opposition. As often as possible, put different goals in opposition to one another.

Some oppositions are obvious: The protagonist’s and antagonist’s story goals should clearly conflict with one another, and I won’t spend any time on it because that’s pretty well-trodden ground on other writing blogs and in writing books. Just about all you need to know is captured in the image illustrating this article: those kids can’t both have what they want in that moment.

What I will talk about are intra-character conflicts. Creating conflicts within a single character’s goals is an excellent way to raise the drama in your novel. Choices, difficult ones that involve sacrifice, are inherently dramatic. When you’re designing a scene, see if there’s a way you can make the scene such that it will force the character to choose between two things he or she wants. You can make it overt and unthinkable, as in Sophie’s Choice, but it takes a lot of setup to make that work as anything other than melodrama.

What I like is to create conflicts across the different levels and scales of goals. Short term goals causing long term goals to be put on the back burner is one example, but a weak one. What about creating a medium term goal for the whole story that, in the climax, will turn out to require that the character sacrifice any hope of achieving an important long term goal?

Alternately, you can create conflict within the same scale by giving a character multiple goals at that scale. For example, you could give a character two goals that rank similarly on Maslow’s hierarchy: a personal achievement goal of completing one’s Ph.D., and a social goal of establishing and maintaining a circle of friends. These goals are normally perfectly compatible, except during finals week when the character has to choose between studying for an important test and going to the movies with his friends. Especially if the girl he’s really into, and that one of his friends is also interested in, is going to be there. You see how that works.

Goals in Alignment

Goal conflicts and oppositions are workhorse tools of portraying complex, realistic people. But don’t neglect the potential for making strategic choices about where to align different goals, too.

This applies more between two characters than it does within a single character. Take an extreme example: you could give your protagonist and antagonist an identical long term goal but give them radically opposed story goals about how they want to achieve it. This can lead to the classic “horribly misguided antagonist” type of plot, in which the antagonist may be driven by the noblest of motives but is led towards doing terrible things in pursuit of them.

For example, your protagonist and antagonist could share the goal of averting global warming. But, while the protagonist may decide that the underlying problem is that people need to learn to consume less, the antagonist may decide that the underlying problem is simply that there are too many people. One will become an advocate for recycling and renewable energy, while the other will become a terrorist hatching plots for how to kill a billion people at a time.

The best antagonists, in my view, aren’t the ones who are the most purely evil. That’s boring. The best antagonists are the ones we can easily empathize, because we share their long term goals. Similarly

Mix it Up

The dynamic between any two characters in a novel is usually a mixture of opposition and alignment across short, medium, and long term goals. Characters who always agree are boring to watch. Characters who always disagree are marginally more interesting to watch, but it quickly becomes difficult to understand why they bother to interact with each other at all. Only by carefully choosing where to create alignment and opposition among the many goals they have, can you create a believable, interesting, compelling dynamic.

October 14, 2010 20:04 UTC

Tags: character, goals, NaNoWriMo, Maslow, POV, conflict

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NaNoWriMo Sponsorship Drive and Mega Prize Giveaway!

Fellow writers, once again National Novel Writing Month is nigh upon us. Those who know me know how much I love NaNoWriMo, both as an event and as an organization. This year, NaNoWriMo is working with to make it easy for people to encourage people to sponsor their efforts, and I’m jumping in to support a cause I truly love.

You remember the March of Dimes walk-a-thons? This is like that, but with typing.

Click here to sponsor. My goal this year is to raise $1000.00 for NaNoWriMo. It’s a lot, I know, and it probably makes you wonder why. That’s a question that deserves a good answer.

The best one I have is joy.

NaNoWriMo has brought a lot of joy to my life. That joy comes in many forms. There is the original joy of writing. NaNoWriMo is what led me to rediscover that joy after a decades-long absence. It is the joy of doing something creative, of learning a new skill. NaNoWriMo also led me to a new career and a new direction in my life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be putting myself out there as a freelance book doctor if it weren’t for NaNoWriMo. Once I started swapping critiques with other writers, they kept telling me I gave great critiques until one day somebody said “Wow, you could charge for advice like that.”

As a vocation (and an avocation) book doctoring brings me much more joy than any other job ever has. I like helping other writers hone their skills. I enjoy getting sneak-peeks at novels that may someday be published. And there’s much joy in taking control of my own life in a way that wasn’t really possible when I was “working for the man.” All in all, I’m a lot happier and more satisfied with my life, as a direct consequence of NaNoWriMo, than I have ever been.

When I put it that way, I should probably set my fund-raising goal at ten times that amount.

But I’ve put it at $1000, and we’ll see what happens. I do it in part to repay NaNoWriMo for all that it has brought to me, but for another reason as well. I know that they’ll use the money to bring that one, original, life-changing joy—the joy of writing—to others. They’ll use it to help adults and kids, worldwide, discover and revel in their own creativity.

Of course if you all want to make both me and the good folks at NaNoWriMo deliriously happy, by all means let’s make it to ten grand! Because, really, don’t you think the world use a bit more joy in it?

So, what am I going to be writing this November?

