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How to create creepy characters

As we head into both and Halloween, it seems the perfect time to talk about strategies for portraying creepy, spooky, and just plain unsettling characters. Whether for villainous or red-herring purposes, a good creepy character can really liven a story up.

There are probably countless ways to make a character give your readers the willies, but here are five of my favorite techniques. Mix-and-match to your heart’s delight!


Every society has a complex set of rules which set the limits of normally-accepted behavior. These social norms indicate everything from how close we stand when talking to people, to how much eye contact we make, how firmly (and how long) we hold a handshake. The list is almost endless.

People who violate these social norms tend to come across as creepy. We’re uncomfortable when the close talker insists on standing six inches from our face, where we can feel every puff of warm breath and fleck of spittle as he talks. We get nervous and don’t know where to look when the starer locks eyes on us and never blinks. We don’t quite know what to say when the walnut-crusher grabs our hand too firmly and then won’t let go.

We interpret them as being either unaware of or unconcerned with how they are making us feel, and they tend to creep us right out.

Gentle dictators

The defining characteristic of a gentle dictator is that he—they’re always guys, or at least, I’ve never met a female one—is most at home when bossing people around in ways that subtly undermine other people’s autonomy, all backed up by the implicit threat of violence. These are people who you just know were cut out for a career in cult leadership. They never threaten violence outright. Oh no, that would break the veneer of respectability they carefully cultivate. But just the same, they are not subtle in demonstrating their temper and just how close you are to crossing them and feeling their wrath if you should happen to step over the line. These are spiders in the center of their insidious web, whose nature doesn’t become clear until you’re already within fragging distance, leaving you no comfortable escape route.

Mind gamers

The defining characteristic here is intentionally creating ambiguity in how others are to interpret their behavior. They love to leave you thinking, was that an innocent compliment or an outright pass? These are people who are exquisitely aware of where the boundaries of social norms are, and delight in pushing their behavior as close to that line as possible. People who send mixed batches of signals, some clearly over the line, balanced by others just as clearly on the acceptable side of the line. These are people who feel power in other people’s discomfort and uncertainty. Who get a thrill out of seeing how much they can get away with. Other people are a game to them, or perhaps an experiment, and if you ask me that’s plenty enough to creep their victims out.

Conspicuous loners

These are people whose defining characteristic is the willful creation of mystery regarding who they are, what they’re up to, what they’re into, and so forth. It’s the person who explicitly arranges for as little information about themselves as possible to leak out into the world. This is the neighbor whose curtains are always closed. Who never comes and goes in the daytime. Who drives a panel van with jet black windows. Or at work, it’s the guy who has been with the company forever, but never talks to anyone. The one whose cubicle is absolutely bare of personal effects. Whose desk never has a stray scrap of paper on it. Who nobody’s really sure what he does or who his boss even is. The conspicuous loner is creepy by virtue of never letting you know anything about him.

Oscar winners

With apologies to actual Oscar award winners, this category of creepy are those whose public face hides a very different private face underneath. They’re the people who do all the right things in public. When other people are around, they know exactly how to play the game. How to mix and mingle. How to conduct affable chit-chat. How to listen to your stories and make you feel like they really care about you. How to seem like the salt of the earth. Until, that is, they get you in private. When the mask comes off, and you discover the hard way that they’re a mind gamer, a gentle dictator, or worse. And there’s nothing you can say to anyone, because they’ll never believe you. The whole rest of the world has swallowed the Oscar winner’s public face, hook, line, and sinker. The Oscar winner is the ninja of the creeper world, the stealth creep who doesn’t creep you out until it’s too late.

The roots of creepiness

The common element to all these creeper types is that they are rooted in unpredictability. Rulebreakers can’t seem to follow society’s little rules, so how can you trust them to follow the big ones? How can you rely on their future behavior? Gentle dictators leave their followers uncertain as to when and if they’re going to snap and lash out. Unpredictability is the whole point, for the mind-gamer; if you can’t figure out what they really mean by everything they do, how can you ever predict how they might react to anything? The loners are unpredictable due to the carefully curated void of information about them. Who knows what a loner might be up to, behind those closed curtains? And the Oscar winners, well, they let you predict all happy-nice behavior from what they show you in public, only to prove your predictions disastrously wrong once in private.

So if you want to create a creepy character—whether one of these kinds or others, make them unpredictable.

October 23, 2012 22:38 UTC

Tags: character, creepy, unpredictability

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The three worst words in fiction

This morning I asked Twitter what the three worst words in fiction are. I got answers like suddenly, something happened, tall, dark, and handsome, purple, throbbing, and manhood, and my favorite of those submitted, only a dream.

Those are good answers. I mean really, I would hope an author can be more specific about what happened than “something,” and when it does happen, I certainly hope it doesn’t turn out to be a dream. But for my money, the three worst words in fiction are:

The chosen one.

That’s it. I can’t stand it when a character is the chosen one to complete some quest, go on some journey, win an epic sandwich-making contest, or whatever it might be. I hate that. This has long been a pet peeve of mine, but it was only this morning while I was making the kids’ breakfast that it finally clicked for me why this drives me so bonkers. So now I’ve got to blog it, because if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m big on understanding the why of writing.

It’s plot motivation.

Plot motivation, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when characters do things purely to satisfy the particular plot direction the author wants to go in. Plot motivation contrasts with character motivation, which is when characters do things because it makes sense for them to do it, given who they are, what they can do, their state of mind at the time, and the particulars of the situation. Plot motivation is extrinsic; character motivation in intrinsic.

Being the chosen one is inherently plot motivation. It has to be. For a character to be the chosen one means they’re making sandwiches because, well, they’re chosen for it. Not because they necessarily want to or feel driven to. Not because they’re good at it. Not because making sandwiches fulfills some deep-seated psychological need the character has. Not because a lack of sandwiches might spell the unraveling of the universe (though that might also be true, depending on the plot, but that’s just stakes).

No. None of those character motivations applies to the chosen one. The chosen one slathers metaphorical mayo on metaphorical bread because of some arbitrary choice imposed on them from the outside. Or in other words, because the author is making them do it. Sure, the author always applies some thin veneer of legend or mystic second-sight or special bloodlines or whatever other fairy-mustard they like as a justification for the choice. No offense, but that’s little more than a shallow, hand-waving attempt to distract the reader from the author’s failure to come up with a real reason why this character has to make sandwiches. A reason based on genuine needs or desires. A reason based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic compulsion.

It hoses the drama.

If you need a secondary line of argument, in my view being the chosen one also kills much of a story’s drama. Basically, the instant you tag a character as chosen for bologna-on-Wonder-Bread greatness, readers know how the story’s going to turn out. I mean, come on. It’s not like you’re going to let the bloody chosen one fail, are you? Of course not.

The thing about drama is that it relies on the reader’s perception of uncertainty about the outcome of situations in your plot. So as soon as you make so-and-so the chosen sandwich-maker, you drastically reduce the uncertainty about the outcome, and with it, you kill the drama dead.

Think about good old Frodo Baggins, ringbearing his way into Mordor. How dramatic would it have been if Gandalf had said, there in the bucolic Shire, “Frodo, my boy, you are the chosen one, foretold in the legends of the Maiar to bring about salvation to Middle Earth. Now take this ring of power and go forth into Mordor!” Backed by such a prophesy, would we ever have been worried for Frodo’s safety along the way? Of course not. We’d know the Balrog wasn’t going to get him. That he’d escape from Shelob somehow. That Gollum wouldn’t ever actually kill him for the ring. Don’t worry, such a prophesy tells us, it’ll all work out fine in the end!

Thankfully, that’s not what Tolkien did. Frodo wasn’t chosen by anybody but himself. His motivations were always intrinsic. He took the ring to the council at Rivendell not because he was chosen but because somebody had to, and it might as well be him because the Nazgûl were going to kill him for it anyway. Then when the council couldn’t make up their damn minds what to do, Frodo volunteered for the quest because he knew what was at stake, with no guarantees or prophetic reassurances that he would survive. It was an act of noble self-sacrifice, not the churlish whim of fate, destiny, or arbitrary external choice. Which one sounds more dramatic to you?

Faux success

In the end, the problem is this. I need a protagonist I can root for. But I find that I have a lot of trouble rooting for the chosen one, because on some level to be “chosen for greatness” is a cop-out. The greatness is fake.

Fiction has a completely legitimate role in escapism. It’s fun to read about characters with radically different lives, and imagine ourselves doing things that would be radically impossible or foolhardy in the real world. And certainly it’s fun to imagine the wild success of winning through an epic quest, of bringing home the biggest damn blue ribbon for sandwich making the world has ever seen.

We all want to be successful, right? And fiction has a role in letting us vicariously experience that through the characters in books. The thing is, real success is hard. It’s supposed to be. Great achievement is necessarily difficult. One must face challenges. Overcome personal and external limitations. Discover new things. Make mistakes and fix them. All of that. That’s what true achievement looks like.

My problem with chosen ones is that their route to success doesn’t require them to actually be great. They simply have to march along the path the writer has cleared for them, their foreordained successes ringing hollow with every step. As with everything in writing, this is yet another application of show, don’t tell. When a writer makes a character be the chosen one, that writer is trying to tell me that the character is great. They’re begging me to believe in the character’s greatness simply because they say so. Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.

But when a writer shows me a character’s greatness through choices and actions—when the writer gives me a Frodo Baggins who risks his whole existence, with no expectation of reward, simply because he can’t stand to see a very bad thing happen—I get to watch the character become great by what he accomplishes in spite of every obstacle and limitation. The writer doesn’t have to tell me the character is great; I can conclude that for myself.

May 15, 2012 19:47 UTC

Tags: chosen one, plot motivation, character motivation, hero, hero's journey, drama, show don't tell, J.R.R. Tolkien, character

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Does your denouement murder your characters?

I have a confession to make. I’m a murderer. Only in the third degree—I didn’t mean to—but murder is murder.

You know what I remember most about writing my first manuscript? Writing the ending. I’d had such a wonderful time writing that whole manuscript. I loved those characters. When I wrote what I knew was the last scene, I became so choked up the lump in my throat literally hurt.

The story was done. They were done. But I wasn’t ready to let those characters go.

So what did I do? I wrote an epilogue. It’s a sweet epilogue. Kind of sappy. To this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasn’t ready for in the last scene.

But it killed the characters. I didn’t understand that at the time, but it did.

I don’t mean I literally killed the characters off in the epilogue. They got their happily-ever-after. What I mean is that I killed them for the reader. Without meaning to, I murdered my beloved characters.

I did it in my second manuscript, too, before one of my critiquers told me to cut it. “You don’t need that,” he said. “It’s too much.” I rankled at that piece of feedback. I liked my epilogue. It was sweet, kind of sappy, and let me say goodbye. But the cool thing about writing is you can undo any mistake, even murder. I gritted my teeth, cut the epilogue, and brought my characters back to life.

So when I see my clients accidentally kill their characters at the end of the book, I understand. Sometimes I can tell that my client is looking for their own emotional closure on the book, just like I was. Sometimes, it’s equally evident that my clients feel like they have to wrap up all the threads to give readers perfect closure on everything.

I’ve been there. I understand that drive. But I’ve now written enough manuscripts of my own and analyzed enough from my clients that I can finally articulate what that critiquer meant when he said my epilogue was too much. He meant I was killing the characters.

Not for me. Not in the story. But for him.

The purpose of a denouement

To explain what that means, I need to establish a little groundwork about a novel’s ending—or if you’re writing an epic series, about the end of the last book in the series. Your story builds to a gripping peak. You write a climax that resolves the story’s major issues one way or another. And then there’s the denouement at the end.

Ask people what’s supposed to go between the climax and the final page, and they’ll say things like “that’s where you wrap up any loose threads,” or “that’s where you bring the reader back down from the emotional high of the climax, so they don’t leave the book feeling unsettled.”

True, but trivial. That’s tactics, not strategy.

The strategic purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives.

You might indeed do that by wrapping up loose ends. You might do it by giving a flash-forward scene that shows a less tumultuous time in the characters’ lives. It is in how you implement those various strategies that you will either accidentally murder your characters, or will allow them to live. The difference lies in whether you keep your denouement focused on reorienting the characters, or whether you stray too far outside those bounds.

That’s what my critiquer was trying to tell me. “Your epilogue goes way beyond reorienting the characters towards the next phase of their lives.”

The important bit

Reorienting, that’s the important bit. The reason for this has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with the characters, either. It has everything to do with the reader.

As readers of fiction or watchers of movies, usually we want to leave the story with the feeling that, after the climax, the characters are facing a new, better future. We want to have the belief that they’re going to be ok. We want that same sense of an unbounded but positive future for those characters, that we ourselves have when we conquer major obstacles in our lives: the feeling that “now, anything is possible!”

You graduate high school or college, bursting with the feeling of accomplishment, and confident that you’re going to kick-ass in the rest of your life. You ask the person of your dreams to marry you, they say yes, you endure the ordeal of wedding planning and in-laws, and you head off into your honeymoon feeling like life is just going to be awesome from here on out.

It doesn’t always happen, but that’s how it feels, and that’s the feeling readers just love to leave a book with. Here’s the thing. Simply by seeing the characters turn away from the now-completed problems that led up to the climax, and turn towards something else, we know that they are now facing a new, better future.

We don’t need to be told just what that new, better future is.

Committing murder

That’s how you go too far in a book’s denouement. You do the good work of reorienting the characters, but then you also specify where and how far they go along their new paths.

When you do that, you murder them in the reader’s mind.

Ok, perhaps that’s melodramatic. I guess it’s not so much that you murder them, per se, as it is that you prevent them from living on for us.

This is a tricky point, so bear with me.

As the writer, the characters live for you because you are imagining their feelings and choices and actions and responses and so forth during the events of the main plot. It is your imagination which brings them to life for us.

As readers, we don’t have that same full freedom; we’re not allowed to imagine our own choices and so forth, because those are part of the story. Different choices would lead to a different plot, so obviously the writer has to do that part. The writer must imagine the characters’ choices and present them to us through the narrative.

That difference means that on a very fundamental level, characters in a novel necessarily must feel less alive to the reader than they do to the writer.

This is true from page one up through “the end.” But once we get to “the end,” the situation changes.

When the plot is done, suddenly the doors of possibility are thrown wide open. The characters might now choose anything. They might do anything. How exciting! And having come to know them through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.

You had your turn. Now it’s our turn, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t. If you write it all down in a tidy little epilogue or final chapter—if you let us know that Mary Louise got her biology degree and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on tissue regeneration, while Charlie eventually bounced back from the breakup, married another woman in Iowa, had two kids and a dog and settled down to a modest life as an auto mechanic—then we don’t get our turn.

If you imagine the rest for us, we cannot then imagine them into further life. Murderer!

Reorient the characters. Then stop.

Just don’t be so specific about your story’s Mary Louise and Charlie. Leave it more open-ended:

Mary Louise slipped the envelope from her purse and walked into the post office. She stood in line. Two people ahead of her, she saw the back of a familiar brown leather jacket.

Awkward, she thought, but not as awkward as saying nothing.


Charlie turned. “Oh. Hey. What’s up?”

Mary Louise motioned with the envelope. “Grad school application.” His usual Sunday-evening stubble looked out of place on a Wednesday morning. “How are you doing, Charlie?”

He shrugged. “Not great, really. But I’ll be ok. It’s cool.” She glanced down. After all those years together, how strange not to have anything left to say. He held up a form. “Change of address. I’m going to Iowa,” he said.

“Wow. Your dad’s?”

“Yeah. He’s talking about retiring. He keeps hinting for me to take over the shop, but you know him. He won’t just come right out and say it. I figure I’ll give it a try.”

Mary Louise smiled. “You should. I think you’ll like it. You always were good with your hands.”

Reorient. Point Mary Louise at grad school. Point Charlie at Iowa. Then stop, so the reader can imagine the rest. Give us our turn to bring the characters to life.

December 21, 2011 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, denouement, reorient

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Swimming to find your characters

What lies beneath

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

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

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

The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.

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

Two case studies

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Harper

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

Come on. Every character matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. LeClerc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You must swim the waters

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

December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC

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

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What Tolkien teaches us about conflict

Reader Emily Casey, @EmilyCaseysMuse, asked for some tips on how to sustain conflict when two characters are working toward the same goal. Great question, because conflict usually derives from opposing goals. So how can you have conflict when goals are in alignment? Fortunately, that’s not the only source of conflict, and there are a bunch of ways to introduce conflict between cooperative characters and groups. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series provides some wonderful examples.

Shared goal, contrary strategies

One of the best methods is to give your allies contrary strategies for achieving the goal. This works for a whole lot of reasons. First, if the goal in question is something difficult to achieve (which it should be), something for which there isn’t necessarily a single, obvious strategy to attain it (which there shouldn’t be), then it is perfectly natural that two different people might have different ideas as to how to go about it.

What, you guys can’t walk on snow? Losers.

Think about the Fellowship, in Fellowship of the Ring, when they’re crossing the mountains through the horrible snow, debating whether to press on or get out of the snow and brave the dangers of the deep paths by going through the Mines of Moria. Crossing the mountains, in a Middle Earth bereft of helicopters, is a difficult yet necessary goal for the fellowship to achieve. It may be done in multiple ways (over or under), both of which carry risks and challenges. They thought to go over, but that turned out to be harder than they thought, leading naturally to conflict as everybody argues over whether to change strategies.

It’s not a shallow conflict, either. Not if you play it right. Because eventually, one side or the other has to win. They can’t split the party and go both ways, because the whole point of the Fellowship is to get Frodo ‘ringbearer’ Baggins safely to Mordor. However it turns out, half the group is going to be left with resentment and bruised egos over having lost the argument. This is then fodder for later conflicts.

Shared goal, incompatible personalities

I’m watchin’ you, Boromir...

Another way is to simply pair up characters who can’t stand each other. Just to pick an entirely random example, take Aragorn and Boromir. Man, those guys were at each other all the time. They just seemed to rub each other the wrong way at every turn. For them, this animosity usually expressed itself in service of the first method, contrary strategies: Although they both agreed about defeating Sauron , Aragorn favored destroying the ring, while Boromir preferred to use its power.

Back, or I’ll shiv you, elf-boy!

Of lesser import—and played more for comic effect than outright drama—you have the early interactions between elf Legolas and dwarf Gimli. Elves and dwarves being ancestral semi-enemies in Tolkien’s world, they didn’t get on well either. For them, though, it was more about chest-beating and sniping at one another at every opportunity.

Whether played seriously or for comic relief, ad hominem conflicts like these still serve to keep the essential feeling of tension in your scenes.

Strange bedfellows

No, this isn’t the least bit creepy. Why?

A third method is in situations where characters with entirely unrelated goals can achieve them by temporarily cooperating. Take the case of Aragorn and the Army of the Dead. Aragorn’s goal is to save Minas Tirith from being overrun by Sauron’s forces. The dead—the restless souls of an army that, in the backstory, had been faithless to Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur—just want to rest, which they can’t do because they broke their oaths way back when. Aragorn offers them an out: “Fight for me, and I will hold your oaths fulfilled.”

Tolkien chose to play it straight; Aragorn is an honorable fellow, he keeps his part in the bargain, and all’s well in the end. But notice that there’s a lot of tension along the way. Aragorn isn’t sure that the ghosts are really on-board with his offer. The ghosts aren’t entirely sure that Aragorn will keep his word. Neither side has much trust in the other, leading to a lot of great dramatic tension.

It’s not quite conflict, per se, but I put in this list because it achieves the same result for the reader—uncertainty about the outcome—and because in your novels it quite easily could turn into true conflict. You don’t have to play it straight. You could exploit the fact that it’s so easy for these marriages of convenience to fall apart, for one side or the other to break the deal, leading to outright conflict.

Allies, for now

Betcha didn’t think I had this much whup-ass in me, did ya?

These are situations where characters come in and out of alliance, as the needs of the moment dictate. Fundamentally, the dynamic here is two characters who have divergent long term goals, but whose short term goals sometimes agree. And when that happens, they’re at least grudgingly willing to help one another out. In many ways this is a darker turn on the strange bedfellows motif, but with more direct conflict, and the pairing of Frodo and Gollum makes a wonderful example.

At times, Frodo and Gollum share explicit, immediate goals. For instance, evading the Orcs at Cirith Ungol. So, sometimes they cooperate. But simultaneously they both know full well that they are diametrically opposed in their long term goals. Gollum knows Frodo’s aim is to destroy the ring, and Frodo knows Gollum’s aim is to reclaim it for his own. Frodo is under no illusion whatsoever that Gollum won’t strangle him in his sleep at the first opportunity, while Gollum harbors no misconceptions that he might, just possibly, be able to talk Frodo into giving him the ring.

This kind of layered alignment-plus-opposition leads to an enormous amount of wonderful tension and a deliciously shifting dynamic between these two characters. It’s also why Gollum chooses to lead Frodo through Shelob’s lair, on the pretense that it’s a safe way to sneak past the Orcs. Treachery!


So, there you go. Four broad methods for creating, sustaining, and developing conflicts in situations where characters or groups are otherwise aligned. You know the old saying “Keep conflict in every scene?” Conflict requires forces in opposition; a protagonist and an antagonist. For some scenes this is obvious. The battle scenes in Lord of the Ring have antagonists out in the open, in the form of Orcs or Nazgul, to fight with. Open conflict is easy. But when those kind of antagonists aren’t present, this is how you do it: by using these four methods to turn allies—at least temporarily—into antagonists.

Got a topic you’d like me to cover? Leave it in the comments!

June 23, 2011 18:26 UTC

Tags: character, conflict, allies, antagonists, goals, strategies, personalities

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What's wrong with Huckleberry Finn?

Huckleberry Finn, circa 1885

I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while now, ever since the recent flap about removing “the n-word” from Mark Twain’s most famous novel. Well, today’s the day. Let me start by being perfectly clear: this post isn’t about that. I have no problem at all with the language in that book. The vocabulary Twain uses is all perfectly accurate for its time and culture. It is entirely relevant to both the plot to the book’s whole point. In my opinion, anybody who wants to change it is an idiot. I will admit, though, that I found the counter-reaction by the folks who want to replace it with robot was pretty amusing. By the response they got, I’d say I was hardly alone in that.

No. Vocabulary of any stripe is not what’s wrong with Huckleberry Finn. Now that we’ve got that clear, we can move on to talking about what is wrong with Huckleberry Finn, subtitled:

How Mark Twain sabotaged his characters


Character lessons from a classic

Pick whichever you like, because the way I see it, Twain made some massive errors in character development in that book. Don’t get me wrong. The guy was a brilliant writer, with a flair for dialect that won’t likely be repeated any time in the next few centuries. But as somebody who specializes in techniques for effective character development in fiction (which is why you’re reading this blog, after all), I have to take Twain to task for a few things. Oh, and I suppose in the interests of fairness, I should say that this whole post is basically one huge spoiler, so if you haven’t actually read Huck Finn yet, then a) where have you been? And b) go read it, then come back. I’ll wait.


Huck is inconsistently drawn. On the one hand, he’s the street-smart kid who has had to fend for himself his whole life. His Pap is an abusive drunkard, so much so that Huck has spent much of his life prior to the start of the book living on the streets rather than staying within arm’s reach of his old man. And he makes it, right? He survives. That speaks to a self-reliant, intelligent boy. One with some mettle to him. In fact, the very sort of character we can believe would, in the early chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, fake his own death and scoot off down the Mississippi, with little more than the clothes on his back and his own self-confidence, in order to escape his abusive father forever. Great, dramatic opening to the novel, and it sets a certain tone for Huck.

Unfortunately, subsequent events undermine Huck’s portrayal quite a bit.

There are two major breaks in Huck’s portrayal. The first one comes when Huck and Jim encounter those two charlatans, the King and the Duke. These guys are con men. Their deal is to travel up and down the Mississippi, stopping in little towns along the way just long enough to set up some kind of scam as fortune tellers, mesmerists, religious revivalists, whatever, long enough to fleece the locals before leaving town.

They are indeed colorful characters to add to the novel, but they’re a problem for the portrayal of Huck because Huck ought to be smarter than that. When he meets these two jokers, there’s a bunch of dialogue about the sorts of business they’re into, and it’s obviously not legit. One of them mentions selling some sort of snake oil to take the tartar off of teeth, which it does, except that it generally takes off the enamel too. That kind of thing. Huck is right there to overhear all of this—he has to be, the book is in first person and Huck’s the POV character—so he darn well ought to know they’re both no good.

Except, then one of them claims to be a Duke, and then the other one claims to be a King, and Huck basically goes along with it. Why? Huck ought to know better. He and Jim are both heading down river, trying to escape scrutiny from, well, anybody in authority. The authorities will send Huck back to his Pap, and Jim back to his owners, and neither one of them wants that. So why let two charlatans whose very modus operandi invites scrutiny hang out with you? Why? It makes no logical sense, and all we can conclude is that Huck isn’t really as sharp as we had been led to believe. And sure enough, later on one of these guys more or less turns in Jim for some reward money. Which leads us to:

Tom Sawyer

Wait, didn’t I say this was about Huckleberry Finn? I did, and we’ll get to the second major failing in Huck’s portrayal in a minute, but first let’s look at the problem with Tom Sawyer. I don’t mean Tom Sawyer the book, I mean Tom Sawyer the character. We’re supposed to like Tom Sawyer, right? That loveable scamp! In Tom Sawyer (the book), Tom Sawyer (the kid) gets into all kinds of mischief. He’s a little devil, for sure, but a cute one and essentially good at heart. We’re given to understand that he is a good kid, despite his adventurous carryings-on.

Only he’s not. Or maybe the sudden wealth he acquired at the end of Tom Sawyer changed him, or something, because in Huck Finn, Tom is not a good kid at all. He’s a thoughtless, callous little prick. Again, if it has been awhile since you read the book, let me remind you:

So Jim is in captivity, being held at Tom’s Aunt Sally’s place, where Huck has ended up, and through a case of mistaken identity, Tom and Huck pretend to be each other for a while. That part’s rather amusing, but what isn’t amusing is the part that comes next. Huck explains to Tom that Jim is being held captive, and asks Tom’s help in setting Jim free. Tom says sure, he thinks that sounds like great fun, but what would be even more fun would be if they played it up as a grand escape, a’la The Count of Monte Cristo.

Rather than just busting Jim out forthwith, Tom concocts this elaborate sequence of preparations they have to undertake, and tasks for Jim to complete, because that’s how “the best authorities” say it’s supposed to be done. Such as, Jim has to keep a journal on a stolen shirt using his own blood for ink. Never mind that Jim can’t read and write. Tom wants him to scrawl messages on the bottom of tin plates and toss them out the window to smuggle messages out, fashion a rope ladder, and on and on.

If it was just for a day, just to occupy the time until nightfall when they could actually spring Jim out of there, then it wouldn’t be a problem at all. But this business goes on for months. Literally. Tom extends Jim’s captivity for about two whole months because Tom wants to play at his little prisoner escape game. Not once does Tom give a single thought to what Jim must be enduring, locked up inside a tiny, cramped shed that’s dark as a cave and hot as an oven, and every minute worrying and heartsick over whether he’s ever going to see his wife and kids again.

Poor Jim. Enduring day after day of hell while Tom enjoys his little game. But endure it he does, becausae he knows he’s a slave and has no right to ask for anything better. (Note, that’s characterization, too, but in a good way that supports our view of Jim.)

Now look. I know times were different then. And I know people weren’t brought up to think about how slaves felt about anything. Tom is just a product of his times. But no matter how I look at it, I just can’t forgive him for causing Jim to endure months of unnecessary captivity. It amounts to torture, is what it is, and that simply does not square with the view of Tom as a good-hearted person. He’s just selfish, that’s all.

Huck, part two

Which brings us back to Huck. Because Huck is different than Tom. Huck actually has been thinking about Jim’s side of things. He has developed a sense of empathy for Jim, through their shared adventure down the river, through the many kind things Jim has done for Huck. That’s the whole reason why he has got it into his head to free Jim. So how is it, then, that Huck goes along with Tom’s cruel adventure plan which does nothing but put Jim’s freedom at risk? How is it that when Tom starts talking about tin plates and ink made out of blood, that Huck doesn’t smack him right across the mouth and say “Tom, Jim’s my friend and I won’t have him locked up one more minute than I have to. I’m bustin’ him out this very night. You can help me, or you can get out of my way.”

I don’t know, but he doesn’t. I guess Twain was having too much fun with this little slapstick side-plot or something. The problem is, it casts Huck in a poor light. All the mettle we saw in him, the inner strength that enabled him to undertake a great risk in order to escape from his father, vanishes like a haystack in a hurricane next to Tom’s tomfoolery. That, my friends, is a characterization problem.

What’s right with Huckleberry Finn

But it’s not all bad. Besides seeing Jim behave like a slave would, I would be remiss not to give Twain major props for the bit of characterization that happens at the turning point in the novel. This is immediately after Huck discovers that Jim is gone and that the King and the Duke have turned him in for “forty dirty dollars” of the reward on Jim’s head. Huck is debating whether to write to Jim’s owner, thinking that if Jim is doomed to be a slave, he should at least be back with his family. (See, empathy!) And he’s worried for his immortal soul, because he knows it’s a sin to help a runaway slave. Except, Huck doesn’t want to send Jim back into that life, even though everything he has ever been taught says that would be the right thing to do. Deep down, he know it isn’t right at all. Fair warning: I refuse to vandalize Twain’s prose in this passage by either omitting the n-word or replacing it with “robot.”

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. —Huck Finn

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell"—and tore it up.

That’s characterization, right there. Seeing a character willingly sacrifice his immortal soul to save a friend, that’s powerful stuff. For all the characterization problems in the novel, I think that moment saves the book. Twain took 220 pages (at least in the edition I have) to bring Huck to that moment, and every bit of it contributes to the powerful effect of seeing Huck make that choice.

