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How to establish your characters: endings

This is the long-delayed final installment in my blog series on how to establish your characters within various portions of your book. If you’re new, check out part 1 and part 2 as well.

In this series, we’ve been working with some example characters: a frontier wife in the Old West on the run from her past, and a shrinking violent character who rarely gives anything his full effort. We’ll extend those examples further in this article, to show how to bring them to full fruition at the book’s climax.

Show your characters mastering situations

At earlier stages in the book, situations mastered them. But as the character struggles with his character arc, he ought to get better at it, right? Practice makes perfect, which is just as true when someone is practicing how to be a better person as it is when they’re practicing the piano. The way to show us a character’s improved self is to show how their internal change results in better outcomes for them.

Take our milquetoast character Charlie; for him, the character arc kicks off when the woman he wants flat-out rejects him because he doesn’t give his all. After some false starts and further failures while he works through his denial about his problem, he may turn over a new leaf and begin trying harder at his job. He may resolve not just to do enough to get by, but to produce truly excellent work. If he’s a graphic designer at an ad agency, his clients may start complimenting his work to his boss, and maybe he sees a benefit in terms of landing an assignment for a new high-prestige client. He’s not done yet—he still has to nail that assignment too—but it’s a start. And who knows, maybe the girl of his dreams will notice his new attitude.

Resolve earlier mysteries

In part 1 and 2 of this series, I encouraged you to establish some mysteries, and to partially solve them while using those solutions to heighten the reader’s curiosity about the unsolved portion. The book’s climax, or often immediately before the climax, is the place to finally satisfy that curiosity. Note, I don’t mean you need a lengthy infodump, backstory passage that answers every possible question a reader might have about the character. I mean this is the spot to answer the big, juicy mysteries. Chances are you know which ones these are, but if you’re not sure, here’s a litmus test: would the solution to the mystery help the reader understand, or believe, the character’s subsequent actions and behavior during the climax itself? If so, solve that mystery. If it’s not essential to the climax, and especially if the reader can well enough imagine a plausible solution on their own, don’t waste words on it.

A great time to resolve the mystery before the climax is when by doing so you can make the character’s situation “darkest before the storm.”

Remember our frontier woman? She escaped her domineering family by dressing as a man and joining up with a cattle outfit. Except, something happened and she ended up on the run from the Texas Rangers. She went back to her female identity, got married, and believed her past was behind her until the Rangers catch up with her later. But why is the law after her? This is the mystery you have withheld from the reader. We know something happened, but we don’t know what. We don’t even know if her husband and children know about it.

One can imagine the woman doing her best to hide in plain sight, struggling to keep her husband from finding out the Rangers are after her, until at last that becomes impossible. Perhaps the Rangers have enlisted the help of someone from her old cattle outfit, someone who recognizes her. The jig is up. She goes to her husband, frantic, and says they have to get out of Dodge. He demands to know why, so she has to tell him.

“I— Don’t hate me, Clemson, but back in Texas, I killed a man.” She goes on to explain about her past (part of which the reader may already know), and how the dead man found out she wasn’t really a man and tried to have his way with her. She defended herself, and he ended up dead. Bonus symbolism points if she killed the would-be rapist with a rope, thus turning what was a tool of life in the book’s beginning when she used her surprising rope skills to save her husband from drowning, into a tool of death as well.

“I’ve wanted to tell you, Clemson, I have,” she might say. “But I was afraid how you’d take it.” And sure enough, he doesn’t take it well. Not only is she a killer, but she used to live as a man; he takes that as an affront to morality and to his own manhood as well. He kicks her out. Now things are as dark for her as they’re going to get. She must face her pursuers with no support from anyone else.

But that’s ok. With the mystery solved, now we understand what she has been through. Now we know what she is truly capable of. So when we see her wipe the tears angrily away from her eyes and mutter “I’ve done fine on my own before, I can do it again,” we’ll believe her. The solution to the mystery helps the reader both understand and believe in whatever she’s about to do to in the book’s high-noon showdown.

And, as a little bonus character arc, having the husband react in this way sets the stage for a side-arc for him, too. You could go back to the book’s beginning and middle to establish him as a very black-and-white kind of person, who sees events and people as all-good or all-bad. Someone who, if you cross him once, writes you off forever. You might let that tendency cause the family some troubles along the way, giving him fodder for relaxing his own strictness. Then, in the denouement after his wife has cleared things up with the Rangers (I’ll leave you to imagine the many ways she might accomplish that), maybe he comes to her hat-in-hand to apologize, ask her back, and say how he can see that everything she did was necessary for her survival.

Show the character’s final breakthrough

Readers have to see what happens to finally allow the character to grow, to complete his or her arc. Surprisingly, sometimes authors forget to put this in. They take it as a given that the character is going to overcome whatever personality flaw has been dogging them the whole book, when in fact that’s not true. You might bring a character right up to the brink of meaningful, lasting, inner growth, but that’s not enough. You have to take it the rest of the way.

Let’s go back to Charlie. His job successes are fine, but they’re probably not enough to create a satisfying ending to the novel. Nor would mere professional success leading to him getting the girl. Charlie’s problem runs deeper than simply not trying hard enough. It’s a failure of commitment to what he does. Odds are, the middle of Charlie’s story is going to show him achieving some successes, but suffering a number of continuing failures as well. He needs something to give him that final breakthrough.

Odds are, the central conflict in this book is going to be about something other than Charlie’s job or love life. It’s going to be something that will require Charlie to make a deep commitment to achieving some result, even though achieving that result will demand from him a significant sacrifice. Maybe Charlie witnesses some terrible crime, and ends up involved in an organization devoted to eradicating the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution (which, yes, sadly does happen in this country). The organization asks Charlie to lend his graphic design skills to an edgy, provocative ad campaign that will run in major cities nationwide. His boss learns about this and tells Charlie to drop it because their up-scale, corporate ad firm “doesn’t do social causes". Charlie needs to make a commitment, even if it costs him his job.

But he can’t do that and follow through simply because he happens to be in the mood to be helpful on that particular day. That won’t be satisfying. The reader needs to see Charlie have a final breakthrough moment so we can be confident that his commitment, even at the sacrifice of his job, comes as the result of true inner growth instead of happenstance.

Maybe what he needs is something symbolic. Something he can hold onto like a totem, to remind himself of what he knows he needs to be doing. It could be anything, really. It could be a photo on the news from some catastrophe half a world away, where he sees bedraggled rescue workers struggling with bloodied fingers to dig survivors out of a collapsed building following an earthquake. Dramatic, yes, but kind of blunt in narrative terms. Anything that hits Charlie at a vulnerable moment (say, after a late-stage failure that give him his own “darkest before the storm” moment), when he’s receptive to growth. Since Charlie’s fortunes are tied up with this character flaw, let’s make it a fortune cookie. Use it to delivery to Charlie a pithy saying that he can hold onto. A mantra for a better Charlie. “If you’re going to do a job, do the job.”

Simple. Almost tautological. But if it hits Charlie in the right frame of mind, he can read all sorts of deep meaning into that. Be true to your word. Be the sort of person whose word people trust. Don’t say yes unless you’re willing to back that up with action. Whatever you think Charlie really needs to glean from the little scrap of paper hidden inside the cookie, there it is. He can tuck the slip of paper into his wallet, to carry around with him forever.

This is a small, quiet final breakthrough. Its power hinges on what has come before, on Charlie being in a bleak, desperate place when it the breakthrough happens. I use this as an example because I think too often writers feel like the breakthrough has to be something big and loud. Something with explosions and car chases, be they literary or literal. Not so. That can work, sure, depending on the nature of the book. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re struggling with creating a believable breakthrough moment because what you’ve got doesn’t feel right, maybe you’re reaching for big and loud when what you need to be reaching for is small and quiet.

Other strategies that work well

There are other some end-game strategies that are also useful, which you can use as necessary or if they fit your particular book.

  • Show a meaningful behavior change that affects the climax. This goes hand in hand with the breakthrough moment. The whole point of a character arc is to create a new person who is better than the old person. But what good does it to do be better on the inside if there’s no difference in your behavior on the outside? The breakthrough moment is the true crux of the character arc, but the arc itself doesn’t matter until we see it play out in meaningful behavior when the stakes are at their highest. So, when that climactic moment does come, we’d better see the character doing something he or she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have done before.

  • Consider role reversals. Depending on the novel, a role reversal can be a wonderful way to signify growth. This gives us stories in which children become caregivers to their ailing parents, who had once taken care of them. It gives us heroes taking control from villains who have up to that point been in control of the situation. Look at the elements of your plot and especially your climax, and see if there’s some kind of duality along those lines you can work with. Some way you can have your character switch roles with someone else in the novel.

  • Leave it bittersweet. Nothing is all good, and fairy-tale endings aren’t believable. Well, except in fairy tales. The character did, after all, make a bunch of mistakes along the way. Some of those mistakes should have lasting effects, which take a bit of the sheen off of the character’s ultimate victory. Some genres love the pat, perfectly wrapped up happy ending. But I think you have a more powerful, more poignant, and more realistic ending if you leave the character with some regret over past mistakes, some level of “if only I’d done that differently.”