This year, as has become almost a tradition for me, I’ll be trying something new for NaNoWriMo. This year, I’m writing an adult, literary novel centered around the question of “how far will one man go to gain respect, when he knows respect doesn’t come cheap?” Click here for a synopsis of the novel (and an excerpt, once November starts), and click the “Novel Info” tab on that page.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m pretty optimistic about this one, although if you can think of a better title than “LX” please share it down in the comments. Until then, I thank all of you who choose to sponsor me in my writing effort, and sponsor a truly unique and wonderful organization in the process.

If that’s not enough, prizes!

If joy itself isn’t sufficiently motivational, how about prizes! I’m offering the following prizes to generous sponsors:

The Wallet Quick-Draw winner: the first person to donate (other than me; I chipped in a bit to get things going) gets the very first copy of the book, signed and everything. I will produce a limited number of copies through a Print on Demand service for prize purposes.

The ESP winner: This gets tricky, so pay attention. The person whose donation amount is closest to the average donation amount, in recognition of your superior abilities to anticipate the behavior of your fellows, gets a signed copy of the book and an invitation to be a beta-reader. So, if you want a sneak peek at this story and the opportunity to tell me how I can make it better, figure out how much you think everyone else will donate on average, and give that amount.

The Luck of the Draw winner: From the list of sponsors who don’t win any other prize, I’ll pick a random person in traditional raffle-style fashion. That person shall receive all of the above and a free book doctor critique of ten pages + a synopsis of your own novel.

The Grand Prize winner: Whomsoever shall donate the single largest lump-sum to this sponsorship drive shall receive all of the above-mentioned benefits, plus a free book doctor critique and analysis of your entire novel. I’ll read it cover to cover and write a report you can then use as a roadmap to guide you in producing a revised draft.

The Everybody’s a Winner winner: Finally, because everybody who contributes deserves to be thanked, I will acknowledge all donors, by name, in the book’s Author’s Note. Unless you don’t want me to. I’m cool with that. [Edit: Why didn’t I think of this yesterday? Everybody who donates will also get a copy in eBook format (not sure whether it’ll be Adobe Digital Editions, ePUB, or what, but something you can read with freely available software).]

Click here to sponsor my novel, and my very great thanks in advance to all who do. Winners will be announced in early December.

ADDENDUM: If you contribute, please leave a comment here with your real e-mail address in the appropriate field. Otherwise, I have no way of contacting you when you win a prize; the GiftTool interface shows me your name, but for obvious reasons, doesn’t show any other contact information. Thanks!

October 12, 2010 19:01 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, LX, it's for a good cause

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NaNoWriMo diary part 4: trust the process

So the usual thing has happened to me in NaNoWriMo. I made it to 50,000 words—which is always a great feeling—but I didn’t make it to the end of the story. My first couple of years, it took me six extra days to reach “The End.” After that, I don’t really remember but I know I’ve never finished a novel by November 30th. But that’s ok. Every year I have a great time doing it and I learn a lot about novel-craft.

Nothing teaches you how to do something better than actually doing it.

This year, I’ve learned enough to figure that I probably have another 20 to 25 thousand words left before reaching the end. Part of what the past five NaNoWriMos have taught me is a sense for that sort of thing. My first year, I had absolutely no clue how much story I could fit into 50,000 words. That was quite an eye opener. This year, I’m about two-thirds done, and I know it. That’s progress.

So what did I learn in the last week of speed novelling?

Trust the process

Ok, so if that isn’t the most hackneyed cliche in all of the arts, I don’t know what is. But it wouldn’t be a cliche if it weren’t true. For example, this past week my story moved on to a new part of the plot where I got to start writing for a new minor character. In my notes, I’d never picked a name for him, only referring to him as “Sidekick.” Yeah, yeah, I know. But hey, if Neal Stephenson can get away with naming a character Hiro Protagonist in his actual novel, I should be able to call a guy “sidekick” in my notes, right?

Anyway, the point here is that while I had some sketchy notes about Sidekick ahead of time, I didn’t really know who he was. As I’ve confessed in prior diary entries, I didn’t put as much work into planning this novel as I’d have liked. But I’ve been thinking about him all month, so when he showed up he was at least vaguely familiar to me. His voice was there.

The other thing about Sidekick is that later (I’ll probably get to this part today), he has to do a Bad Thing to Anna. It’s necessary for the plot, but I hadn’t ever put much thought into why he did it. But in listening to his dialogue, he has revealed to me his own goals and ambitions. Those, then, made it obvious not only why he would do this Bad Thing, but further, why he had even volunteered for Sidekick duty in the first place. The two dovetail together. When he discovers that sidekicking isn’t in fact going to advance his ultimate goals, he turns from ally to enemy.

Sidekick’s voice, his goals, his motivations, it’s all hanging together nicely now. I could have fussed and fretted over it while planning the novel, and come up with something that works. No doubt. But this works too, I didn’t have to stress over it, and best of all it has an organic feel to it. It just feels right.

That’s the process. That’s what it means to discover your story as you write it. The part of the process you have to trust in is your own storytelling instincts. Follow them where they lead, especially when you’re not sure where the story is going to go, because usually it’s someplace pretty good.