May 28, 2011 05:07 UTC

Tags: character, consistent, Mark Twain

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Four ways to use Myers-Briggs personality types in your novels

If you’re at all like me, somewhere in high school or college you and your peers discovered the Myers-Briggs personality type matrix. You all had fun taking the little test and finding out who was an “INTJ” or an “ESFP” or whatever. You may even have been somewhat surprised at how well the capsule description of your personality type seemed to fit you. But, chances are, it didn’t take terribly long for the shine to fade and for you and your friends to realize that people are actually a bit more complicated than a matrix of 16 cleanly defined personality types.

But that doesn’t mean Myers-Briggs isn’t good for anything. It may not be the perfect tool for understanding all the people in your life, but it’s still a useful framework for understanding some broad truths about the human condition. And for writers, it can be quite a useful tool for bringing life to your characters.

Use it to know who your characters are

When you imagine a character in one of your novels, chances are you have a rather holistic picture of them in your mind. For yourself, you have a sense of who that character is. It may be a very strong sense. You may feel like you really know who this person is. But do you? Do you know the person well enough to cast him or her as the central protagonist in your book? Or as the villain? Or even as a sidekick?

Before beginning the novel, a lot of writers undertake various exercises in order to get to know their characters better. Some write long backstories for them. Some conduct interviews of their characters. Some draw sketches. Taking the Myers-Briggs test on behalf of your characters is another exercise you can do to solidify your own impression of who the character is.

I like it for this purpose because it gives you actual data you can work with later. Sure, it can be fun to write a backstory and learn that your character grew up in Topeka and had a dog named Bo that he loved more than anyone else in the world. Or it can be fun to interview a character and have her reveal that her first kiss was, on a dare from her friends, with a cute boy re-folding shirts in the clothing section at a department store, and she didn’t even know him. Fun stuff, even if it never finds a home in the story.

But if you take the time to sort out your character’s Myers-Briggs scores, that’s data I guarantee you will come in handy while you’re writing the story. Hint, though: take the test for yourself, first. Make sure your character isn’t just a clone of you (unless you’re doing that intentionally, of course)

Use it to create more believable behavior

This is why I guarantee you that sorting out your character’s personality type will come in handy, because the broad strokes of the Myers-Briggs system—introvert-vs-extrovert, thinking-vs-feeling, and so forth— affect how people behave in various situations. Your characters are no different. They should behave in ways that are true to their personalities too.

People who are strongly introverted don’t generally like loud, crowded, overtly social settings. Someone who scores high on the “feeling” attribute will usually go with their gut in making decisions. You don’t have to go back to college to get a degree in psychology to work with this stuff, but having a basic understanding of how the eight core qualities of the Myers-Briggs system play out in people’s reactions will help you do a better job of making sure that your characters are acting in ways that are both realistic and true to themselves.

Make sure you don’t have a cast of clones

Books where all the characters seem to be the same are kind of boring. Myers-Briggs can help you make sure that’s not the case in your book. If you’re going to figure out the personality types of your protagonist and antagonist anyway, why not do it for all the significant characters in the book?

If you find that you’ve got twelve “ESTJ” characters in your book, then you’ve got a problem, and chances are that problem is expressing itself as an overall lackluster feeling to the book. Mix it up. Re-think some of these people. Flip some of their scores. Ask yourself “what if the love interest was a Feeler instead of a Thinker?” What would change? Do that to everybody in the book, make them all distinctive, and I promise you the book will start to feel a lot more lively.

Create tension, friction, and conflict

This is perhaps my favorite use of the Myers-Briggs system. In real life, we don’t get to choose the personality types of those we encounter. But we do get to choose the personality type of everyone in our novels. That’s an opportunity. Choose the types strategically in order to create tension, friction, and conflict.

Let’s say you’re writing a crime drama with a pair of homicide detectives as the protagonists. You could, I suppose, make them polar opposites. Make one of them an “ESTJ” (extrovert/sensing/thinking/judging), and the other an “INFP” (introvert/intuitive/feeling/perceiving). Characters with such completely opposed personalities are going to have very different approaches to an investigation. One will want to get out there, collect a bunch of hard data and evidence, then stand back from it to make a thoughtful, rational decision. The other is more likely to want to learn about suspects’ backgrounds, figure them out from a more theoretical “profiler” model, and then attempting to empathize with the suspect in order to “get into their head” so as to figure out if the suspect is the sort of person who would have committed the crime. Now, how are those two characters going to work together? Chances are, they’re going to have kind of a hard time, especially if some of the physical evidence (held in high esteem by the Sensing character) doesn’t fit well with the psychological model (held in high esteem by the intuitive character) that seems to fit the suspect best.

Bam! Instant inter-personal conflict, as the two of them argue it out. Even better, because the characters’ other opposing traits are going to shape the way that argument goes. Introversion and extroversion most particularly. If the introvert is actually right, but the extrovert wins the argument simply because he’s the more garrulous personality—or maybe they appeal to the Chief, who sides with the easy-talking extrovert—then you’ve got the makings of a very dynamic inter-personal layer underneath the plot layer of the story.

You don’t have to go with polar opposites, though. They make for a nice example, but it can also be good to align two characters in some ways, but oppose them others. Sometimes, then, these two characters will be able to act and function as one. They’ll get along great. But when an issue comes up that plays to their opposing characteristics, suddenly they’ll be like cats and dogs.

Imperfect, but useful

Like I said, don’t take the Myers-Briggs type indicator system as infallible. Myers-Briggs is most often criticized on the grounds that real people are usually somewhere in the middle on most of the attributes. It’s a fair criticism.

But we’re talking about fiction, not real life. In many ways, successful fiction doesn’t present real life the way life really is. It presents a distillation of the elements of real life, in their stark, archetypal forms. It is exactly because Myers-Briggs explains personalities through opposing archetypes that it is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the novelist.

March 29, 2011 18:54 UTC

Tags: character, personality, Myers-Briggs, conflict, interaction, introvert, extrovert, sensing, intuition, thinking, feeling, judging, perceiving

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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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How to establish your characters: openings

Among the many jobs a book’s opening needs to accomplish, one of the more important is to establish your book’s characters. You need to let your readers know who the players are, what their relationships are (at least initially), and enough about what kind of people they are that readers can develop a sensibility about how these people are likely to act.

It’s a tall order, but there are some core strategies you can use to help achieve these goals, while at the same time moving your story forward.

Show your characters in action

First, please, show your characters in action. Show them doing something. And I don’t mean walking down the street. Show them in the act of attempting to achieve a goal, prevent something bad from happening, et cetera. I don’t really care what it is, just show them trying. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, but readers need to see the effort and the reason for it is pretty simple. Seeing the effort reassures us that this is a character who will be worth watching for 300 pages.

When your book’s opening shows us a guy walking down the street, or a lady sitting at her kitchen table having tea as her day begins, that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in that character as being someone who can bear the heavy load of being a protagonist. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character who doesn’t do anything.

This is not to say that you can’t put a guy walking down the street on page one. You can. But you need to show us why that’s interesting. You need to do something with that scene that allows the character to make a meaningful choice or take a meaningful action. Maybe the guy is in Chicago for a job interview, trying to make his way on foot from his hotel, only he isn’t quite sure which way to go. He’s going to have to choose whether to go left, right, or straight, and his choice is critical to arriving at the interview on time.

Show your characters in conflict

Within the action, look for ways to put your characters in conflict. Conflict, in novel-writing terms, is any situation in which a character’s goals are impeded by something. Could be an explicit antagonist trying to mess up the protagonist’s plans. Could be a physical obstacle, a raging river that was only marked as a stream on the map. It could be a situation, not enough dinner to feed the family and the surprise guest/business associate the thoughtless husband brought home. The obstacle could be internal, as in the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of how to get around the streets of Chicago.

Again, the reason why conflict is an effective characterization tool is simple: the conflict itself forces characters to respond. In watching their responses, we learn about them. Does the interview guy stop to ask directions, or does he wander around hoping for the best? Does he call to warn the prospective employer he might be late, or does he arrive tardy with some half-baked excuse about the hotel’s wake-up call being late? A character’s response to any conflict tells us a great deal about who that person is.

Conflict is also dramatic. Conflict carries with it the implicit threat of failure. The guy might actually be late for the interview, heightening the stress of an already stressful situation. The raging river might sweep away the frontier family’s horse and wagon, greatly increasing the danger that they won’t make it to California. Opening your book with a strong conflict for your character to face is a wonderful way to kick things off with a bang.

And speaking of the threat of failure, I would argue that in your book’s opening, the stronger choice is usually to let the character fail. Let him be late and lose the job. Don’t just give the family a moment of panic when the horse stumbles halfway across the river, but let the river win. The reason for this, too, is simple: failure throws the characters’ plans into disarray, and forces them to react. Just as with watching them respond, their reaction to failure teaches us a great deal about them.

Open your book by putting your characters in conflict situations, so we can watch their response, the outcome, and their subsequent reaction.

Create mysteries about your characters

So you’ve created a conflict situation, put your characters into a stance of action, the question then becomes how can you work the character’s choices and actions in order to deeply hook the reader? You can create mysteries.

The idea here is to show something unexpected about your character, something that is naturally applicable to the scene, without explaining it. Show us a skill, a talent, an attitude we’re not expecting. Maybe the interviewee stops a random person on the street, and smooth-talks that person not into giving him directions but in fact escorting him by cab to his destination and paying the cab fare for him. We’re likely to be surprised and intrigued to see such a display of charisma and persuasion. After the horse goes under, maybe the father also falls into the river and is only saved by his wife’s quick-thinking and dead-eye aim with a lasso. We’re likely to wonder how she came to have such impressive rope skills.

But don’t explain. Let us wonder. The reader’s curiosity is your most powerful asset, and if you can show us something we don’t quite understand, we become wildly curious to learn the backstory behind it. Don’t give it to us. This is the wrong time for a backstory infodump. Make us read onward into the story in order to learn why the character can do those things.

For instance, maybe the interviewee used to be a ... no. I’m not going to tell you now, here in the opening of this three-blog-post series. I’ll tell you in the next installment about what to do in the middle of the book, and ditto for frontier-woman and her rope-work. See? Now aren’t you at least a little bit curious how they came by those abilities?

I should warn, though, there is a danger to be aware of: if what you show the reader is so surprising and unusual that we can’t even imagine how it’s possible for the character to do that, then what you’ve created isn’t mystery but incongruity. Maybe it really does make sense in light of backstory you don’t want to give us yet, but you can’t let the reader think it’s just some weird, crazy thing you pulled out of your butt in order to concoct an exciting opening. That’s a sure way to lose the reader. So, if the thing you reveal is that surprising, what you can do is let other people in the scene wonder, too. That reassures readers that you know what you’re doing. That you understand how hard it is to believe what they just read, but that you have a plan and all will be revealed in good time.

Illustrate key personality traits

Again, readers want to know what kind of people they’re dealing with. Particularly helpful is when you can illustrate a personality trait that is at the heart of the arc you’ll be putting that character through. Perhaps your protagonist is a bit of a shrinking violet in the beginning, afraid to take risks and make sacrifices. Imagine you have in mind that by the end of the book he will be called upon to take a significant risk, and that his ability to do it stems from the personal growth he experiences during the story. While you could open your book with something like this:

Charlie was the kind of guy who held back, never giving his all.

you’ll do much better to illustrate that trait in the course of an early scene. Readers will believe it a lot more strongly if you make them understand that for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. So you’ll put Charlie in a position where he could take a risk, but doesn’t.

Maybe he has joined an Ultimate Frisbee team because the woman he’s interested in plays on it. Other players routinely make leaps and diving catches, but not Charlie. At a critical moment during a big game, Charlie doesn’t dive for a pass he could have caught, resulting in the other team taking possession, and Charlie’s team losing the game.

His teammates chew him out for it. “What’s the matter with you? You totally could have caught that if you’d tried!” Charlie, of course, will have a perfectly good rationalization for his behavior. “Why should I risk injuring myself diving to catch a frisbee? It’s just a game.”

Seeing those events transpire will be a hundred times more convincing than simply telling us that Charlie’s a milquetoast fellow. It does so through action and conflict, thus keeping our interest high. And it sets up his overall character arc, so that by the end of the story when he finally learns that sometimes risks and sacrifices are necessary, his eventual act of bravery will hit home much stronger.

Opening Goals

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

  • Show us who the character is.

  • Make us curious about that person.

  • Give us a reason to care about the person.

You do this because your opening scenes and chapters need to hook the reader. Part of your hook comes through the (hopefully) intriguing nature of the situation you show. But the other part, and I would argue the larger part, comes through your characters. Novels are ultimately about characters doing things. Trying to affect the course of events. Your opening needs a hook, but your characters are the bait.

Next: part 2, How to establish your characters: middles >.

December 17, 2010 19:02 UTC

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

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Why less detail makes more believable characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stereotypes are good

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

For that, nothing beats a stereotype.

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

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

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

The stereotype is just a starting point

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, you said it was all about believability

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

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

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

Use the stereotype to your advantage

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

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

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

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

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

Stereotypes create belief; details create dimension

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

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

Less is More

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

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

November 17, 2010 00:22 UTC

Tags: character, description, details, stereotypes, NaNoWriMo

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Let's talk about goals

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

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

Short, Medium, Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals and Maslow

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

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

Know What Everybody Wants

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

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

Using All Three Levels

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

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

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

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

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

Goals in Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

Goals in Alignment

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

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

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

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

Mix it Up

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

October 14, 2010 20:04 UTC

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

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How to use historical figures in your novels

One of my followers on Twitter, Samantha Johnson, asked me “Do you have a post about basing characters loosely on historical figures? And how not to get trapped in the facts?” Well, I didn’t, but now I do! Thanks Samantha! (And by the way, you all should check out the highly amusing bio on her Twitter profile. How can you not like someone like that?)

Samantha goes on to clarify her question: “When I start researching historical figures to get a better sense of their personality, I get so caught up in the facts that I find it very difficult to add my own flair to my characters. It could be a fear of adding/subtracting a trait that ends up making another seem inconsistent or false. It could be a result of my love of history not wanting me to tamper with anything. The more sources and interpretations of historical figures I read, the harder it is for me to figure out how to fictionalize the traits in a way that fits.”

Those are good concerns to have. However, Samantha, I’m heartened to see that you are already doing the first thing right: Research.

Know what you’re talking about

Samantha already knows this, but seriously, make sure you know what you’re talking about. Do some research. How can you expect to use, say, Leonardo Loredan in your epic tale of love and politics in 16th century Venice, if you don’t actually know anything about the guy? I’ve heard writers say that research on their historical figures doesn’t matter all that much because the people they’re borrowing for their novels are too obscure, and nobody’s going to know the difference. Wrong.

Somebody will know the difference. This is a double problem for you. One, if that person does know something about Leonardo Loredan, and you didn’t do any research, chances are that person knows more than you and they will catch you screwing something up. This usually drops the reader’s view of the author by several notches, and messes up their enjoyment of the book. Two, someone who actually knows who Leonardo Loredan was is your ideal target reader. This is the person you want reading your book, loving it, and getting totally stoked because not only did you use a historical figure they knew about, but you got the details right. That’s a person who is going to go give you a five-star rating on Amazon, who is going to generate word-of-mouth sales for you, and so forth. Be smart. Be like Samantha and respect your readers (and your story, honestly) enough to do some research.

Let the research guide you

I’ve written two historicals. In both cases, I learned some utterly wild, crazy stuff I could never have dreamed up on my own. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t just write historical novels, because actual history is so much weirder than anything I can invent, it saves you from coming up with all the fun, quirky little twists and details that make a historical novel come to life. In a certain sense—except for all the research—historicals are easier to write. Case in point: One of my novels is set on the Pony Express trail. In the research, I learned that the famous British explorer Sir Richard Burton travelled the length of the Pony Express trail, and inferred from excerpts of the journals he kept along the way that he was kind of a pompous ass. Not only that, he was on the trail during the specific few months in which my novel takes place. Perfect! He became the inspiration for a much-needed lighthearted chapter in what is otherwise a fairly gritty book. Would I ever have thought to toss a famous British explorer into my Wild West novel? Not a chance. But I found him in the research. Let the research guide you, because history really is stranger than fiction.

In doing the research, you will inevitably stumble upon quirky, fun people who existed on the sidelines of whatever your true research subject is. I wholeheartedly encourage writers to take advantage of those people when you find them. Steal them outright. They can often make wonderful minor character additions to a novel.

When it comes to adding your own flair to a historical figure, I think it’s always a balancing act. Samantha, I admire your dedication to historical accuracy, but as you point out, the interpretations we have of historical figures are often contradictory. What then? Well:

Consider how much we really know about the figure

Here’s a simple rule of thumb. The less we know about a historical figure—and the further back in time your novel is set—the more leeway you have. If I wanted to write a novel set in the 1970s hipster art scene and wanted Andy Warhol to play a part, I’d have to learn a heck of a lot about Warhol in order to make sure I got it right. I’d have to make sure he could have been in a certain art gallery on a certain date in 1973, that I capture his voice with some degree of fidelity, et cetera. Conversely, I once wrote a middle-grade adventure novel set in ancient Egypt, where one of the pharaohs plays a role. Now, that was a long time ago, and in terms of the question “what kind of a guy was Pharaoh Khafre?” the answer is “who the heck knows.” I needed him to be a sympathetic figure to the reader, so I made him be a nice guy. A thoughtful ruler who cared about his people. Accurate? Beats me. But since nobody knows one way or the other, you the writer are free to do whatever works for the story.

That last bit, Samantha, is where I think you should focus your concerns. What’s going to work for your story? I mean, if you read two biographies of Henry Ford and one says he loved horses, while the other one says he hated horses and that’s why he went big into automobiles (note: I’m totally making that up), you kind of have to pick one. When historians can’t agree on what somebody was like, why not pick the one that’s going to give you better opportunities for working with that person in your story?

Be smart about who you pick

In line with that, when you have a choice as to which historical figure you place into your book, all else being equal, pick the one we know less about. Maybe your novel is about a working-class woman in the late 1800s who has to make hard choices in order to join the suffragist movement, and your initial idea was that your protagonist would come under Susan B. Anthony’s wing. Fine, but does it have to be her? Why not Abby Kelly Foster, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, or any of the other early women’s rights advocates? Structrually, there’s no reason the story wouldn’t work with those women instead. You may want to think about balancing commercial appeal of having a big-name historical character in your book with the additional leeway you get from using lesser-known figures, but don’t box yourself into using the big-name person just because that’s what you thought of first.

Is what you’re doing with the figure plausible?

Plausibility, in every aspect of every novel, is where so many unpublished manuscripts go wrong. For the portrayal of historical figures in our novels, plausibility about what you have them doing is probably the one thing you can control that has the greatest power to make or break your book. In your Revolutionary War novel, if you’ve got George Washington walking among the half-frozen soldiers at Valley Forge and giving his own boots to a particularly pitiable soldier with freezing feet, yeah, ok. Readers will probably go with you on that. On the other hand, if that same soldier later gets shot—perhaps as a consequence of throwing himself in front of his general to take a bullet for the great leader—and then you have Washington whip out his pocket knife and perform emergency field surgery to remove the bullet and re-inflate the soldier’s collapsed lung, chances are you’ve gone out of bounds.

As a reader, I like to use a two-question litmus test for historical figure plausibility. Question one: Has the writer established that this figure could reasonably be present in the story at this time? Question two: Is the historical figure doing things that are in keeping with my understanding of that person?

If the reader can answer “yes” to both, you’re fine. Usually, this means sticking to normal, unremarkable actions, to things the person really did, and to stuff that’s similar to things the figure really did. That is, don’t turn George Washington into a field surgeon. Unless he was. I don’t know; I haven’t researched him. If you do need to have a historical figure do something really amazing or unexpected, the burden is on you to set it up well ahead of time in order to make it plausible to the reader. Example: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Getting back to Samantha’s concern about “what fits,” I think you have to trust yourself. When you have multiple options that are supported by your research, which work for your story, and which aren’t implausible, just trust yourself. In doing all that research, you’ll have formed your own idea about the historical figure. Who’s to say your interpretation of the person is any less valid than someone else’s? What do you think fits better? Your answer will be guided by who you are as a person, and all the rich history of your own life you bring into your writing. This is why, if you trust yourself to make the right call and honor that decision as you write, it’ll come out well on the page. It will fit because it came from the heart.

Other people will make different choices, but that’s ok. Their choices will fit for them too, because they will be writing a different story than you.

Finally, one last suggestion:

Read the masters

There are countless novels which make use of real historical figures, all in various levels of faithfulness to history. Find some that seem to hit about the same level of authenticity you’re going for, and read them. Your local librarians can be a great help to you there. But don’t just read them for the story. Read them like a forensic novelologist. Pick them apart to see what makes them work, and pay particular attention to the way the writer has portrayed the historical figures. In Stephen King’s epic On Writing, he says something along the lines of “good writers steal from everything they’ve ever read.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. None of us works in a vacuum, and it’s totally fair game to borrow tips and techniques from those who have noveled before you. Here are some of my favorites, just to get you started:

Lamb, by Christopher Moore. Moore has written several books with religious themes, but in Lamb he is at his finest. Lamb is a hilarious, irreverent, and yet at the same time deeply thoughtful and reverent imagined biography of Jesus, aptly subtitled “the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” If you’ve ever wondered what the Son of God did for fun when he was just a kid, this is the book for you. And if you haven’t, well, Moore did and that’s probably why he’s making more money with his writing than you or I are ever likely to. Either way, Lamb is an excellent example of an in-depth portrayal of a famous historical figure about whom everybody knows the same few things, but nobody really knows much about in terms of his day-to-day life.

The Eight, by Katherine Neville. Aside from being a cracking good adventure novel of astonishing breadth, The Eight is an example of touching lightly on a great many famous historical figures, spread across several continents and cultures. Neville certainly did not become stuck in the facts, yet she hews to the images we have of the famous figures of France (and most of Europe, really) to create believability. The Eight is a truly singular book, the magic of which Neville sadly failed to recapture in her sequel The Fire.

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. This book will likely never go out of print, no matter how long in the tooth it might now seem. But, if you’re looking for an example of middle-grade historicals with famous characters, look no further. The portrayal of the famous figures (Paul Revere and some other founding fathers) is exactly in keeping with our stereotypical, larger-than-life images of these people. It’s not nuanced, but I don’t mean that as a criticism; for middle-grade readers who are likely more interested in action and adventure than in subtle questions of the interplay between loyalty to the British Crown versus loyalty to higher moral principles, it’s not a bad way to go at all.

For many more examples—although by no means a complete list, check out the Index of Real People in Works of Fiction. Have your own favorite examples of historical figures in fiction? Share ‘em down in the comments. Just remember to keep the knife out of George’s hand.

August 15, 2010 05:35 UTC

Tags: character, historical figures, fact checking, plausibility

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Using the bystander effect in your novels

Take a look at that picture. What do you see in it? A street scene. Tumbled flats of vegetables, corn, green beans, and what look like cucumbers spilled on the pavement. People walking past. What don’t you see? Anybody lifting a finger to help clean it up. The original picture this one was cropped from has over a dozen people in it, and every one of them is probably thinking something along the lines of “Ooh, glad that’s not my problem.”

That’s the bystander effect. It is the tendency for people to offer less help to strangers the more other people are around. The ironic thing is that if there had been only one other person on the street when this little accident took place, that person would have been much more likely to step in and offer assistance.

Why does it happen?

The reasons behind it are pretty straightforward, and psychologists seem to be of the impression that a number of factors contribute to the bystander effect. One is “diffusion of responsibility” (don’t you just love the fancy names psychologists come up with for everything?): not doing anything because you figure surely someone else will. Another is social proof: when confronted with an emergency situation, people’s initial reaction is to look around to see how other people are responding in order to decide how to respond. So everyone looks around, and sees everyone else also just looking around—that is, not doing anything because they’re also busy making the same internal assessment—and decides that the situation must not be all that serious. A third is uncertainty and fear, not being confident of one’s ability to actually help, or to help in a way that the help-ee will actually appreciate. These are all pretty normal feelings, but they all add up to folks not helping other folks as much as we might hope.

So what can you do with it in your novels? Three things, which revolve around the different roles present in these kinds of situations:


As I’ve counseled many times before, it’s good to do bad things to your main characters, so your poor protagonists may well be the ones in a scene who would like some help.

If you’re writing in an intimate point of view, either first person or third-person limited, then the POV character is the stand-in for the reader. This creates a wonderful opportunity to create reader empathy: Let the POV character need help, but not get any. Let any bystanders in the scene, well, stand by. If you portray the POV character’s need for help as well as his or her growing sense of desperation as nobody steps up to offer that help, you can really put readers on the edge of their seats. Basically, by giving readers enough information to understand that the emergency situation really is an emergency—that help is genuinely needed—they’ll be just as frustrated at the useless bystanders as your POV character.

This can work really well in an opening scene, as a means for quickly bonding the reader to your POV characters in order that the reader cares what happens to them. You need to be careful not to let your POV characters be so utterly helpless and pathetic that readers can’t root for them—which probably means letting your characters solve their own problems after failing to get help from anybody else—but it can be a great way to create a character-based hook for a novel.

Useless bystander

On the flip-side, you might put a POV character into the useless bystander role. Why might you do this? Because it works well in the early chapters of novels that are driven by inner character arcs as a way to drive home the character’s starting point. When you have a character who is going to experience some kind of inner growth as the story progresses, you need a way to show that they are presently in an emotionally blocked or stunted state. Showing that POV character being unable to render aid and assistance can achieve this.

Be careful, though; there is an obvious danger. It’s easy for readers to decide they don’t like a character who sees someone in need but decides not to help. The way around this pitfall is to make sure the reader understands two things: why the POV character cannot help, and that the POV character feels bad about it. You have to let the reader into the character’s head enough to see the character’s internal debate over whether to help, enough to help the reader understand the choice not to, and enough to see that despite that choice the character would have liked to help. Show us the character’s impulses towards helping, and the counter-impulses against helping. If you show us the struggle, we’re more likely to feel positively towards the character even though the character’s better nature loses.

Which is kind of the point. It’s that very self-defeat by one’s own inner demons that sets the stage for the book’s inner character arc.


Lastly, of course, there’s the hero. The bystander who doesn’t merely stand by, but in fact goes to the aid of the person in need. If you’re writing some kind of action/adventure book, you’re in very good company by using this technique to build up your character as a heroic figure. How many books have we seen that involve some variant on POV characters rescuing kittens from trees, chasing down muggers in order to return an old lady’s purse, et cetera? It’s common, because it works, but I caution you to be careful here, too.

The common-ness of this technique pushes it dangerously close to cliche territory. Further, it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with an implausibly melodramatic result. That’s fine, if you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek superhero novel or something, but most of the time it damages the reader’s belief in the character. I mean, sure, real life does have its selfless heroes who, without hesitation, run into burning buildings or dive into flood-swollen rivers to save other people.

But most novels need something a little more tame in order for readers to believe in the character as a real person, and that something is exactly what those real-life heroes don’t have: hesitation. Again, it’s all about letting the reader into the character’s head. For my money, you get a much more believable and sympathetic hero if you show the character’s internal debate about helping. The only difference between the hero, then, and the useless bystander is which side of the character’s personality wins the debate. So let us see the character asking himself, “Does that person really need help? Should I jump in? The character is a proxy for the reader here, too, so it’s very helpful to show the character asking himself the same kinds of questions readers would be asking themselves in that situation.

Then, all you need is something to break that internal logjam in favor of acting. It could be anything. Empathy for the victim because the hero suffered a similar problem in the past isn’t bad, if a little cliched still. For male POV character’s, there’s always the allure of playing the hero in order to impress a girl. That always works. But my favorite reason to jump in is frustration at not seeing anybody else jump in. You take the POV character from seeing the situation and thinking “gosh, somebody should really help that person,” to wondering “why is nobody helping?” and finally to “Dammit! I guess I’ll help, then!”


So, there you go. The bystander effect, and three ways to make it work for you in your novels. I’m curious to know, is this something you’ve used in your novels before? Is it something that could help your current work-in-progress? Tell us about it down in the comments!

August 03, 2010 21:34 UTC

Tags: character, bystander effect, victim, hero, sympathy, inner character arc

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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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How to part a fool from his money

Money, the root of all evil, plays a large role in more books than probably anyone can name. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that I’m hard pressed to think of any book at all which doesn’t involve money at all. At the very least, practically every book involves someone buying or selling something. Maybe it’s only a pack of gum, but still, money plays a role. Did William Golding’s Lord of the Flies involve money anywhere? Maybe that’s one example, but it has been so long since I read it I wouldn’t swear to that. Somebody refresh my memory.

Why you might take your protagonist’s money away

Anyway, money is everywhere in our stories, which is great for writers because of two things. One, as the saying goes, “when in doubt, make things worse.” That is, when your book feels like it’s starting to sag and you’re not sure how to raise the drama back up, you can do no better than to dump some new problems on your protagonist. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could plausibly happen to him right now?” and do that. A great option might just be to part your protagonist from his cash. If he needs the money for something later (and who doesn’t?), that becomes a great obstacle.

Two, consider de-funding your protagonist for something I blogged about a long time ago, why you should steal your character’s shoes. The idea there is a bit different than merely creating an obstacle. You can read the whole article, but in brief, the strategy isn’t so much to create actual problems for your protagonist as it is to create what the character thinks are problems but really aren’t. The goal is to strip away everything the character thinks she needs but which are really just conveniences, leaving her with only what she actually needs: a willingness to pursue the goal no matter what. Viewed in that light, stripping your character of all her money might seem like an enormous problem for her at first, but upon later reflection, she can realize that money isn’t actually necessary for getting the job done. Useful, maybe, but not necessary. There’s lots of great drama in that.

How to take your protagonist’s money away

You could be blunt about it: simply rob the character at gunpoint, or burn down the house in which all his money is stashed. That would work, but in my view it’s kind of bland. I think the drama and opportunities for character development are ever so much better if you let it be at least partly the character’s fault that he loses all his money. Here, then, are three common mistakes in thinking, perception, and judgment which relate to people and their money. Perhaps one of these money-loss reasons would fit well with your plot.