End Goals

To sum up, your jobs at the end of the book boil down to just a few things. Bring the character’s arc to a simultaneous conclusion with the story arc. Satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the major mysteries enough to make the climax believable. And leave readers with the feeling that the book meant something. A plot that wraps up with characters who are no different than when they began may have been a fun adventure, but it lacks depth. An adventure which leaves the characters stronger and wiser than when they started gives the reader a final bit of payoff, a feeling that there was a purpose to the book.

And who knows, you might even just help the reader learn a little something too. After all, stories are often how we learn what life is.

< Back to part 2, middles

February 28, 2011 23:43 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, behavior, reversals, conflict, mystery, curiosity, backstory, personality

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How to establish your characters: middles

Last time I wrote about how to establish your characters during your book’s opening. Having done so, readers are poised to watch those characters evolve as the book progresses. How do you deliver on that in the 80% or so of your book that takes place between the opening and the climax?

Last time we worked with some example characters: a lost job applicant in Chicago who smooth-talks a local into escorting him to his interview, a frontier wife whose unexpected rope skills save her husband from drowning in a difficult river crossing, and a shrinking-violet character who holds back, never giving his all. We’ll extend those examples in this article.

Give the character an epiphany moment

You establish that a character needs to have an arc by showing us some flaws in them. The beginning, when you were illustrating key personality traits or creating mysteries about the character, was when you were showing us that this character has some room to grow. To change. That’s necessary for a character arc, but it isn’t sufficient.

That is, it’s not enough for readers to see this. The character needs to have an epiphany moment in which he or she realizes it too. Something has to happen which lets the character see the deficiency within themselves. The establishing stuff in your book’s beginning just sets the stage. You need the epiphany moment to kick off the character arc, to put it in motion.

For example, perhaps after our shrinking-violet character blows the game for his team by not giving 100%, he gets chewed out by his teammates and the girl on the team he was interested in—who had maybe just agreed to go out to dinner with him—decides she doesn’t want to see him socially after all. “Look, Charlie. You’re a nice guy, but you don’t come through. If the team can’t count on you to dive for a catch, how can I count on you if things get serious?” That could serve as a wake-up call to Charlie that, indeed, he could try harder.

Bear in mind, that’s not the beginning-and-end of his character arc; a character arc can’t flit by in a single moment. The epiphany moment is just the start, and in the beginning Charlie will likely rankle against this new-found and unwelcome insight into himself, rationalizing and retrenching his behavior before he actually begins to change.

Show signs of altered behavior

Still, the middle of your book is a pretty long stretch, and you’ve got plenty of space in there to move the character past that initial epiphany. To do it, you have seven ways to show character growth at your disposal. Since there’s already a whole article about that (c’mon, click the link; you know you wanna) I won’t rehash it all here except to say that here in the middle of your book is not the place for the character arc to come to its conclusion. Save something for the end, you know?

Reveal some backstory

Back in the beginning, when you were creating mysteries about your characters by showing surprising skills and abilities they have, what you were really doing was hooking the reader by eliciting the reader’s curiosity as to how the character came to have those skills and/or abilities. The middle of your book is a great place to give drips and dribbles of backstory which reward readers for their curiosity. Give us some payoff.

But, don’t simply answer the question. Give us part of the answer, in a way which is satisfying to some portion of your readers’ curiosity, but which also heightens their curiosity. In other words, let the answer raise its own, more significant questions.

Remember the smooth-talking job candidate? In the middle of the book you might reveal that he used to work for the FBI, studying con-men in order to help the bureau catch them, until he was kicked out for ... well, you hold that part back. Now the reader wonders why he was kicked out. Is our guy really a smooth-talker by nature, or is he just employing techniques he studied from real con-men?

Or take the frontier wife with the husband-saving rope skills. As the book’s middle progresses, you might slowly reveal that in her youth, she escaped her domineering, controlling parents by stealing a pair of her brother’s clothes, dressing like a man, and joining up with a Texas cattle outfit. But something happened, and while she is now living as a woman again, she’s also secretly on the run from the Texas Rangers. Why? What happened? Do her husband and children know about her past? Don’t tell us. Yet.

Give us a meaningful payoff for our initial curiosity for our characters, but do it in a way which makes us even more curious for later.

Struggle with the book’s underlying conflict

But perhaps more important than any of that, you establish your characters in the middle of the book by showing them struggling with the book’s underlying conflict. Whatever it is, it ought to represent a significant challenge or obstacle for your characters in pursuit of their goals. Maybe the smooth-talking ex-FBI man is actually a good person whose major problem is staying true to himself. Suppose the reason why he got kicked out of the FBI—not time to reveal that yet!—is making it such that he can’t pass a background check, and as thus can’t get a decent job. This threatens him at the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, which puts him in a bind: does he continue to struggle, to rebuild his life while being true to the kind of person he wants to be, even though he knows it would be a lot easier just be a con-man? He spent years at the FBI studying those very skills!

Think hard about what your character’s most deeply rooted conflict is within the story, and let the surface level conflicts bear on that deeper struggle. Think deeper than your mere plot. This example character’s surface level conflict is about getting a job, but the challenges he faces in doing that bear on the deeper, personal struggle he is going through.

Middle Goals

To sum up, your book’s middle section needs to do these things:

  • Get your character arcs moving with appropriate epiphany moments.

  • Follow through on that by using the seven ways to show character growth as the bulk of the plot progresses.

  • Reveal enough backstory to satisfy part of your readers’ curiosity, while using what you’ve revealed to raise bigger questions.

  • Show your characters wrestling with—sometimes even being beaten by—the deep, personal conflict simmering underneath your plot.

The middle of a novel is a big, tricky balancing act for the novelist. You must balance the revelations and discoveries you present to readers with new mysteries, conflicts, and stakes. You must do both, because with no revelations at all, the book becomes difficult for readers to sustain. But if you don’t sustain any mysteries, readers will be left with little motivation to continue reading. The techniques in this article help you with this balancing act. Epiphany moments give the reader satisfying moments of drama (because they usually come out of some kind of confrontation), yet they presage the whole chain of the character’s arc. Answers to surface-level backstory can lead to questions that dig below the surface.

< Back to part 1, openings | Next time: part 3, what to do at the end of your book. >

January 25, 2011 22:23 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, action, conflict, show don't tell, mystery, curiosity, backstory, personality

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What Star Wars teaches us about character introductions

In real life, we make judgments about people, often within mere seconds of meeting them. Those judgments, whether right or wrong, are incredibly difficult to change later on. You don’t, as the saying goes, get a second chance to make a first impression.

The same is true in our books. Scenes where we introduce readers to new characters are tough to do well, because we don’t get much space to play with before readers make up their minds. Not many paragraphs pass before readers decide whether they like, loathe, admire, or pity a new character. So we have to act fast.

Star Wars is a great example of how to do this well, and exhibits most of the core techniques I want to talk about. Star Wars (and I’m talking about Episode IV, here) manages to convey to us, in very short amounts of screen-time, the essential nature of all of its main characters and shows them to be unique, distinctive individuals. We can take some lessons there as to how to effectively introduce our own books’ characters.

Show them in action

When introducing a protagonist or other POV character, consider showing them in action. By this I mean putting the character in a scene where he or she has to actually do something. Make it a situation where the character has to make some kind of choice and take some kind of action (preferably, a difficult choice and an unpleasant action) in order to affect the outcome of the situation.

Early on in Princess Leia’s introduction—it’s not her first scene, but it’s close—she is faced with a no-win choice: give up the location of the rebel base, or see her home planet of Alderaan destroyed. We can see how difficult a choice it is for her, through her visceral, bodily reactions. She’s heartbroken to betray the rebellion, but she can’t let an entire planet’s population be eradicated either. It’s an impossible choice, but she makes a choice anyway, and we see the pain of it in the down-turn of her face, the slump of her shoulders.

What does it tell us about her? It tells us that she’s an important person within the world of the movie. It tells us that she is fundamentally a protective, nurturing person, in as much as she tries to protect the people of Alderaan even though she must make a huge sacrifice in the attempt. The scene portrays her as a deeply sympathetic character. But note—and this is important—the sympathy comes not from the choice itself but from how she feels about it, which we viewers read through her body language. Had she treated the choice differently, in a casual or cavalier manner ("Well, Tarkin, I can’t have you blowing up a whole planet, so hey, the rebels are on Dantooine. Go get ‘em, big guy!") we’d have had an entirely different feeling about her.

Show them in conflict

One of Luke Skywalker’s first scenes is a minor conflict between him and his Uncle Owen. We meet Luke in the scene where the Jawas sell R2-D2 and C-3PO to Luke’s family. Having made their purchases, Uncle Owen tells Luke to get the new droids cleaned up. Luke replies with:

But I was going into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters...