My main character continues to reveal herself, page by page. Earlier on, I said I wasn’t sure if her tough exterior reflects a similarly tough interior, or whether it’s mostly a facade. This new part of the plot I’m in involves her traveling from the United States—from her home town—to Moscow, Russia. It’s very fish-out-of-water. And it turns out that she’s much nicer, much more deferential and careful about how she approaches people and conversation than she was back home.

On one level, it’s nice simply to resolve that question about her tough exterior. I’m glad to know that. But more importantly, that knowledge becomes another tool I can use. As she finishes out the Russia segment of the plot, I can show her gaining confidence and growing comfortable with being in a foreign land by letting elements of her exterior toughness creep back in.

Of course, that means she’s going to have to learn to swear in Russian. But that’ll be fun, too.


The last thing I want to talk about is the psychological part of novel writing for the novelist. It’s all about motivation. Writing a novel is hard work. To keep yourself going, I highly encourage you to grab hold of every possible source of motivation you can find.

Almost nothing beats having a specific, measurable goal to work towards. In NaNoWriMo’s case, it’s word count, and the reward is Winner status and the attendant bragging rights that come with it. The lucky writers among us get to work towards real deadlines, with money—and bragging rights—attached. Those objectively-measurable goals are great, because every day you see the tangible results of your efforts. If you stay on pace with NaNoWriMo’s stated goals, every day equals 3.33% of a novel. That ain’t bad. The lucky writers can cross off days on a calendar to mark their progress.

Numeric goals can be tough in the beginning, because three percent isn’t much different than zero, but after a week when you see that you’re 20% of the way there, you perk up. As those milestones pass, your motivation level rises because you can see the end in sight. You can feel it coming, and you want the reward that waits for you at the end. This year, getting to 40,000 words felt unusually hard. But once I hit that milestone, the last 10,000 just flew right by. It was great.

If numeric goals aren’t available, or aren’t enough, reach out for additional sources of motivation. For example, I used to post my daily writing during NaNoWriMo to my LiveJournal page. That first year, I had one friend who was avidly reading each day’s installment, and knowing that she’ d e-mail me with “Where’s today’s installment! I want to know what happens next!” if I didn’t have it posted for her was hugely motivational. Just knowing that somebody besides me cared what happened made an enormous difference.

Wherever you are in your life or in your writing career, I guarantee you can find something to motivate you to keep cranking out those pages. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, find it and grab hold.

November 30, 2009 19:36 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, motivation, process

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NaNoWriMo diary part 3: writing is work

I’ve reached the nominal half-way point of NaNoWriMo, twenty-five thousand words. Part of the brilliance of NaNoWriMo is establishing these milestones, because honestly, it does feel good to reach them.

Sometimes, though, I just wish they didn’t come up so fast. It seems like one hardly has time to savor twenty-thousand before, next thing you know, you’re supposed to have reached 30. Which, for anyone who is keeping score, should be tomorrow.

Writing is work

There’s no doubt about that. If you’re at all serious about this whole noveling thing, you have to work at it. A blogger friend of mine wrote a guest post aptly titled The Myth of Being in the Zone. There’s a lot of truth to what she says. Sometimes writing is an exhilarating, joyous burst of creative freedom.

But most of the time it’s work.

For me, the zeal of starting a new project usually lasts to about 10,000 words. After that, the work sets in. Which is not to say that it isn’t still enjoyable. But it’s a whole different experience to glance down at your word count after an arduous hour of work to see that you’ve managed to eke out 300 words, than it is when you’re “in the zone” and that same hour nets you 1,500.

This is also about when the procrastination kicks in. You’ll notice that I’m blogging at the moment instead of working on my novel. I’m a little blocked at the moment, in the middle of a scene that I’m not quite sure how to progress from point A to point B.

I could jump into it and grind it out, but I’ve found that usually it’s just better if I let these things sit for a while. If I come back to it fresh, the solution usually presents itself. Stressing out over OMG Must Advance Word Count! rarely helps. But, your mileage may vary.

Pacing is work

In my last NaNoWriMo diary, I was fretting over how much exposition I had to get through to uncover the story’s core mystery. I’ve done that, but I’ve been surprised to discover how scary that can be. I don’t recall having felt this way on prior novels, but I have here. I’ve spent all this time creating various mysteries, and resolving them is just a little bit frightening. I worry that what follows this first round of mysteries won’t hold the reader’s interest as well.

Of course I have the opposite concern, too: for 25,000 words, now, I’ve been piling and piling the mysteries on top of one another. At times I’ve felt like it’s too much. That I need to throw the reader some kind of bones, let them come to the answers to something, before they get frustrated with me.

Pacing is all about walking the right line between those competing fears, and honestly, I think it’s one of the harder facets of good novel writing to learn.

Showing character through dialogue

Quite some time ago, I wrote an article on how to un-clone your characters with distinctive dialogue. For Lapochka, much more than any other novel I’ve written, I’m finding myself using those techniques explicitly not just to make the characters distinct from one another, but to convey to the reader those characters’ personalities. I suspect the reason has to do with writing in the first-person POV, as opposed to my usual third-person limited POV.

We get plenty of Anna’s voice through the first-person narrative itself. She’s telling us the story in her own words. Her snarky sarcasm, her ironic sense of humor, her bleakly wry observations all have plenty of opportunities to show themselves. But the minor characters don’t get that. All they get are a few lines of dialogue here and there, so each one has to count.