The denomination effect. This relates to poor money management skills. The idea here is that people tend to spend more money in total if presented with many opportunities to spend small amounts of money than they will if presented with just a few opportunities to make larger purchases. This makes intuitive sense; most of us would think long and hard before choosing to spend a thousand dollars on a sweet new digital camera with all the bells and whistles. Yet few people think anything at all about spending two or three dollars a day on their morning latte, which over the course of a year, adds up to about the same. And over the course of the lifetime of the camera (which for a thousand bucks had better be more than a year!), the camera comes out way ahead versus the lattes. So one option is simply to let your character be the sort of person who makes a lot of small, impulse purchases that lead to an unfortunate shortage of cash at some point when they really need it.

The gambler’s fallacy. Like the name says, this relates directly to gambling, whether through casino-style games of chance or playing the stock market or even investing in real estate. Any time you have a character putting up money against the hope that a future event will break their way, the gambler’s fallacy can come into play. The fallacy itself is when a person gets the feeling or comes to believe that a fundamentally unlikely event is more likely to happen at a particular time simply because it hasn’t happened for a while. Note, too, there’s usually some selection bias involved as well: we only think this way about unlikely events that would be beneficial to us.

In gambling, what happens is that players will keep putting quarters into that slot machine, losing on every pull, but with every loss becoming more confident that surely the next pull will have to come up triple-cherries because “it’s bound to happen eventually.” Or in craps, making bet after bet in the face of continual losses because double-sixes “are due” to happen any time now. Well, no. They’re not. Unless the dice are loaded, double-sixes aren’t “due” at all. Each throw is independent of the last, and no amount of data about past throws tells you a darned thing about what might happen on the next throw.

You can see the pattern. In your novels, to bring the gambler’s fallacy into play you must first subject the character to a sequence of losses leading them to believe that they’re “due to win one.” Maybe they’ve made a series of bad real estate investments, each of which may have made sense at the time, but which turned out badly for one reason or another. “Just bad luck,” your character might think. But knowing that real estate prices do tend to rise over the long run, the character might fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve been playing the market long enough that “prices have got to start going back up soon,” and so might go all-in with their remaining money on one last deal.

Extraordinarity bias: This one relates to people’s tendency to over-value anything which is perceived to have something special about it, however intangible that special quality may be. How do you get a kid to trade a cow for a handful of beans? Convince him they’re special, extraordinary, magic beans. Of course, being a fairy tale the beans really were magic, but the point remains: Jack would never have made the trade except for his belief in the extraordinarity of the beans.

More prosaically, show a sports memorabilia collector two basically identical baseballs, but tell him “the one on the left once belonged to Joe DiMaggio’s cousin. Who knows, Joe may once have held this very ball! The one on the right I bought at Walmart this morning.” If you ask the person which baseball is more valuable, it’s not hard to guess which one he’ll pick.

Similarly, those home shopping channels on cable TV make relentless use of extraordinarity bias in everything they sell: the reason the announcers fill the air time telling you that the diamond chips in these fabulous 12-karat gold plated earrings came all the way from South Africa is to create the perception that there’s something special—something extraordinary—about these particular earrings versus ones you might find at any mass market jewelry store. Never mind that South Africa is where an enormous fraction of the world’s diamonds come from anyway, and as such aren’t any more or less remarkable than any other diamonds in the world.

For fleecing characters of their money, this one has got to be my favorite error in judgment because it is the basis on which a lot of confidence schemes work. The con artist gets someone to believe that a perfectly ordinary, relatively valueless item is in fact somehow very special, and as such, worth a lot of money. Think about your character’s background and interests, and figure out what kind of cheap garbage a con artist could use to dupe him. What’s the baseball, as it were, to your character’s equivalent of collecting sports memorabilia? I love this one because the character ends up broke, with nothing to show for it but a worthless trinket, because he let himself get duped.

How embarassing! The great thing for the novelist, though, is that not only does the con itself create a great moment in your novel, but you can very easily use it as an excellent turning point for the character. If you’re still early in the book when it’s appropriate for things to be getting worse and worse, maybe the act of getting duped undermines the character’s confidence, and leads to a series of poor choices based on not trusting himself anymore and second-guessing himself at every turn. Or, if it’s late in the book, the act of getting duped might have the opposite effect of steeling the character’s resolve to win through anyway.

Money is everywhere

I suspect most of us have something of a love/hate relationship with money. We love what it can do for us, but we hate how hard we have to work to get it. Your characters may well feel the same way, at least initially, but I guarantee if you cause the character to lose all of his or her money, you’ll make that character’s feelings about money suddenly much more complex and interesting. In any event, money is everywhere, in real life and in our novels. Rather than trying to fight it or gloss over it in your story, I hope these tips give you some ideas for how to work with it to improve the depth and layered complexity of your novel.

July 02, 2010 05:21 UTC

Tags: character, money, obstacles, denomination effect, gambler's fallacy, extraordinarity bias

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How settings make or break your characters

You want to know how powerful a well established setting is? It’s so powerful that when badly done, it can break the reader’s belief in the actions of your characters. Ultimately a weakly developed setting can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the whole novel. But when well done, a setting supports the believability of even the most unusual behaviors of your characters.

This article applies mainly to novels with unusual settings, ones that alter the bedrock truths about life here in the 21st century that we all take for granted. That’s what I mean by an unusual setting. This can happen in any genre, although it is most often a factor in fantasy and science fiction.

And fair warning: this article may seem less about character development than my usual fare. This is only because it’s impossible to untangle characters from the settings that are the foundation on which the character’s whole life rests. Almost nothing has as much influence on how your characters behave as the setting. If that seems like a strong statement, read on.

Settings have rules

Since all of this ultimately relates to suspension of disbelief, let’s take a second to talk about the non-character-related ways to break the reader’s belief in an unusual setting. For purposes of this article, let’s take our setting as something very different from our own day-to-day world: A sci-fi Mars colony, 25 years after the colony has been established, but based on the technology we have today. I’m purposely choosing an extreme setting to show how far authors can—and should—take the business of settings.

Settings have rules, which have to make sense in and of themselves with respect to the reader’s general knowledge, intuition, and common sense. For instance, here’s a rule that is true for Mars: “Mars is an astonishingly dry place.” With today’s technology, colonists certainly won’t have been able to change the Martian climate in only 25 years, so consequently you would be unwise to stick this in your novel:

McCann opened his eyes to a gray, rainy day. “Oh, fabulous,” he muttered as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.

“Quit griping,” said his billet-mate Shariz. “At least it’ll wash the dust off the hab.”

You can’t get away with this because you made it rain on mars. You violated the rules readers will assume a reasonable Mars colony setting ought to have to follow. If you stick this scene in your novel, the reader’s going to think “This joker doesn’t know the first thing about Mars!” and will lose faith in you to tell a believable story. Although if I’m to believe what I wrote back in January (and I suppose I should), even this is kind of character-related too.

Settings affect characters

If I had to sum up this whole article in three words, that would be it. Settings affect characters. Seems obvious, right? Well, it is, but that doesn’t stop writers from forgetting it all the time. Or rather, I suspect what happens is that the author forgets what his setting is from time to time. I know that sounds impossible—how could you forget your setting?—but it does happen.

Settings may be quite outlandish, but the characters in them are still just people. They’re still driven by the same fundamental emotions, impulses, and desires as those of us who live right here on Earth in the 21st century. My suspicion is that authors get caught up in the familiarity of ordinary people, and lose sight of how their particular ordinary people—the ones in their books—are supposed to be affected by the setting. As a result, they end up with characters who think and act in ways that are perfectly normal and believable here on Earth, today, but which violate the expectations one would have for characters in a different setting.

When you hear people talk about books or movies where “the setting is like a character in its own right,” this is what they’re trying to put into words: that the setting has indeed affected the actual characters in accordance with whatever rules go along with that setting. Characters thus have a relationship with the setting as much as they do with other characters.

How to get it right

When you elect to use an unusual setting, you’re taking on some extra up-front work compared with normal-world novelists. You have to borrow a page out of Einstein’s book and do a “thought experiment” about life in your setting. You need to spend some time to figure out what all the explicit and implicit rules of your setting are, and from them, deduce what makes sense for how your characters would live, what they would eat, how they would govern themselves, et cetera.

A good place to start is by making a list of how your setting differs from our real life setting. “It’s like here, but gravity is weaker, there’s barely any air or water, all you have is what you brought from Earth, and instead of six billion people on the planet there are only 54, and they all live together.” If you feel it’s necessary, you might make a list of what’s the same, too. If any of your items relate to people, make them about people generally, not about the specific characters you may have in mind for your story. It’s not time to think about the story yet, not before you’ve got the setting firmly fixed in your mind.

Once you’ve got a handle on what’s the same and what’s different, you’re ready to do the thought experiment. Let’s take those Mars colonists as an example, and let’s offer the further twist that our colonists have been completely cut off from Earth; perhaps a super-virus spread on Earth after the colony was established, wiping out Earth civilization, meaning there will be no future supply ships or new colonists.

Consider the mundane

On some level food, water, and shelter are boring, but you can’t skip them. In fact, you should start your thought experiment with these essentials because if these are missing, it totally re-focuses people’s attention on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the case of Mars, air can’t be taken for granted either. Still, people don’t like spending their days obsessing over how they’re going to meet these basic needs, and as a result, people tend to organize their lives so as to make this as easy as possible.

You need to consider, within the parameters of your setting, how people are going to keep the bottom of the hierarchy satisfied. Our Mars colonists are going to have to grow their own food. They’re going to have to be fanatical about recycling water and, well, let’s just call it “organic matter.” They will have brought some shelter with them, whatever kind of prefab habitats came on the colony ship, but that’s about it.

Even stuff like the reality of clothes and garbage within this setting, entirely mundane to be sure, have enormous impact on your characters. The colonists will have brought clothes with them, and certainly some quantity of replacements, but that’s it. They can’t just make more at the drop of a hat, nor can they pop ‘round to The Gap to pick up some new khakis. So, taking care of one’s clothes becomes much more important than it is here on Earth. Mundane, yes, but it sure raises the stakes when somebody spills coffee on somebody else’s shirt.

Mars colonists probably wouldn’t even have the concept of garbage. If all you have is what you brought with you from Earth, even a ripped up, coffee stained, sweat pitted old shirt is still going to be a resource. Somebody, somewhere, is going to find a use for it. In a Mars colony, nothing gets thrown away.

Consider social norms

These physical realities around the necessities of life, clothes, garbage, and so forth all shape social behaviors. Those realities dictate how the society within which your characters live conceives of what is acceptable, normal, and even right or wrong.

Our Mars colonists, by necessity, will be hard core recyclers. If somebody dies, the funeral will end with putting the person’s body into the compost heap to be spread around in the gardens, or maybe pureed to be put into the colony’s hydroponics system. To you and me this may seem disrespectful of the dead, or even ghoulish, but to them it’s simply a necessity. Besides, it’s not like they have anywhere else to put the body.

The lack of ready access to new clothes, on the one hand, might mean people would be super paranoid about caring for their clothes. Certainly in the initial years after a colony’s establishment, when social norms from Earth are still engrained in people’s minds, that would be true. But on the other hand, the colony’s dome city or whatever is bound to be 100% climate controlled, kept at a balmy late spring temperature with perfect humidity all the time. That being the case, it’s not like the colonists really need to wear clothes. And as the years go by and clothes wear out, well, maybe it would just be easier to go around naked all the time.

But, on the other-other hand, other forces might oppose casual nudity: The fact that the colonists have extremely limited food, water, air, and space means that they can’t just go around having babies willy-nilly (no pun intended). Procreation would, again by necessity, have to be severely governed. China has a “one child per family” policy; Mars colonists might have a “one child per funeral” policy—nobody gets to be pregnant unless someone else dies to make room. Severe restraints on procreation could lead to highly regulated interactions between men and women. They might even start enforcing gender segregation within the colony to limit the interactions between men and women, and thus, the chances for unapproved pregnancies.

Or take it further: if the colonists know there won’t be any more settlers from Earth because of the super-virus, then it becomes critically important for these colonists to preserve their genetic diversity. This means that when the opportunity for somebody to get pregnant does come up, there will probably be an official colony geneticist whose job it is to decide who the parents will be.

Perhaps, in a society where these are the realities of life, the notion of love and marriage, of loving partnership, would become entirely divorced from the notion of parenthood: You wouldn’t get married because you wanted to have a family with someone. You wouldn’t even expect necessarily to have a family with that person. But you would expect that, at some point, you or your spouse might get a visit from the geneticist saying “I need you go to inseminate (or be inseminated by) so-and-so.” And whether you liked so-and-so or hated their guts would have no bearing on the situation.

Setting equals society

It goes on and on. The more different your setting is from real life, the more that setting changes the way society itself operates. For instance, what do you do if somebody commits a crime? If you have a murder within the colony (hardly unexpected, with the same people cooped up in close quarters year after year), what do you do? How do you punish the killer when there’s no prison to send them to, and you can’t execute them since you need everyone working for the colony’s survival.

That’s what setting does. It determines a great, great deal of the way societies are forced to act. Maybe your setting isn’t so extreme, but I guarantee you, whatever it is about your setting that makes it different from the setting in which you live your own life, that difference will shape the society in which your characters live.

I should note, this thought-experiment process for identifying the ramifications of an unusual setting in fantasy and sci-fi is not all that different from what many writers in other genres do. In novels set in historical time periods novels or in contemporary but exotic parts of the world, the realities of those settings shaped their societies just like a sci-fi Mars colony setting shapes its society. The only difference is that writers whose settings really do or did exist on Earth can do research to learn how the setting actually did shape a society, while fantasy and sci-fi writers have to think it through themselves.

That’s the bottom line. Whether you do it by research or by imagination, you must somehow arrive at a clear mental picture of a society grounded in the immutable factors of human psychology and behavior, but which is also perfectly attuned to the realities of its physical setting. It is this society in which your characters live, so you better know how it works.

Where writers fall down

What I’ve seen in client manuscripts (and the occasional published novel) is writers who haven’t done the necessary work to put this clear mental picture into their own heads before they figure out their plot and before they start writing down what their characters are doing and how they’re reacting.

This is why careful character development is so critical. You have to know how all of your characters think and act—this is the controlled multiple-personalities of writers—but never forget that how your characters think and act is equally determined by their personalities as by the society they live in. And as we just saw, society is a function of setting.

Get it right, and your characters’ non-Earthlike behaviors are not only completely believable but also support the reality of the setting itself. Get it wrong, and behaviors that would be totally believable here on Earth become suddenly nonsensical and collapse the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the setting too.

It doesn’t work to let your characters act like you or I would, based on the rules of modern Earth culture, while living in a setting that is dramatically unlike our modern world. It just falls flat. As a reader, it’s impossible to maintain my suspension of disbelief about the story as a whole when the characters don’t act in ways that are congruous with the explicit and implicit rules of their settings.

Pit your characters against the setting’s rules

So if you want to write a sci-fi romance set on Mars, go for it! But make sure everyone’s behavior is in keeping with the behaviors that make sense—that are necessary—given the realities of the setting. It may mean that the plot you had in mind doesn’t actually work. It may be that the plot you intended turns out to be grounded in modern Earth behaviors that wouldn’t make sense on Mars. Chances are, this will initially come as a disappointment to you.

But trust me, it’s actually a good thing, because it means you’re discovering what Donald Maass calls inherent conflict in your premise: maybe your star-crossed lovers can’t hook up because the very non-Earthlike rules around love and romance in that colony don’t allow it. If that’s what you discover, don’t fight it. Work with it! Readers will love watching your characters explore the tension between their emotional drive to be together and the colony’s overall greater good of keeping the population in check.

When they’re well done—when the characterization lives up to the explicit and implicit rules of the setting—stories that pit characters against the settings they live in can be fascinating both for the plots they contain as well as for their ability to explore human behavior in inventive new situations.

June 29, 2010 20:15 UTC

Tags: character, setting, society, inherent conflict, Donald Maass, suspension of disbelief

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Why smart characters make dumb mistakes


There are times in our novels when we need our characters to make mistakes. After all, they’re only human. There are lots of good reasons for letting our characters screw up. Characters who are perfect are boring to read. Mistakes tend to make a character’s situation worse, which heightens the drama and tension in your story. A sudden mistake can make readers gasp in alarm, while a mistake the reader sees coming but the character doesn’t can make readers laugh or cringe.

The question is, how can you get away with your otherwise smart characters doing dumb things? For our protagonists and antagonists, especially, we often work hard to create an impression of intelligence and capability, which clashes with the very idea of making mistakes. Fortunately, there are patterns to the ways in which regular people (even the smart ones) make mistakes. There are dozens of such patterns, but here are three you might draw on when looking for a good reason why your smart protagonist might do something dumb.

The bandwagon effect

This is more classically known as your mother asking you “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” The fact is, the world is a complicated place, and taking the time to deeply evaluate the wisdom of everything we might consider doing would just take too long. One of the shortcuts we use to make decisions without all the bothersome evaluation is to use other people’s behavior as a proxy for the evaluation. If we see two restaurants side by side, and only one has a line of people at the door waiting to get in, we’re likely to conclude that one is the better of the two restaurants.

But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an awful grease-pit, about to be shut down by the health department, but the owners decided to go out with a bang by holding a “5-cent beer night” special and putting up flyers all over the local college campus. That’s the bandwagon effect in action. Or, taking up smoking because the people at your job all seem to smoke. Or putting all your money into tulip bulbs, silver, or sub-prime mortgages without regard to the underlying strength of those investments.

The bandwagon effect can be quite powerful, and can readily overwhelm rational decision making with emotional decision making. You see a bunch of other people doing something, and you start to think there must be some sense to it. Or worse, you may start to think that you are missing out on whatever it is all those other people know.

For certain types of “going along with the crowd” mistakes, see if there’s a crowd you can create in your novel that you could use to sucker your protagonist into a bad decision.

Isolation effect

This is when you confuse the ease of remembering an instance of an event of some particular type with the actual likelihood of that kind of event happening. That is, our gut feeling as to whether something is relatively likely or unlikely to happen has more to do with whether we can easily remember experiencing or hearing about that kind of event.

Like the lottery. Even simple mathematical analysis shows the lottery to be, as a friend of mine in college once said, “a tax on people who are bad at math.” But when we think about the lottery, what comes to mind are the news stories about ordinary people winning millions of dollars. Our mind is filled with memories of winning events, highly positive outcomes, but is not filled with a statistically appropriate number of losing events. That is, the millions of people who don’t win the lottery every single week, fail to make it onto the evening news.

It works for bad events, too. Like terrorism. Everyone can easily remember instances of terrorism, like the 9/11 attacks. From a coldly logical, mathematical perspective, such events are incredibly rare. But not one of us who was old enough to understand what was happening on September 11, 2001, is ever going to forget that event. It’s so easy to remember that it can cause people to vastly over-estimate the chances that it’ll happen again, just like it did before. As a result, some people won’t go into a high rise building now because they’re afraid the building will get hit by a plane, despite the fact that they have vastly greater chances of dying from things they do every day. Like crossing the street.

If you need your character to make an irrational decision, consider putting an emotionally significant effect into the character’s backstory (one that will be easy for the character to remember), that would bias the character away from the sensible choice. Maybe your character witnesses a crime, and the smart thing to do is report it to the police. But that would mess up your whole plot; you need the character to avoid going to the police. You could put some kind of bad police experience into the character’s backstory. Maybe when the character was a kid, his dad had a similar experience, and did report the crime to the cops, who then ended up treating him as a suspect too. Maybe the cops showed up at the dad’s place of business, asking a bunch of baseless and embarrassing questions, which caused the dad to lose his job and the family to lose their home. A character with this backstory might well fall sway to the isolation effect and, by over-estimating the risk of being falsely accused, choose not to go to the cops.

Confirmation bias

This is the tendency to interpret new information in support of what you already believe. Rationally, we should look at new information to see whether it more strongly supports or contradicts what we believe. Or whether it supports something we don’t believe. But what people actually do, most of the time, is to try to construct a scenario in which new information bolsters existing beliefs. Sometimes, people can tie themselves all in knots, inventing the most bizarre rationalizations by which to harmonize what they believe with contradictory evidence.

For example, let’s say one evening you get it into your head that now is a good time to refinance your house, because you were flipping channels and caught a bit of some pundit show on cable news where some nicely dressed and serious looking guy said “...and so people might think about refinancing.” Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t; you’ll have to do the math to really know. But let’s say that the next morning you turn on the news and hear that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went down by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, lower rates, that guy last night was right! I’m going to call the bank right now!” On the other hand, let’s say the morning news instead told you that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went up by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, rates are going up! I’d better call the bank now, before they go up too much!” That’s confirmation bias.

One of the great things about confirmation bias for novelists is that it works so very well with ambiguous information. Which, let’s face it, is about 99% of what we encounter in our lives. Practically everything is subject to interpretation. Where this really shines as a great tool for novelists is in those situations where you have a character on the brink of making a bad decision, and you need something to push them over the edge. That is, you’ve put the idea into the character’s head already. You’ve built up an emotional drive towards that action, but the character can’t quite commit to it because on some level they may know it’s a bad idea. If that sounds like your situation, drop some kind of ambiguous evidence at the character’s feet, and let them interpret it (or misinterpret it) in support of the emotional decision they already want to make.

I use this all the time in situations where I find myself saying to my characters “I need you to such-and-such, but you’re ordinarily too clever to make that kind of mistake.” Confirmation bias is a great way to dupe your characters without destroying the reader’s sense of the character’s general intelligence and sensibility. The other totally fun thing you can do with confirmation bias (depending on your book’s POV) is to let the reader believe something different than the character, so that the reader interprets the ambiguous evidence in the opposite way as the character, and yet, the reader can still understand why the character makes that wrong choice.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention by way of example, the novel Huge, by James Fuerst. I reviewed this book some months ago here for its wonderful characters and enormously hilarious story and style, but the protagonist’s journey in Huge is the most textbook perfect application of confirmation bias as I can recall ever having read. If you really want to see what a novelist can do with confirmation bias, don’t just read my dinky little blog. Go read that book.

June 26, 2010 04:03 UTC

Tags: character, mistakes, bandwagon effect, isolation effect, confirmation bias, Huge, James Fuerst

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Five more ways to create sympathetic characters

Some while back, I wrote a couple of articles on creating sympathetic characters; one about emotion and another one about stakes. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to do a third article with some more specific, hands-on strategies for creating sympathetic characters. Today is that day.

But first a bit of context, because like everything in narrative writing, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Sympathy arises from the conclusions readers draw about your characters’ personalities based on what you show the characters doing. This includes everything that is observable to the reader: characters’ actions, their dialogue, their inner monologue if you’re into that kind of thing, the way they treat other characters, the choices they make.

All the stuff you show in the narrative does the work of telling the reader what kind of people your characters are, so you don’t have to. That is, you shouldn’t ever have to write “Stanley was a prince among men,” or words to that effect, because Stanley’s observable actions and so forth should make that clear. So keep that in mind: everything else in this article relates to stuff you can show for the specific purpose of helping readers sympathize with your characters.

Use humor

People like funny people, and readers like funny characters. Few things make people more readily comfortable with one another than as good natured humor. To this end, you can show your character being funny, cracking jokes or making witty comments. You can show your character having a humorous outlook on life, finding humor in unusual places, or even resorting to humor as a coping mechanism when situations get particularly grim—sometimes you have to laugh to keep from falling into a complete panic. You can also show your character readily laughing at themselves, rather than taking themselves too seriously.

These are all reactions that, in real people, tend to put us at ease with one another. Jokes, witticisms, and wry commentary give us mirth. Humor in the face of danger is certainly easier to get along with than panic. (Would you want to be stuck in a foxhole with a soldier who was laughing in the face of death, or one who was having a total freak-out meltdown?) A person who easily laughs at himself is someone we aren’t likely to offend easily, which allows us to be more relaxed around him as well. If it works in life, it works in fiction.

Use Admiration

Humor works great for creating sympathy among social peers, but when you need to create sympathy for a character who is inherently more aloof or is intentionally not humorous, admiration may be the ticket. The strategy here is to show that character being masterful at some non-trivial skill. We all tend to admire people who are very, very good at what they do. They may suck at everything else (witness sympathetic jerks like Dr. House), but we can still admire their hard-won skills and root for them on that basis.

This can work in almost any book, because chances are there is some reason relating to skills why that character is your protagonist. You gave the character special skills for some specific purpose relating to the plot. Build on those to create sympathy by showing those skills in action. Even better is when you can show those skills used in unexpected ways but to great effect. MacGyver is probably the most obvious example there.

The Golden Rule

This one is kind of obvious: if you want people to like your character, show the character being a kind to others. I suspect that’s rather self-explanatory, so I won’t belabor it. Rather, I’ll talk about the danger of misusing the Golden Rule.

Human beings (which, never forget, includes your readers) are keenly sensitive in terms of reading the motivations behind people’s actions. If we see a person doing something nice for someone else, we don’t usually have trouble determining whether the action is sincere or disingenuous. Whether the action comes from the heart, or comes via some ulterior motive. For example, when we see politicians kissing babies in a crowd or filling sandbags at the site of a flooding river, we can be pretty sure they are motivated at least in part by the presence of TV cameras in the vicinity. We all know politicians are drawn to photo-ops like bees to honey.

In novels, the Golden Rule fails when you toss in scenes of overt kindness that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Readers spot the photo-op scene immediately. I found a scene in a client’s novel once where, for no particular reason I could determine, the protagonist suddenly went to the children’s ward at the hospital to bring balloons and ice cream to the sick kiddies. So by all means use the Golden Rule (I wish more people did so in real life!), but for it to be convincing, acts of kindness need to have some plausible connection to the greater context of the scene they’re in or the plot at large, they have to be in proportion to the situation, and there shouldn’t seem to be anything in it for the character other than perhaps someone else’s thanks and appreciation.

Oh, and you have to do it consistently. The ice cream scene in that book was basically the only selfless, nice thing that character did for anybody else in the whole book. A one-time act of kindness does not earn your character a free pass on sympathy for the rest of the book.

"Glad it’s not me!"

You can also trigger readers’ sympathy by being cruel to your characters. Visit upon them misfortunes they don’t deserve. Show bad things happening to your characters, not only so we can see how they rise to the occasion, but also for sympathy. Think about every time you’ve ever driven past another motorist who has been stopped by the police, especially when you notice you’re a few miles-per-hour over the speed limit yourself: some part of you is feeling bad for the other driver’s misfortune while feeling lucky that it wasn’t you.

Make their job harder

Whatever the major story goal is that a character wants to achieve, you can add more sympathy by doing something to the character that makes their job harder. Give them some kind of handicap in that pursuit. It could be a literal, physical handicap: a marathon racer who tears a ligament. It could be an emotional handicap, like fear of needles for someone who has to get some immunizations before traveling overseas on a business trip. It could be a resource handicap, such as trying to get through college while being dirt poor. It could be a skill handicap, like being stranded after having all their stuff stolen in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language.

Whatever situation your character is in, whatever goal they have in a specific scene or for the whole book, see if there’s something you can change about the character (either inwardly or outwardly) that would make the goal harder to achieve. There usually is, and it’s always a great way to add believable sympathy.


The reader’s sympathy doesn’t come for free. You do have to work for it. Fortunately, creating sympathetic characters isn’t as hard as a lot of things in novel-craft. There are lots of ways to create it, and for the most part, readers want to sympathize with your characters anyway. They’re predisposed to do so, and probably will if you give any kind of decent effort at portraying your characters sympathetically.

And one more tip: these tips work for your book’s villains, too...

June 22, 2010 20:21 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, show don't tell

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Why stakes work

Sure, the view is great, but why would anybody go to all the bother of building a castle up there? Can you imagine how long it must have taken to haul all those stone blocks up the mountain on donkey carts or whatever? I mean, seriously—put an observation deck up there and build a staircase if you want the view, but why build a whole castle up there? Must have cost a fortune!

No doubt it did. So why do it? Why build a mountaintop castle there in picturesque San Marino, and why do it on hundreds of other peaks scattered across Europe? Why not build your castle somewhere more convenient?

Because what’s mine is mine

There’s one simple reason. Defense. Mountaintop fortresses are much harder to conquer than fortresses down on the flats, which if you’re considering where to build your castle during medieval Europe, when the wars never ceased and national borders shifted faster than mapmakers could keep up, is a major selling point.

Trust me, we’ll see what this has to do with the stakes in our novels in a minute. The point is, build your stronghold on a mountaintop, collect all your wealth (what’s left after building the castle, anyway) and power there, and you’re much more likely to keep somebody from taking it away from you.

Gain versus loss

What’s mine is mine, so the saying goes, and what’s true for kings is true for commoners: people will generally put a lot more effort into keeping what they have than in obtaining something they don’t have. Behavioral economists call this “divestiture aversion” or alternately “the endowment effect,” although I quite prefer the latter for its obvious double-entendre possibilities. I swear. Only a bunch of behavioral economists could suggest a name like that with a straight face.


The endowment effect can play out in grandiose castles or in more subtle ways. British traffic enforcement assigns you “penalty points” when you get caught speeding and so forth. But the Italians do it the other way around: they start you out with 12 points and take them away for traffic infractions, because subconsciously the urge to preserve your points is a stronger motivator to follow the rules.

Why does it work?

I can’t say for sure why people act this way, but intuitively, we understand that they do. Our language even reflects it through phrases such as “what’s mine is mine,” and its implied counterpart “don’t you dare try to take it.”

Personally, I think it has to do with emotional attachment. We become attached to the things we have. Material things—stuff we have earned by the sweat of our brow, things we have been given by loved ones, or simply things we’ve had for so long they become part of the fabric of our lives. Abstract things—our sense of identity, legal and political freedoms, our physical abilities. And of course, other people through their relationships to us.

Put in slightly different terms, if you break the “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug my kids gave me, it isn’t sufficient recompense to buy me an identical mug. You can’t replace the emotional attachment I had to the original mug. Although the two mugs may be identical, the one my kids gave me has a higher value to me, because of the emotional attachment, than a new one fresh from the store.