Epic whine. A whine that will go down in history. But, he obeys his Uncle. What’s going on here from a character perspective? We’re being shown that Luke is a relatively powerless figure. He has no authority, and little control over his life. Physically, we can see that he’s a very young man, so this makes sense and is something most viewers can empathize with. We’ve all felt that way from time to time. That’s the sympathetic hook of Luke’s character. But it also shows us that he’s not satisfied with the life he lives. He rankles at the limitations of both the life he lives and the place he lives it. As he remarks to C-3PO:

Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.

Conflict is a wonderful way to bring a character’s deeper motivations up to the surface where we can see them. Whether those motivations come out through dialogue (as they do here), through choices made as the conflict progresses, conflict is a great way to let us know what really drives your characters.

Show them using key skills, attitudes, hobbies, et cetera

We first meet “Old Ben” Kenobi, the “crazy old wizard” after Luke gets his butt kicked by the Tusken Raiders. (Side note: Luke clearly loses that conflict, which greatly re-enforces his powerlessness.) Kenobi comes breezing into the canyon, his brown robes flowing in the breeze, and the raiders all take off. Young, strong, able-bodied Luke was child’s play for the raiders, but creaky old Ben Kenobi scares them off without so much as breaking a sweat.

It’s not difficult to understand that this Kenobi guy must have something going for him. He’s got some kind of mystic juju going on in that scene which is nothing to sneeze at. At that point in the movie, we have no idea what his deal is, not yet, but we get it: he’s a powerful figure. His subsequent dialogue with Luke further reveals him to be both kindly and wise.

In hero’s journey terms (and Star Wars is definitely a hero’s journey story), even in this short introductory scene Kenobi is an obvious fit to be the story’s mentor character.

Use vivid imagery

Don’t discount a vivid set of visuals to introduce a character, either. Like Darth Vader. Even without John William’s unforgettable musical theme for Vader, we know he’s a total badass from the moment he steps into the smoke-filled corridor of Princess Leia’s spacecraft. His imposing physical stature, jet black outfit, and billowing cape all speak of power. The symbology is not subtle at all, but it is pulled off with such panache that the overall impression is powerfully striking.

Show other characters’ reactions

Speaking of Vader, he’s also a great example of how other characters’ reactions can show the viewer (or reader) a more complete picture. He shows his face—well, his mask anyway—and storm-troopers snap to attention along the corridor’s walls. They make room for him to pass. Rebel soldiers avert their eyes and clasp their hands behind their heads. Those reactions, even though they come from nameless (and for the stormtroopers, literally faceless) extras, tell us everything we need to know about Vader. When Vader steps into that corridor, he’s the man. He’s in complete control of the situation, and no one is about to defy him.

Except, getting back to her for a moment, Princess Leia. And what does that tell us about her? That she’s strong, oh so strong, and indomitable.

Make use of setting

Where we meet characters says a lot about them too. We meet Luke out in the ass-end of nowhere on his Uncle’s moisture farm. He could scarcely be in a less influential setting. It’s a great setup for Luke, because for him Star Wars: A New Hope is a fish-out-of-water story. He’s the backwater nobody who finds himself suddenly thrust into the middle of hugely important, high stakes events. That we meet him in such an inauspicious location, and particularly since the previous scenes involved spaceships and Very Important People, shows us exactly the degree to which Luke is going to be an unlikely hero, bumbling through very much out of his depth.

Han Solo’s introduction is also rich with setting. We meet him in the practically the sleaziest dive bar in the galaxy. That alone sets him up as an unsavory rogue character. We then see him shoot his way out of an encounter with a bounty hunter, and with more than his share of casual bravado, establish that he is as much in control within this environment as Vader was back on Leia’s spaceship. We’re also left with no uncertainty that this Han Solo guy is likely the worst of possible choices Luke and Ben have at their disposal for getting off Tattooine, except that he’s their only choice. His roguishness, established as much by the setting as his actions, works to sell the desperate circumstances Luke and Ben are in.

Note, too, that this is a perfect introduction for Han Solo in terms of setting up his overall character arc. He flips from being an indifferent mercenary figure to being an active ally to the rebellion. And in later movies, he shows his softer side, his willingness to take risks for those he cares about, and so forth. His arc is all about that shift from being a self-centered opportunist, to a more idealistic supporter of a cause that is larger than himself. For that to work, we have to meet him while he’s still a pompous jackass, and the Mos Eisly cantina scene is a great setting to establish that as a starting point for him.

Drop some hints about backstory

The opportunity of meeting a new character is not an excuse to tell us their life’s story. It is not an occasion to indulge in a massive backstory infodump. Don’t go there. Just don’t.

It is, however, an opportunity to create some mystery by hinting at interesting elements of backstory. The opportunity of meeting a new character is to raise some compelling questions in the reader’s mind which you can then explore more fully as the story moves on.

Darth Vader’s physical form hints at significant backstory. From the first second we see him, he is obviously a physically powerful character. And yet, there’s that mechanical, raspy breathing that hints at an underlying frailty. He’s got machines and blinking lights all over his chest. You cannot help but look at him and wonder What’s under the mask? And how did he get to be that way?

When we meet Luke Skywalker, it’s in the context of his aunt and uncle. The dialogue takes particular care to give us their names, Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. Shortly thereafter, we see that he doesn’t simply work on their farm, he lives with them. The subtext of the conversation where his Uncle refuses to let Luke send in his application to the Academy tells us that they are his caregivers and surrogate parents. So we wonder Why is he living with them? What happened to his real parents? We’re not given some kind of heavy-handed flashback montage showing us what happened to Luke’s parents (we had to wait 20+ years and five more movies to really understand that), but we are given hints that there is a compelling backstory there.

When we meet Obi Wan and come to understand that he isn’t just a crazy old man like Uncle Owen told Luke, that he does have some kind of power, we’re forced to wonder What the heck he’s doing living out in the middle of a nowhere desert?

We’re forced to wonder. And because of that curiosity, we’re compelled to keep watching. It works in books, too.

The number-one job of a character introduction

If I can sum all this up, my advice would be this: Craft your character introductions to tell us what’s most important about that person. You don’t get much space before the reader’s first impression is set, so make it count. Concentrate on conveying the one thing you most want us to believe about that character.

And make it something good, because above all, we need a reason to be interested. Give us some reason to love, to hate, to admire, or to pity the character. As long as we feel something about the person, we’ll read on. As long as we’re interested in who they are, we’ll be interested in what happens to them. The second we realize there’s nothing about a character that interests us (usually because the writer has left them too opaque), we lose interest in the story itself.

July 30, 2010 19:00 UTC

Tags: character, introductions, action, reaction, conflict, skills, imagery, setting, backstory, mystery, curiosity

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Who is the Robin to your novel's Batman?

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

Make new friends

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

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

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

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

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

But keep the old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One is silver, and the other gold

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

March 05, 2010 20:03 UTC

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

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Top nine character development tips of 2009

If you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing a “best of” post to cap off my blog, I’d have said “What blog?”

What a difference a year makes. Without further ado, here are my top nine character development tips from the past year. Enjoy, and raise a glass to 2010. May all your characters come to life, and your books to unimagined success!

*9. Do you know the right way to use backstory?* Because a lot of writers don’t. It’s easy to get seduced by your excitement over the characters you’ve created, and in your zeal to share with the reader, dump a lot of plodding backstory into the novel in ways that kill the pacing and the intrigue. This article talks about using backstory to support and build your novel’s mysteries.

*8. Drive a stake through your character’s heart.* If you’re writing a vampire novel, you may or may not want to take that literally. In this article, I don’t mean it literally, but rather, I show a technique for raising the stakes in your novel by challenging a character’s assumptions about who they are: an identity crisis may suck in real life, but it can do wonders to elevate a novel.

*7. Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?* The typical outer character arc is all about characters changing and growing by learning from the events of a novel. But there’s another kind of character arc, the inner kind, which stems from resolving differences in the perceptions that characters have about each other.

*6. Do your characters’ flaws work on more than one level?* The tragically flawed hero or heroine is a workhorse element of much fiction. As readers, we like to see characters who aren’t too perfect, because we can empathize with them better. But as a writer, are you taking advantage of your characters’ flaws to enhance the drama in your plot as well?

*5. Don’t forget to revise your characters too* After National Novel Writing Month wrapped up, I wrote about a series of techniques you can apply while revising your novel to strengthen your characters. This series covers everything from speech patterns and mannerisms to deep issues of motivation and goals. Characters are the soul of fiction, so it pays to make them as vivid and lifelike as you can.

*4. Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?* Most of us have our first, formative writing experiences in school, where we learn to use the passive voice to put the emphasis on the facts we’re conveying rather than on ourselves. But when we begin to write fiction, passive voice becomes the kiss of death. Not because it hides the author from the reader, but because it hides your characters from the reader.

*3. Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?* Nearly everything in a novel reflects in some way on the characters. In this article, I show how characters can be damaged quite unintentionally by the gaps between scenes and chapters in a novel, and teach you how to build bridges over those gaps for your characters to cross.