I’ve got one supporting character named Steve who is basically a manipulative jerk. He likes to be in control. He likes it when other people are acting as pleases him. His dialogue reflects that with a lot of imperative-voice sentences. I don’t find him saying “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” which is ordinary active voice. Rather, he’ll say “No, you don’t want to do that.” Grammatically, it’s in the imperative voice. It’s a command. Colloquially, everyone understands that these are two different styles of presenting one’s opinions. But the difference in tone between the simple statement and the command is important. One is neutral, and respectful of the listener’s own opinions. The other is pushy and disrespectful, however much it’s disguised behind smiles and a cheerful tone of voice.

I have another character, Alex, who is a Russian Studies professor and himself a Russian expatriate. His speech reflects this through techniques of dialect, which I also addressed in that earlier article. I’ve known a few Russian speakers of English over the years, so it’s not too difficult to emulate their grammatical idiosyncrasies for Alex. The pleasant discovery with him has been that the broken-ness of his English also serves as a useful tool for convey his emotional state. When he’s calm and collected, his English is better. When he’s upset, it slips back towards native Russian patterns.

Ok. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got a word count to advance!

November 17, 2009 22:02 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, pacing, writing, imperative voice, Lapochka, NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMo diary part 2: the serendipity begins

After 5 days of writing, I’m 10,000 words in. I’m quite enjoying the process of watching this book unfold, but I have to say that some days have been a lot harder than others. Part of that may be unavoidable. I know that there’s a bunch of stuff I need Anna to discover before the plot can logically move forward. I know better than to just infodump it into the narrative, which means I’ve got to actually show Anna learning this stuff.

Frankly, it’s hard work coming up with interesting ways for Anna to discover a whole bunch of stuff about her father that she never knew, but which also supports the mysteries Anna will then set out to unravel. It would be all too easy to end up sabotaging the choices I need her to make by revealing the information in the wrong ways. So that takes time.

I also made a decision to write this book in first person POV, which is a departure for me. I’ve always been somewhat afraid of trying that, but something about this premise and the character of Anna made me feel like I ought to try it. I think partly I knew that some significant parts of this book were going to hinge on internal conflicts and Anna working out the ramifications of the identity crisis I threw at her in chapter 1, for which first-person is a natural choice. The alternative, doing it in limited third person with a whole lot of inner monologue, somehow wasn’t as appealing to me.

It’s going ok, I suppose. I’m happy with what I’ve written so far, even though I don’t yet feel qualified to write Anna in that way. I don’t really know her well enough yet that I feel I ought to be allowed to put words in her mouth and thoughts in her head like that. I expect that by the time I get to the end of the book, I’ll have a much clearer and stronger feel for Anna’s voice, which means I’ll have to go back and re-write the beginning to make it match. But that’s ok. It will be worth the work.

Still, I’ve had some fun surprises along the way. Like I said last time, the stuff that comes to you while you’re writing is almost always better than what you could ever think of ahead of time, and that’s been true for me a couple of times already.


The biggest surprise has been to find Anna suspecting her mother of having murdered her father. That was a good one, because with the set of information she has at hand, it’s actually not a bad theory. It can be made to fit a whole bunch of other stuff Anna is wondering about, too. So I had to run with that for a while. It was a fun digression, and I suspect I’ll probably end up keeping it in the final draft, but ultimately it wasn’t too difficult for Anna to spot the places where that theory doesn’t hold up.

I haven’t learned yet whether Anna swears a lot because she’s actually tough and brassy, or because it’s a defense mechanism. That one’s still up in the air. What I have learned about her is kind of interesting, though. She’s impulsive. We knew that already. But the curious part is that although she knows she’s that way, she can sense it, she nevertheless lets herself give in to her impulses anyway. This may well get her into trouble someday. We’ll see.


Peter is Anna’s father. He isn’t personally in the novel, having disappeared some fifteen years prior. But he is definitely taking on a persona of his own through the material artifacts he left behind. Anna was only five years old when he left, so she is becoming re-acquainted with him by going through his stuff, at the same time as I’m learning about him at all.

He’s an interesting guy. He was a huge Roy Rogers fan as a kid, and as it turns out Roy Rogers is what got him started collecting comic books. Comic books are a central theme in the novel, and while I’d always had that as part of the premise, I had never given much thought to how, exactly, Peter got started on collecting them. Turns out that the King of the Cowboys had a comic book series back in the day, and so those were his “gateway drug” into the larger world of superhero comic books of the late 50s and early 60s.

The other fun thing about Peter is that he wasn’t the kind of guy who would just tell you what he thought. He would, rather, ask you rhetorical questions that had only one possible answer. Like, he wouldn’t say “ew, that looks disgusting,” he’d say “oh, you’re not really going to eat that, are you?” This has been helpful, because even though Peter himself is not around in any of the scenes, Anna does have a picture of him that she talks to. And sometimes, in her head, the picture talks back. Not literally—she’s not crazy, she knows it’s just her imagining what he would say—but still it has become a useful device for creating some interaction, for building an emotional relationship, between someone who is there and someone who isn’t.