If someone cares to do some MRI scans or something, I’d almost bet money that this effect stems from the more ancient parts of our brains, the ones that are also responsible for parenting instincts. The instinct to value our children more highly than anything else and protect them even up to our own deaths is deeply rooted in biology and survival of the species. To me, it’s not a great stretch to imagine our shiny new neo-cortexes generalizing this parenting instinct towards everything we consider to be ours.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Using the endowment effect in your novels

Ok, here we go, and you’ll be glad you stuck with this article because there’s plenty you can do with it.

Create a strong emotional motivation for action. You ever get stuck in your novel, knowing that a character needs to do something—say, stand up to her heartless and insensitive boss—but you can’t figure out a plausible reason why she’d do it? Use the endowment effect. Link the action you want her to take to the defense of something she owns or hold dear, and you’ve got it. The thing she holds dear becomes additional stakes pushing her towards doing what you need her to do.

For example, maybe your heroine works at an ad agency that’s doing a pro-bono work for a women’s shelter fundraiser. Her boss doesn’t care, since it’s not for a big account client, and wants to simply recycle a similar ad campaign from ten years ago. You need your character to say “No! That’s not good enough. That ad won’t play today and you know it!” But why would she do it?

Let’s go big-stakes: What if her sister’s staying at that shelter, having only narrowly escaped from drug addiction and a violent husband? And what if the shelter is running on a shoestring, and needs a big take from the fundraiser in order to pay off their creditors and stay in operation? If the fundraising campaign fails, your protagonist might lose her sister: the sister would be turned out on the street, and might well slip back into her old life, complete with drugs and abusive husband. Only this time, she might not survive.

Under those circumstances, wouldn’t she fight hard to do whatever she could to keep her sister off the streets? You bet she would. And if that means standing up to her boss and demanding that they put as much effort into the fundraiser promotions as they would for a national brand ad campaign, then by god that’s what she’ll do!

That’s perhaps a melodramatic example, but you get the picture: if inaction threatens to cause the loss of something a character values, the character will be motivated to act. But remember: keep it proportional; in most cases, the lengths someone is willing to go to in order to avoid a loss should be commensurate with the degree of that loss. Readers will believe a parent throwing themselves in front of a train in order to push their child out of the way, but they’ll have much more trouble believing the same action if, say, it were a stray kitten on the tracks. No matter how cute the kitten.

Create a dramatic bluff. If someone is explicitly threatening to visit a loss upon your character, you can ratchet the tension and drama in a scene right up to the roof by having the character proclaim that he doesn’t, in fact, care about whatever’s being threatened. Viewers of Lost will remember the scene where Benjamin Linus claims not to care about the girl some amoral commandos are holding at gunpoint. They make the standard offer: do what we want, or we’ll shoot her. He bluffs: “Go ahead. She means nothing to me.” The girl, of course, is his daughter and in fact means a great deal to him. Instant drama.

Convey the importance of something else. That same scene from Lost achieves another storytelling goal as well: it quite effectively conveys the degree to which Ben values the secrets he is trying to protect. He values them so much he’s willing to put his daughter up as the ante in a very high-stakes bluff. This can work whether the character wins or loses the bluff, but in my opinion it’s more effective if the character loses. Actually suffering the loss of something the character values—being forced to follow through on the sacrifice—will convey the importance of the other thing much more clearly. After all, the deadliest urge a writer can fall prey to is letting your characters off the hook.

Create a believable victory over a stronger opponent. The flip side of the endowment effect is that, all else being equal, if one person is trying to take something belonging to someone else, the attacker’s motivation to follow through will be inherently less than the defender’s motivation to hold onto what they have. That scene from the end of Stand By Me where young Gordie Lachance stands up to the much stronger town bully Ace Merrill is just such a scene. On the surface, the two are vying for the glory of reporting the location of the missing boy’s body to the authorities. That’s all Ace is fighting for. But Gordie is not only fighting for that glory, but also for his own self esteem and the memory of his brother. For Gordie, the emotional attachments pulling on him in that moment are so much stronger than those pulling on Ace, that not only is it totally believable to see Gordie pull a gun on Ace, but also that Ace backs down.

The basis of stakes

Whatever the reason, whether it’s emotion or biology or both, people will fight hard to hold on to what they have and what they value. It’s such a powerful lever controlling the actions our characters that I would argue the endowment effect is in fact the basis underlying the whole concept of stakes in our novels. More writing books than I care to name (E.g. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!) talk about the importance of having compelling stakes in your novel. And well they should. But not a one of them I’ve ever read has stopped to talk about why it is we care about stakes at all.

It’s because of the endowment effect. A novel’s stakes, whatever they are, represent something that is had by the characters, by society, or whoever. The central conflict puts this thing at risk. Thus, characters are motivated to defend it, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.

June 19, 2010 04:21 UTC

Tags: character, endowment effect, stakes, bluff, motivation

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How to portray an inspiring leader

Joan of Arc. Napoleon. Susan B. Anthony. Gandhi. Hitler. Winston Churchill. Martin Luther King. Jim Jones. Whatever you may think of these men and women personally or the causes they championed, there is little argument that they all have something in common. All of them were highly effective leaders of their respective causes. That is, people followed them. They all exuded inspirational leadership.

Some novels call out for an inspirational leader, either as a main character or someone the story’s main characters can themselves admire or vilify. If that fits your current work-in-progress—or one you may be thinking about for the future—read on, for there are a couple of key techniques we can learn from history’s successful leaders. Now fasten your seat belts; this article is a long one.

Leaders share their vision.

All effective leaders, whether their aims be good or ill, have a vision for the future. And they share it with their followers. Whatever they’re after, whatever kind of change they want to create in the world, these leaders have a clear vision for it. And their vision is regularly manifested in their speech. They are not shy about sharing that vision with anyone and everyone.

The speech of effective leaders is peppered with leading phrases and future looking language: “I can see a day when …” Or “I imagine …” Or “I believe that in the future, …” And yes, “I have a dream.” These aspirational and inspirational phrases are how effective leaders open people’s minds and imaginations to their visions.

So if you’ve got a character who needs to inspire others to action—who needs to create a following—make liberal use of future-looking language. And try to make it distinctive. “I have a dream” will forever be associated with Martin Luther King. Your novel’s leader character needs his or her own unique phrasing, something that can become as much a part of the character’s identity and description as height or hair color.

Simple, vivid, and emotional

Great leaders also articulate their vision in vivid, colorful terms. They do it through imagery and metaphor, through evocative similes. They don’t do it through statistics and bulleted lists. Gandhi did not go around talking about how India’s Gross Domestic Product would go up if India achieved self-rule and equality for all. No. He talked about fairness, love, equality. He talked about simple, basic concepts that anyone could understand and that resonated with the emotions of his followers. And when he did have to use a statistic, he kept it lively:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.

That’s a statistic—"tyranny ultimately fails 100% of the time"—but look at the wonderful language Gandhi used to express that statistic and how he built a small emotional story around it, and one that serves also to reassure his followers: “this movement is hard and sometimes I fear we will never succeed, but this undeniable fact of history always picks me right back up.” He admits to the same doubts that his followers must surely have had, then offers them a compelling reason to have hope. He explicitly commands listeners (note the imperative voice in “Think about it") to ponder what he has said, and to let this undeniable fact of history do the same for them.

So let your leaders talk about fundamentals. Let them talk about their vision in terms of lofty, philosophical, and emotional words like “love,” “truth,” “equality,” “freedom,” “success,” and so forth. Let them convey their visions in terms that are at once simple but vivid, and that connect with their followers’ hearts.

The what/how/why trap

Still, a great vision and vivid emotional language is not enough. Leaders with vision and vivid language may yet fail by falling into the “what/how/why” trap. And my thanks go to Simon Sinek for bringing this to my attention, because it’s brilliant.

Leader falls into the trap by explaining their vision for the future in terms of what they want to do. If pressed, they will give some details of a plan for how to do it. Chances are, no one will think to ask them why they’re doing it in the first place, which is good for them, because they probably haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

Great leaders explain their visions in exactly the opposite way. Great leaders talk almost exclusively about why they do what they do. They talk about their purpose. Their cause. What they believe deep down to their toes. Sinek explains this in marketing terms: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Great leaders speak to that. Gandhi spoke to validate the basic belief that politically repressed Indians were worthy of every bit as much respect, dignity, opportunity, and freedom as any Englishman—even though they weren’t getting it under British rule.

Yet, most people instinctively talk about what, because what is concrete. It’s tangible. It’s obvious. The problem is, talking about what doesn’t motivate people to action. Talking about why does. If your novel’s leader wants any followers, talking about why had better be the first thing out of his or her lips.

It works because people know immediately whether they agree or disagree with a philosophical principle, which is what so many whys boil down to. When Martin Luther King talked about equality among the races, people knew right away whether they agreed with that basic belief, or whether it scared them. Had he jumped right to a concrete change—say, passing Affirmative Action legislation—he’d have met with much more resistance because even among people who agree with the core belief about equality, they might well differ over whether Affirmative Action was a good way to promote it. Let your leader characters stick with the philosophical principles, and leave the pesky concrete details to others.

Let actions demonstrate the why.

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers to the coast so he could make salt from seawater. Under British Rule at the time, you couldn’t just make salt. You had to pay a special tax. Gandhi’s why had to do with freedom and opportunity. Thus, he did not make speeches about how the Indian people desperately needed access to cheaper salt. That wouldn’t have demonstrated freedom and opportunity in vivid terms.

Instead, he simply made salt. He showed that he had the freedom and ability to do so, and thus, that the tax was both unjust and unenforceable. He did not make an appeal to what he felt needed to change ("we must force the British to repeal the salt tax!"). He talked about why, about the fundamental injustice of the tax, something the Indian people readily understood and agreed with. And the people responded. By the time he reached Dundi, on the seashore, some 50,000 people were there to join him in his protest.

Actions speak louder than words. And in “show, don’t tell” parlance, your leader characters will be much more believable if you can find actions for them to take that demonstrate the why behind their visions. What can your leader characters do to demonstrate their vision and exemplify their why?

Followers follow for themselves

Nobody followed Gandhi to the sea, trekking those hundreds of kilometers—on foot, mind you—because their salt shakers were empty. They weren’t hoping Gandhi was going to go into the salt business, selling lower-cost, tax-free salt. No. They did it for themselves. They followed Gandhi all the way to the sea because his words and his actions validated their own beliefs about themselves. They followed because Gandhi shared their personal vision for opportunity in a free India.

The same thing happened in America’s Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King went to Washington, D.C. to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech,” a quarter of a million people showed up to listen under the hot summer sun. They didn’t do it for him. They didn’t do it because they thought he’d feel bad if there was only a small crowd. They did it for themselves, because they wanted to be involved in remaking America according to the vision they shared with King for a more equitable society. And I can’t resist borrowing a line from Sinek here:

Notice, Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

He didn’t say what needed to change, but rather, what he believed. And people who shared those beliefs took his cause for their own, and volunteered. So let your leader characters speak to the secret, unvoiced dreams and visions of the people around them. Let your leader characters give their followers an outlet for pursuing their own dreams. Because the truth about leadership is that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the followers, and validating their reasons for following.

Heroes vs. villains.

Of course, the basic visionary and communication skills of effective leaders can be used for good or for evil. There’s a reason Hitler and Jim Jones were in the list at the top of this article. In truth, there’s not much separating the heroes from the villains. In hindsight, we can tell the difference through our judgments about the rightness or wrongness of their visions. But in the moment, at the time the characters in your book are deciding how to lead or whether to follow, hindsight is unavailable, and it can be damned hard to tell a hero from a villain.

This is because on an emotional level, there is no difference to the followers between a heroic and a villainous leader. Both heroic and villainous leaders alike call out to their followers by appealing to the best in them. They invoke the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to inspire their followers towards greatness or towards what they argue is a better and brighter future.

For the heroic leaders, this appeal is genuine and heartfelt. Such leaders themselves believe what they are saying. Villainous leaders, by contrast, appeal to their followers better natures while at the same time arranging for themselves to be the beneficiaries of their followers’ efforts. Cult leaders, politicians, and corporate PR campaigns often do this (make of that what you will).

A picture of leadership

Through all of this, I hope a picture of what effective leaders actually do becomes clear. Great leaders have a vision. They share their vision in vivid, emotional terms. They speak in terms of broad, philosophical fundamentals, not concrete minutia. They focus on why they are passionate for their vision, not on what they think needs to change. And they let their actions demonstrate the truth of their beliefs.

By doing so, they call out to the shared beliefs held by people who ought to be their followers and motivate those people to take up the cause as well. That is how leaders inspire movements, and if you show your leader characters doing those things, readers will have no trouble believing you when an army of followers materializes around that person.

June 15, 2010 00:05 UTC

Tags: character, leadership, vision, actions, show don't tell, believability

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You just don't understand me!

Today’s article is in some sense about the opposite of my last one on the fundamental attribution error. That article is all about what happens because we can’t see deeply enough into the minds and lives of others. This one is all about what happens because other people can’t see into our minds.

The illusion of transparency

As usual, psychologists have a name for this, the “illusion of transparency.” What it means is that we tend to over-estimate the degree to which people can see our own mental states: our hopes and dreams, our desires, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our emotional states. We think it’s obvious when we’re frustrated, or confused about something and want someone to explain more, or stressed out from working 12 hour days non-stop. We think these things are on the surface, and that people will thus react to us as we would wish, without us having to tell them what we want or need.

But they don’t, because in fact our inner lives are not so obvious to everyone else. That’s the illusion: we’re not as transparent as we think.

Misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict

Much like I talked about a long time ago in my article on inner vs. outer character arcs, the illusion of transparency creates a mismatch between how we see ourselves and how other people see us. We see our inner self, with all our strife and troubles, while other people only see the calm facade we project on the surface.

It’s not hard to see how to build this into a rising-tension sequence. Take two characters. Let one of them do something that is hard for them, that represents real effort and struggle. Something for which they wish want a bit of recognition.

Maybe it’s an employee and her boss. Let’s say the employee volunteers to do some large, yet tedious, pile of work that nobody else wants to touch. Like, say, manually verifying that the shipping addresses of all 10,000 customers in the database have a valid zip code. Perhaps she does it because she’s new and isn’t secure in her job yet. Or maybe she’s angling for a promotion. Whatever the case, she sucks it up and does the job, staying late every night and coming in on weekends for two weeks straight until it’s finished.

But of course, she doesn’t make a big deal about it to anybody, because that would be fishing for compliments and she doesn’t want to come across a needy drama queen. So she just mentions in her weekly meeting with her boss, “Oh, and I took care of the zip code thing. It’s done now.”

And he says “Oh, great. Thanks. Now, what about the marketing proposal for Zipco Industries?”

To her, the bags under her eyes have never felt larger or looked darker. She feels frazzled beyond belief. But he can’t see that. She’s still putting her best professional face forward. As far as he can tell she’s fine, so it’s on to the next order of business. He misses entirely her need to be recognized for the yeoman effort she put forth. There’s the misunderstanding.

Next time a nasty pile of grunt-work comes along, guess who gets asked to do it? That’s right, the gal who did it last time without making a big fuss about it. Now, not only was her effort not recognized, but she feels penalized for doing all that work by having been given yet another crappy job to handle. Cue some resentment.

Another round of absent recognition is sure to follow, until ultimately something gives. This mis-match between how she perceives her efforts and the recognition she feels she has earned, versus how her boss sees her will boil over in a fabulous, juicy rant. “I work myself to rags around here, and what do I get? Nothing! Not a word of thanks. Not a pat on the back, or a little bit of a bonus, or even a measly comp day! Well you know what, you insensitive jerk? You can take this job and shove it!”

And that’s part of the fun of novels: letting our characters do the stuff we wish we had the sheer temerity to do in real life.

No, it’s not hard at all to see how the illusion of transparency can lead people into some seriously conflict-laden situations. And we have no one to blame but ourselves: first, we make the mistake of over-estimating the degree to which others can see how we feel. Our indignation at the way we are then treated (or feel we have been mistreated), then causes us to commit the fundamental attribution error by assuming the worst about the people we feel have done us wrong. In fact, they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not their fault they aren’t telepathic. We’re not as transparent as we think.

Empathy, kindness, and compassion

Of course, there’s a flip-side too. Some people are weirdly good at sensing what’s going on with the people around them. Some people just know when you need a hug or when to say “hey, wow, that was great lasagna. Can I have your recipe?” or whatever it might be. Some people seem to have the magic x-ray glasses that do render others transparent.

We call that “empathy,” and people who have it tend to respond with shows of kindness and compassion. So as writers, if we want readers to believe that a character is empathetic in that way, we can simply show them doing or saying just what another character needs right in that moment. This is the person who, unbidden, plops down on the couch and hands their distraught housemate a dish of ice-cream, then casually asks “so, how was work today?” Small acts of kindness, or simply of caring about how someone else is feeling, are gold for portraying your novel’s sensitive people.

Empathy, maliciousness, and manipulation

Then there’s the dark side of empathy. It’s not a rule that empathetic people are kind and compassionate. It’s only a tendency. Some of them use their power for evil. I mean, if you have a knack for intuiting people’s emotional states and emotional needs, it’s easy to manipulate them. At your whim, you can give them what they want, withhold it, or hold it out as a promise in exchange for something else.

These are your “users,” your emotionally manipulative types who never need to raise a hand in anger or resort to violence because they have a much more powerful tool at their disposal: the ability to twist other people’s emotional states and needs to their own ends. As writers, we can use this dark side of empathy to create some seriously wicked characters. These are people who immediately spot what kind of emotional interaction someone else is craving, and then ponder how they can turn it to their own advantage.

Getting in your characters’ heads

Making good use of the illusion of transparency can be tricky for writers, because to us, all of our characters are perfectly transparent. We’re the ones who decide how everyone feels; to us, there’s no mystery about that like there is with other people in the real world. This is where you need to practice that controlled multiple-personalities technique I wrote about back in April. In any interaction between characters, you have to work hard to keep each person’s mental state clear in your own head, so as to create believable interactions between them.

The danger, since characters are so transparent to us, is that it’s all too easy to let our characters slip into the same compassionate insights we have for them, even if that wouldn’t be realistic or wouldn’t fit the situation. And when that happens, you lose hold of the very source of conflict that the illusion of transparency would otherwise provide.

June 08, 2010 22:41 UTC

Tags: character, illusion of transparency, emotion, conflict, empathy

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Why you suck but I don't

Ok, ok,you don’t suck. Jeez, don’t get all excited! But people committing the fundamental attribution error think you do.

The fundamental attribution error relates to how we interpret things when somebody screws up. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people’s default tendency is to apply an egregious double-standard in this regard: we interpret our own failings as the result of circumstance, but we assume the failings of others are the result of obvious and tragic character flaws within them.

Or in other words, “I was late because I hit all the red lights and got stuck behind an old granny in a land-yacht who didn’t understand what the gas pedal was for, but you were late because you obviously don’t know how to plan and manage your time.”

We commit this double standard for a pretty obvious reason: we know everything about our own circumstances, but comparatively little about other people’s circumstances. We don’t see other people walking around with their circumstances all nicely labeled for us. We don’t know if a co-worker was late for an important meeting because he really is lousy at time management, or because he was taking a call from his mother who lives three states away, panicking because his father had slipped in the shower and she didn’t know what to do.

Had we known that, we’d likely have cut the guy some slack for taking five minutes to talk his mom down and get her to dial 9-1-1. But we can’t see that. All we see is him coming into the meeting late and with a sheepish look on his face.

That’s the fundamental attribution error. And like most human behaviors, there’s a lot writers can do with it.

Create empathy. If you want readers to empathize with a somebody who screws up, just make sure they know the circumstantial reasons contributing to the screw-up. Novels give us a freedom that real life doesn’t, which is to show our readers the circumstances attached to any characters we care to. Use this power wisely.

Show positive personality traits. If you want to show a character as being fair-minded, empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, et cetera, then show them working hard not to commit the fundamental attribution error. Show them trying to think of what circumstances might have contributed to another character’s mistakes. Simply letting a character wait for evidence to come in, rather than rushing to judge someone, can work wonders for casting that character as a thoughtful, considerate person.

Show denial. Sometimes, people really do screw up because of core character flaws, and yet, under the right circumstances others will work very, very hard indeed to find a circumstantial explanation for that person’s failings. Wives who cover for their husbands’ alcoholism (or vice versa) is perhaps the most cliché example, but there are many others. While we never have all the information about someone else’s circumstances, we always have some; the difference between denial and commendable fair-mindedness is in how we heed or ignore the evidence we do have, especially when ignoring it leads to bad consequences for us.

Create a Pollyanna character. A Pollyanna is a naively or hopelessly optimistic character. One who always looks on the bright side, despite any and all evidence to the converse. Applied to people, this philosophy can certainly be a good thing (see show positive personality traits, above). Still, you know what they say about too much of a good thing. Imagine that you have a co-worker who is habitually late, and another co-worker who always gives that person the benefit of the doubt, or even goes so far as to invent hypothetical excuses on that person’s behalf ("I’ll bet he just had car trouble"). What would you think about that second co-worker? Chances are, that’s not someone whose judgment you’d particularly trust, since they’re ignoring what is obvious for all to see.

Create a hothead or unreliable flake. The flip-side is that if you want to if you want to show a character being judgmental, showing them rushing to judgment—committing the fundamental attribution error—is a great way to go, especially if you couple it with that same character going to great lengths to explain away his own failings to others. This is the person who always thinks the best of himself and the worst of others. Note, for this you’ll need to be using a narrative point-of-view that allows the character and the reader to have different information, so the reader can empathize with the mistake-maker, while hothead character rushes to judge.

Create a dramatic twist. Finally (and this is one of my favorites), if you want to spring a reversal on the reader in which you take a character from being viewed negatively to being viewed positively, let the reader and any relevant POV characters commit this error, but then later, reveal to them the circumstances. That is, show the character making a mistake, and other characters attributing it to the mistake-maker’s personality. If you’re not too heavy-handed about it, chances are the reader will go right along with it and make the exact same mistake themselves. Then later, you can reveal the circumstances leading up to that person’s mistake, and use that information to pivot everyone’s attitude about that person.

Got any other great ways to take advantage of the fundamental attribution error? Share them in the comments!

June 03, 2010 23:45 UTC

Tags: character, fundamental attribution error, judgment, pollyanna, reversals

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Four tips for portraying young adult characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 28, 2010 17:32 UTC

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

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Fight! Fight! Fight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Violent conflicts

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

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

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

May 25, 2010 23:48 UTC

Tags: character, conflict

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Five steps to building a believable character arc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make it your own

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

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

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

May 20, 2010 21:28 UTC

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

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Three steps to a breakout story

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

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

1. Pick a compelling goal

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

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

2. Show that the goal is worthy

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

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

3. Go after the goal

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

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

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

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

Make it personal

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

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

May 17, 2010 22:54 UTC

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

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Seven ways to show character growth

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

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

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

Seven strategies to create a strong character arc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 14, 2010 21:31 UTC

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

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Are you using the power of nicknames?

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

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

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

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

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

Nicknames are pronouns on steroids

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

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

NBA saw me staring. “Can I help you?”

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

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

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

I opened the door. “Yes?”

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

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

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

Nicknames are manipulative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

May 07, 2010 18:08 UTC

Tags: character, names, nicknames, attributes, control

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How writers can use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflicted priorities

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

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

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

Inverted priorities

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

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

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

Maslow’s hierarchy is just a tool

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

May 05, 2010 19:32 UTC

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

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This is your reptilian brain on depression

Deep within every one of us is a brain structure called the Reptilian Complex. It is an ancient and powerful piece of biological machinery, having been part of every vertebrate creature ever to walk the earth or swim the seas. It’s in us, too, and handles the jobs we can’t be bothered to think about all the time, like keeping our hearts beating and breathing.

But for writers, the Reptilian Complex has a much more important job. It is also responsible for the Fight-or-Flight response, the basic survival instinct of all animals—people included—when threatened or cornered: fight, or run away.

Fight-or-Flight and Depression

Readers of this blog will well remember that depression is one of the five stages of grief that give such a useful roadmap for how characters respond when confronted with misfortunes. Had I been cleverer when writing that article on depression, I would have realized the connection between depression and the fight-or-flight response. Alas, I wasn’t, but better late than never.

What keeps people stuck in the depression stage, you’ll recall, is that anxious feeling of not seeing a way out of a bad situation. “Doomxiety,” I called it. In hindsight, this now seems obvious to me, but I didn’t see it at the time. Feeling trapped triggers the Reptilian Complex to initiate that fight-or-flight response.

I want to talk about flight first, because there’s a stronger connection to that sense of feeling trapped. The core of five-stage depression is not seeing any way out of a bad situation, so flight makes sense: running away, in one form or another, is a means to create a way out.

When do characters flee?

But notice, people don’t just immediately run away from bad situations all the time. In fact, flight is usually a last resort, and that’s because flight always involves sacrifice. The choice to run away always means leaving behind something that is of value to the character; if this weren’t so, the character wouldn’t have felt trapped in the first place, because the flight option—which was always there—would have had no down side.

The only thing keeping the character from always fleeing is an unwillingness to leave behind the parts of that bad situation that matter to them. Take bad marriages, for example. People stay in bad marriages all the time, because even if they’re totally unhappy with their spouse, there’s still something about the situation that the person values. Something that makes the flight option unacceptable. Maybe they can’t stand to leave the children, maybe the person came from a poor background but married into money and can’t stand the thought of being poor again, whatever. Something’s keeping them there.

Only when the situation becomes so bad that it outweighs the good parts will a person—or a character—finally choose to run away.

How do characters flee?

When a character finally opts to leave the bad situation behind, no matter the cost, he or she has some options. These fall into three broad buckets:

  • Panicked flight. This is literal fleeing, a rushed, haphazard, often terrified physical exit from a situation. Lots of yelling and screaming, flailing of arms, you get the picture. This kind of flight is perfect for situations where the character is threatened, but doesn’t have any strong emotional investments in the situation itself. Let’s say your character is walking down the street on his way to a cafe for lunch, when a mugger jumps out of an alley brandishing a knife. Sure, losing out on lunch is, technically, a sacrifice but it’s not a big one. Why wouldn’t he run? Especially if the mugger looks a bit on the fat-and-slow side, why wouldn’t the character run? What earth would make him stay and fight? I mean, is he so committed to getting a ham-on-rye that he’s willing to risk getting knifed? Of course not. In situations like this, a sudden threat that is not coupled to a significant sacrifice, flight makes perfect sense.

  • Methodical flight. This is a planned escape from a bad situation. Maybe it’s a jailbreak, but this fits any situation where the situation has become so bad that uprooting one’s whole life (or some significant chunk of it) isn’t too much of a sacrifice. These are the dads who go out for cigarettes and just never come back, the employees who just walk out even with no new job to go to. The amount of planning may vary; your typical jailbreak novel will involve an enormous amount of planning, while the deadbeat dad may simply have left with nothing but a wallet and a gym bag hastily stuffed with clothes and a razor. The difference is a lack of panic. This kind of flight is appropriate when the sacrifice is great, but there is no particular rush to escape. Use this when the character has plenty of time to consider the situation before deciding to flee.

  • Existential flight. This, in a word, is suicide. Suicide, when the result of five-stage depression, is a form of flight. People and characters do this when they’re so convinced there’s no way out of their bad situation except to stop living. This is when a character believes that even picking up stakes and starting over somewhere else won’t actually get them out of the bad situation. Obviously, this is the ultimate last resort, and you should think very, very carefully before putting a character on that path. For one thing, we shouldn’t make light in our novels of what in real life is one of the worst kinds of personal tragedies. For another thing, suicide isn’t going to work in your novel unless you’ve created a situation where the sacrifice—literally everything in the character’s life including all possible future experiences—isn’t enough to outweigh the pain of the bad situation the character is in. To make that believable in a novel is a pretty tall order. There’s no question suicide has its place in literature, but—and I apologize for the wording here—it’s not easy to do it right.

When do characters fight?

The fight half of Fight-or-Flight also relates to the depression stage, but in a different way. Fighting can be the key to reaching acceptance. You can create some powerful moments when the trapped feelings behind depression trigger a fight response. These are moments when the character says “there must be some way out of this, and I’m going to find it!” Tons of great drama there. If you’re looking for a way to get your character into the acceptance stage, this can be a wonderful option because—assuming your readers are actually rooting for your character—they want to see the character reach acceptance. They want to see him push through, survive, win.

You can bring on moments like this in a million different ways. You could have a character fall back on pride or stubbornness as a reason not to flee. You could have the choice to fight come from the culmination of an inner character arc: “Daddy always said I was a no-good loser, but I’m not, damn him, I’m not! And I won’t be now!”

However you bring it on, the common theme behind all of these fight responses is the character realizing that the sacrifice attached to fleeing is just too great. The stubborn, prideful character isn’t willing to sacrifice self-image. The child of the abusive father isn’t willing to sacrifice the personal growth he has already made. Whatever it is, fighting is what characters do when you’ve coupled their bad situation to something of extreme personal value to them.

When our characters realize that nothing is so bad as to be worth that level of sacrifice, that’s when they fight back.

April 30, 2010 18:54 UTC

Tags: character, depression, fight-or-flight, doomxiety, acceptance

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The controlled multiple personalities of writers

[Update: due to some well-reasoned commentary on this article, I’ve changed the title from its original to what you see now, and have adjusted other text in this article to match. If you care what that means, you can read all about it in the comments.]

Recently I wrote that writers need to develop a kind of multiple personality syndrome. I won’t say “disorder” because as it applies to writers, it’s actually a good thing. Then last week someone made a comment on my article about boring characters which touched on the notion that boring characters don’t have a well-developed sense of theory of mind.

That got me thinking. Dangerous, I know, because realizing how these two things are related leads to heresies like this one: You know that old rule about how you can break any of the rules of writing, as long as it works? Here’s one you can’t break. Here’s a new rule that, I claim, is not a rule but instead a fundamental law of fiction.