*2. Hook ‘em with character* Every novel needs a good hook. You have to grab the reader’s attention and get them interested in what happens next. Plot-oriented hooks can be quite effective, but they’re not the whole story. Character-oriented hooks are quite powerful as well. In this article, I explain how a great hook shows character through conflict.

*1. The five stages of grief* Number one for the year is this article about the five stages of grief model of emotional response. Nothing makes a character come across as wooden and unbelievable faster than when their emotional responses aren’t believable, and nothing kills a novel faster than when this happens at a moment of high drama. You can fix both by getting the emotions right, and in this article I show a template for creating believable, compelling emotional responses for the most dramatic moments in a novel: when bad things happen.

Happy new year, and I’ll see you all in 2010.

December 29, 2009 17:15 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, identity crisis, inner character arc, perception, flaws, outer plot, revision, passive voice, gap, transitions, hook, conflict, emotion, grief, meta, best of

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How to revise your characters' physical attributes

This is part 4 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Last time I talked about mannerisms, the “fingerprint of motion” of the character. Today, I’m going to talk about the working with the character’s actual fingerprint. Or more broadly, ways you can link the character’s physical body to everything else: beliefs, attitudes, fears, goals, and obstacles.

As with the earlier articles in this series, one of the goals is consistency. You can’t describe a character as blonde in chapter one but redhead in chapter seven unless you’ve also shown us a hair dye scene. I’ve covered techniques for achieving consistency earlier, so I won’t rehash those here. They work for this as well as for dialogue and mannerisms.

Going deeper, the goal is to sculpt a character’s body to serve the story’s ends. The characters you’ve put in your novel have their wants and desires, they have their quirks and foibles. If you’ve followed any of my past advice or your own good storytelling instincts, you’ll have found ways to link those things to your plot. But your character needs a body, too. Don’t just give them any random body. Take some time to think about what body best helps you link their desires and foibles to that plot.

After all, the body is the means by which the character does everything they ever do (with the possible exception of paranormal stories). The body is also the means through with the character experiences the entire world. After all, mind and body come in the same package, and the two do affect one another.

Bodies through time

Characters have history. So do their bodies. The two should be tightly linked. Consider your characters’ personality traits, and whether those fit with their bodies. Not just their bodies as they are now, but as they were in the past, too. From decade to decade, our bodies change in both major and minor ways. You can use that to strengthen the portrayal of personality traits.

For example, let’s say you have a character who is timid. Maybe this is an important part of the character’s arc; overcoming his fear of confrontation is central to the story, so you can’t change it without turning your story into something entirely different. But maybe you also need the character to be a total slab of beefcake. That’s bound to jar the reader. It’s a little odd to imagine a big buff dude who is timid. After all, who’s going to pick on him? Who’s going to look at him and say “I want to pick a fight with that guy.” Nobody. So what’s he got to be timid about?

Well, bodies change over time. Maybe he wasn’t always so big. Maybe he was a scrawny kid during his formative years, constantly teased, picked on, beat up, and given wedgies throughout grade school and high school. Maybe he didn’t really fill out and gain his adult stature until he was in college. His body changed, but by that point he had internalized that self-image of weakness, of being the victim. Timidity doesn’t clash with being big and strong, if you give it the right backstory.

Alternately, you might decide it was a mistake to go with a big beefy body. You may have had some reason for doing that initially, but as so often happens, the story took a different turn than you expected and now that choice doesn’t quite play out like you thought. No problem. Change the body. Leave him scrawny as an adult, too.

As you revise, ask yourself whether you have any surface-level clashes that readers might wonder about, ones you can fix with backstory. And don’t freak out if you find a clash. Yes, it’s something you have to fix, but in a good way: it’s a wonderful opportunity to create a mystery for the reader to wonder about, to hook them further into your story by making them curious about your characters. Make the reader wonder why the big beefy guy is so timid.

Bodies to enhance or create obstacles

We all know that a good story is driven by an ongoing series of obstacles characters must overcome. Take a look at the obstacles in your story, and ask yourself whether any of these can be enhanced by changing something about your character’s body. Similarly, look for places in your novel where the pace seems to slow down—the dreaded “sagging middle” syndrome—and ask whether you can create an obstacle by changing something about your character’s body.

If the answer is “yes,” then figure out whether you want to go big or go small with the change. On the big side, these are typically permanent conditions. Disabilities, congenital conditions, or major illnesses that you can work to the story’s advantage. This is a good time to brainstorm: what would happen if your character were in a wheelchair? What if the character were missing a thumb or an entire hand? What about achondroplastic dwarfism or maybe some kind of palsy? How about a joint disease, like rheumatoid arthritis? Or gout, which doesn’t change one’s appearance but which can be debilitatingly painful?

It can be easy to go over-the-top with permanent conditions and into the land of melodrama. Try not to do that. Adding a permanent physical ailment to a character shouldn’t be done lightly, by any stretch, because it means you will have to re-think a great many scenes in the book. You’ll have to re-evaluate whether the character can actually do literally everything he or she does in the novel. You also don’t want the condition to seem like a cheap trick to score pity points with the reader. Be careful and tasteful about it, and be absolutely sure to find a credible backstory for it. The upside is that the possibility for drama in ordinary scenes is greatly enhanced. For a character with rheumatoid arthritis, just replying to a piece of e-mail can be a big deal.

Going small means something temporary, usually a recoverable injury, but also a chronic condition that can come and go. For example, maybe your sagging middle includes a scene where your hero helps his bookie move into a new apartment as partial repayment of a gambling debt. In your first draft, maybe he does the job, the bookie lays off, and all is well. But what fun is that? It would, after all, be a pretty inopportune time for the character’s bad back to start acting up. Faced with the choice of hefting couches and recliner chairs for an afternoon or having the bookie’s goons break his kneecaps, he may well simply down a bunch of Tylenol and hope for the best.

Maybe he gets through the afternoon, and the bookie lays off like you need to have happen for the rest of the plot, but the hero really messes up his back. He ends up with an addiction to prescription painkillers just so he can go to work every day. Suddenly, the boring scene in the sagging middle becomes a tragic moment, leaving the hero with a problem that makes the entire rest of the plot more challenging (thus, more dramatic and less sagging) than before.

Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished the first draft of the novel, you know the character’s personality traits a lot better than you did at the beginning of the book. But the beginning of the book is probably where you picked the character’s body type. Revision is a perfect time to think about whether your original choice works like you thought it would, and whether a different choice could work even better.

Similarly, now that you’ve finished the first draft, you know the outer plot a whole lot better than you did when you started. Revision is the perfect time to look for issues there too, and ask whether you can revise your character’s physical body to help fix them.

< Back to part 3: revising physical attributes| Next: part 5, revising attitudes >

December 07, 2009 19:20 UTC

Tags: character, revision, body type, backstory, disability, injury, illness

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Do your characters' flaws work on more than one level?

This weekend I came across a fine article at Men with Pens about why it’s a good idea to give your characters flaws: Because flaws make your characters believable, and make readers care about the characters.

It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.

To really make your story come alive, you’ll also do well to give your characters flaws which enhance the story’s underlying drama. It’s all well and good to have a character who is afraid of the color yellow, or who simply cannot remember anybody’s name until the third time he hears it. But does it really help your story?

Most novels rely heavily on the strength of the story’s central conflict, that thing which drives the whole plot forward towards the climax. The reader’s perception of drama and tension comes from that conflict, and from the degree of challenge the protagonist faces in addressing that conflict. This is where your character flaws come in.

Pick a flaw that makes the job harder.

One thing experienced writers do very well is to make the elements of their novels work on two levels. By itself, a character flaw works on one level. It makes the character more believable and sympathetic. You can make it work on a second level as well by choosing a flaw that directly impedes the protagonist from addressing that central conflict.

When looking for a good flaw, I like to brainstorm around two aspects of the story. One is the details of the plot, settings, clues, and specific events in the outer story arc. The other is the protagonist’s personal attributes, his or her age, occupation, socio-economic status, and all-around situation within society.

Story arc flaws

Working from the perspective of story arc and plot elements, let’s say you’ve got a murder mystery where you know that the climactic scene is going to happen in a disused subway tunnel deep under Manhattan. In fact, many of the book’s clues will be found in the pipes and tunnels beneath the Big Apple. No problem! Make your detective be afraid of going underground. This requires some backstory, so let’s say that your detective and his brother used to go caving when they were kids. Only, the brother died when the two accidentally triggered a cave-in. So now he’s terrified of being underground. The memory of his brother creates a suffocating, claustrophobic fear of the millions of tons of soil and rock overhead.

Now you have a flaw that directly impedes the detective’s job of investigating the crime scenes and catching the killer. You also have a fun reversal in the fact that despite the detective’s experience in operating underground, which ought to serve him well, his phobia blocks him from putting that experience to use.