That’s not something I ever planned, but boy am I glad that picture turned up when it did.

November 06, 2009 19:25 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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What's in a name?

You want to know what I hate about the process of writing novels?

Coming up with names.

Judging by the number of “Help me name my character!” threads on the NaNoWriMo forums, I’m not the only one.

Seriously. What a chore. That is hands-down my least favorite part. On the one hand names are irrelevant to the story, so inventing them feels like make-work. But while a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, your characters’ names must sound right or you’ll lose the reader.

Well, most of the time they’re irrelevant to the plot. One book I read recently jumps to mind as a great counter-example where the author built a significant reversal about the character into the revelation of what the character’s name means. It’s is enough of a spoiler that I’d ruin the book for you simply by telling you its name, so I won’t.

Setting the occasional counter example aside, usually names are nothing more than labels to hang on the characters so we can keep the players straight. For example, there’s no reason why J.K. Rowling had to give Harry Potter that particular name. She could have called him “Alan Smithson” and made it work just fine, too.

Names do have to sound right, though. That is, they must fit with readers’ preconceived notions about names for people with similar backstories. At the very least they must not clash with the backstory too severely, unless you explain why. For example, absent a good reason for doing so, you wouldn’t give your lovable Irish priest character a name like Boris Solyarin, because that doesn’t sound at all Irish. It sounds Slavic. Or, you wouldn’t give your Femme Fatale a cartoon character name like Jessica Rabbit unless, well, unless she actually is a cartoon character.

I didn’t grow up in Dublin or Belfast, and I didn’t grow up in Toon Town, so for me it’s difficult to think of names that match the backstories of characters who did. Or, frankly, characters with any backstory different from my own broad socio-economic background. Thus, names become tedious research which doesn’t help me advance the story. Goodness knows any book involves enough research just to satisfy the plot; I don’t need name research dumped on me as well!

I end up wanting to name all my characters “Bob” and just be done with it. Of course, I don’t. Here’s what I do:

Don’t sweat it too much

Honestly, if you have as much trouble with character names as I do, the best single piece of advice I can probably give you is just to relax. Once you start stressing over the perfect name for your sexy Brazilian Women’s Volleyball team captain, you’re going to find that everything you think of doesn’t match up to what you want. Everything ends up sounding stupid. But that’s just to you, because you’re the one stressed out about it. Readers are much less likely to think the name sounds stupid so long as the name is plausibly Brazilian, and plausibly female.

Just google for “Brazilian Girls Names” and pick the first thing you find that you don’t absolutely hate. Odds are it will be just fine.

Have fun with it

One thing you can do is pick a name that bears some relationship to the traits of the character in question. This can be fun, because it turns the name into a private joke between you and anyone else who is word-wise enough to get it. For instance, in the novel I’m writing this month, I have a minor character who’s a Russian woman. Her backstory involves having done some very difficult things in her past, things that were necessary. While googling “Russian girls names” I happened upon “Darya,” which at least according to that one website, comes from the Russian word for “strong.” To me, that fits. So that’s what I picked.

Take care, though. It’s easy to go overboard with this. For example, (paging Dan Brown, paging Dan Brown...) naming your red-herring character “Arringarosa,” which literally means “red herring,” is taking things just a bit far. On the other hand, Neal Stephenson made that trick work just fine in Snow Crash with the sublimely named “Hiro Protagonist,” so as always, there’s proof that you can violate any rule of writing so long as it works.

Have faith

If it helps, pick a name as above but make yourself a deal: if you really and truly believe that the perfect name is out there somewhere, just waiting to be found, then give yourself permission to change the character’s name later. Pick something so you can get going, but let it be nothing more than a placeholder until the One True Name comes along. If there is some perfect right name for the character, then you have to have faith that it’ll come to you eventually. When it does, great! Search-and-replace is your friend. But if it doesn’t, then there probably wasn’t, and again your placeholder name is just fine.

Still, a rose is a rose is a rose

The name may be invested with all manner of emotional weight for you, the writer, because you are in the intense emotional throes of writing the book. But for the reader, the name just has to satisfy two simple criteria: it has to readily identify the character, and it has to sound right enough that it doesn’t blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief in your story.

Compared to writing a whole novel, that’s not a tall order. So pick a name and move on. You’ve got a story to write!

November 05, 2009 00:20 UTC

Tags: character, names, backstory, J.K. Rowling, Neal Stephenson, Dan Brown, NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMo diary, part 1: This is the fun part.

Ah, November. There’s a chill in the air. The leaves are dropping from the trees. And thousands of insane writers all over the world are banging out first drafts of new novels. Yes, I’m one of the NaNoWriMo faithful. This is my fifth year doing it. My “logline” this year is:

A young woman searches for her missing father through clues hidden in underground comic books from Soviet Russia.

I decided to do a NaNoWriMo diary because frankly, I’ve been blogging about novel writing and character development in the abstract for a while now, and I thought it would be a good idea to share a concrete example of how I actually put those principles into practice.

Today, what’s foremost in my mind is the truth of something that you hear writers say more often than not: no book ever turns out like you think it’s going to. You always discover new things in the process of writing that you could never have thought of ahead of time. And in my experience, these little jewels of serendipity are much better than the stuff I did think of ahead of time.