Writers must have a strongly developed theory of mind.

That is to say, your books are doomed to suck until you really understand theory of mind. This, although I didn’t quite realize it when I wrote it, is what I meant in that earlier article when I was talking about multiple personalities.

What is “theory of mind?”

Click the above link and Wikipedia will tell you it is “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.” That’s actually a pretty good definition, and I’m not going to mess with it.

Why you must understand it

Theory of mind has everything to do with writing, because it has everything to do with creating believable characters. Unless you’re writing an autobiography (in which case, you’re not writing fiction and you’re reading the wrong blog right now), you can’t create even one believable character without being able to model the mind of someone other than yourself.

You create a believable character by imagining a set of beliefs, desires, knowledge, and so forth that are different from your own. This is a model from which you can then determine how a character will act, react, and speak in a given situation. Using your model—your theory of the character’s mind—is how you keep your writing true to how the character would really be.

Now do this for every character in your book, and develop the ability to keep all of these different theories of mind straight within your own head while you write your scenes. This is nothing if not controlled multiple personality syndrome.

Understanding the theory of mind on this level is necessary to create believable characters. I would argue that most successful writers do this in “gut feel” terms, rather than in analytic terms. But however you get there, you simply must have a strong sense for how the minds of other people work if you are to write believable characters.

That’s table-stakes, the minimum requirement for creating believable characters. But what happens when you understand theory of mind on a deeper level? What happens when you realize that part of your theory of mind about any of your individual characters should include that character’s own sense of theory of mind about others.

This can get confusing pretty quickly, so re-read that a couple of times if you have to.

What can you do with theory of mind

When your theory of mind about a character is rich enough to include whether the character’s theory of mind is poorly or strongly developed, then you can start to play with it to achieve some specific effects:

  • Boring people. As I talked about in my last article, boring people don’t have strong insights into other people’s minds. Boring people are deficient in the ability to infer what other people think about them. Boring people, as it were, have a weakly developed sense of theory of mind which makes them blind to how others perceive them.

  • Children. Small children of age 4 or thereabouts, give it take a year or so, haven’t yet figured out theory of mind. A kid may be plenty smart, possessed of sharp mental faculties, they just haven’t yet determined that other people have minds different than their own. Determining when and how theory of mind develops as children mature has been the subject of countless research studies, but for you the writer, you can use theory of mind to help portray young children. It shows up most readily in modeling other people’s factual knowledge about the world. Young children tend to believe that everyone knows the same set of facts that they do. So, for example, to a young child the game of hide-and-seek is entirely pointless: they can hide anywhere they want, but as far as they’re concerned, the seeker will automatically know where they have hidden, because they themselves know where they are.

  • Deception. Speaking of hide-and-seek, theory of mind lies at the root of all deception. You cannot intentionally deceive someone else without having a good theory of the other person’s mind. Deception is all about manipulating the other person’s beliefs, usually as a means to affect the other person’s actions. But, you cannot do that without first having a good sense for the other person’s beliefs, knowledge, and goals. If you understand the other person on that level, you can predict how they will behave, and thus, you can figure out how to manipulate their beliefs in order to induce them to act how you want. Or, as Friends so aptly put it, they don’t know that we know they know. Note: if your theory of mind about the other person happens to be wrong in some key aspect, the person’s reactions to your manipulations might really surprise you, which is itself a great strategy for novelists to employ.

Walking in many people’s shoes

Don’t resort to taking meds or anything, but strive for this controlled multiple personality syndrome. Like any skill, you have to work on it. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. “Black’s Law,” if I may be so cheeky as to label it: Writers must have a strongly developed theory of mind.

If anything, your proficiency with theory of mind must be stronger than normal because it’s not enough to simply understand theory of mind. You also have to know what to do with it.

April 26, 2010 19:26 UTC

Tags: character, theory of mind, boring, children, deception, controlled multiple personalities

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The joys of a perfectly boring character

The other day I did an article about creating a loveable jerk as your protagonist. Let me be clear: I am not now going to suggest that you also set about creating a protagonist who is an utter bore.

A boring supporting character, on the other hand, can be a delight for readers.

It’s not that boring characters are, in and of themselves, interesting or delightful. That would be something of an oxymoron. What boring characters can do is create interesting and delightful situations for your readers to enjoy.

Why boring is fun

Ok, it’s not fun. In real life, boring people aren’t fun at all. Nor are they fun for our protagonists to deal with. But they can be fun for readers, because bores can be a great source of laughs. In particular, they can serve as hilarious obstacles between your protagonists and their goals.

Humor comes when the boring person—often un-knowingly—skewers the protagonist on the horns of an uncomfortable social dilemma: how can she get the bore out of her way without being rude? Obviously, most protagonists are socially adept enough that they can empathize with other people. This empathy is the basis for a strong form of social inhibition, in which the protagonist doesn’t want to be rude to the bore because she doesn’t want to hurt the bore’s feelings.

Dr. House doesn’t have this problem. But then, he’s a jerk. He doesn’t care whose feelings he hurts. If your protagonist isn’t a jerk, it’s only natural she will try to deal with bores using the same, polite techniques that work for regular people. She’s trying not to bruise anybody’s ego. Except that bores, by their nature, don’t respond to those techniques like normal people do.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the many ways these mismatched interaction styles can lead to uncomfortable, frustrating, and potentially humorous situations. Is your protagonist rushing to get the kids out the door for school? Have a boring neighbor drop by to borrow a light bulb, but first spend 10 minutes explaining the backstory behind how her own bulb came to be burnt out. You get the idea: making your protagonist deal with a complete bore on top of what’s actually important to her in the scene can be a humorous way to follow that old writer’s adage, “when in doubt, make it worse.”


The central trait of boring people is social cluelessness. Whatever thoughts are bouncing around inside their boring little heads, those thoughts don’t intersect strongly enough with reality to give these people any insight into what other people think about them. The problem is, cluelessness is itself internal to the bore; it’s invisible from the outside. Yet, as a writer you know better than to jump inside the heads of all of our minor characters. And you do, right?

What you need is something external to show the reader. As a writer, put yourself into the bore’s shoes—it’s controlled schizophrenia again—and ask how you’d reveal yourself without knowing it:

  • You would be into something nobody else cares about. Find something truly meaningless in the grander scheme of life, like perhaps the subtle differences between different brands of styling mousse. Then talk about that whenever you can, with great passion and enthusiasm. Talk about it in great detail, too, as though other people actually know what the hell you’re talking about, and as though they share your fascination with the subject.

  • You would interrupt people with random, barely tangential stuff. This is especially effective when the normal person is trying to explain something to you, such as why that clunking sound from your car’s engine compartment might be something you want to have looked at. By all means, interrupt with a five minute digression about seat belt design from a thing you saw on the Discovery Channel one time. Don’t forget to double your bore-o-meter rating by coupling this with the technique of assuming that having had even the slightest exposure to the subject—say, having once overheard some guys in the high school cafeteria talking about what they were doing in auto shop that day—makes you as much of an expert as the normal person who’s trying to help you understand something.

  • You would go in blind. Initiate social interactions with normal people without first checking to see whether such interaction is necessary, welcome, or even marginally appropriate for the normal person’s situation. Don’t sweat it! Just barge on in and start extolling the joys of the new imported French styling mousse you ordered from the internet. Whatever they were talking about can’t possibly be as important. Oh, and don’t forget to fill them in on all the details of the website’s order form and the problems you had even ordering the mousse because you refuse to upgrade to a modern browser. That’s key information!

  • You would be oblivious to anyone but yourself. This doesn’t mean to be a raging egomaniac (although bores sometimes are). It just means being blind to the subtle cues normal people drop in the context of normal social interactions. Be so inwardly focused on what you want in the moment, on what you personally hope to get from the conversation, that you entirely forget to consider that the normal person may, just barely, maybe, quite possibly, have some needs of her own.

The boring view of rudeness

Having decided how to show the bore’s total boring-ness, what’s your protagonist going to do about it? In seeking to avoid being rude, what she’s really doing is seeking to avoid being blunt. A regular person knows to drop subtle hints, because regular people pick up on those and respond appropriately. When you’re overly blunt towards a regular person, this comes across as rudeness because it implies that you don’t think the regular person is smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That hurts their feelings, and there you go: social inhibitions kick in.

Here’s the kicker: The boring person doesn’t see it that way. The bore is in fact, not smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That’s why they engage in boring behavior in the first place! They literally don’t know any better. Your subtle clues won’t register with them. How do you get the bore out of your way without being rude? Simple: You don’t. Boring people, by their nature, need to be dealt with more bluntly. It’s the only way.

Being blunt without being mean

Watching your protagonist squirm on the hook, struggling to escape without resorting to rude bluntness, can be comedy gold. But at the end of the scene, she’s going to have to get rude. There is no other escape. She will eventually have to force herself to let go of those social inhibitions, and do something that feels completely horrible. Still, your protagonist has options. She can be blunt in a neutral way or in a mean-spirited way.

She might say “I’m bored now. Goodbye.” Or hold up her hand and say “I need to stop you there. I don’t have time for this.” If she’s feeling mean, she might say “Shut up and don’t talk to me anymore. You have nothing interesting to say.” Or, perhaps, she might just walk away, leaving the bore in mid-sentence. To her, that’s such a breach of ordinary social protocol, she can hardly bring herself to do it. But then, she’s a normal person. For your readers, who are mostly going to be normal people too, they’ll get the humor in that moment.

Also remember, much of the fun of a lively novel is watching characters do and say all the things we can’t get away with in real life. So don’t be afraid to let loose! Whatever the protagonist does, she’s not going to get out of the situation without doing something that would seem rude to a normal person. The only differences are in kind and degree of rudeness.

Yet from the boring character’s perspective, the moment may well not feel blunt or rude at all. The bore may just nod and say “oh, ok,” then go off in search of another victim. The bore may even feel a certain affection for what just happened. What the bore just experienced was (at last!) someone speaking their language. It could be, in fact, that the protagonist’s bluntness, effective though it was in the moment, only makes the bore more eager to speak to her again later...

April 21, 2010 22:45 UTC

Tags: character, boring, clueless, interaction, empathy

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What potholes can teach you about plot holes

I defy you to look at that picture and not think “what kind of idiot would drive his car into a pothole like that?” Maybe not in those words, but be honest: your first thought upon seeing that picture was probably some kind of reflection on the driver of the car.

If not, you’re a better person than I am.

Why should this be? The driver didn’t put that pothole in the street. He or she didn’t fill it with brown water making it look like nothing more dangerous than an enormous puddle. It’s hardly the driver’s fault, so why do we so quickly jump to conclusions that blame the driver for falling into the hole?

We do it because situations are rarely so simple as to have a single cause.

Chain of causality

Most situations, or at least the interesting ones, have a chain of causes behind them. Remember that old children’s rhyme about “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost?” The one that starts with a horse losing its shoe, and ends up with the loss of a kingdom? This goes for plot holes too, except in reverse.

The driver drove into the pothole. Yup. He did it. But before that, some rain came, or—ooh! even better, maybe a nearby sewer pipe leaked raw sewage into it—thus obscuring the hole. But before that, before you can even have the possibility of there being a sewage-filled pothole, you have to have a road. So somebody had to build the road, which means some surveyors and soil engineers and so forth came, poked around, and decided it was ok to build a road right there. One of those guys must have missed an underground stream that sucked the soil away from under the road, thus allowing the road to collapse in a giant hole. It was that guy’s fault. Or maybe it was the fault of the people on the planning commission who decided there ought to be a road there in the first place.

You get the point. It wasn’t really the driver’s fault. The ultimate fault lies much further back in time, along a chain of causality that the driver can’t possibly have been aware of. There’s a whole system of causation that led up to the driver half crawling, half swimming in abject misery, out of a sewage-filled pothole.

But systemic causation, as it’s called, is hard to understand. At the very least, understanding it requires some thought and effort. In real life, and in the act of reading a novel, it is always much easier to lay the blame on the most proximate cause of the situation. We blame the most immediate link in the chain.

That’s why we blame the idiot driver, even if it’s not his fault.

Plot holes make your characters look bad

What’s true for potholes in the road is also true for plot holes in your novels. They make your characters look like fools. Only as a secondary effect do they make you, the writer, look amateurish and unskilled. That’s embarrassing for you, but it’s fatal for your characters. By the time your readers work their way far enough back through that chain of causality to find the root cause—you—the damage has been done. The reader has already had those negative thoughts about your characters.

You can’t take those thoughts back. You know how in a courtroom, when a lawyer says something out of bounds and the judge directs the jury to “disregard the prosecuting attorney’s remarks?” Who are they kidding? The jury isn’t going to forget it. It’s exactly the same here. By the time the reader gets around to realizing they ought to blame you for the plot hole, it’s too late. The jury is tainted. The reader has already become prejudiced against your character because of the plot hole.

Two kinds of holes to watch out for

Strange actions: The first is when you make a character do something inexplicable. Something that may well achieve an obvious story objective for you, but which is difficult to reconcile with what the reader knows about the character’s motivations and state of mind. If you leave the reader scratching their head, wondering “why would he do that?” then you’ve got a problem.

You may be entirely correct, from a story structure perspective, to want the character to do that thing. That might be absolutely the right thing to happen in the story. The only problem is that you’ve created a nonsensical moment for the reader because you haven’t done the work of putting the character in a frame of mind where it makes sense for him to do that thing.

That is, if you want your character to suddenly throw a turkey drumstick at the bride while she’s taking her wedding vows, you’d better set it up ahead of time so the reader will understand, at that very moment, why your character would do such a thing.

Thankfully, most writers understand this, and I don’t see a lot of this type of plot hole in my clients’ work.

Strange inactions: The second kind of plot hole, the kind I see much more often from my clients, is when the writer fails to let a character do something that makes obvious sense to the reader within the context of a situation. I see this all the time, I really do. Writers set their characters up with all sorts of nasty problems to wrestle with, but they fail to notice that the situations they’ve crafted still permit their characters to take obvious actions that would solve the problem.

This happens because writers want their characters to take more difficult paths towards the solution. And rightly so: difficulty equals drama. Where they go wrong is that they don’t first eliminate all the obvious strategies. They just make their characters jump straight to the difficult way of doing things.

Worse, they also usually fail to let their characters even consider taking any simpler steps to solve the problem.

Take the turkey drumstick guy again. Maybe he doesn’t want the bride to marry that particular groom, because you’re writing a romance novel and romance novels thrive on unrequited love. If he’s sitting in the audience, he’s got a problem. How to break up this wedding? Chances are he doesn’t actually have a turkey drumstick to chuck at the bride—that would just be weird. So what’s he going to do? One obvious thing would be, when the minister says “speak now or forever hold your peace,” for him to stand up and say something. It can be a total lie, that doesn’t matter. Surely he could think of something to say—"she’s carrying my baby!"—that would prevent the ceremony from getting to the kissy part.

If the reader watches this character let that moment pass without uttering a word, and without even thinking about uttering a word, then you’ve got a problem because you just allowed your character to let an obvious solution to his problem pass right by. Maybe that’s on purpose, because you want the guy to have to really fight to win her over. Having her be married certainly raises the level of challenge—and thus drama—he faces. Good instinct.

But you can’t leave the reader wondering “why didn’t he say anything?” It’s fine that he doesn’t, so long as you make it make sense. Maybe at this point he’s not sure yet he wants to fight for her. Maybe he’s being all noble, letting her have what she seems to want. That’s fine. Give the reader a reason so his inaction makes sense.

But you can’t just let the moment pass un-remarked upon just because you’re too eager to get on with the solution you have in mind. Sure, you the writer have already picked a solution. But a real person—which you want your character to be—would try, or at least consider, many possible solutions along the way.

Strange and inexplicable inaction, even more than strange actions, demands justification.

You might get lucky

As it happens, there is a third kind of plot hole that doesn’t reflect badly on your characters. So take heart: If the stars align in your favor, you may be dealing with this third kind. These are the plot holes so horrible they make you look bad directly. Typically, this third kind is when you make your characters do something they shouldn’t actually be able to do, but that they obviously wish they could. Like, when your character discovers he’s out of ammo, but then a couple of pages later fires two more shots at the bad guy anyway.

Outright errors like that can’t possibly be the character’s fault. This kind of plot hole only makes you look bad. Lucky you!

But most of the time, you won’t get lucky. Most plot holes are more subtle, more insidious, and much more damaging because they involve the choices and actions your characters make or fail to make. This is one of the hardest parts of learning to write effective fiction because it demands so much from the writer.

Controlled schizophrenia

To avoid damaging your characters through these kinds of plot holes, you must become skilled at a kind of controlled schizophrenia. You must be in many heads at once. You must be in your own head so you can keep the story moving where you want it to go. You must be in the heads of every character in a scene, so you can keep their choices and actions consistent with their goals. And, on top of all of that, you must also be in the reader’s head, so you can spot when a character’s action or inaction will seem strange.

That’s a lot to keep track of. Yet you must do it because ultimately you are responsible for the entire chain of causation of the situations in your novel. The whole chain of causation is your creation, but never forget that readers will blame your characters first when something in that chain goes awry.

April 15, 2010 18:02 UTC

Tags: character, plot holes, action, inaction, choice

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So, your protagonist is a first-rate jerk

You’d be hard pressed to find a protagonist on any successful show who’s a bigger jerk than Dr. Gregory House. He hates everybody, except for hot chicks he lusts after. He has no bedside manner. He’s cranky, argumentative, abusive, dismissive, manipulative, and a raging egomaniac. In short, he’s an utter bastard, and no one in their right mind would want him coming anywhere near them with that thermometer.

But for some reason, viewers can’t stop watching.

Readers are the same way. They really enjoy books with protagonists who are jerks. They’ll even go for books with characters who, like Dr. House, are mean as hell so long as the writer manages one key trick. The bastard has to be a loveable bastard. How does that work?


Being an outright jerk isn’t exactly normal. There is a lot of social pressure on people to conform to the accepted standards of polite behavior. Resisting that pressure is hard, so the first question in a reader’s mind is going to be why is this character such a jerk? I think most of us, under the skin, are jerks to some degree—we all think badly of others at times, and wish we could say out loud what we’re really thinking about them—but we hold back. We know that’ s not ok, so we hold it in.

House doesn’t. He’s utterly uninhibited in his jerkism. Readers will wonder why, and you have to give the reader a good answer here in order to create some sympathy. In House’s case, it is because he has suffered great personal loss. He needed surgery on his leg to save his life, but it left him permanently debilitated and with chronic pain. Oh, and his wife left him. That’s enough to put anybody in a cranky mood, so when we see why House is a jerk, we’re able to sympathize with him.

House, in five stages terms, is stuck in a mixture of anger and depression. Intellectually, he recognizes the reality of his injuries and his wife’s departure, but emotionally he’s stuck. He hasn’t fully moved on to acceptance. Anger makes him want to lash out at the world and everyone in it through jerk behaviors. The depths of his depression—coupled with his over-sized ego—mean that he simply does not care what anybody else thinks of him. At all. Together, those factors remove the normal inhibitions that keep the rest of us in line.

So maybe your jerk had something bad happen to him in the past, and he’s only acting that way because he hasn’t truly gotten over it yet. But there are other reasons. One reason that can work very well in middle-grade and young-adult literature, is simple immaturity. A character can be a jerk simply because he or she hasn’t yet learned that it’s a losing strategy for life.

Redeeming qualities

As well as informing the reader why your protagonist is a jerk, to be loveable the jerk must also have some kind of redeeming qualities. A jerk with no redeeming qualities whatsoever is just a psychopath. If there’s no good in the character at all, then you’re in Hannibal Lecter territory rather than Dr. House territory. And true to form, Dr. House does have a number of significant redeeming qualities.

First, he’s incredibly good at what he does. The whole show is premised on his being the best diagnostic medical practitioner around, bar none. Patients come to him when nobody else can figure out what’s wrong, and he always figures it out.

Second, he’s relentlessly passionate about his work. He will go to any length to figure out what the patient’s problem is, and in fact often turns his jerkish uninhibitneness to good use in that pursuit. He’s not above stealing a blood sample from an unconscious patient, faking insurance forms so he can get a MRI scan for an uninsured patient, lying to his boss, breaking into patients’ houses to search for environmental factors behind their disease, et cetera.

Third, sometimes we see him make an effort not to be a jerk. He knows he’s a jerk. He knows that’s not the best thing to be. So sometimes we see him do a good deed or offer someone a kindness. Not often, but sometimes. Rarity makes those moments extra powerful.

And fourth, there seems to be hope for him. As the show dribbles out his backstory, little by little, we see that he wasn’t always like this. Or at least, not so much so. We understand that he’s caught in the grip of anger and depression. His hurt is deep, so his healing will take a long time. We all anticipate the day when he will at last reach emotional acceptance, although it will not likely come before the show’s final episode.

That’s House. Whatever redeeming qualities you give your characters, they should be ones that motivate the character to take morally right actions, even amid all the jerk things they do.

Show redeeming qualities in action

I’d be remiss not to warn of a danger with redeeming qualities in novels. TV writers, in a certain sense, have the luxury of images. A TV show doesn’t typically have a narrator, babbling over the quiet spaces of a show, explaining what’s going on. TV writers, thus, have no choice but to find ways of showing House’s redeeming qualities in action. They have no way of telling us that House is relentless when on the trail of an elusive disease microbe, except to show him acting that way.

Novelists—and I see this a lot from clients who are still working on their first or second manuscripts—do have the opportunity of using outright narration to convey information to the reader. The written word, as opposed to the filmed image, gives you the option to do that. But I caution you strongly: explaining to the reader in a paragraph that your protagonist will go to any lengths to get the job done—that is, telling them, is not as effective as showing the character taking those actions.

This is at the heart of what the “show, don’t tell” rule of creative writing means. TV writers have no choice. They have to show, rather than tell. You do have a choice, so make the right one.

Character arc

Finally, consider your character’s overall arc. In a TV show like House, the whole show is predicated on House being a jerk. They can’t really change that without drastically altering the reason why people watch the show in the first place. This is why we know that Dr. House will never reach emotional acceptance until the show’s final episode. That’s the soonest point where it makes sense for a recurring TV show to change something fundamental about their premise.

In a novel, you have more options. Your book is going to end—and unless you’re working on a series that is already sold to a publisher—it needs to end in a way that provides emotional closure for the reader. Most often, that means allowing a jerk character to move beyond being a jerk, at least in some small way. Most often, it means creating some kind of overall character arc within the larger plot, through which your jerk protagonist ends up a better person by the end.

This doesn’t mean the character has to do a one-eighty and become the nicest guy in the whole world. Far from it. You can provide the emotional closure even with minor changes in a character’s behavior. Maybe your protagonist ends up only slightly less of a jerk than when the book started out. That’s ok. (And if you’re hoping to turn the book into a series, preserving as many jerk qualities as you can will help you.) But showing at least one moment of the character doing something that isn’t a jerk move, that he couldn’t or wouldn’t have been able to do at the start of the book, can still provide the emotional closure readers seek.

I said most often you can satisfy the reader by allowing the character some personal growth, but not always. You might have a story in which the character actually does need to be a jerk. Maybe your character is a repo-man, who makes a living repossessing cars from people delinquent on their car payments. It’s not a fun job. People get mad when you take their car away, no matter how much they might deserve it. Just to get by, your character might need to be a jerk. Or maybe your character is an police officer in a vice unit, deep undercover within a dangerous gang. Being a jerk is the only way to fit in, get the job done, and survive.

Stories like those require that the character be a jerk, and don’t permit you to change it. But even in those stories, you can provide the reader with emotional closure through a character arc. You’ll just use a different kind of arc. Rather than an arc of personal growth by the character, you’ll use an arc structured around revealing to the reader a difference between the jerk behavior the character is forced to engage in, versus a less jerkish inner self that the character would rather be, but can’t. The emotional point of the story is for the reader to understand the character, rather than for the character to change.

Why it all works

Loveable jerks make great protagonists because we all wish we could act that way. We wish we could be so dis-inhibited and free as to act on every impulse we have, whether kindly or mean-spirited. In real life, we can’t. The social costs are too high. Jerks get punished by having few, if any, friends. Jerks are the first ones to get fired when their employers face a choice of who to lay off. Jerks, if they are so disinhibited as to flaunt the law, can easily jerk their way right into prison.

Thus we love our loveable jerks because through them we can indulge our own jerkish fantasies. As writers, we can do a lot worse than giving our readers the chance to live vicariously through the characters in our novels.

April 12, 2010 19:38 UTC

Tags: character, anti-hero, redeeming qualities, character arc, misfortune, immaturity

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How to break the rules of emotional response

This is part six in a five part series (yes, yes, I know) of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response. If you missed the beginning, Part 1 starts here

There’s this saying in fiction that no rules are absolute. You can break any rule, so long as it works. That’s entirely true. Thus, as a little bonus for anybody who had the patience to read the first five parts of my series on the rules of emotional response, I thought it would be fun to explore some of the effects you can achieve by intentionally violating the reader’s expectations about how characters respond.

Violating Denial

The thing about the five stages of grief is that stage 1, denial, always starts with misfortunes that are by definition surprising. They are unexpected events, ones that are usually unpleasant. If they were expected, they wouldn’t be surprising. They would be things that already fit with the character’s view of the world, and so there would be no need for the five stages at all. No surprise, no denial.

So what do you get when you show an unpleasant surprise but no denial? Generally, one of two things. Or both.

One is gullibility. If a character accepts a misfortune too readily, perhaps the character is just a fool who will take anything at face value. This is the effect—an unintentional effect—I most often see in work from my clients who don’t yet have the hang of portraying the five stages of grief. The dynamic in play is that the writer hasn’t sufficiently separated themselves from their characters. To the writer, the misfortune is no surprise at all: the writer knew it was coming all along, because he planned it. Consequently, he has forgotten to let his characters show the surprise he himself isn’t feeling.

That’s how the mistake comes about, but the reader doesn’t care about any of that. To the reader, the lack of surprise from the character simply comes across as a failure of the character’s intellect.

The other effect you can create by violating denial is trust. Trust, if you think about it, is kind of like gullibility. When the unpleasant surprise is a piece of unwanted information that comes from another character rather than from direct experience, the character may skip denial (or may experience it only very briefly) if he has sufficient trust and respect for the messenger.

This type of denial violation is great for showing trust, because it signals to the reader that the character is voluntarily suppressing his own judgment in favor of a judgment made by someone he accepts as smarter, wiser, better informed, or just generally speaking more authoritative than himself.

Violating Anger

After denial comes anger. If you violate a reader’s expectations by skipping the anger, you’re conveying a mental state in your character of “I accept that the misfortune is real, but I’m not going to flip out about it.” That’s fine, but be aware that in doing so you’re going to force your character to ask why. Two things come to mind, one that is temperamental, one situational.

First, it may simply be that your character’s temperament is a highly rational one. Anger rarely helps address a misfortune. It is nearly always wasted effort, in which case why do it? A character who is so rational as to skip over anger will, however, likely also skip over bargaining and depression as well, in order to get down to the business of overcoming the misfortune.

Second, the situation may not permit the luxury of anger, no matter how strongly the character might be inclined to be angry. Take two soldiers, make them the closest of brothers-in-arms, and put them in an intense firefight. Let one man be shot in plain view of the other. Yet, with bullets flying right and left, the man left standing simply has no time for anger. More than anything else, in that moment he needs to keep his head figuratively, in order to keep it literally. At that moment, he doesn’t have the luxury of getting mad (Hollywood portrayals of battle scenes notwithstanding); he needs to focus.

In particularly intense situations, you can use violations of anger to convey the stakes of the situation itself. But note, this doesn’t mean the anger is negated entirely. Rather, it is deferred. That soldier might not get mad in the heat of battle, but later, once he’s back at camp and things have quieted down, that anger’s going to come out. Skip it then, and you risk damaging the reader’s perceptions of the character on a much deeper level. Skip it then, and you’ll portray him as an emotionally cold fish who didn’t really care about his buddy after all.

Violating Bargaining

Let’s say you’ve had denial and anger, but you want to skip the bargaining. What does that get you? That gets you pride, in its many forms. This is a character whose mental state is “I may be upset about this situation, but I’m not gonna beg!”

Again, the question is why? Why not beg? Is it because the character is too proud to ask for help (all too common for men in our society)? Is it because the character is trying to preserve his dignity, and is willing to forego whatever slim chance of success that begging seems to offer (although you who have read the stage 3 article on begging know it’s a false hope) in order to retain the ability to think of himself in positive terms? Or is it a reflection of some kind of self-assurance, in which the character doesn’t even feel an impulse towards begging because he has the inner confidence that he’ll be able to get through it somehow? In that last case, your character is likely to skip depression as well.

The final reason not to beg, and one I talked about in part 3 of this series, is because bargaining often makes no sense. When a misfortune is not attributable to anyone with whom you could try to negotiate, then again, what’s the point? If a tornado is bearing down on your house, there’s not much point in trying to bargain with it to veer left. Situational misfortunes that are simple bad luck, and not caused by the choices of any other entities in the novel, are ones where you can skip the bargaining with no particular adverse consequences to your character.

Violating Depression

What can you do with a character who doesn’t get depressed about his misfortunes? Quite a lot, actually. Skipping the depression can show many different things.

It can show perspective. Most of the time, if you take a mental step back and look at the larger picture of life and what matters, you’ll see that the misfortunes life throws at us don’t really amount to much. If you come out of a restaurant only to find that your car has been stolen, well, that’s a bummer but does it really matter? Sure, you’ll be inconvenienced while your insurance company investigates and finally cuts you a check, but so what? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much.

It can show resilience. A character who rolls with the punches may well go through denial, anger, and bargaining, but having exhausted those won’t let himself get down about the situation. He’ll put on a brave face and carry on. What can get interesting for the writer is the distinction between genuine resilience and putting on an act. Is the character truly resilient, or is he putting on an act for the rest of the world’s benefit while inwardly spiraling down into depression?