Protagonist’s personal attributes

Working from the perspective of the protagonist’s general qualities, let’s say you have a story set in a high school, with a sophomore girl as your protagonist. The story’s central conflict revolves around some sort of garden-variety misunderstanding between her and another student, of the kind that happen all the time between teenagers. The misunderstanding spins totally out of control into a huge rift that divides the student body into two camps. In the climactic scene, where the core of the misunderstanding is finally brought into the open, the resolution will depend a lot on how the rest of the students feel about your protagonist and antagonist. High school is nothing if not intensely political. It’s an environment where reputation is everything, so why not give the girl a flaw that undermines her reputation? Maybe she’s basically a good kid, honest about stuff that matters, but she tends to exaggerate the little stuff or embellish events to her own advantage.

When the big climax comes around this flaw can come back to bite her. People will be a lot less likely to believe her version of events—even if it’s true—because of her reputation as a fibber.

Both options raise the drama and tension

These two different sources of character flaws are different in an interesting way: In one the character is obviously aware of his flaw, whereas in the other the character may be blind to it. Yet, both options create drama.

In one, we can watch the detective fight against his phobia, wondering with each new scene whether he’ll be able to summon the nerve to step underground. A succession of failures, perhaps with increasing consequences from each, pushes the drama higher and higher.

In the other, we can watch the protagonist create a situation where her self-image is increasingly different from how others perceive her. That serves to raise the tension because as readers we know that eventually this will come back to haunt her. A series of lies and fibs that she believes she’s gotten away with raises the tension as we wait for her house of cards to come crashing down.

Be smart about the flaws you pick

Both of these character flaws work because they turn the characters against themselves. Each becomes his or her own obstacle, which serves to heighten the reader’s perception of drama and tension. These flaws also work because they tie the outer story arc to the inner character arc: addressing the story’s central conflict becomes an exercise in character growth.

So give your characters flaws. Do it to make your characters believable and sympathetic. But be smart about it. Find a flaw that works on two levels. Think about your plot, and think about your protagonist. Somewhere in there you will find a flaw which enhances your overall story by raising the drama and tension of the central conflict.

November 16, 2009 20:24 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, flaws, inner character arc, outer character arc, outer plot, drama, conflict, tension, traits

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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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Why you should steal your character's shoes

Have you ever struggled with a character who just wouldn’t come to life? Who seemed great in your head, but who just laid there like a dead fish once you put him on the page?

Maybe you need to steal his shoes.

It may be that the character has too many advantages. You may, as the saying goes, need to make things worse before the book can get better. I learned this lesson from a fantasy novel I critiqued once, although I believe the principle applies in any genre.

The novel in question was a pretty straightforward fantasy arc: hero has to brave a bunch of dangers in order to save the princess. Nothing wrong with that at all. But the hero was, well, too heroic.

He was terribly strong, with the strength of three ordinary men. He wielded an enormous sword that most men couldn’t even lift. He was an exceptional swordsman, having been trained by the best swordmaster in all the land.

Thus fully prepared, he set off to battle.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a place in the world for hack-and-slash fantasy novels, where heroes with rippling muscles lay waste to armies of the enemy, then retire to the local tavern for a tankard of well-earned ale and a wench (not necessarily in that order). Plenty of books like that have sold plenty of copies.

However, the characterization in them is rather thin. And since this blog is all about characterization, let’s fix that.

This setup wasn’t very dramatic because the hero was too well matched to the task. His backstory eliminated any real challenge from his task. No challenge, no drama. The hero was such a bad-ass, right out of the gate, that of course we expect him to succeed. That’s boring. We need to saddle the hero with some misfortunes. We need to take him down a few pegs before we’ll have any interesting drama to work with.

We need, in other words, to steal his shoes. You can go two ways here:

Change the backstory: This is a form of shoe-stealing that takes place before the hero ever gets the shoes to begin with. Rather than having the hero be a muscle-bound, swordmaster jock, make him a skinny weakling. A shoeshine boy or barrel-maker’s apprentice or something. Give him a background that is totally ill-suited to braving dangers and saving princesses. Then, of course, put him in a position where if he doesn’t save the princess, nobody else will.

Oh, let the mighty fall By this I mean go ahead and start with the super-jock, but before he gets to the real adventure, systematically strip him of everything he thinks he needs in order to succeed. Have him break his sword. Give him a case of mono (or, it being fantasy, a curse) that saps his strength and stamina. Let a mugger rob him blind. Steal his actual shoes. Leave him bereft of everything except himself, his own inner drive to succeed, then see whether he still has the heart to brave the dangers and save the princess.

Either way is good. I mean, who do you admire more? A cookie-cutter hero who does something heroic, or a non-hero/fallen-hero facing certain death who plunges in anyway and gets the job done?

I find the latter enormously more interesting: Take away all his advantages—or never give him any to begin with—then we’ll see what he’s really made of in a crisis.

Both strategies inherently bring your character’s inner self to the fore, while heightening the danger and thus the drama. But what both strategies also do for you, as a writer, is that they also steal your crutches.

It’s easy to structure a plot in which the ubermensch hero wins. It’s seductively easy to rely on the character’s great strengths to get out of any jam or solve any problem. Sadly, things that are easy are rarely much good. But when the hero can’t win through brute force, you’ll have to create a plot in which he uses cleverness and other innate qualities to win the day. I guarantee you, it will be a much more interesting plot to read, with a much more fully developed hero.

October 09, 2009 16:12 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, drama, protagonist, obstacles

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Character development tips from K.M. Weiland, author of Behold the Dawn

Today we have a special interview with K.M. Weiland, author of A Man Called Outlaw, whose brand-spanking-new book Behold the Dawn was just released this past week on October 1st. Congratulations!

Ms. Weiland is in the middle of a “blog tour” to promote her book, and has made time in her busy schedule to share with us some of her tips and experiences with creating the kind of lively characters this blog is all about.

Tell us about your favorite character from one of your books, a character that you particularly enjoyed writing. Why does that one stand out for you?

Marcus Annan, the hero of my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn, is easily one of my all-time favorites. He was one of those special characters who leapt off the page and took on a life of his own. He was inspired, largely, by the real-life knight William Marshall, who was considered the “greatest knight who ever lived.” I read a children’s book about this son of a lord, who, because of his lack of inheritance as a second-born child, sought his fortune in the tourneys. I was instantly fascinated by these huge mock battles, which were repeatedly banned by the popes and yet remained wildly popular, and I began wondering how the lives of the competitors would have been shaped by their brutal and dangerous exploits. In Marcus Annan, I got to explore at least one answer to that question.

What’s your take on backstory? How much do you create for your characters, and how much of it ends up in the book?

I’m actually a tremendous fan of backstory. I have to laugh sometimes when I look at my stories, because their backstories are often twice the size of the stories themselves! Ernest Hemingway once spoke about how a good story is like an iceberg: nine-tenths of it is underwater and out of sight. That’s pretty much how I approach backstory. I want to know everything I possibly can about my characters, and I often fill up whole notepads with my character sketches and interviews. The information I uncover during these exercises is invaluable. It gives me depth, character motivation, and sometimes entirely unforeseen plot twists—as in the case of Behold the Dawn. As far as I’m concerned, backstory is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.

However, it’s vital to keep all this intoxicating information in perspective. The best backstories are those that carry the story proper, instead of weighing it down. As with research, it can be tempting to share everything with the reader, either because you’re mistakenly convinced they’ll find it just as interesting as you do—or as a way of patting yourself on the back for all your hard work. Backstory, for the most part, needs to remain invisible. Its proper place, after all, is in back of the story.

Tell us about a character who pushed your story in an unexpected direction.

Characters always push stories in unexpected directions. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be much point, would there? If a character fails to pop off the page, then he isn’t worth my time. That isn’t to say, of course, that I haven’t struggled with certain characters, trying to figure them out and find the magic button that will bring them to life. But every character in every one of my completed novels has taken on a life of his own. And, to one extent or another, they’ve all manipulated their stories to suit themselves.

How important are character arcs to your novels? What’s your strategy for relating the outer plot events to the characters’ inner personal journeys?

My stories are plot-driven, but they start and end with characters and the thematic depth they bring to the table. The stories that move me most are those that exhibit great depth and, inevitably, growth in the life of the main characters. I am inspired and I am challenged by these stories. That same reaction is what I’m seeking from my own readers.

Character arcs and themes are inseparable; to have strength in one area, you must also have strength in the other. So I usually start my search for a character arc by searching out a character’s core needs and motivations. Buried somewhere within one of those, I usually find the pulse of the theme. I would say I look for the lesson the character needs to learn, but that sounds too moralistic. The key to strong themes is that they flow organically from the heart of the characters. Subtlety is vital. I’m a novelist, an entertainer. It’s not my job to bash people over the head with lessons. But I do strive, through the growth of my characters, to give readers something deeper than just entertainment. I want my stories to have take-away value; I want them to be remembered, not just for dialogue or action scenes, but for some truth that connected with the reader on a primal level.

Whose books should we be reading for great examples of well drawn, fully three-dimensional characters? What do those authors do particularly well in their characterization?

Patrick O’Brian. His historical Aubrey/Maturin series is mind-blowing. I’ve never read an author who made it look so effortless, so seamless. In fact, he’s one of the few authors who almost entirely disguises himself working behind the scenes. He wrote, not as though he was creating these characters from scratch, but as if he were simply recording the lives of people who really lived and breathed. You put down one of his books and almost forget it’s not real.