After just two days and a mere 3800 words of crappy first draft, I’ve discovered some interesting stuff about my characters. Writers say that great characters really jump off the page and take on a life of their own. They end up saying things you’d never imagine. So far, after what is probably only 5% of what the finished story will be, I’m finding that to be the case.

Anna Schoeffer

My main character is Anna, the young woman in question. She’s 20. It’s July, and she’s working a summer job to save money for college. Nothing especially uncommon there, which is basically intentional. I much prefer writing about ordinary people. But already Anna is taking on a life of her own. I’ve discovered two things about her:

First, wow does she have a potty-mouth! This girl swears a lot. I’m not sure quite what it means yet. It might mean she’s this really tough, brassy chick. But I have a feeling it might all be for show. She may swear and act all tough as a defense, whereas inside she’s not really so self-assured. We’ll see.

Second, she has a pretty short fuse. In chapter one, she ended up socking her step-brother in the jaw. Ok, he definitely had it coming, but still. She just up and did it. Not in a calculating way, but as a reaction to something he did. I’m not quite sure what to do with that. I mean, in real life I’m a total pacifist. I don’t condone violence as a solution to one’s problems. But at least in that one situation for Anna, it felt like what she’d do. Part of me wants to punish her for that, because again I don’t believe in acting that way. But for now I’m going to reserve judgment, wait a while and see how it plays out. It’s early yet and my gut feeling is that if I try to impose any particular moral viewpoint on the story that I’ll just screw it up.


Christopher is Anna’s step brother, the recipient of the punch. But again, he was way out of line and totally deserved it. I knew this about him going in—didn’t expect him to get punched, but I knew he was going to do the things he did. But what I discovered was that underneath his socially inappropriate behavior, he’s actually kind of a chicken. He shies away from confrontations, and for all his bravado, he backs down easily. He is ultimately a minor character who won’t be in most of the book, but I wonder how far he might actually push it with Anna?


Betty is Anna’s mom. She’s kind of a mess, actually. Anna’s father vanished 15 years prior, leaving her to raise Anna alone, which she didn’t do so well. She provided food and shelter, but not much in the way of emotional support. Betty is now on her fourth marriage, to Christopher’s father. This was all what I planned out.

What I didn’t plan is that she’s actually kind of crazy. All the years of coping while Anna’s father was missing, before she had him declared legally dead so she could remarry, left her in a pattern of seeing the world in ways that support her own self-pity, rather than seeing things for how they actually are. She’s not clinically crazy, not really, she’s just unreliable because she willfully ignores or misinterprets anything that doesn’t support her own narrative. I hadn’t intended this, but it works. It helps set the stage for some important stuff that happens at the end of chapter one.

I like this new discovery about Betty, but for all that, I’m still not totally happy with her as a character. She’s just as minor a character as Christopher, but her relationship to Anna is so much more important that I know she really has to “pop” as a character, and she isn’t yet. I have some work to do with Betty. Maybe she’ll come to life tomorrow and make it easy on me. Or maybe not, and I’ll just have to out-think her when I revise later.

To explore new words

Plot-wise, things are about where I expected them to be. I got the inciting incident—an identity crisis—out of the way and tomorrow, I’ll tackle revealing the story’s central mystery. That’s all good, and I know this isn’t the time to stress about Betty’s present one-dimensionality or Anna’s potential violent tendencies. That can come later.

But this, this is the time of the first draft. This is the time for discovery. This is the fun part.

If you want to follow my progress or read the first few thousand words of the book (warning: I meant it about crappy first drafts), you can do so here.

November 02, 2009 23:17 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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How to inspire readers with ordinary characters

_Editor’s Note: after discussing this subject at greater length with people on the NaNoWriMo forums, I realize I didn’t do a very good job explaining myself, so this is a re-draft of the original post. Just so you know. Even editors have to edit their own work sometimes._

Unless you have been cryogenically frozen since roughly 1995, you can’t have failed to notice that paranormal books are hot right now. H-O-T, as evidenced by Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and about a zillion others. People love them because they’re really fun. There’s no denying that.

But if you’re writing a paranormal book for younger readers, I’m going to ask you please to consider one thing.

Consider whether your protagonist really needs to have any powers.

I’m not trying to tell anybody want to do, I’m just asking that you think about it. And let me just say right up front: My reason for asking has nothing to do with plot. Your choice on the matter can certainly affect your plot in ways which may add or subtract from the overall drama, but that’s a subject for a whole other discussion. Plot is not what I’m talking about.

Perfectly fine, rip-roaring paranormal adventures, romances, detective thrillers, westerns, et cetera can and have been written using protagonists who have all kinds of paranormal abilities. If that’s what you’re keen to write, great. Those books are hot right now. Again, this isn’t about plot.

It’s about the deeper message your book sends to readers.

A YA book (and middle-grade books, too, but for purposes of this article I’m going to lump them together) can hardly avoid carrying with it a “meta” message, one that the author may or may not intend or be aware of. The message stems from how the reader empathizes or fails to empathize with the main character, in relation to the means by which the main character overcomes obstacles in the plot.