Finally, there’s a danger involved with skipping the depression stage. You may inadvertently signal a lack of concern about the consequences the misfortune entails. When a misfortune threatens something of value to the character, or constitutes a significant obstacle between the character and his story goals, failing to show any moments of sadness or doomxiety could signal to the reader that the character doesn’t really care about those goals.

Violating Acceptance

Lastly, how can you violate the acceptance stage to your advantage? Remember, when a character emerges from depression into acceptance, that generally signals a shift in the character’s world-view towards a view that encompasses the misfortune and all of its consequences. So what do you get if you show him being done with depression, and yet not moving into acceptance?

You show resolve. The character is saying to himself “you know what? I’m not going to take that. I refuse to let this situation stand. I refuse to accept this as the way the world has to be!”

This can be enormously powerful as a turning point in a novel. You can subject a character to a serious misfortune, and let him fully experience stages 1 through 4. Let him hit wallow in deep blackness of depression and hit an emotional rock bottom. But from there, don’t just let him shrug his shoulders and accept the misfortune as immutable, as how things are. Let him instead emerge from depression in a fighting mood, ready to un-do whatever horrible thing you dumped on him.


BAD HASHThere’s a lot you can do with violations of the five stages of grief. You can, in fact, create some highly memorable characters. Characters like good old Forrest Gump. Forrest is the perfect example, because he pretty much skips the five stages entirely, and that’s what makes him so memorable.

Being not very smart, he doesn’t really do denial. To him, everyone is more authoritative than he is, so he’s accustomed to taking other people’s word on things. Skip the denial in that fashion, and there’s no particular reason to engage in anger, bargaining, or depression. And even though he chucks the whole five stages right out the window, it’s believable to the audience because for Forrest the whole world doesn’t make much more sense than what people tell him, so there’s nothing really to do except get on with things.

So that’s it. My thanks to everyone who stuck with this long series over the past couple of weeks. Go forth and add emotional realism to your characters’ reactions, but don’t be afraid to break the rules. Like they say, you can break any rule so long as it works. My hope is that I’ve been able to shed some light on just a few of the ways you can both use and abuse the rules.

< Back to part 5: Acceptance | Forward to writing better novels!

April 07, 2010 20:39 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, expectations, breaking the rules, gullibility, trust, stakes, pride, dignity, confidence, perspective, resilience, resolve

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Standing on magic legs

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

You have to pity poor Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. The poor guy goes through a lot after getting his legs shot off in Vietnam. He’s a great example of the five stages. He really shows them, especially anger and depression.

What I love about Lieutenant Dan is this moment of acceptance near the end of the movie. Here, we’ve seen Lt. Dan at the worst points of the five stages. We’ve seen him in drunken stupor. We’ve seen him raging against life and God. We’ve seen him in the blackest of black moods.

But here, we see him standing on his “magic legs” as Forrest calls them, happy. Because for all that he has been through, he has finally reached acceptance.

Acceptance is moving on with life. A character reaches it only when his old view of the world—the one that was invalidated by whatever misfortune he had to face, the one he held on to through three avoidance stages—fully gives way to a new world view that incorporates the reality of the misfortune plus its consequences. Seeing Lieutenant Dan, standing on new legs and with a new love by his side, is a powerful visual metaphor for acceptance.

As I wrote in the depression article, depression comes from either true grief, or from “doomxiety.” Consequently, the way characters express acceptance as they overcome these varieties of depression also take different forms.

Acceptance after true grief. There are four categories acceptance behaviors fit into. Well, there are probably more than that, but these are the big ones.

Re-engaging with life. Grief can make people withdraw from the friends, families, jobs, and all the other meaningful aspects of life. If your protagonist has done this, show acceptance by letting the character re-engage with life. Let him call an old friend for dinner or a movie, or get out of bed to go play catch with his kid in the backyard. This re-realization of what’s really important in life is classic acceptance.

Reaching out to the world. Grief can also make a character pull away from the whole world. Acceptance, then, means reaching back out to the world. Acceptance means gaining a new, forward-looking attitude. One that is characterized by justifiable hope for the future. Look for actions your character can do that fit with your story and which the character wouldn’t do if he didn’t have any hope that his actions could yield a positive result. And note, buying a lottery ticket doesn’t count. That’s not justifiable hope, that’s desperation.

Being creative. Grief also blocks people’s creative urges. Painters don’t have the will to pick up a brush, chefs lose interest in finding innovative new combinations of ingredients and techniques. Whatever artistic impulses a person has, whatever joy he takes in the act of creativity, is blocked. So, showing your protagonist taking up his particular art again is a wonderful way to show acceptance without being too heavy-handed about it.

Shifting perspective. Finally, characters can show acceptance by reaching a new perspective on past events. For example, if your protagonist has lost a loved one, he will have spent some time in the depression stage, literally grieving for the loss of that person. But when he reaches acceptance, he may be able to view the person’s death in a new light. He may instead be able to focus on the good parts of the person’s life, the experiences he shared with that person, the positive impact that person’s life has had on the world.

I love a good example, and recently I found one in Natalie Standiford’s How to say Goodbye in Robot. She wrote one of the sweetest moments of perspective shifting acceptance I’ve ever read. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil what is a wonderful book, but in it there’s a character who experiences a perspective shift about someone he has lost. In it, while musing about the possibility that the departed person might be a ghost, he says:

“If he haunts you, you’re lucky.”

Pure acceptance. And if you want to know how powerful this can be for the reader, I’ll offer the opinion that the book is worth reading for that one line alone.

Acceptance after doomxiety. As I wrote last time, “doomxiety” is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences of a misfortune that a character feels are inevitable. Doomxiety is most relevant for situational misfortunes, which are often the exact kinds of roadblocks we throw in front of our characters in order to make them struggle for success.

Doomxiety comes when you confront a character with a plot obstacle that seems insurmountable. Your character feels stuck because he has no plan for conquering the obstacle, and a belief that he’ll never find a good plan. Consequently, you can show a character moving from doomxiety to acceptance by combatting those elements.

Change the belief. Particularly effective is showing the moment when your protagonist realizes that the present—the bad consequences—may indeed suck, but that there is a way to cope. Show the character changing his belief from “there is no plan for coping with this situation” to “there must be a way to cope, and I’m going to find it.” Even if he doesn’t know what that plan is, just changing to a belief that there’s a plan out there waiting to be found signals the character’s first steps in getting un-stuck.

Find the plan. Next, show the character actually finding the plan. Having a belief in the future is wonderful, but let it bear fruit. Let your protagonist find that plan for how he’s going to get past whatever problem you’ve tossed at him.

Implement the plan. Your character may have found the best plan in the world for confronting the problem he’s facing. But he isn’t truly un-stuck until he takes action. He must put that plan into motion before readers will really believe he has moved into acceptance.

Conclusion Above all, what you must realize about acceptance is that it is the moment of emotional resolution to all that has come before. While bargaining may be the most dispensable stage in this whole long emotional process, acceptance is not. In fact, acceptance is not so much required as it is inevitable; unless you end your novel in the middle of the depression stage it is difficult to imagine how you could skip it. Acceptance is shown through the hopeful, forward-looking, resolute actions that a character takes following a misfortune. How could you even move your plot forward without showing it?

The trick is to make it believable. The trick is to make it feel real in the reader’s heart. The trick is to show acceptance in a way that gives readers an emotional resolution to everything they’ve witnessed the character endure before. When done really well, acceptance comes without fanfare and trumpets. If the stage has been properly set by using the first four stages of grief as a blueprint, acceptance can pass in a single line of dialogue—If he haunts you, you’re lucky—and yet still carry such impact as to justify your whole novel.

< Back to part 4: Depression | Coming Wednesday: Bonus Part 6!

April 05, 2010 19:21 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, acceptance, doomxiety, Natalie Standiford

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What am I going to do now?

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

"What am I going to do now?"

That’s probably what this guy is thinking. He just got laid off. That’s a big unpleasant surprise. His now-former boss probably endured his transitions through denial, anger, and bargaining (you can just imagine the scene, right?) before escorting him out the front door. And here he sits in the grip of depression. We can relate, right?

Of course we can, because depression is to be expected. It’s a normal part of the human response to bad news. That fellow is stressing out about how he’s going to make his next mortgage payment, how he’s going to put food on the table, how he’s going to manage if someone in his family should have an accident or get sick. His mind is busy exploring all the horrible consequences that seem inevitable now that he’s unemployed.

I’d be depressed too.

The heart of grief

The whole sequence of emotional response to bad news is called “the five stages of grief,” but if there’s any true grief to be had, it’s here in this stage. The prior stages are all about avoidance in one form or another. But now those have passed, and if the bad news was about some genuine form of loss—death of a loved one, loss of a job, of one’s social position, or of anything else a person has an emotional involvement with—then grief is appropriate. That is, grief in the classical sense of “sadness arising from loss.”

If that’s your character’s situation, go ahead and let him wallow in grief for a while. Show him moping around or crying. Show him letting go of activities he once enjoyed, because he has lost the person he enjoyed sharing those activities with. This is all to the good of your novel, because it shows readers the depth of the hurt. It shows, through observable effects on a character’s behavior, the level of emotional involvement the character had with whatever he lost.


But bad news comes in many forms, not just the loss of emotionally significant people and things. When the bad news is something different, classical grief isn’t always appropriate. But people still show signs of depression in these circumstances, it just stems from a different source than grief. It isn’t sadness arising from loss.

Think about the guy on the steps. Maybe he hated his job. Maybe he had zero emotional attachment to it, but what he’s depressed about is that movie of future horrible consequences playing in his head. He isn’t experiencing classical grief. He’s not actually sad that he lost the job he hated. He’s experiencing something else, something English doesn’t quite have a word for. I’m calling it “doomxiety.”

What he’s feeling is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences he feels are inevitable. His depression stems from the looming descent of those consequences into his life and his family’s life, combined with his inability to see how he’s going to cope.

He’s stuck in an emotional place where, after the previous three avoidance stages have passed, he can now see all the bad that’s coming his way but he cannot yet see how he’s going to cope with it. He may, in fact, believe that there is no possible way to cope effectively. The core of doomxiety is this stuck-ness, this lack of a plan for coping, coupled with an emotional sense that there is no such plan to be found.

He feels trapped and powerless. He feels anxious and doomed, hence “doomxiety.” If you know of a real word that captures all that, please share it down in the comments. I don’t even care if it’s an English word. I’ve been racking my brains to find one (and thanks to @leira_carola for helping), to no avail.

Doomxiety—until somebody comes up with a better word for it—is what you should strive to show the reader in these situations.


Finally, don’t forget to indulge the reader’s voyeuristic glee. Whatever its source—true grief or doomxiety—the depression stage is miserable. The guy on the steps is definitely not having a good time.

Nobody likes feeling depressed, but there’s no denying that readers certainly enjoy reading about other people’s suffering. So, while I don’t think you should go overboard on the suffering (unless you’re writing one of those novels), neither should you short-change it.

Find a nice balance between too much and too little. Too little, and you’ll sabotage the reader’s belief in the character’s suffering. Too much, and the reader might get bored or turned off to the book. But in between lies a sweet-spot where the suffering is both believable to the reader and satisfying to the reader’s inner voyeur. Don’t deny the reader that vicarious pleasure; instead, aim for it.

< Back to part 3: Bargaining | Forward to part 4: Acceptance

April 02, 2010 16:53 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, depression, doomxiety

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Make 'em beg!

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

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

Fat chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Degrees of desperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why begging works

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

Nor should it.

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

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

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

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

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

March 31, 2010 17:18 UTC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anger is the first sign of recognition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2010 18:57 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, anger

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If you only knew the power of denial

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The power of denial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward to part 2: Anger >

March 26, 2010 18:57 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, denial

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The other half of the sympathy equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2010 18:12 UTC

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

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What makes a sympathetic hero?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 17, 2010 19:46 UTC

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

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Great characters are like origami

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

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

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

Static personality features

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

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

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

Dynamic personality features

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

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

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

Many steps make a path

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

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

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

March 12, 2010 17:42 UTC

Tags: character, personality, character arc

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Are you accidentally dismembering your characters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 08, 2010 19:54 UTC

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

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Who is the Robin to your novel's Batman?

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

Make new friends

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

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

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

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

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

But keep the old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One is silver, and the other gold

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

March 05, 2010 20:03 UTC

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

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Do you know the difference between an epiphany and a character arc?

When plotting out or revising your novel, it’s important to understand the difference between an epiphany and a character arc. Both are useful and important, but they serve very different roles in the narrative. Think of them like salt and sugar: They’re both dry, granular materials, both are very important in cooking, but the two are hardly interchangeable.

This is an epiphany. It’s a moment of revelation, when a character comes to understand something he couldn’t grasp before. I’m not talking about realizations that relate to the plot, as when someone comes to understand the key to a puzzle or finally figures out what missing thing they need in order to overcome some challenge. Those are great story moments, but they don’t have much to do with characterization.

I’m talking about moments when a character suddenly realizes something about himself. Those are moments of deep significance in your book because they foreshadow that the character will begin to think and act differently.

A lot of modern fiction trades in making protagonists into their own worst enemies. This has been true for some time in literary novels, which tend to be deeply driven by characters rather than plot. However, it is becoming increasingly true in mainstream and “plot monster” books too, as writers learn the power of characterization and character growth to more deeply involve the reader in the book.

Regardless of genre, many books have a setup in which a character flaw is the one thing that most prevents the protagonist from getting the job done. Only when he recognizes this—like when an alcoholic finally admits that his drinking is in fact a problem—can he begin to get out of his own way.

This is a character arc. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true. But graduation is a nice representation of a character arc: It’s where a character ends up after a series of epiphanies.

In school, students are faced with many challenges—classes, term papers, and exams—to overcome. They must experience many epiphanies—moments when they finally grasp their course material—in order to overcome these challenges. When they do, they finally succeed—they get an emotionally fulfilling moment of celebration, complete with cap, gown, and diploma.

It’s the same in a novel. Your character starts with some flaws. Throughout the plot, he’ll encounter many challenges, some of which he’ll fail at because of those flaws. After enough failures or after a failure with dire consequences, the he’ll have an epiphany and realize how he must change in order to succeed. After additional challenges, some inevitable setbacks, more epiphanies, and a lot of hard work, the character really does grow as a person. Finally, at the novel’s climax he can then tackle a problem that would surely have defeated him before.

The key difference

An epiphany is nothing more than a realization in the thread of your character’s personal growth. It is a plot point along the inner plot of the character’s personal journey. A character arc, then, is the whole journey.

The journey is not the destination

While graduation is a great metaphor for a character arc, don’t confuse the two. Graduation is not school, it is only the destination of a student’s journey through school. It’s an emotional, symbolic moment. Likewise, a character arc is not an emotional moment, but is the process leading up to a moment when the changes a character has undergone are finally recognized.

For the novelist, this means that while your book should work towards a “graduation moment” for your character, to provide an emotional payoff to the difficult journey of personal growth, you can’t skip the growth itself.

Here’s what doesn’t work: I’ve seen manuscripts from clients where they tried to add a character arc by inserting an epiphany scene into the beginning of the book, and a graduation moment at the end, but without touching anything in between. That’s like character sleeping through the entire four years of college but still receiving a diploma anyway. It falls flat.

To be meaningful, a character arc must affect the plot. It must affect the choices a character makes in the novel’s scenes. To be effective, a character arc must convince readers that the plot would have turned out differently without it because the character would have made different (worse) choices.

You need an epiphany moment to kick things off near the beginning, several smaller epiphany moments along the way as the character’s understanding grows, and the graduation moment at the end. This is why it is so difficult to paste a character arc on top of an existing story structure: Because to make it work, you have to go back and re-consider every choice the character makes in light of what the character learns in the epiphany moments.

February 01, 2010 22:38 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, epiphany, growth, challenges, graduation, inner plot

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I disbelieve your lack of disbelief!

Last night I was looking over an old report I’d written for a client. The manuscript in question had several issues that needed to be fixed, but the one that really jumped out at me was about disbelief: the reader’s disbelief, and the hero’s lack of it.

The book was a science-fiction epic. In the early chapters, the hero has a “matrix moment” wherein he learns that basically everything he thought about his world wasn’t true. The writer did this in a dialogue-heavy exposition scene where the character’s wise mentor explains what’s really going on, complete with alien monsters, spaceships, the whole bit.

The scene failed utterly to capture my interest. The conversation went something like this:

Hero: “Mentor! What’s going on here?”

Mentor: Blah blah infodump, aliens, spaceships, blah blah, danger, danger, conspiracy plot.

Hero: “Oh, ok.”

Not only did the scene fail to capture my interest, the scene completely destroyed the book. Why? Because the hero just went right along with it. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t suspect that his mentor had gone utterly mad. In fact, he didn’t express the slightest bit of skepticism at all, not even a “come on, you’re joking, right?” Nothing.

In failing to make use of stage 1 of the five stages of emotional response , the writer failed to make the scene real for the protagonist. The guy didn’t respond like a real human being would have. And in failing to make the scene emotionally real for the hero, the writer failed to make it intellectually real for me.

In other words, the writer made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Game over.

Disbelief, denial, skepticism—these are all facets of the same incredibly important emotional response, that sensation of discomfort we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences that clash with what we believe to be true. The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we have inside.

This is as basic as breathing, and it happens in the blink of an eye.

When you confront a character with something that clashes with what they believe, you have to show some expression of disbelief. The greater the clash, the stronger the disbelief response should be. What is critical to realize is that in these moments, the character is a proxy for the reader. The reader knows how he or she would feel in that situation. The reader’s mind immediately fills with potential counter-arguments against the new information.

In that moment, the reader is waiting for the hero to express similar feelings and explore similar objections. That is, they’re waiting for the writer to prove to them that this unbelievable new information is really true, by overcoming the hero’s natural disbelief. Suspension of disbelief comes from first showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.

Obviously that won’t happen if you skip the character’s disbelief. What will happen instead are three really bad things:

It reflects badly on your characters. In the above example, it made the hero look like a moron. It made him look like the most gullible simpleton, the most clueless rube to ever survive the birthing process. I had to wonder how this guy manages to get himself dressed in the morning, or avoids poking himself in the eye when he eats with a fork.

It reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch with how human beings work that you have no business trying to portray humans on the page. You lose every shred of faith the reader might have had in your ability to tell a story with people in it. That being the case, consider switching to stories about robots and other characters who won’t be expected to act like humans. Give lemmings a try. I hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one hell of a lemming protagonist.

You lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation of your hero, and having destroyed the reader’s faith in you, what’s left? Nothing at all. There’s nothing left that can drag the reader through another couple of hundred pages of utterly unbelievable fiction. At that point, I would gladly trade your book for a free one-dollar lottery ticket. Even at 147-million-to-one odds, I’d have more faith in that lottery ticket to deliver me something good than your book.

Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation. You need their suspension of disbelief, which you only get by overcoming your characters’ disbelief.

January 29, 2010 22:49 UTC

Tags: character, emotions, disbelief, denial, skepticism, emotionally credible, suspension of disbelief

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Why people are scarier than monsters

It seems like you can’t swing a dead cat in a bookstore anymore without hitting a paranormal or horror book featuring zombies, vampires, werewolves, or even Victorian-era sea monsters.

When they’re done well, there’s nothing wrong with these books. But they tend to leave aspiring writers in these genres with a false impression about the genre: that you need some variety of monster to fill the role of scary villain. This is where things can go wrong, because honestly, monsters aren’t all that scary.

If your aim is to put real terror on the page, consider going with an ordinary human as your villain. The reason is simple:

Monsters don’t have any choice in the matter.

In classical formulations—which aspiring writers often gravitate towards in their early works—monsters are evil because they’re made that way. It’s in their nature. They have no particular choice about it, and consequently, they’re also often portrayed as not very intelligent either.

I can scarcely find a sufficient adjective to qualify the degree to which that saps their power as villains.

Just to pick one, let’s consider the zombie: a brain-hungry, mindless killing and eating machine, with the power to zombify the innocent with their purulent bite. Now I’m not saying zombies fail to register at all on the fear scale. The zombie’s utter relentlessness helps. The whole zombie horde thing does have a certain panache to it. They do constitute a threat, which gives some default amount of fear.

But that’s about it. Once your good guys figure out that they can outrun the zombie-shuffle basically forever, and that the classic shovel-to-the-neck move will save them in a tight spot, the fear is over.

Zombies have no choice about what they do, so they can’t respond to the protagonists in any meaningful way. They can’t change their tactics or even their goals. From a storytelling perspective, when you’re trying to build tension and suspense, that sucks. The same shovel-to-the-neck that saves somebody on page 20 will still work on page 200. Mindless zombies are entirely predictable. How boring is that?

It’s the same with other monsters. Werewolves have to bite because it’s what they do. No big deal: just lock yourself inside somewhere safe on the night of the full moon. There’s a strategy for dealing with werewolves, one for vampires (wooden stakes / crosses / holy water), and so forth.

Emphasis on the singular: A strategy. Monsters that lack free will do present a threat but it’s not enough to sustain genuine suspense, tension, and fear through a whole book. There’s just no tension when the same strategy keeps working, over and over, against the same threat. To get suspense, tension, and fear, your protagonists need to face a series of unpredictable challenges in overcoming the monsters.

Free will creates unpredictability

But what about ordinary humans? Humans have free will. They can and do make choices. This makes them unpredictable, and that’s what creates the fear. Remember, fear comes primarily from the unknown. Something that is unpredictable cannot be known or deeply understood, and thus remains scary.

You never know what a villain who has genuine free will—and the intelligence to use it—is going to do. Readers and protagonists alike have to stay on their toes, because the villain can (and should) spring unpleasant surprises on them.

There’s a second reason why free will creates scary villains. It’s more subtle, but much more powerful. Free will means that the villain, somewhere in his past, made a choice to be bad. Maybe it was all at once, maybe it was some kind of slippery-slope scenario, but somewhere that person decided to be evil.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Somewhere along the line, he decided that satisfying his own twisted desires was in fact more important than the harm he was doing to others. Lecter is smart. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, he just doesn’t care. Somewhere in his past, he had a choice between good and evil, and he picked evil.

To me that implies a level of malice that is so far above the mindless, no-choice evil of ordinary monsters that it’s not even on the same scale. The unpredictability and malice of willful evil creates suspense and fear that trumps garden-variety monsters any day.

Have your brains and eat them too

Fortunately, this is one of those rare cases in life where it’s not that difficult to have it both ways. If you want to put monsters in the lead villain role, fine. Just step away from the classic formulations of them. Give us zombies that may be innately driven to eat the brains of the living, but make them crafty and cunning about it.

Whether living or undead, give your villains free will and the intelligence to use it. Keep them unpredictable and they’ll remain scary for the whole book.

January 12, 2010 19:13 UTC

Tags: character, choice, good and evil, malice, monsters, fear, drama, suspense

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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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Villains are heroes too

In the last part of my character revision series I made the case for why all your significant characters should have some kind of arc. That includes your villains.

Look at it from their perspective: The villain is the hero of his or her own story. Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t consider herself to be a bad person. She was a person who felt she had been wronged, and wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: Exact justice on Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas). We’d call it revenge, but to her, it was justice. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it. So why shouldn’t she get a character arc too?

She should, and here are four good reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:

Believability and drama A villain who feels like a one-dimensional stereotype isn’t particularly believable. Real people are rarely so simple. If you’re doing a serial-killer thriller, say, but the whole of your villain’s development is contained in the two word phrase “serial-killer,” nobody’s going to put much faith in him as a real person. His actions and motivations will be all too predictable, and consequently, there is no drama.

A believable person is unpredictable. Unpredictability equals threat, which generates fear (both for the book’s hero and for the reader), which increases the whole book’s sense of drama.

Depth If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel more depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes, and that’s really all there is to say about that.

Message and meaning Giving the villain an arc, with its attendant set of credible, carefully considered beliefs and motivations, gives you an opportunity to play with the similarities and differences between your hero and your villain. That, in turn, creates a perfect opportunity to give your book a deeper message and meaning beyond what’s in the plot. Sure, giving your villain any random character arc at all will still help your novel. But why be random when you can be smart?

If you’re clever about what arc you give the villain, you can a wonderful possibility for playing the two arcs off of each other. By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.

Take suffering: perhaps both hero and villain are being driven by suffering from a previous emotional wound. But the hero works to overcome it, while the villain allows the suffering to drag him down into the darkness. This technique is great for giving your book a message and showing the complex, not black-and-white but gray nature of the world, without you ever having to point it out to the reader.

In this example, readers are likely to begin the book with a default attitude that suffering is bad. After all, nobody likes to suffer. We try to avoid it if we can. But by showing your hero emerge from suffering as a stronger person, while the villain succumbs to it and is ultimately defeated, you can show a more complex picture: Suffering itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how we choose to react to it. The best part is you never have to explain the message to the reader. It’s shown, right there in the two arcs.

Hope Boiled down to the barest essence, a character arc represents hope. It is a signal that some kind of change is coming, and if there can be change, there can be improvement. If your serial-killer villain has a character arc going on, then the reader can have hope that he may change and not, in fact, kill the victim he is presently stalking. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.

Now, you don’t have to redeem the villain just because you gave him or her an arc. Absolutely not. But take care: If you’re doing it right, the arc will come with a pivotal moment somewhere in the plot, where the villain chooses the redemptive path or the path of condemnation. The serial-killer either chooses not to kill, or gives in to the bloodlust and does the victim in anyway.

Whichever you choose, that pivotal moment for the villain is also a pivotal moment for your book because the villain’s choice must be absolutely believable to the reader. You can’t just write up to that point then flip a coin to see what happens. Everything that has led up to that moment must, in the reader’s hindsight, support the choice the villain makes. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph the choice ahead of time and give away the ending, but the ending must fit what has come before like a glove.

Well, I guess you could flip a coin about it, as long as you’re willing to go back in revision to add support for the result. As novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture:

As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”

December 18, 2009 19:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, antagonists, villain, believability, drama, depth, message, hope, redemption

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Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?

I spend a lot of time on this blog helping explain what writers can do to improve their characters. Today, I’m doing the opposite: talking about a mistake writers should not make in their scene transitions and chapter breaks because it can sabotage their characters.

If you’re wondering how scene transitions can sabotage a character, welcome to the club. I was quite shocked the first time I discovered this phenomenon because it’s so unexpected. Scene transitions are only gaps in the narrative, where you presumably skip over boring stuff the reader doesn’t need to see in order to move on to the next moment that’s meaningful to the plot. But “skipping the parts people don’t read,” as Elmore Leonard put it, is a good thing, right? How in the world can gaps reflect badly on your characters?

If you do them right, they don’t. But if you do them wrong, they can leave all sorts of impressions about your characters that you didn’t intend at all.

The Discovery

The first time I discovered this it was in a client’s manuscript where I felt that the main character was way too passive, which was weird because I could see him doing stuff at many points in the story. As I was writing my feedback for the client, I was asking myself why he seemed so passive. And then it hit me. The problem wasn’t in the writing, it was in the gaps between the writing.

The writer was ending a lot of scenes in typical cliffhanger fashion, thus motivating the reader to keep reading to see what the main character was going to do about that end-of-scene crisis. That’s a great technique. But then the next scene would pick up later, after the crisis was over. The writer presented enough recap so you knew how things ended up, but then moved on with the rest of the story. So while the main character certainly did a lot of things during the scenes of the book, I never actually got to see him respond to these cliffhanger crises. It left the impression that he didn’t do anything about them, and thus, that he was too passive.

The Theory

That’s just one example. But an awkward transition can create all manner of misconceptions about a character, depending on the context. It goes something like this.

At the end of a scene, readers have a picture in mind. They know who’s doing what, where they are, what their goals are, et cetera. The scene itself has built this picture for them. Further, at the end of the scene, your readers will have some kind of guess as to how the events may unfold.

But then the scene ends, so at the beginning of the next scene they have to build new mental pictures. If the second scene doesn’t sufficiently lay out the new picture while also linking back to the previous one, your characters can fall right through that gap. Let me see if I can create this effect for you in a short example.

Backstory: A husband and wife are having marital problems following the death of their first child, some five years prior. They’re dealing with the 5 stages of grief in their own ways and on their own timelines. He’s ready to move on and have another child, but she’s not and every time they talk about it they always end up in a fight.

Scene one: Having a pretty good day, the husband and wife decide to go for a walk. Without really paying attention to where they’re wandering, they find themselves atop on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the sea, their picturesque stone cottage in the background. Only, it’s the very same bluff from which their first child fell to his death. They both become silent and sullen. Neither can say anything, so in a moment of tenderness, they embrace, clinging to each other for support.

Scene two: Back in the cottage, the wife is in the kitchen sniffling and wiping away tears while preparing dinner. The husband, still seeming sullen, is stoking up a fire in the fireplace. Later, the doorbell rings and guests arrive for dinner. Husband and wife put on brave faces and attempt to entertain as best they can, although the evening is not a raging success.

Now ask yourself: why was the wife crying in scene two? What happened in between those two scenes? Don’t over-think it, just go with your gut. It’s probably telling you that back on the bluff, the husband must have brought up the subject of having another child again, resulting in another fight on the walk back to the cottage.

“But no,” screams the writer after it’s much too late to protest, “that isn’t what I meant at all! I only meant to show that she was chopping onions. It’s show, don’t tell, just some colorful detail in the kitchen scene. He didn’t bring up having another baby, and they didn’t fight!”

Ok fine, Mr. Writer Guy, but your rough and awkward scene transition reflects badly on the husband. It quite likely leaves readers thinking the guy is an insensitive jerk. They’ll be judging him for not recognizing that she’s still hurting, and critical of him for not giving her the time she needs to heal.

The scene break may be perfectly justified on structural grounds. That walk back to the cottage doesn’t, in fact, advance the story. There’s no conflict in it, so it has to go.

The problem occurs when a reader’s guess about what happens next is neither confirmed nor denied. The walk back to the cottage is the bridge from the first scene to the second. Even if you shouldn’t show it directly, you can’t leave it out entirely or the husband falls to his metaphorical death in the reader’s eyes.