I’m also a big fan of Orson Scott Card. His body of work is uneven, but when he’s on, he’s on. I remain particularly impressed with how skillfully he revealed his main character through the actions of other characters in Speaker for the Dead.

What character building tip would you like to share with my readers?

Interviews. As an in-depth outliner, I’m very comfortable spending months on “pre-production” work, and one of the most important steps in that work is my character sketches. Over the years, I’ve created an extensive list of “interview” questions, which I use as a guideline when crafting characters. It’s important to me to know my characters backwards and forwards, so my questions cover even such seemingly inconsequential details as favorite foods, birthdays, and collections. I answer the questions longhand because, for some reason, my semi-illegible handwriting gives me the permission to eschew perfectionism and really tap into the vagaries of my subconscious. I interview different characters at varying depths. POV characters get the full interview, while minor characters and antagonists often get only a sketch of their personal histories. Anyone interested in my list of interview questions can find them on my blog, Wordplay.


Thank you, K.M. Weiland, for appearing as the first guest interview on Show Some Character! There’s some great advice in there that I’m sure readers will appreciate; I know I can’t wait to interview the heroine in my work-in-progress. May you have every success with Behold the Dawn!

About the Author: K.M. Weiland ( www.KMWeiland.com ) writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.

October 04, 2009 06:17 UTC

Tags: K.M. Weiland, interview, guest, character, tips, backstory, character arc, themes

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How to make a great novel out of a cheesy premise

Last time we visited our cheese-making pediatrician, we looked at appropriate use of backstory. Today, I’m going to show how we can elevate a novel from good to great by relating the doctor’s emotional needs to the plot she’s embroiled in.

Good novels have good pacing, rising tension, and a satisfying climax, but they leave their characters essentially unchanged. Great novels change their characters along the way, too. The characters leave the book wiser or with a different perspective on life than on page one.

Note: you can’t do this merely by tacking a “So what have we learned, Jimmy?” scene onto the end.

A great novel gives its important characters an emotional need, and uses the events of the plot to explore how that need shapes the character’s choices and beliefs. That is, a great novel has a character arc as well as a story arc. The two are tightly inter-twined, often by forcing the character to confront the emotional need in order to resolve the plot.

Let’s see how we could do this with our cheese-making pediatrician, who we’ll call Dr. Lisle. You can go read the earlier posts here and here, but here’s a recap of her bio:

Dr. Lisle is a pediatrician, the daughter of a French couple who moved to the states in the early ‘70s. As a hobby, she makes cheese—her specialty is Roquefort—a craft she took up to address her mother’s incessant complaints that she just couldn’t get a good wheel of Roquefort here in the U.S. Now that her mother has passed, Dr. Lisle still makes cheese as a way of maintaining an emotional connection to her mother.

We can discover a plot that supports a character arc from this backstory by alternating between analysis and plotting.

Analysis: We’ve got her backstory already, so what emotional need does Dr. Lisle’s derive from that? She longs for someone dear who is gone. She is lonely. What she needs is a new, deep connection to someone else. But she’s not going to be able to get that until she lets go of her mother. As a doctor she knows the reality of death, yet she hasn’t deeply accepted her own mother’s demise.

Plotting: Let’s say our basic plot, as hinted at in those earlier posts, involves saving the life of a politician’s child. Except we already know that we’re going to need to do something in the plot to force her to face her mother’s death. So maybe, although the life of a child is already pretty high stakes, we need to let the kid die. Sucks, but there it is.

Analysis: Now the politician, Governor Adams, has the same emotional wound as Dr. Lisle. Further, he’s probably pretty pissed at her for not saving his child, even though she did everything she could.

Plotting: Because he’s so angry, and naturally looking for someone to blame and punish, he uses his power to threaten her hospital’s accreditation. If the hospital closes, a lot more people will die because of lack of care, which is raises the stakes nicely. The hospital’s Chief of Medicine orders Dr. Lisle to fix the situation.

Analysis: How can she do that? Well, since they both have the same emotional wound, she knows exactly what he’s going through. If she can get him to see that she empathizes with him, maybe he’ll back off.

Plotting: She shows up at Adams’s office with a wheel of cheese as a peace offering. Naturally he is not thrilled to see her. That’s an obstacle for her to overcome, which she can only do by spilling her guts about her feelings over her mother’s death. When he learns that she actually made the cheese she has brought, rather than simply buying it from a deli, he lets her in.

Analysis: This is a critical spot for the story. Dr. Lisle is herself on the brink of a cathartic moment of healing, but must also guide the Governor through his own grief.

Plotting: They talk. He has some stale crackers in the office left over from a fundraiser the night before. They eat the cheese, share memories of their lost loved ones, and form a bond. He asks her “how did you get past it?” She admits that she hasn’t, except in that moment she realizes she has. In talking about it she can feel herself letting go of the hurt. Not the memories, just the hurt.

Analysis: The cheese has become a metaphor for her emotional pain. In sharing it with Governor Adams—and eating it—it has gone away.

Plotting: In the end, she helps him find a way to stay connected to his son by convincing him to take up his son’s baseball card collecting hobby. He drops his vendetta against her and the hospital. The book ends with the suggestion that the two of them may pursue a deeper relationship of their own.

Conclusion: Who knew that would turn into a romance novel? You follow the story where it takes you. But you can see how at every point we link Dr. Lisle’s emotional wound to the events of the story. We even took the Governor on a journey of his own; it’s not as fully developed as Dr. Lisle’s, but it’s there. He, too, is in a better place at the end of the novel than when we meet him.

That tight coupling between inner and outer journeys is what can elevate a good novel to great. By the time the outer plot is resolved, so is her inner emotional need. Readers are happy not just that the hospital has been saved, but also that Dr. Lisle isn’t so sad about her mother anymore, and that there is hope on the horizon for ending her loneliness, too.

I want you to take a look at your current work-in-progress to see whether you’ve done this. Ask what your main characters’ emotional needs are, and whether those needs are appropriately related to the events of the plot. Make plausible connections wherever you can and you can elevate your novel from good to great too.

October 02, 2009 18:31 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, emotional need, emotional wound, inner need, inner journey, outer plot, outer journey, cheese

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Do you know the right way to use backstory?

Last time I gave Six tips for constructing effective, interesting backstories for your characters. I promised I’d follow that up with some how-to on using the great stuff you’ve invented in your novel.

It’s not always as simple as it seems. As I wrote last month, there are lots of rookie mistakes you can make with backstory, ones that undermine your story rather than support it. This does not mean that backstory is a waste of time. Here are three ways you can use backstory effectively:

Use it to raise questions. One of the problems I cited in my last article was that, when presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time, backstory can answer too many questions about your characters. It can destroy the mystery. A much better strategy is to use backstory to raise questions, rather than answer them. For example, in my last article I suggested that a fun backstory element might be that a character makes her own cheese at home. You could use that to raise questions in the reader’s mind—that is, to create compelling mystery about the character—by showing that she does this, but neglecting to explain why. After all, why would someone make their own cheese? It’s difficult, time-consuming, takes a lot of work and some special equipment, et cetera. Why not just buy a slab of cheddar at the grocery store? Mysteries keep readers moving forward, so if you can create some with careful use of your backstory, you win.

Use it to create conflicts. So now that we’ve got the reader wondering why our heroine makes her own cheese, let’s heighten the drama a bit by creating a conflict around this bit of backstory-driven behavior. Perhaps the heroine is a pediatrician. On her day off, she’s whipping up a fresh batch of curds, something that must be done with a fair amount of care and attention to detail: timing, temperature control, and so forth matter to how the cheese turns out. Right in the middle of all this, her cell phone rings. It’s a resident at her hospital, begging her to come in for a consult over something that is 95% likely to be nothing. Does the she tell the resident to make the diagnosis so she can get back to her cheese, or does she sigh and hop in the car knowing that when she gets home her curds will be ruined?

Look for ways to put your character’s backstory elements in conflict with your story’s outer plot elements. But note, this only works when it creates difficult choices for the character. In my last article, I suggested that the cheese making hobby is, in fact, very emotionally important to our hypothetical pediatrician. The situation is only dramatic because it forces her to choose between something that is personally important to her and something that is professionally important but that she knows is almost certainly a total waste of time. So look for those conflicts, but remember that the conflicts have to have credible emotional stakes attached to them, or they’ll fall flat.

Support it early. I particularly want to stress this one, because getting it wrong can ruin a whole book. Let us imagine that we would like an important plot point to hinge on our pediatrician’s familiarity with cheese making. Perhaps she uses her knowledge of cheese cultures (the particular bacteria and fungi involved) to make a difficult diagnosis, saving the life of an important politician’s child. That’s great. We’ve tied the backstory to the plot, and in doing so, give ourselves opportunities to connect the character’s inner journey with her outer journey.