You’ve probably heard that rule of thumb about how YA readers like to read books with protagonists that are generally speaking a couple of years older than themselves. Obviously it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it tends to be the case. The reason is because those readers are looking for guidance about what’s coming for them a couple of years down the line.

Readers ask “can I see myself doing that?"

If they’re reading a vampire book, obviously they don’t expect that in a couple of years they’ll have to grow fangs or whatever. That would be stupid. But what they are looking for is a realistic portrayal of the emotional and social development of someone a couple of years older than themselves. They’re looking to see an example of what they can expect from themselves down the road a little bit.

YA readers are not usually aware of it, but that’s a great part of the appeal of those books for them. It’s an opportunity to test drive an older persona for a couple hundred pages to see how it feels. Fiction, especially fiction written in the first-person or third-person limited POV, offers a unique capacity to deliver this vicarious experience.

What’s your meta message?

If what readers see in your book is that someone a couple of years older than them is able to handle—even if it’s hard—situations the reader feels would completely overwhelm them, then that’s inspirational. That’s a positive, forward-looking message that says “Hang in there, kid. You’ll get there. Just give yourself time.”

The opposite is also true. When a reader sees a character who is older than them struggle with a difficult situation and succeed by using a paranormal ability, the meta message is completely different. Your novel may still convey an intentional message of good triumphing over evil, or the value of never giving up, or whatever it may happen to be, but below that intentional message is a meta message that this character succeeded where you, reader, would surely have failed because you don’t have a paranormal ability.

It doesn’t mean the book is a bad book (this isn’t about plot). It doesn’t mean the book isn’t fun (plenty of such books are). It doesn’t mean the writer is a bad writer or a mean, horrible, crusher of souls. That’s not what I’m saying.

Think beyond your book.

What I’m saying is that I believe YA writers have a particular opportunity to positively inspire our readers, specifically because of where our readers are in their own development and what they’re watching for in the characters they experience in books, TV, movies, and games. And with so much pressure on kids these days to grow up fast, to be dating younger and acting more mature than they’re really ready for, I think YA readers need every “Hey, relax. Slow down a bit. It’s cool” message they can get.

Think beyond your book. People didn’t used to be so sensitive to the presentation of women in fashion and cosmetics advertizing. But we’ve come to realize that the intentional “buy this!” message of the ads cannot help but carry with it an unintentional meta message about which body types are and aren’t valued in society at large. And since body type is largely out of anybody’s personal control—it’s hugely genetic—you get a lot of girls starving themselves or worse trying to conform to a shape that just isn’t natural for them.

The meta message matters, and now that people have come to recognize this about advertizing, we’re starting to see changes to mainstream ads in order to carry a more positive meta message.

The same is true for fiction as for advertizing. Any book, but YA books especially, will carry a meta message along with it. We can’t prevent that. The best we can do as authors is recognize it and keep it in the back of our minds as we make our choices about plot and character.

Have your cake, and eat it too.

There’s a valid middle ground that a lot of people on the NaNoWriMo forums weren’t shy about sharing with me, and I’d be remiss not to touch on it briefly because it makes a lot of sense: Go ahead and give your protagonist super powers, if that’s what the story calls for, but let the character’s ultimate success come not from the powers but from innate human qualities such as compassion, bravery, cleverness, self sacrifice, et cetera.

These are all perfectly ordinary abilities that any reader can aspire to develop in themselves. I’ll have to think on this some more, but a paranormally-endowed character who succeeds by virtue of ordinary human traits may even carry a stronger inspirational meta message to YA readers than a non-endowed character.

It’s a compelling argument, if only by virtue of J.K. Rowling singular example of it with Harry Potter. By the end of the series, Harry has developed considerable magical talent yet his ultimate success comes not from that but from his genuine love for his friends and his willingness to sacrifice himself for them. That, I have to admit, is inspirational.

All I’m asking is that you consider it.

You may have totally different goals for your book, and that’s fine. Your plot may require paranormal abilities in order to hang together. So be it. But ask yourself if it’s really necessary. “What if my character didn’t have any powers? How would that change things? Would the meta-message be different? If so, would it be different enough to warrant the change?”

Ultimately it is and always shall be your book, not mine. But it can’t hurt to ask “what if,” can it?

October 14, 2009 22:33 UTC

Tags: character, paranormal, powers, magic, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, young-adult, responsibility, inspiration, meta message, NaNoWriMo

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Drive a stake through your character's heart--but in a good way!

I suspect most writers would agree with what literary super-agent Donald Maass wrote in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.

And while my name doesn’t quite carry the authoritative weight of Mr. Maass (not yet, anyway!), I hope you would equally agree with one of my recent articles on the value of intertwining plot and character arc.

Today we’ll look at how to do both—raise the stakes and intertwine the plot with the character arc—in one shot:

Give your character an identity crisis: An identity crisis is an immediate ticket to character arc. An identity crisis forces a character to question who he really is, and ultimately to grow, mature, and become wiser. An identity crisis can also destroy your character, so readers can watch him rebuild into a newer, stronger, better version of himself.

The cool part is that there is a practically limitless array of potential identity crises you can draw from to find a close connection to your plot. Linking the resolution of the plot to the character’s resolution of the identity crisis immediately raises the stakes, because it adds the character’s need for self-understanding to whatever the outer stakes of the plot happen to be.