The Solution

Two things need to happen at that scene transition in order for the husband not to come off looking like a cad, or more generally, for writers to avoid unintentionally showing something negative about their characters.

First, the scene break had better be in the right place. In the above example I’ve posited that it was, but that’s not always what writers do. Ending a scene too early is particularly dangerous, because you leave things very vague for the reader. The gap to the next scene can be too wide, leaving the reader with too many possible outcomes to consider. Don’t end the scene until you’ve given the reader a clear sense for exactly what you’re about to skip over. Don’t try to eliminate every possible incorrect guess that may be in the reader’s mind. You can’t build the whole bridge here. But that’s ok. A bridge has two ends, and this scene is just one of them.

Second, the following scene must establish its own mental picture quickly and clearly, in such a way that the reader can see how this scene logically follows from the previous one. Here is where you build the other end of the bridge by dealing with any remaining uncertainty left by the previous scene’s ending. Your job is to give the reader that brief moment of realizing “Ok, I see how we got from there to here.”

Build a Bridge

A scene transition is a gap. Always bear that in mind. Your job as the writer is to provide a bridge over that gap so your characters don’t plummet into the churning waters below.

A scene creates a mental picture for the reader, but it also leaves the reader having a guess as to what might happen next. If the following scene doesn’t clearly confirm their guess or lead them to a different understanding, then your bridge has a hole in the middle. Don’t make your readers guess at what happened. Let them imagine it, sure. But don’t make them guess.

December 15, 2009 19:34 UTC

Tags: character, flaws, transitions, mistakes, writing, bridge, gap

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How to revise your character arcs

This is the final installment, part 6, in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. This is the big one. Today, we talk about character arcs.

The goal of a character arc is to present believable personal growth for your main characters, and to provide a feeling of emotional closure. Yes, successful books can and have been written without any meaningful growth in the character, or with no emotional closure at the end. Thrillers are the typical example of this type of book.

But to omit the character arc, even in a gripping, page-turning thriller, is a lost opportunity. As I’ve said before, a character arc is a way to elevate your novel to another level above and beyond run-of-the-mill books in your genre. The emotional closure provided by leaving your characters wiser at the end of the book than the beginning also leaves the reader wiser. It leaves the reader with the feeling that reading the book was a valuable use of their time, above and beyond the simple enjoyment they were expecting when they bought it.

Have you got any character arc already?

If you do, great. If the arc was intentional, even better. Skip ahead to the next section.

But what if you don’t? If you haven’t considered your protagonist’s personal growth before, where do you look for inspiration? You look to the plot, and look to yourself.

In the plot, look for obstacles of a similar nature that the protagonist faces at various points. For example, let’s say the protagonist gets in a lot of arguments in the course of the book, which is a problem because she’s constantly turning people into minor enemies who no longer want to be helpful to her. Possibilities for character arc include learning some better negotiation and conflict resolution skills, or some introspection. Maybe she could ponder, since arguments always seem to be happening to her, whether she’s the problem. Maybe she can figure out what she’s saying or thinking that tends to trigger these arguments. Revise the early dialogue scenes to more clearly portray her problematic interaction style. Likewise, revise dialogue scenes that take place later in the book to show her practicing not getting in arguments and having better outcomes with people. If she can learn that she was her own worst enemy, even in that one small aspect of her whole life, then you can leave her a better person at the end of the book.

If your plot doesn’t offer any obvious character arc material, then look to yourself. Ask yourself what you know now that you didn’t know when you were younger. What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to give your younger-self one piece of advice? Or, as literary agent Donald Maass put it in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

I do not believe you have no opinions. It is simply not possible that you have never observed a fact of human nature or uncovered a social irony. You are an aware, observant and discerning person. You are a novelist.

So take your observations of human nature, and find a way to show them through your protagonist’s experiences. Take care, though. It’s easy to be very clumsy in adding a message of this type to a book, which only leaves the reader feeling like you’ve hit them over the head with it. You don’t want to do that. To be subtle about it, you never want to tell the message. You want to show it so the reader sees it for themselves. Show it so the reader leaves the book feeling like the message is their own observation about life, not yours. Consider what your message is, then find a series of events that create a character arc which conveys that message without you ever having to spell it out explicitly.

Is your character arc well portrayed?

Remember, being believable is an important part of a character arc. You can’t just toss one into the mix and expect it to magically integrate with everything else in the novel. You want to look at a couple of things with respect to believability.

One is whether the character’s other attributes, the ones the rest of this revision series has talked about, track the character arc. Use the character’s visible attributes, everything the rest of this revision series has talked about, to show the otherwise invisible process of personal growth.

So ask yourself, is the arc reflected appropriately in the character’s dialogue? In their mannerisms? In their attitudes? Depending on the arc, it may even be reflected in the character’s body. For example, if your book starts out with an out-of-shape protagonist having a heart attack, then you can use physical health, strength, and stamina as external reflections of the character’s inner growth.

The other is whether the arc is too clean, too neat-and-tidy, to be believable. Real people, much as they strive to better themselves in earnest, have setbacks. People who are trying to quit smoking sometimes sneak a cigarette in a moment of stress, knowing they really shouldn’t. Recovering alcoholics sometimes fall off the wagon. Parents who are doing their best to raise their kids with love and compassion sometimes get pushed too far and yell anyway.

To be believable, a character arc needs to show believable progress, which usually means including the occasional setback. Certainly it includes initial stages where the character is trying to change but still isn’t doing very well with it. There’s nothing worse than a character arc that is really more of a stair-step: when the character goes from realizing they have a problem to immediately being cured of it. People are creatures of habit , and habits are hard to change. Don’t forget to show the struggle to change along with the change itself.


Although writers can spend a lifetime refining the techniques of portraying believable characters, in everything from dialogue to character arcs, that’s going to do it for this character revision series. If you’ve read the whole thing, thank you! I hope it has helped trigger some new ideas, give you some new tools to work with, and expose you to some strategies for thinking about character portrayal that will help elevate your novels above the run-of-the-mill.

After all, the only way out of the slushpile is up.

< Back to part 5, attitudes

December 09, 2009 19:26 UTC

Tags: character, revision, character arc, personal growth, emotional closure, obstacles, observation, show don't tell, setbacks

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How to revise your characters attitudes

This is part 5 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. So far in this series we’ve covered most of the superficial and mid-level aspects of your character, their dialogue, their mannerisms, and their bodies.

Today, we’re moving deeper to talk about attitudes: the opinions and beliefs your characters hold that shape the choices they make and the way they interact with other people.

There are three important goals you should strive for when revising attitudes: One, creating complexity. Do your characters hold complex views about life, just like real people? This is the time to take one-dimensional characters and flesh them out into believable human beings. Two, ensuring consistency. Real people’s attitudes tend to cluster into well established groups according to social, cultural, economic, political, and religious lines. This is the time to make sure that your characters’ beliefs fit together into a unified whole. Three, differentiating characters from one another both to create drama and believability in the whole work. After all, no two people hold the same attitudes about everything, and those differences are the source of much excellent drama.

Consider the individual

The first two goals, complexity and consistency, are ones you can tackle by considering your characters one at a time.

If you’re the sort of writer who does extensive character development before writing the book, you likely already have copious notes about what everyone in your book believes. Review these notes and make sure that your characters don’t sound like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Especially if you have used shortcuts like “slick used car salesman” to create a quick mental picture of a character, now is the time to dig deeper. Sure, maybe your used car salesman will do or say anything to close the deal, but ask yourself, is that really true? Would he really sell a lemon to a single mother who he knows won’t be able to afford the car’s inevitable repair bills? Does he consider all customers equally, or is he biased against low-income or minority buyers who walk onto his lot? It’s all up to you, but ask yourself whether particular answers to questions like that will give you opportunities to align or clash with other characters.

If you didn’t do any particular character development , that’s ok too. This is a great occasion to discover your characters’ beliefs by interviewing them. Browse around online to find one of those “lists of 100 questions to answer about your characters” that pop up on so many writing websites. Find one you like, and write a scene at a cafe or something where you, the author, literally have a conversation with the character. Now that you’ve finished the novel, you probably have a gut feel for the character’s attitudes even if you can’t name them specifically. Conducting an interview is a great way to discover the specifics behind that gut feel. Again, look at the results and ask whether they are complex enough, and whether there are opportunities for change that will create drama later.

Whichever method you used, consider whether any of a character’s attitudes clash with the rest of what that person feels and believes. Are any particular beliefs against-type for the character’s social, ethnic, or economic background? If not, that’s fine. If so you can either change it to enhance that character’s portrayal as a representative of their background, or leave the clash but work to find a justification for it.

For example, if you have a teenager who is a devout fundamentalist Christian but who also believes that pre-marital sex is ok, you’ve got a clash. You can make the character fall in line with his peers, or else come up with a reason for it. Maybe he was himself the product of a pre-marital affair. He knows he wouldn’t exist without pre-marital sex. On a certain level, he owes his life to it. And since he can also feel God’s love personally in how own life regardless of his parents’ marital status, he has trouble getting too worked up about that particular issue.

Consistency in attitudes should also apply across the whole book, except to the degree that the character grows or changes over the course of the book. The overall character arc (which I’ll cover at the end of this series) may well be structured around changing one or more of a character’s attitudes through the events of the plot. That’s a good thing, but that’s something I’ll cover more in the next installment.

Consider the cast

Before you go jumping into your manuscript to adjust all your individual characters, spend some time considering the attitudes of your cast as a whole. In this, you are looking for ways to heighten the drama, create opportunities for conflict and obstacles, and create the sort of moral ambiguity that so often occurs in real life.

Allies. Look at who in your book is allied with who else, and find ways to differentiate their attitudes from one another. This is a great way to create internal tension within the group. If you can do this for one or more beliefs which guide the group’s decision at key points in the book, you also immediately elevate the drama surrounding those decisions. Will the group go one person’s way, or another’s, or will the group split up? You can have some great arguments and confrontations around what the best thing to do is, when allied characters differ in their core beliefs.

Adversaries. The other way to do is to look at pairs of characters who are adversaries, and find ways to give them similar attitudes to each other. You can leave your protagonists with some terribly difficult decisions to make if they discover that they are not so very different from their antagonists. It can also work tremendously well to give adversaries the same core belief, but have them interpret it in radically different ways.

You might, for example, have adversaries who were once allies in the environmental movement, except one of them decided that the best way to fight climate change is to promote renewable energy while the other decided that the best way was mass murder. One is attacking the supply-side of the energy economy, while the other is attacking the demand side. Literally. If the FBI calls your hero to help stop the eco-terrorist before he wipes Los Angeles off the map, your hero may have some tricky moral questions to resolve: yes, murder is wrong, but climate change itself stands to kill a lot more people so maybe the villain’s brutally expedient strategy isn’t so wrong in the big picture. At any rate, the hero can certainly empathize with the villain’s point of view, which can give you some great drama.

You can mix-and-match those strategies, of course, but even when applied exactly as I’ve described they both work just fine.


Attitudes and beliefs start to get into who your characters are on a deep, personal level. I don’t encourage you to change their attitudes willy-nilly. Be thoughtful about it. But undeniably, conflicts and unexpected alignments in attitudes are both opportunities for strengthening your characters and your plot at the same time. So many novels suffer from flat characterization and the dreaded “sagging middle.” Making strategic choices about your characters attitudes and beliefs offers you the opportunity to fix both at the same time.

< Back to part 4: physical attributes | Next: part 6, character arcs >

December 09, 2009 00:03 UTC

Tags: character, revision, attitude, beliefs, protagonists, antagonists, multi-dimensional

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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.


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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How to revise your characters' mannerisms

This is part 3 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising mannerisms. As with dialogue, the goal with these is to present characters whose mannerisms are distinctive and consistent. But beyond that, you want to look for opportunities to use mannerisms to show characterization.

Great characters have mannerisms that make them distinct from other characters. Unless, I suppose, you’re writing about an army of clones. Real people hold their heads just-so, or gesture when they speak in specific ways that are distinctive to them. The whole package of mannerisms creates what you might call a “fingerprint of motion” for the character. That person moves like no other. That person uses his or her body differently than everyone else. Not in a strange or bizarre way, necessarily, but just unique to them. Have you ever seen someone from behind, at a bit of a distance, but you knew immediately it was them just by the way they were carrying themselves? As you revise, that’s what you’ll be striving for.

Physical mannerisms, being largely unconscious or else the product of physical factors the character can’t control, should also be consistent. If your character has a limp at the beginning of the book because of an old knee injury, he’ll still have it at the end. The caveat, as always, is that you may have a plot point, such as knee surgery or moving to a part of the world with different customs, that forces a character to change mannerisms.

So how do you do it?

Make lists, flag the manuscript, revise

The mechanical process for revising mannerisms and attributes is pretty similar to what you do for dialogue. I covered that yesterday so I won’t re-hash all that here. In short, you make lists for each character of how they move and how they think. Compare the lists and tweak them until you’re satisfied that everybody is distinctive. Then flag the manuscript using your favorite method so you can easily locate each character’s scenes, and then revise the characters one by one. That part is pretty straightforward.

What I want to talk about instead are strategies for editing those lists to create individual fingerprints of motion for each character, and to make sure those fingerprints work for you on multiple levels.

Reduce over-used mannerisms

If you look at your mannerism lists and find that they’re already distinctive, great. Pat yourself on the back and move on. But more likely you’ll notice that you have lots of characters who sigh to themselves when they’re disappointed, or who roll their eyes to show disdain, or who gesture wildly when they talk or whatever it may happen to be. What then?

If that’s the case, odds are also good that this particular mannerism comes from you. You may well do this yourself. Think about what that mannerism means to you. Do you sigh to yourself because you need to express your disappointment but want to keep it hidden from others? Do you gesture wildly because you get excited about whatever you’re talking about? Ponder the deeper meaning behind those largely unconscious gestures.

Don’t worry too much about whether you’re right or wrong, just think about it until you have a plausible-sounding idea for why you do that thing. If it’s not something you yourself do, don’t worry about that either, but still spend some time thinking about what the mannerism means. Once you know, ask yourself which character in your story is the best fit for that meaning.

For example, if upon reflection you decide that you roll your eyes a lot because you’re smarter than everyone else in the world and so to you everyone else seems like an idiot, then find the most egotistic character in the book and let him or her have that mannerism. Not that this applies to you, of course. Oh no. It’s just an example. Still, when you take the eye-rolling away from everyone else, the gesture becomes a way to show the self-centered arrogance of the one person who does it without you ever having to use the words “self-centered” or “arrogant” anywhere in your manuscript.

This is how you make mannerisms work for you on multiple levels. Used carefully, not only does a mannerism create distinction, it also shows, rather than tells, characterization. Used carelessly, it doesn’t show anything.

Add distinctive mannerisms

When you’re done reducing your over-used mannerisms, odds are your characters’ lists will all be a lot shorter. Which in turn means that the characters are less fully developed; the character’s fingerprint of motion has been wiped away. So, time to add some good stuff back in. My two favorite ways to do this are backstory-based brainstorming, and emulation.

Consider the character’s backstory, the sum-total of that person’s history and personality, and brainstorm ways it may have shaped the character’s mannerisms. You may have a character who is naturally shy, and in groups has trouble getting her turn in the conversation to add her own thoughts and perspectives. What can she do about that? Well, “don’t be shy” isn’t exactly plausible advice, so maybe instead she co-opts a social convention from childhood: raising your hand. Back in gradeschool, we all had to raise our hands before we could speak. So maybe she does that. Not a huge, arm straight up to the sky pose like we did in school, but just a subtle hand raised up maybe to shoulder level. The other people around the table will see this, and on some level they’ll recognize that gesture as a social convention for indicating that you want to speak. They’ll see her hand and quiet down for a moment so she can talk.

Emulation is just another facet of that old adage “great writers steal.” In this case, you’re not stealing other people’s words, but rather, borrowing bits of other people’s fingerprints of motion. I like to pick famous people for this, because it’s really easy to find visual references for them on YouTube or elsewhere. Take three politicians: George Bush had that signature way he would grip the sides of the podium with both hands when he spoke, with his shoulders hunched up just a little bit. John McCain has that stiffness to his body from the indignities he suffered when he was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. Barack Obama tends to gesture with a flat hand, an open palm, when he talks. And when he speaks from a podium, his head turns right-to-left-to-right with almost clockwork regularity about every two seconds.

So think about famous people, or just people you know well, and find little pieces of motion you can borrow for the betterment of your characters. Again, think about what those pieces of motion might mean, and make sure to hand them out in ways that best allow you to show each character.


Use these strategies to make sure every character has a fingerprint of motion that is unique to them, that is believable given their history, and that is also useful for showing that character’s personality. Once you have a solid list for each character, use the revision processes I discussed in yesterday’s article to apply them across your manuscript. It is, as someone on yesterday’s article commented, a lot of work. There’s no getting around that. If it helps:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. I rewrote the first part of Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.” —Ernest Hemingway

“I’m not a great writer, I’m a great rewriter.” —Paddy Chayefsky

< Back to part 2: revising dialogue | Next: part 4, revising physical attributes >

December 04, 2009 19:38 UTC

Tags: character, revision, mannerisms, distinctive, consistent, show don't tell

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How to revise your dialogue

This is part 2 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising dialogue. The goal with dialogue, aside from advancing the plot, should be to show your characters’ inner selves through how they speak.

Great dialog is distinctive; each character sounds only like himself and no other. The rule of thumb is that when the reader can tell immediately who said a line of dialogue without looking at the surrounding narrative, you’ve done your job.

Great dialogue is also consistent; characters should end the book still sounding like they did in the beginning. The caveat here, of course, is that elements of the character arc and plot may well influence how the character speaks. For example, you might have a character who undergoes a character arc in which he stops being so much of an insensitive jerk, which you show by changing the way he speaks. Or you may have a plot point in which the character suffers a stroke with partial paralysis, and physically cannot speak the same as before. But barring those types of effects, great dialogue is consistent.

So how do you do it?

Make lists

Start by realizing that having finished the manuscript, you now know each character much better than you did at the beginning of the book. Much as you may have wanted to make each character sound distinctive from the beginning, you may simply not have known them well enough to do so. But now you do.

Start by making a list of each character in the book—the major ones and the minor ones too. While you should spend more energy making sure your major characters’ dialogue is flawless, dialogue is about the only opportunity that minor characters have to pop off the page as real people. Then for each character, write down some descriptions of how that character speaks. List their verbal tics. Flip through the manuscript, looking for lines of their dialogue to remind yourself of the details of each character’s voice, and summarize it all.

Revise the lists

Now take a look across these lists. Look for similarities between characters, or characters where you didn’t know what to write besides “speaks normally.” Similarities indicate places where you may want to change one or the other character to make them more distinctive.

For example, you might notice that all your characters use “really” quite often as an intensifier. You could change one character to use “very” instead, and change another character not to do that at all. That character might resort to more round-about ways of emphasizing his or her points, such as by saying “I’m quite sure that...” instead.

Conversely, characters whose lists indicate a generic voice are opportunities to create verbal tics specifically for the purpose of making the characters come alive. If the character comes from a place with a distinctive accent or dialect, make use of that. You might even change the character’s background to provide that opportunity. Or you might think about people you know who talk in distinctive ways and make the character emulate them.

Work the lists over until you’re satisfied that each character’s list is sufficiently distinctive from the others. Make use of the techniques I gave in this earlier article to make sure each character’s list of verbal tics also fits his or her personality. Yes, the list should be distinctive from the others, but the items on it should also help you show the character traits you’ll want to show.

Flag the manuscript or make a spreadsheet

The idea here is to find a way to work on your characters one at a time, rather than trying to fix each character’s dialogue simultaneously. I mean, you could just go through the manuscript line by line, fixing each bit of dialogue as you encounter it. But it’s difficult to keep a firm grip on all your character’s speech patterns at the same time, and since the whole point of revising is to increase the overall quality, I’m going to give you two methods for revising each character in isolation.

The first method, and often the most practical, is to use peel-off flags and highlighters. Start by printing out the manuscript. The whole thing. You might even do it double-spaced to give yourself room to revise on the page. Then read through it, using highlighters to mark each character’s dialogue with a different color. Don’t worry about changing anything, just mark everything. Similarly, use those little colored tape flag thingies to mark the beginnings of scenes where each character occurs.

Your manuscript will end up looking like a paint store exploded all over it. That’s ok, because now you’ll be able to easily scan through the manuscript, looking for colors rather than reading the words, to locate each character’s dialogue. Oh, and one other tip: you may be tempted to use those new colored sharpie markers to highlight with. Don’t. They stink, and once it soaks into the paper, that sharpie smell doesn’t go away. You’d think it would, but it doesn’t. Stick with the old-fashioned wide-tip highlighters. Your nose will thank you.

The second method, if you’re the techie type, is to make a spreadsheet. Literally extract every line of dialogue onto separate worksheets, one for each character. You may also want to track the chapter number and/or page number, to make putting everything back easier. This is a ton of cut-and-paste work, but it does offer the benefit of allowing you to see all of a character’s dialogue together without anything else getting in the way. It will make revising the dialogue later much faster, and give you more consistent results. If you can stand the work involved, I’d recommend it.

Revise the manuscript

Now you’re ready to revise. Pick a character. Re-read that character’s list of dialogue attributes you made earlier. Get it firmly in your head, and once you’re ready to channel that character’s soul out onto the page, begin.

If you went with the highlighter method, start flipping through the pages. Don’t read, just let your eyes glaze over watching for green spots or whatever the character’s color is. When you find one, read the line and see if it fits the list. If not, revise on the page or in your work processor, whichever you prefer. I find it easier to revise on the page, rather than having to flip back and forth between paper and screen to do the edits. I save those all for one final pass after I’ve fixed everything.

If you went with the spreadsheet commando method, here’s where you get to feel smug and superior to everyone else. Hit each character’s worksheet, look for lines that don’t fit, and fix them. You’re in the enviable position of being easily able to glance at lines from the beginning and end of the manuscript, looking for shifts in tone that don’t belong. You can even track which lines you have changed and which you haven’t, to minimize what comes next: Re-copy the new lines back into the manuscript.


However you do it, keep those two goals in mind: distinctiveness and consistency. Remember, too, that these same techniques work equally well for inner monologue, which is the direct presentation of a character’s thoughts to the reader. It’s almost like the character speaking to the reader, but without explicitly breaking that “fourth wall.” Use these techniques to make your inner monologue every bit as distinctive and consistent as your outer dialogue.

Dialogue is a very powerful tool for showing character. It pays to get it right. Dialogue that really sparkles is a joy to write and a thrill to read. But wooden dialogue that clanks like tin in the ear only shows the reader that your characters weren’t real enough to you. In which case, why should they be to the reader?

< Back to part 1 | Next: part 3, mannerisms >

December 03, 2009 21:08 UTC

Tags: character, revision, dialogue, distinctive, consistent, highlighter, spreadsheet

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Don't forget to revise your characters too

To everyone who completed NaNoWriMo, and to everyone who has finished a manuscript in any timeframe, congratulations!

Now begins revision, strengthening the parts of your book you weren’t happy with when you wrote them, or that readers have told you don’t work very well. But as you revise your story’s weak plot points, as you iron out geographic inconsistencies in street names, historical details of clothing and social customs, don’t forget to revise your characters, too.

Plots are important, sure, but the heart of any story is its characters. They deserve to be every bit as polished and well-crafted as your plot. There are plenty of great writing blogs with advice on fixing plot issues, building tension, raising the stakes, and all of that. I won’t cover any of that.

Instead, this article is the first in series on techniques for strengthening your characters during revision. Over the next several days, I’ll cover these areas where revision can greatly improve your characters:


I’ve said it before on this blog, but dialogue is a marvelously powerful tool for exhibiting your characters’ inner workings to the reader. But with that power comes danger: get the dialogue wrong, and the characters fall flat. In revision, your goal is to create consistent, distinctive voices for each character. Each character should be immediately recognizable through the way they speak. What they say and how they say it should reveal a lot about them. Click here to read how to revise your dialogue


I touched on these a little bit in an earlier article about habits. Much as with dialogue, mannerisms are also wonderful windows into your characters’ souls. In revision, your goal is to display consistent patterns of mannerisms, but also to find ways to use those behaviors to display your characters’ mental states. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ mannerisms

Physical attributes

This isn’t an area I have covered in much depth on this blog—not yet, anyway—except possibly for this article about stealing a character’s shoes. I apologize for that; it would be helpful to have some good background reading to point you at before talking about revision techniques, but it’ll have to wait. Suffice it to say that a character’s mind and body come in a single package, and I’ll be talking about ways to link physical traits to the attitudes you need the character to have as well as to the personal growth they may undergo. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ physical attributes


Attitudes—our complete sets of opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and values—govern how we interact with others and guide the choices we make in any given situation. The same is true for your characters. In this installment, I’ll be covering ways to ensure that your characters’ attitudes are as complex as a real person’s (not cardboard-cutout characters), as well as strategies for using the attitudes of individual characters and your whole cast to enhance the drama in your story. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ attitudes

Personal growth

Last of all is the big one: character arc. Mainstream thrillers can, and often do, get away with plots in which the protagonists don’t learn and grow at all over the course of the book. They leave the final chapter no wiser about life or about themselves than they were on page one. That’s an enormous missed opportunity to elevate a book from merely entertaining to moving and meaningful. You may still elect to have a laser-straight character arc in your book, but I at least aim to give you some tools you can use to put some juicy bends in that arc. Click here to read how to revise your character arcs


Don’t think of these as four discrete items to add to your must-fix-in-editing list. They don’t work in pure isolation from each other. Physical attributes, for example, can have a bearing on a character’s mannerisms and attitudes. Rather, treat these areas and the techniques I’ll be covering as a mental framework for evaluating your characters, for teaching yourself how to see what needs to be fixed. Expect to go back and forth with them, moving from one area to another as you see opportunities where they can build on one another.

I hope you’ll stay tuned to the rest of this series, in which I’ll give you practical, in-depth and hands-on tips for addressing those four areas. If you apply them diligently, then when you are done revising you will have characters who are every bit the equal of your plot.

Next: Part 2, how to revise your dialogue >

December 02, 2009 19:14 UTC

Tags: character, revision, dialogue, mannerisms, attitude, physical attributes, character arc

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NaNoWriMo diary part 4: trust the process

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

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

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

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

Trust the process

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

November 30, 2009 19:36 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, motivation, process

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How to show character through dialogue

A long time ago, I wrote a pair of articles about dialogue: one about the importance of realistic dialogue, and one with techniques for creating distinctive dialogue. This, then, is part three: techniques for revealing details about your character through dialogue.

Dialogue is all about nuance. After all, there are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to say, but each one carries its own flavor. Showing character through dialogue is all about being sensitive to the nuances of these different flavors, and picking the one that best matches the traits of the character saying the line.

Consider, just for example, the difference between “Would you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?” and “I’d like a ham sandwich,” and even “fix me a ham sandwich.”

Attitude towards others

Speaking of ham sandwiches, that example shows clearly some differences in attitude towards others. Respect versus disrespect. The part to clue in on is the grammatical nature of the sentence. The question is the most respectful. It gives the listener the opportunity, at least on the surface, to say no. It expresses the speaker’s wishes without being too pushy about it. The simple declarative sentence is pretty neutral. Context would indicate whether it’s a request or just a wish. The imperative sentence, a literal command, is the least respectful as it leaves no linguistic room for the listener to say no. It attempts to impose the speaker’s will on the listener.

When attempting to convey nuances of respect or disrespect, look to questions, statements, and commands as your tools. And remember, respect and disrespect factor into all sorts of personality traits. For example, simple arrogance—a character who always feels he knows better than everyone else—can manifest as a tendency towards issuing commands rather than stating his opinions declaratively. He would say “You don’t want to do that,” rather than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus declaration.

This is also a useful tool for underscoring relationships between characters where there is a difference in social power. For example, an employee/boss relationship, a soldier/commander relationship, et cetera. The person in the higher position of power can get away with using the less respectful forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the more respectful forms. And if you have a character intentionally break the pattern, watch the sparks fly: Employees and soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and those of higher rank.


Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not respect-to-disrespect, but rather, calmness-to-agitation. And the tool for revealing it is grammatical correctness.

A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in sentences that are more complete and more correct than one who is agitated. When a character totally freaks out, it’s natural for them to stutter and splutter, speak in sentence fragments, re-start sentences or switch to a new sentence half-way through the old one, and generally exhibit all manner of verbal tics.

This is not to say that a calm character should always speak in flawless King’s English. No. Of course real people speak in ways that are very different than written English, even when they’re calm. But the more agitated someone is, the farther they tend to stray from the strict rules of grammar.


Another core character trait that dialogue excels at showing is the scale from introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for doing this is simple word count: Expansiveness versus brevity.

Shy people don’t tend to talk as much. When they do, they choose their words carefully. Outgoing people tend to talk more. They’re more likely to gab, to expand on a thought with tangents and side-thoughts, and so forth.

Let’s say a patron walks into a library and asks where to find a book on Detroit muscle cars of the 1950s. One librarian says “Those are in the 629s,” and points you towards a particular shelf. Another librarian, given the same question, says “Oh, yes! All the stuff about cars is in the 629s. Here, let me show you.” She comes out from behind her desk to lead you to the right shelf.

One is all business, she says the minimum necessary to end the conversation. The other is happy and personable, and attempts to make a connection with the patron. Nobody expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a weekend bar-b-que or anything, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to make a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.

Going further

Those are just three character attributes you can play with. But you can take this technique much further. Most personality traits have an opposite. That is, there’s a spectrum for that attribute, just as with the three I’ve covered here. Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel. There’s always an opposite, which means there’s a spectrum.

Take that ham sandwich line—or the particular line you’re struggling with—and ask yourself how someone from each end of the spectrum would say the line. For example, the greedy person would say “where’s my ham sandwich,” the use of possessive grammar indicating a focus on what belongs to him. The generous person might not ask at all, but might instead suggest a trade, “Boy, I’d give you the keys to my car for a ham sandwich right about now.”