This only works if we have spent the requisite effort ahead of time to demonstrate and support her cheese making skills. Imagine if we have not. Imagine that we have said not one word about cheese making prior to the diagnosis scene. It just wouldn’t work to have her swab a sample on a microscope slide, and immediately exclaim “My God! This child is infected with Penicillium Roqueforti, the mold that gives the rich taste of Roquefort cheese!” Not only is that horrible, infodump dialogue, but it’s a deus ex machina solution: we’ve given the reader no reason to believe that the good doctor should know this, and any trust the reader has in you to tell them a good story is wiped out.

However, if we have spent scenes and time earlier in the book establishing the cheese making hobby, connecting it emotionally to the character and putting it in dramatic conflict with the plot, then the reader is primed to say “oh, yeah, she’d totally know what that mold is.” Problem solved. Backstory is a great way to establish important skills or pieces of information that characters will need in order to overcome the plot’s obstacles, but only if you do a good job of showing them to the reader before they are necessary to the plot.

September 25, 2009 21:31 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, questions, mystery, conflict, deus ex machina, infodumps, inner journey, outer journey

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Six tips for using backstory to create compelling characters

One of my followers on Twitter, @kateblogs asked me for some tips on backstory. I’m not surprised. At writers’ conferences and anywhere published authors and book agents take questions from the audience, there are always questions about backstory: how much to create and how much of it to include in the book.

Unfortunately, those are the wrong questions. Effective use of backstory isn’t a matter of finding the ideal amount. The right question about backstory, is “How do I use backstory to create compelling characters?” So that’s what I’m going to answer.

I have six main suggestions. The first three are strategies you can use for painting a character’s broad strokes in a way that is effective for the story, compelling, and also something you’re going to enjoy writing. The last three are more detail-oriented techniques you can use to flesh out those broad strokes.

  1. Create what the story demands. You’re probably not starting from a totally blank slate. You probably have a premise in mind for your story. Is it a young-adult adventure? A heist caper? A murder mystery? That’s good, because your premise can guide you in constructing your backstory. For example: In 2007, I wrote a young adult adventure set on the Pony Express Trail. It’s a western. My YA audience suggests that the protagonist should be about 16 years old. Naturally, such a story has to take place in the American West. All together, this pointed very clearly towards a backstory about a boy whose parents were homesteaders. He was born back east, but moved west at a young age with his parents, and then grew up as a farm boy. It’s not an amazing stroke of creative genius, but it is what the story demands.

  2. What is the character’s wound? Elizabeth Lyon, in her book Manuscript Makeover, has the great advice that memorable, realistic, vivid characters always have some sort of emotional issue they’re dealing with. She calls it their underlying “wound.” Whatever it is, it’s the thing that drives the character arc that runs in parallel with your overall story arc. For my Pony Express novel, I needed a wound that would serve to create conflict and problems for the main character to overcome. Ideally, it would be one that also relates well to the underlying premise. The Pony Express famously employed a lot of orphans, so I made my main character an orphan. I killed his parents off in a fire when he was 12 years old. His wound is that he’s angry: angry at the world, at fate, at God for taking his parents away and destroying his life. He has quite a temper, which gets him in trouble frequently. Learning to rein in his temper over the course of the book’s adventure is his character arc.

  3. What do you love (or hate) in a character? I firmly believe that nobody can write a good novel if they don’t themselves like the story and the characters they’re working with. And why would you even want to? So while you’re thinking about backstory, think about the kinds of characters you love to read about in the genre you’re writing. For example, I’m sick to death of fantasy novels where the main character is a king or prince, or when they start out as a nobody but turn out to be the long-lost heir to the throne. It’s been done to death. So for one fantasy novel, I gave my main character a backstory that was as completely run-of-the-mill ordinary as I could. I made him an ordinary kid, apprentice to the village blacksmith, in a piddly little town out in the sticks. Lost kings and princes may be dramatic, but they’re a lot harder for readers to relate to, and I’ll take empathy over cliche drama any day. So ask yourself, in your genre, what kinds of characters do you love? What kinds do you hate? What kinds have been done to death? Let that guide you in creating your characters’ backstories.

  4. Conduct an interview. The first three questions gave you the broad outlines of your character. Now start to flesh her out with an interview. Write up a list of questions. Longer is probably better. The trick is to start with easy stuff, like “where were you born,” “how old are you.” Work up to more personal questions like “tell me about your first boy/girlfriend,” but keep the questions focused on things that aren’t likely to have any real bearing on your plot. Finally, start asking harder questions, the kind you’d find in a serious job interview: “How do you motivate yourself to do things you need to do, but don’t really want to?” “Tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience?” “Tell me about a serious disagreement you’ve had with someone, at work or in your personal life, and how you handled it.” After you’ve written the questions, answer them in the order you wrote them. What you’re doing is mentally sneaking up on the character. Answering the easy questions gives you time to train yourself to think like her and imagine what it’s like to be her. By the time you get to the serious questions, you should have a pretty good handle on who she is. Their answers serve you two-fold: on one level, the answer to “tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience” gives you some interesting backstory. But on another level, it gives you insight into the character’s deeper motivations and emotional issues that are critical in portraying a realistic, distinctive person on the page.

  5. Write her eulogy or curriculum vitae Imagine the future, after your heroine has died. What would loving friends and family say at her funeral? How would they sum up her life, her accomplishments, and the essential elements of her personality? What funny little stories would they tell? Thinking backwards from a future perspective can be an effective way to generate backstory. If you want a less maudlin take on the technique, write their C.V. entry instead. Imagine that your heroine has been selected to be featured in the next edition of Who’s Who, and you’ve been tapped to write her entry. Imagine she has already succeeded or failed at whatever your premise suggests she’s going to try, and look back from that perspective.

  6. Get quirky This is the fun part. Brainstorm a bunch of random, weird stuff. Quirky hobbies, skills, or experiences your character might have. Maybe she used to be a skydiving instructor. Maybe she collects underground comic books from Soviet Russia. Maybe as a hobby she makes paper and binds it into handmade journals with beautiful deckled edges and dyed endpapers, which she sells at local street fairs. Maybe she makes her own cheese at home, and has built a special aging room in her garage. Think up a dozen or so downright oddball details. Then pick one or two to actually include for real in the character’s background. Now answer the question “how did she come to have those skills?” Write a little story or vignette explaining how she got hooked on Soviet-era comic books or whatever you end up choosing. The reason for doing this is because real people aren’t all-business. Yet too often, writers reveal nothing about their main characters that isn’t directly related to the plot. They miss out entirely on the character’s personal life. Everybody has a personal life, so spend some time figuring out what your character does with hers.

To sum up: Use whichever of these strategies and tips appeals to you. Don’t imagine that you have to do them in order, or even that you have to do them all. If anything, do the very opposite. Pick one, do it for a while, then switch to another. Skip around, jumping from one strategy or technique to the next as the material you discover about your character leads you. For instance, in stumbling upon a great quirk to include, you might realize that the quirk can be related to the character’s emotional wound. So spend some time interviewing or eulogizing until you discover a solid connection between the two. For example, maybe the character’s mother was from France and constantly bemoaned the lack of good cheese in America, so she took up the craft of cheese making in order to satisfy her mother’s yearning for a really good Roquefort; now that her mother has passed away, the cheese making remains as a way for her to hold on to that relationship.

You may or may not ever actually use any of this backstory in the book. But if my experience is any indicator, you will. In my next post, I’ll tackle in greater detail some techniques for using backstory material effectively in the actual implementation of your plot.

September 22, 2009 17:28 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, premise, emotional wound, empathy, motivation, emotion

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Warning: Rookie backstory mistake shown to cause rejection letters.

Rejection letters happen to everybody. And it’s easy to feel helpless, especially when the rejections keep coming even after you do everything you can to ensure that your manuscript doesn’t suck. But there’s no need to flounder around in hopeless despair. Today I’m going to help you avoid one rookie mistake that could be the source of your rejection letters.

By “ensuring that your manuscript doesn’t suck,” I simply mean that you have applied the fundamentals of writing and story craft: You can string a sentence together, your premise has emotional appeal, inherent conflict, and rising stakes, and you’ve created interesting characters and put them into challenging situations.

Assuming you’ve done all that, the problem comes with how you show your characters to the reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer sabotage an otherwise interesting and engaging novel by including a whole lot of backstory about their characters. When this happens, I can just feel that prospective agent putting the manuscript into the “no thanks” pile. Frankly big, indigestible lumps of backstory make me want to put the manuscript down too.

Here’s the thing: you may well have spent hours figuring out your characters’ histories in endless detail. You’ve done it so that you can understand what makes these people tick, what their emotional baggage is, and how they’ll respond in any situation. Good. That’s how you keep them realistic and believable.

But that doesn’t mean you need to put it in the book.

If you’ve been writing novels for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that advice already. Long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop. That’s totally true. And that’s one reason your manuscript will land in the “no thanks” pile.

Unfortunately, backstory is a double-whammy: Backstory creates a second, deeper problem that has nothing to do with pacing and momentum.

When a literary agent picks up your submission, they’re just like you and me: they want to get involved with the story. They want to be engrossed. Captivated. But even novels that execute on all the fundamentals of writing and story craft can fail to captivate an agent because of backstory.