First, let’s take a quick look under the covers to see exactly what an identity crisis is, so we can then figure out how to create one that raises the stakes. An identity crisis stems from undermining something a character feels to be deeply true about himself. It can be anything:

Belief: I am my mother and father’s biological child. Undermining: Surprise! You were adopted.

That particular example has been done a lot (in fact, I’m set to do it again next month during NaNoWriMo) but you get the idea. Find something that is an utter rock-bottom, totally taken for granted part of the character’s set of beliefs, and change it.

When you do that, you force the character to start wondering “Well, if that was a lie, what else should I stop believing in?”

Undermining beliefs about relationships creates drama because relationships are so important in people’s lives. This is why the adoption one is so common, because parental relationships are among the most important in anyone’s life. But you can make it be about anything:

Belief: When I was four I fell down on a glass bottle and it broke and that’s how I got this scar on my side. Undermining: Surprise! When you were four, one of your kidneys was removed and donated to someone else.

Suddenly you have the character wondering how he could fail to remember something like that, why his parents had made up a different story, whether it was morally acceptable for them to do that to him when he was too young to really understand or consent, whether he can ever trust them again, and even whether (since he’s missing an organ) he’s still fully human.

Plot-centric Identity Crises: Now we’re in a good place to figure out how to use our plot—or even more generally, our genre—to pick a good crisis. The trick is to think about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, and look for one that naturally lends itself to a dependency on your plot. Everyone believes a great many things about themselves, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Find that natural connection, then destroy the belief that relies on it.

And just to show that a seemingly random core belief can relate to many different kinds of plots, let’s take some ideas from different genres and see how we could tie that missing kidney crisis to it. For all of these, we’ll assume the unknowing child donor has already become an adult.

Romance: Maybe the unwilling donor’s parents sold the kidney because they were in some sort of severe financial hardship. When he discovers that his parents ended up wasting the money on high living—new car, new TV, imported beer in the fridge—ending up right back where they started from a couple of years later, he comes to feel that something has been stolen from him. He finds he cannot feel whole without knowing where his other kidney ended up. He can’t accept that his unwilling sacrifice didn’t buy something more important than beer. So he searches and finds the recipient. Although he becomes attracted to her, he doesn’t tell her she’s got his kidney. Their flirtations grow more serious, and he falls in love with her. Saving her life, he decides, was a worthy trade. When at last she reciprocates his love, he becomes able to forgive his parents; had they not sold his kidney, he never would have met her. Only on their wedding night does he finally tell her about their deeper connection.

Legal Thriller: The kidney donor has become a District Attorney who is building a case against a black-market organ donor ring. At his annual physical, he is examined by a new resident-in-training, who asks about his scar. He tells the broken bottle story, but she doesn’t believe it. She whips out the portable ultrasound machine, takes a look, and tells him “sorry, you’re down a kidney, pal.” This completely upsets the relationship he thought he had with his parents, who are now deceased. Yet, everything he knows about morality and respect for the law, everything that led him to become a D.A., he learned from those same parents. He begins questioning his own commitment to those ideals. Still, when he recovers from the shock of this news, he digs into what happened. In going through his parents’ old papers, he discovers that the same black market organ ring he’s after performed his operation, and that the kidney went to a twin brother he never knew he had. (Bonus identity crisis: Surprise! You weren’t an only child, either.) But, being a chop-shop affair, his brother got sepsis from the operation and died. The papers contain enough clues about the organ ring that he can bring an indictment both for illegal organ sales and negligent homicide. In putting the case together, he comes to understand his parents’ difficult moral-vs.-emotional choice and comes to a more tempered view of the law itself. After handing off the case to a prosecutor, he resigns his job to pursue a seat as a judge.

Literary: Sometimes it can work well for the identity crisis to drive the plot, and again we’ll use the deceased-twin-brother: Suppose the character has always known he was missing a kidney, but thought it was removed when he was young because of renal cancer. As an adult, he has become a well-known cancer activist who is prominent in cancer-survivor support groups. His whole life unravels when he discovers that, again, his kidney was donated to a sick brother, and worse, it was his brother who had cancer, not him. Having subsumed “cancer survivor” so deeply into his own identity, the revelation that he never had it undermines his whole life and career. Should he keep quiet, or tell everyone the truth about himself? What about all the other survivors who have drawn inspiration from his supposed example of recovery and long-term health? Does he have a moral right to deny them that hope, when for many of them hope is a critical part of why they’re clinging to life at all? How can he maintain the same passion for his work when it’s not personal for him anymore? In the end, he resolves his identity crisis—and the outer plot issues—by shifting that part of his self-identity to “sibling of cancer victim” and establishing a new personal connection to what has become his life’s work.

Conclusion: I derived all of these examples by thinking about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, then looking at the premise and genre to find the specific belief to upend that best serves the story. However you manage it in your own story, whether the plot determines the crisis or vice versa, raise the stakes by driving a stake through your character’s heart.

October 06, 2009 21:14 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, identity crisis, stakes, raising stakes, Donald Maass, kidneys, NaNoWriMo

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