It goes like this. A key technique for keeping readers engaged, interested, and turning pages is to raise questions (again, advice you’ve probably heard already if you’ve been writing novels for any length of time). If something you write makes the reader wonder something about your story, they’ll keep reading to find the answer.

Just about the strongest form of question you can raise—the most compelling type of hook you can employ—are questions about your characters. What happened to them when they were eleven that they won’t talk about even at age forty? Why do they take a seven mile detour on their way to work every day? Why do they insist on leaving their shoes untied? Whatever the question is, if you’ve raised it in the right way, readers will be really curious to learn the answer. Usually, because the answer has to do with whatever deep-seated emotional issues the character is grappling with. That’s powerful stuff. Readers love those kinds of mysteries.

And don’t forget, agents are just readers who have the power to help you get published. So keep them interested by raising questions about your characters.

With that in mind, the problem with backstory should be obvious: Backstory answers all the questions, often before the reader even thinks to ask them. Backstory destroys the mystery. Backstory leaves them with nothing left to wonder about your characters.

Remember, it’s the characters who drive the plot, not the other way around. When you include a lot of backstory, you give away more than half the game right there; readers—agents—may still be mildly curious to know what’s going to happen, but if they’re not curious about the characters as well then there’s very little reason for them to care. Five pages into the novel and the story may as well be over.

As a writer, you must exercise an extraordinary amount of restraint and caution in what you tell readers about your characters, especially early in the book. I’ll go as far as to say that if you include more than a paragraph of backstory about anybody in the first 5,000 words of your novel, you should cut it. The more you control your impulse to explain everything about your characters, the more you deepen the mystery, captivate your readers, and engross them in your story.

You must create and preserve your characters’ secrets. You must do this to keep readers curious. You must do this so that later, at the right moment, when the reader’s anticipation has been built up as high as you can push it, you can finally solve the mystery.

This is another reason why beginnings, those first few scenes and chapters of a novel, are so hard to write. It can be a challenge to find the delicate balance between saying something about your characters, but not too much. Yet you must do it, and creating mystery is a great guideline for how: Whatever you say in those critical opening pages, make sure it creates mystery rather than destroys it.

Don’t make a rookie mistake. Cut the backstory, unless you like those form rejection letters.

Addendum: I just finished reading Rebecca Stead’s Newberry-award winning book When You Reach Me. It is a textbook example of creating and preserving mystery by eliminating backstory. And a hell of a good book as well.

August 28, 2009 16:41 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, mystery, curiosity, openings

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Novelists' black holes

This month, an enormous amount of my work time has been sucked up in preparing to do book doctor consultations with aspiring novelists at the annual PNWA 54th Annual Summer Writers Conference. They signed me up for 24 of these one-on-one consultations, each one accompanied by a 25-page excerpt from the aspirant’s novel for me to read and critique.

Anybody who has made a serious attempt to write a good novel knows that there are endless pitfalls one can blunder into on the trail from blank page to finished first-draft. I’m getting down to the last few excerpts in the pile, and I have to say I’m surprised some of these pitfalls haven’t been eliminated simply because they’re full to the brim with the bodies of those who have fallen into them before. I’m thinking you ought to be able to cross right over them on a crusty bridge of bones.

But, alas, some of these pitfalls seem more like black holes than holes in the ground.

Since they never fill up, I’m going to take a little diversion from my usual character-development fare to point out some of the more obvious ones, so future aspiring novelists can at least try to step around them. I’m not going to talk about little stuff: how to avoid run-on sentences, or even how to “show, don’t tell” or what have you. There are hundreds of credible books on creative writing that can help you with the basics.

I’m not so interested in the basics because those issues are comparatively easy to fix in an edit pass. What isn’t easy to fix in an edit pass are the big blunders. The ones that affect the bones of your story (if I may mix metaphors for a moment). If you all tell me in the comments that you want me to write about the basics and the intermediate stuff too, I’ll be happy to do so, but for today I want to talk about the big blunders that you ought to think about before you start writing chapter one.

Your line has no hook, or your hook has no bait.

I have yet to come across one of these excerpts that opens with a sufficiently well-constructed hook. I talked about how to do this the other day, in Hook ‘em with Character, but it’s important enough to be worth talking about briefly again. As I said in that earlier post, a great hook shows character through conflict. That is, it opens with a situation of meaningful conflict, one in which the POV character is forced to speak, act, and react in ways that show what that character is made of. You’d think that at least 5% of unpublished manuscripts would manage to do this, wouldn’t you? Yet, I haven’t found a single one that has put a sharp hook on page one, and baited it with a compellingly interesting character.

It’s not difficult to add a mere hook scene to the beginning of a novel that lacks one, but if the rest of the novel doesn’t contain interesting characters to work with, then there’s nothing to bait the hook with. That’s why I include this issue in the hard-stuff-to-fix category, because your opening hook isn’t going to catch many publishers if you can’t bait it with compelling characters.

Before you start writing chapter one, make sure your characters are worth writing a whole book about. I’m continually surprised at how rarely this happens.

"Country two-step” Pacing

These are books where the plot takes a step forward, then two steps back, then a step, step forward and a Do-Si-Do. If I had a dollar for every one of the excerpts in this set of 24 that opened with some plot, then took an immediate, pace-killing detour into flashbacks and backstory, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could certainly buy myself a pizza.

It’s hard enough to craft a well-paced opening to a novel even if you only do the essentials: establish the premise, setting, and characters. The burden of starting the story inevitably makes the pace in the beginning slower than in the body of the novel. But, throw a bunch of infodumpy flashbacks, character background, or premise exposition into the mix, and the novel’s pace stops dead. Readers yawn—or at least, they would if they got to see it. They won’t, because agents and publishers will throw it in the trash and send you a “not right for our needs at this time” letter.

What kills me is that the material that’s in these pace-killing bits of backstory is almost never actually necessary. Usually, it’s material that is just plain irrelevant. The reader doesn’t need it. In the maybe 10% of cases where the material is relevant, nearly all of these do nothing but answer questions the reader hasn’t thought to ask yet, and as such, rob the story of a lot of mystery, drama, and suspense. These aspiring writers haven’t learned that leaving the reader with some questions and puzzles is a good thing. If the questions are compelling, if the puzzles are enigmatic without being trite, then the reader will read on and on to find the answers.

But when you kill your novel’s pace with an infodump flashback that reveals all of your character’s tragic secrets, you also spoil the mystery. Cut out all those pace-killers, throw away the truly irrelevant material, and sprinkle the other 10% here and there throughout the body of your story. Reveal it by degrees, to create a deliciously evolving portrait of your characters.

"Waiter, I wasn’t done with that!” Plots

These are books that open like one kind of novel, but then—surprise!—turn into something entirely different mid-way through. If it’s going to happen, this will usually happen right around the end of act one. If the best possible thing has happened, that is, the reader has actually enjoyed act one of your novel, switching it on them is an extremely risky move. It’s like your reader going to a restaurant only to have the waiter (you) take their plate away mid-way through the meal and replace it with something entirely different from what they ordered. Oh, and then also for the waiter to be surprised that the reader gives them a lousy tip.

If a reader actually gets as far as the end of act one, they have invested a lot of time and energy into your story, with an expectation of some sort of payoff: that the story will finish well. If, instead, it finishes by turning into an entirely different story, you’ve violated the implicit contract between author and reader. You’re saying to the reader “I know you were enjoying my hard-boiled detective story, but come on, don’t you really want a rollicking historical romance farce with aliens?”

I’m not saying you should never surprise the reader. Obviously, you should. The right kinds of surprises are good. I’m just saying that the middle and end of your plot should live up to the promises made by the beginning.

Film Negative Plots

Every novel has to find its own balance between showing, creating fully life-like scenes of important events, and telling, summarizing events that don’t need to be shown. A film negative plot is when the author confuses the black with the white, and shows us the boring parts while telling us the exciting parts.

You would think it would be utterly obvious not to do this, but again, this black hole knows no bottom. This is in the hard-to-fix category because it means re-writing everything, turning shows into tells and vice-versa.

I had one of these 24 excerpts start out with so much that was right: it had an interesting premise, and a main character who was doomed to struggle through events his background didn’t prepare him for. But, in the book’s opening, the author chose to show us a dialogue scene between the main character and his amicably-divorced ex-wife. In this scene, the main character recounts for her the most dramatic event in the whole first act: a dying man using his last breaths to give our hero a cryptic set of instructions. He literally tells it. The dialogue scene itself was well crafted, but for crying out loud, open with the dying guy! If you’ve got that in your back pocket, why on earth would you ever open with a congenial chat with the ex-wife?

So there you go. Four killer black holes in the universe of novel-writing. Now you know where they are, so please, try to avoid them. And if you’ve got any favorite pet-peeve ones of your own, please add a comment and share!

July 23, 2009 20:15 UTC

Tags: plot, hook, character, pacing, infodumps, backstory, flashbacks, bait-and-switch, PNWA, conference, show don't tell

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