Those are extremes, but considering the extremes can be very instructive. Once you have a handle on the spectrum you’re working with, you’ll have a better sense for where to pitch your specific character’s line of dialogue.

November 20, 2009 21:05 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, attitude, respect, mood, personality, introverted, extroverted

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NaNoWriMo diary part 3: writing is work

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

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

Writing is work

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

But most of the time it’s work.

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

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

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

Pacing is work

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

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

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

Showing character through dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

November 17, 2009 22:02 UTC

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

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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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Three ways relationships can reveal your characters

Characters are never alone. You ever notice that? Abbot had Costello, Lucy had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper. Why is this? Psychologically it’s because people are social creatures. We go better together. Some part of us needs to be able to share our thoughts and feelings with others. But as writers, we create sidekicks and foils because relationships are a marvelous tool for revealing your characters.

Even characters who seem alone, aren’t. There’s always a sidekick, even if it isn’t human. Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, had his volleyball. Bruce Dern’s character in the Sci-Fi classic Silent Running had three cute little robots with him. And of course, Keir Dullea’s murderous computer nemesis in 2001: A Space Odyssey needs no explanation at all. Those characters’ sidekicks weren’t people, but they still provided a relationship that revealed a lot about the character.

You could probably write a whole book on this, but let me instead just give three highlights, three quick methods for using relationships to show what kind of people your characters are.

Use shared or borrowed goals

Any time you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own something that is a goal for the other character. You might have your love-struck hero take up volunteering at an animal shelter, because he learns that the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He might even adopt a sad, mangy dog, despite his own allergies (they’ve got pills for that, right?) just to impress her.

Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it works for other situations too. Not long ago, I finished Michael Snyder’s book Return Policy, in which there’s a sub-plot about one character seeking to land a promotion by voluntarily taking on a tedious, boring data entry job that everyone else in her office has been avoiding. It means longer hours, time away from her son, but she knows it will make her manager look good and hopes it will tip the scales toward her.

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

Relationships always have levels to them. For example, you might have a character who is always creating little competitions between himself and his friends. His notion is that he’s creating opportunities for fun and that this will make people like him. How he reacts says a lot: is he gracious in victory and defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser to boot? How his friends react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or are they annoyed? It’s this interaction between the characters that is your vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak. How the relationship plays out on the page says everything.

Or going back to the love-struck mangy dog owner, while that behavior may seem sweet and fawning at first, there’s a darker side lurking underneath. It is ultimately selfish: he doesn’t actually care about the dog, except to the extent that the dog can help win him the girl. And how disrespectful he must be of her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way, or that she won’t see right through him. Does he even actually love her for herself? If he’s so willing to alter his outward image—and mask his inward nature—to impress her, perhaps he is more attracted to his outward image of her than to the person she is underneath.

The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of surprises. Affection can mask selfishness. Competition can mask self-importance. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals. It’s the best way to surprise a reader, by letting them learn something new about your characters that they didn’t necessarily expect.

Show multiple points of view

Finally, as I wrote last month, nobody sees themselves the same as other people see them. If your story has multiple POV characters, you can readily exploit this to show the contrast. For example, the competitive boy sees his competitive habit as an attempt to create fun between himself and his friends. But his friends, who have grown weary of seeing who can throw a crumpled napkin into the trash can from the farthest away, see it as something else: annoying egotism.

There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs, though, that goes deeper than simply showing a contrast between some character’s self-opinion and how others see him, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss out on. Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery rather than solves it. That is to say, when you’re done showing both parties’ view of the situation, have you left the reader wondering who is right?

If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to also create a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later by springing yet another layer on the reader, revealing that nobody is right! Reveal that he’s not as fun-loving as he thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think. Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he creates all these competitive situations because really he’s struggling to reassure himself of his own abilities.

It’s not a meaningless reversal, of course. It’s not there just to keep the reader guessing. To really work, it had better be part of a meaningful character arc. But I hope that at least gives you gives a taste of how these strategies—just like people—go better together than alone.

November 09, 2009 21:50 UTC

Tags: character, relationships, Michael Snyder, goals, reversals

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NaNoWriMo diary part 2: the serendipity begins

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

November 06, 2009 19:25 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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What's in a name?

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

Coming up with names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t sweat it too much

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

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

Have fun with it

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

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

Have faith

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

Still, a rose is a rose is a rose

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

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

November 05, 2009 00:20 UTC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Schoeffer

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

To explore new words

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

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

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

November 02, 2009 23:17 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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Who moved my cheese?

I don’t know what it is with me and cheese, but since I seem to think in dairy-related terms, I’m going to go with it. I’m going to embrace my inner cow, and talk about showing a character’s personality through the props that are central to their lives. Moo.

The book Who Moved my Cheese? is all about dealing with change in one’s life, which is akin to what this metaphor is about for authors, too.

What’s your character’s cheese?

That is, what object in your character’s life is so important to them that if it gets lost, stolen, broken, or abducted by aliens, the character will be pushed out of equilibrium.

We’ve all heard about baseball players who go into a slump when their lucky bat breaks, or some ill-mannered fan steals their lucky glove. What that shows about them is that they have externalized their success on the playing field into an object. Rather than taking credit for their skills themselves (and ownership for their failures), they credit or blame the bat, the glove, the set of cleats they’ve had since high school. Losing the bat or the glove is a clear opportunity for them to internalize their success and reclaim it, or not to and wash out of the Majors.

What works in real life works in novels. If you’re struggling for a way to smoothly and believably show something about your character—their insecurity, their faith in God, their love for their family—consider building a relationship between that trait and a physical object.

You can relate insecurity to a comfort object, like a worry stone, a ratty old baby blanket, or 12 year old scotch. Whatever they use to comfort themselves. You can relate faith in God to a set of rosary beads, a crucifix, a Saint’s Medallion, or really anything at all if it’s something that the character’s backstory connects to an intensely spiritual moment in the character’s life. Love for family can be connected to the trappings of life that we use in taking care of our families. Like a mother who expresses love through food, but who believes that the secret to her cooking lies with the old fashioned cast iron skillet that belonged to her mother and her grandmother before her.

In my earlier articles on backstory and relating character arcs to story arcs, I described a character, Dr. Lisle, who had externalized her love for her mother through the making of cheese. I showed how that could be entwined with Dr. Lisle’s outer story arc, so that her cheese becomes central to the plot resolution. But what else can we do with it?

Move their cheese

Well, we could move her cheese. This is why I suggest that you relate the character trait you want to show to a physical object, specifically because it’s something you can take away. Make it a real prop. Ok, so cheese isn’t the most traditional prop, but it can still be taken away. I could have poor Dr. Lisle develop a dairy allergy so she can neither make nor eat cheese anymore.

Now how is she going to feel? Given the degree to which she has come to rely on cheese as an integral part of the emotional sense of order in her life, she’s not likely to take it well. She may not understand exactly why, in the beginning, but she’s probably going to find herself missing her mother more. Feeling somehow adrift in the world, less connected to other people than she wants to be. All because I moved her cheese.

Aren’t I mean? Yeah, but that’s an author’s job.

It’s ok, though. She’ll get over it. Eventually, she’ll figure out that making cheese was filling an emotional role in her life formerly played by her mother, and that nothing about how she feels about her deceased mother has actually changed. She can internalize those feelings, let go of the need for the cheese, and move on.

Making it work

Ok, so you’ve decided that this strategy can fit with your current Work In Progress. To make it work, you’re going to set it up. The character’s reaction to having their cheese moved won’t be credible to the reader if you don’t first establish a couple of things. First, and most obviously, what is your character’s particular cheese? Is it a love letter from a high school sweetheart? A beat up old penny? A deck of well-worn playing cards? Whatever it is, the reader had better know that it’s important to the character.

Second, why is it important? And here, I remind each and every one, it is critical to SHOW, not to tell. You could try tossing this somewhere in chapter one:

Joe’s father taught him to play solitaire at the tender age of nine with this very deck of cards, so after his father died Joe played it all the time and even now he still plays solitaire when he’s feeling stressed.

But it won’t carry any emotional weight in chapter seven 7 when the deck cards slips out of Joe’s hand and drops down a storm drain. No. You have to show it, which means letting us know how Joe came to have the deck of cards, but also showing him actually playing cards in stressful situations several times leading up to the point where you make him lose them.


Once you’ve set up the importance of the cheese, you can go lots of different ways with it. Is the prop something your character would go to great lengths to keep? How about getting it back if it were lost or stolen? What would they do? How far would they go for it? If they’d go to extreme lengths—say, sifting an entire beach’s worth of sand to find that old beat-up penny—your setup had better support that.

Another variation isn’t to move their cheese, but merely to threaten their cheese. Ask yourself if you can create tension and drama by putting the cheese in danger. If a swarm of rats represents a significant threat to a warehouse full of cheese, ask yourself what’s the equivalent threat for the prop you’ve chosen.

But remember, whatever flavor cheese you pick, it’s there to be an outward vehicle for showing some inner character trait. So long as anything you do with the cheese results in a response from the character that involves the related personality trait, your story will be the better for it.

October 30, 2009 22:47 UTC

Tags: character, props, traits, show don't tell, cheese

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Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?

We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.

Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.

Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?

Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her

For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.

The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.

So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.

Outer character arc

An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.

The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.

For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.

I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?

Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.

Nobody is ever exactly how they seem

That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.

Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.

This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.

Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.

This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.

Do change the character after all.

This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.

An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!

October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC

Tags: character, inner character arc, outer character arc, introvert, conflict, POV, self-image

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Dramatic frustration: remember to keep the emotions real

Last week I wrote about how you can steal your character’s shoes in order to bring a dull character to life and create a mounting sense of drama in your plot. It’s an effective technique, but it’s not the only one for achieving those ends.

A related technique is not to steal their shoes, but rather, to make their shoes irrelevant to the task at hand. Show them that they’ve got the wrong tools for the job.

The goal is to find whatever skills and strengths makes your protagonist and everyone else believe she’s the right woman for the job, then reveal that the job isn’t what everybody thought it was so those skills are no good after all. It’s like shoe stealing, in that it forces the character to develop new skills or rely on abilities she isn’t confident about, but there’s a critical difference.

The character’s emotional response isn’t the same

If you steal the character’s shoes—if you literally make character’s assets unavailable—the character should respond with some form of the Five Stages of Grief. You’ve just subjected them to a loss. Any loss, whether it’s killing off the character’s beloved sidekick or simply taking away your sharpshooter heroine’s sniper rifle, should evoke the same pattern of emotional responses. The only difference is degree.

However, if you let the character keep her shoes but make the shoes useless, the character should show a different emotional response. There are a variety of emotions that would be believable, in response to realizing that there’s a mismatch between the character’s skills or tools, and the job at hand, depending on the situation. You’ll have to put on your empathy hat to figure out which one is right, but then, we writers ought to have that hat sewn onto our heads permanently anyway:

Frustration. This choice is apt when it’s the mismatch is the character’s own fault, or when she can credibly believe it’s her own fault. Think about how you feel when you set out to do some little odd job around the house, like tightening a loose screw on a cupboard door, only to find that you’ve trudged all the way down to the garage and back up to the kitchen with a Phillips-head screwdriver instead of a flathead. Frustrating. If the job has to be done under any sort of time pressure or other chaotic situation, that only compounds the feeling.

Anger. This is a good choice when the mismatch isn’t the character’s fault. If someone sent the highly trained sharpshooter heroine on a mission that turns out to involve sabotaging a battalion’s worth of the enemy’s heavy artillery, she would justifiably be angry about it. The core response is some version of “Why the hell did they send me?”

Fear. Consider a fear response when the stakes are high, and the mismatch elevates the danger of death or injury from failing to get the job done. The character’s sudden realization that she isn’t nearly as well equipped for the job as she thought could easily trigger a fear response. This applies to male characters just as well as female characters.

Humor. Let’s face it, sometimes a mismatch is just plain funny. Surprise is the core element of much humor, and on some level it’s going to be a surprise to turn the character’s expectations how she’s will deal with the situation on their ear. You can do this to lighten the tone of the book, at least briefly, if things have been dark and heavy for a while. Give the characters—and the reader—a little emotional high spot in the middle of the drama.

Mix it up Try combining some of these four core emotional responses into more complex, nuanced feelings. For example, combine fear and humor into a terrified character letting out a desperate laugh. Let her be laughing not in the face of danger, but simply because it’s the only way to keep her sanity while trying to survive the situation. This can create not only a vivid scene, but can work to underscore the sensation of crisis.

Always keep the emotions real.

Whatever you do, the strategy remains the same: create an obstacle for your protagonist by changing the situation she previously felt confident about into one she is ill-equipped to deal with. Watch her struggle through it, and while she does, pay careful attention to creating a believable display of emotions. Nothing sabotages a character faster than when her emotions don’t match the situation.

October 16, 2009 19:40 UTC

Tags: character, drama, crisis, frustration, anger, fear, humor, emotions

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How to inspire readers with ordinary characters

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

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

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

Consider whether your protagonist really needs to have any powers.

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

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

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

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

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

Readers ask “can I see myself doing that?"

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

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

What’s your meta message?

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

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

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

Think beyond your book.

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

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

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

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

Have your cake, and eat it too.

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

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

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

All I’m asking is that you consider it.

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

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

October 14, 2009 22:33 UTC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 06, 2009 21:14 UTC

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

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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 ( ) 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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Pop quiz: what's the deadliest urge a writer can succumb to?

The worst thing we can do to the characters in our novels is be kind to them. Especially our main characters. The absolute worst thing we can do is make sure our characters never have to face any difficult problems or overcome any daunting obstacles.

Let me tell you about some unpublished books I’ve read lately. These are all books that I hope become published, because at their core each one has something really unique to offer. (For obvious reasons, you’ll understand that I can’t give you the titles or authors’ names.)

Book number one is a spy novel, a straight up cold-war era thriller. The main character has problems, sure, but they’re in his home life. His difficulties and challenges do not relate to the outer story goal of smuggling the you-know-what out of you-can-guess-where. As far as the potentially thrilling part of the thriller goes, the good guys’ plan pretty much went off without a hitch. I wasn’t thrilled.

Book number two is a young adult adventure, with a fantastic premise and setting. It’s really creative and unique. But this book’s main character doesn’t really have any problems. He’s smart, has a materially-comfortable life with loving parents, supportive friends, and ready access to all the tools, materials, and money needed to get the job done. Nothing significant ever goes wrong, and the insignificant things that do go wrong, never get worse. The result is that nothing is challenging, and his ultimate victory feels foreordained.

Both books fall flat. Both authors seem reluctant to let their main characters have it. I mean, really screw ‘em over. They seem unwilling to throw the characters into the frying pan, and when the characters jump out, have them land in a fire that happens to be built inside an even larger frying pan. That would be interesting, but that’s not what they did.

I understand this. I’ve done it myself in earlier novels that I can now see I need to go back and make worse before I send them out to agents.

We authors grow to love our characters. We have created them, thought obsessively about them, nurtured them in our minds. We have taken care of them, and as with anything one cares for we come to love them. It is only human not to want to hurt them or ever let anything bad happen to them.

This nurturing, parental urge, this above all we must resist. We have to let our characters get into trouble—real, serious trouble—so they can get themselves out. We have to let them get hurt, so they can overcome. We can’t coddle them as though they were toddlers. We can’t put gates across the stairs and padding on all the sharp coffee table corners. We can’t hover over them every second, waiting to snatch them out of trouble the instant danger looms.

Rather, we can, but if we do our characters won’t be interesting to anyone. What reader can really get behind a character that never struggles with his or her problems? What reader roots for a character who never encounters any problems to begin with? Not me, I’ll tell you that much.

So what about that third book? The protagonist in that one is a three year old girl, already someone an author is going to want to protect. But this toddler has not been coddled. No, the author has put her in a desperate and deeply destitute situation. She is so chronically malnourished she can’t walk, can’t even get out of her bed. Except her bed isn’t a regular bed, it’s just a wooden box with some filthy rags for padding. And the girl’s parents? They’re gone. They have abandoned her along with their homesteader’s log cabin, somewhere in the middle of the woods in 1865. The poor girl doesn’t even know her own name.

Problems? That girl’s got problems upon problems upon problems. Every one of them just breaks my heart. Every one of them is something that would make any lesser person give up.

But she doesn’t. She views her situation with every bit of naive optimism innate to any three-year-old child. She has a great attitude, an amazingly compelling voice, and she doesn’t give up. To see this utterly helpless little girl overcome her problems, that’s powerful stuff.

I root for her because it’s all I can do. What I want to do is reach into the book to help her. Of course, I can’t. I can only read her struggles, helplessly rooting for her to overcome. The very depth of her troubles makes me root for her as much, if not more, than I have for any character I’ve encountered in a New York Times bestselling book. And bear in mind, this is just in the book’s opening scene.

As a writer, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want our readers rooting for our main characters? Don’t we want them cheering when our heroes and heroines emerge victorious?

Of course we do. But that isn’t going to happen unless we make it hard. If we don’t make the obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the problems seemingly unsolvable, then we make our characters’ jobs too easy and their victories meaningless. We make the characters themselves boring and lifeless.

Oh, and we also make our novels un-publishable. I’m just saying...

September 17, 2009 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, problems, obstacles

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How to amp-up your scenes with body language

I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago called Why Jane Smokes that showed some techniques for linking characters’ external actions to their internal growth across a whole story arc. Today’s article is a double-win technique for using body language to amp-up the characterization on a smaller scale, within individual scenes.

Whether they know it or not, everyone exhibits body language. And, much as with dialogue, you and everyone who will ever read your book is an expert in the art of interpreting body language. We all know what it means when someone shrugs, pumps a fist in the air, crosses their arms over their chest, or shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot.

This is just part of being human. We’re all students of each other, because we have to be. Body language gives us essential information about other people’s attitudes, states of mind, and even how they are reacting to us in any given moment.

Tap into your readers’ expertise. Use body language both to advance your scenes and to portray your characters as believable, multi-dimensional people. There are two main ways adding body language helps a scene.

Moods First and foremost, body language is a wonderful tool showing characters’ moods. It is, frankly, an enormously useful writing tool for those situations where you have a vivid internal sense for a character’s particular, subtly nuanced feeling, but are having trouble giving a name to it. Stop looking for a name to give to it. Instead, convey the feeling through body language. Not only does that save you from the trouble of finding the perfect phrase, but it allows you to show instead of tell. Don’t give us this:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She sat at the dining room table, weary, worn out in body and spirit.

Give us this, instead:

From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She slumped over the table, cradling her head against the heels of her hands.

Setting The second useful aspect of body language is that it turns your characters physical bodies into an extension of the setting. Your scene takes place somewhere—be it a clandestine warehouse, a windy beach, a bedroom—but wherever it is, your characters bodies are there, too. They are an element of the setting. Just as you should look for key details of place—a greasy concrete floor in the warehouse, the salt-air tang of the wind blowing off the water, the 400 thread-count linen sheets on the king-sized bed—you should also look for details of body language to layer onto your characters.

In setting scenes, writers are encouraged to incorporate all five senses in order to make the place itself feel real. It’s good advice, but why stick with just five senses? Why not add the whole other realm of sensations—emotional ones—that body language conveys so effectively? Try it, and see how much more vivid your settings become.

September 14, 2009 23:51 UTC

Tags: character, body language, emotions, settings, dialogue, details, show don't tell, senses

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Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?

Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers:

“It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.”

That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem. Here’s the real answer:

Passive voice hides your characters from view.

It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing, or the things they’re using to do whatever it is they’re doing. Check this out:

Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.

The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely welcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.

That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole novels written almost entirely in this style. The problem with passive voice is that it’s great for saying what happened, but absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the warmth. All the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.

I made those paragraphs the best I could—adding colorful details here and there—but they’re still awful. In those two paragraphs, where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are:

Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.

“Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway, secretly glad he wasn’t too old for it. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.

The active voice version is very clear about who is doing what, and how they’re doing it. That much is obvious. But what is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. The very process of writing in the active voice focuses my attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On the characters.

I had intended to write a straight, sentence-for-sentence version changing nothing but the grammatical voice. But I couldn’t. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I was forced to wonder not about the minutia of sandwich making (which happens all too easily when writing in passive voice), but instead about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping: Duh, he’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.

Having raised the question of which jelly she’ll use, I have to answer it, which forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.

Similarly, I was forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it in a specific and intentional manner. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.

The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects.

It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters. In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. Boring. In active voice, the sandwich conveys the relationship between the characters. That’s interesting.

Relationships between characters are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides that from view. In so doing, passive voice encourages authors to be lazy and to focus on the entirely dull objects and events of the story.

It takes work to figure out how characters feel about everything, and how those feelings shape people’s actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.

September 03, 2009 23:49 UTC

Tags: passive voice, active voice, character, show, tell, show don't tell, Lightning McQueen, lunchbox, apple, sandwich, peanut butter, jelly, school, relationships, writing

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How to pick the right point of view for your novel

In this article I’m going to give you some practical, hands-on guidelines for choosing the right point of view (POV) for your novel, a task which is not always as straightforward as it sounds. While I can’t tell you what’s right for your novel—only you can decide that—I can explain the ramifications of each, so you can weigh the pros and cons yourself.

Making the right choice is critical: The wrong choice will undermine the presentation of your characters. The wrong choice will sabotage your whole novel, leaving you with an enormous pile of work in fixing it. The POV choice is such a deep, fundamental element of any novel that changing it usually amounts to a full re-write.

This isn’t a grammar lesson, so I’m going to assume you know the technical difference between first-person and a third-person POVs. Instead, we’re going to look at the options each one gives for how you present your plot and characters, what kinds of mysteries you can create and preserve, and how well you can establish a connection between the reader and your characters.

Third-person omniscient. This is the classic “God’s eye” view of the world. You are allowed to show the reader anything at any time: thoughts, actions, dialogue, even events where your characters aren’t present. The story is told with no explicit narrator.

Third-person omniscient is a great choice when you have a very complex plot with several main characters and minor characters who all follow their own story lines until things meet up at the end. It is ideal if your goal is to allow the reader to watch everything unfold even though the characters aren’t aware of all that’s going on.

However, third-person omniscient is also the emotionally coldest point of view. It is the most distant from your characters. Because third-person can (and often does) skip around from here to there, jumping into and out of different characters heads, it is difficult for readers to form any close emotional ties with the characters.

For books where the plot is the central attraction for readers, third-person omniscient is often the best choice. If your novel doesn’t have much in the way of character arc—if your characters don’t particularly grow or change over the course of the story—then this could well be the way to go.

Third-person limited. Grammatically, this is exactly like third-person omniscient. The only difference is that in third-person limited POV, you channel the entire story through one character’s viewpoint. You can show the POV character’s inner thoughts and opinions, you can show what the character sees, hears, and feels. But, you may only show those things. Showing other characters’ thoughts or events the POV character doesn’t directly experience is dis-allowed.

Third-person limited gives the POV character and the reader exactly the same information. It closes the emotional distance between reader and character and is very effective at giving the reader the same experience of the story as the POV character.

Third-person limited is a great choice when you have an essentially linear plot with minimal diversions or side journeys, and a single main character who experiences all the important plot events. Third-person limited offers a nice balance between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. This is a good choice for stories where the outer events of your plot matter (that is, you couldn’t get the same effect by switching a plane crash into a train crash, for example), yet those events are closely tied to the character’s inner growth.

First-person. This is when you present one character as the narrator of your story. The character literally relays the story to the reader in present tense as it unfolds, or in past tense from after the events have transpired. Because of the reliance on a single main character, first-person stories require the same type of linear plots as third-person limited POV.

First-person POV presents the smallest emotional distance between the reader and the main character. Thus, first-person is a great choice when the story is more about the inner character arc than it is about the outer plot. But, it is also the hardest POV to write well because it demands a very strong, compelling voice.

Note, harder does not mean better. There are distinct differences between first-person and third-person limited, and each has its place. Because first-person writing involves the main character narrating the story for the reader, it’s not the same presentation of information as in third-person limited.

In either POV, the writer is always in control, but that’s not what a reader perceives. In a first-person story, the reader’s perception is that the narrator—a character—is telling them the story. Implicitly, that narrator chooses what to tell the reader, what to omit, and what spin to put on events. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one: in first-person writing the narrator can lie to the reader, either by commission or omission. In third-person limited, the reader perceives the writer conveying the information, and the writer isn’t supposed to lie to the reader. That’s cheating.

A so-called “unreliable narrator” can create very powerful mysteries, especially if in lying to the reader the narrator is really attempting to lie to him or herself. If your story demands a large, surprising reversal somewhere along the line, an unreliable first-person narrator is an effective way to do it.

Finally, there are a few unusual POV choices and variations on the above choices that bear mentioning:

First-person plural This is when the book’s narrator is a group, rather than a character, and the story is told from a “we” point of view. A good example is the classic Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, which is about a family’s father but is told from the collective point of view of the children. Not many books do this, and it’s easy to see why: very few have a premise which permits it. But when done well, it can give the reader a sense of inclusion in the group, as though the reader were part of the collective “we” that’s relating the story.

Second-person. This is when an author puts the reader directly into the story by using “you” as the main character: “You walk into the cafeteria, wrinkling your nose at the smell of mystery meat and canned peas.”

Second-person stories are very rare, and I think for good reason. It is far too easy for this to feel like a gimmick than a good writing choice. In fact, the only examples of this style that I can think of offhand are those entirely gimmicky Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s. (However, if you know of a literary novel that does this and does it well, please share it down in the comments. I’d like to see it.) In theory, I suppose, this POV would eliminate the emotional distance between the reader and the main character entirely.

Multiple POVs. This is simply when you use the techniques of first-person or third-person limited writing, but apply them to multiple characters in the same book. If you try this at all, make sure you know what you’re doing, and think carefully before violating the guideline that you should only switch between POV characters at a scene break or a chapter break.

Multiple third-person limited would not be much different than good third-person omniscient writing. But multiple first-person writing can be incredibly compelling, because it gives a double-dose of the pure character driven experience that only good first-person writing can do. At present, my favorite example of this is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This should be a case study for anyone who wants to try multiple first-person POVs.

In a nutshell, here’s how to choose the right POV for your story. First, answer these four questions:

  1. Does the structure of your story force you into a particular choice?

  2. Is the plot more important, are character arcs more important, or are they of roughly equal importance?

  3. How emotionally close do you want the reader to be to your main character(s)?

  4. Do you need a large, surprising reversal that an unreliable narrator could create?

Next, evaluate your answers against the criteria I’ve given above. A complex plot forces most novels into third-person omniscient. Other plot structures have more leeway with POV. Plot-driven stories tend towards third-person, while character driven stories tend towards first-person. Close emotional distance argues for third-person limited or first-person. If you want your characters to be more opaque and enigmatic, third-person omniscient is the way to go. If your novel is more experimental, you might want one of the rare, oddball POVs instead.

Choosing the right POV is important, even critical, to the success of your novel. But with the right guidelines in mind, and by asking yourself the right questions, the right answer is usually easy to find.

September 01, 2009 18:22 UTC

Tags: character, emotional distance, first-person, second-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, multiple first-person, point of view, POV, unreliable narrator, Audrey Niffenegger, Frank Gilbreth, voice

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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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Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.

Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.

I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).

Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.

Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.

First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.

A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.

Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:

Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.

Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:

Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?

With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.

Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.

But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.

Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.

August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC

Tags: character, habits, smokes, believability, drama, reversals, distinctive, shorthand, show don't tell

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The five stages of grief

There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.

We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.

Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.

It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.

Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.

So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:

  1. Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.

  2. Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.

  3. Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.

  4. Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.

  5. Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.

That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.

I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.

As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.

Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.

Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.

“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”

“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.

No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.

“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.

“Gregor!” the midwife called again.

“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”

It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.

Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.

As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.

Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.

August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, emotionally credible, believability, grief, misfortune, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, towels

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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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Hook 'em with character

“You’ve got to open with a strong hook.”

Ask anyone in the publishing industry—agents, publishing house editors, sales reps—and they’ll all tell you that opening a story with a strong hook is a great way to make your manuscript stand out from the rest.

But what does that actually mean? It’s pretty vague advice. If you press them on it, they’ll give you something like “Well, the story has to open strong. It has to pull the reader right in, grab them by the shirt collar, and make them want to read the next page.”

That doesn’t help much, does it?

Then there’s the other school of thought, summarized very well by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover:

I know a few people, very few, who can spout plot summaries of novels on request. What most people remember, I contend, are their favorite characters.

She’s right. The thing is, these philosophies mesh very well together, because a strong hook also shows your characters.

Today I’m going to tell you exactly what a strong hook is, and give you practical, hands-on tips for how to open with one, and how to how to make your hook show your characters.

A strong hook is nothing more than something that grabs the reader’s attention. That usually means crafting a surprising situation that is thick with conflict. Why? Because conflict drives the reader’s curiosity: what’s the conflict about? What’s at stake? Who’s going to prevail?

Raising questions in the reader’s mind compels them to keep reading. And in your opening scene, more than anywhere else in the book, you want the reader to keep reading.

Yet, all too often I see manuscripts that open with some of the most boring situations imaginable. People waking up in the morning, walking down the street, going about ordinary, day-to-day activities. Don’t do that. Somewhere in your plot, is some interesting, pivotal event that gets the main storyline going. Right? Say yes. There had better be, and it had better come soon.

Find a way to put this event front-and-center on page one. In paragraph one. Ideally, put it in the very first sentence. Open with a scene of conflict. Work to immediately raise those questions in the reader’s mind. Don’t think it’s better if the conflict sneaks up on the reader. It isn’t. Jump right in.

That’s one component of a great hook: opening big, picking the right scene from your overall story to open with. Do that and you’ll raise the right questions in the reader’s mind. But the hook won’t have any bait if you fail to make the reader care about the answers.

In my experience, this happens when the big opening scene fails to establish the main character’s personality. You can’t fix this by throwing in a sentence or two of description. You can’t fix it by telling the reader that your character is a smart-ass, or is utterly fearless, or is a rotten drunk.

To establish your main character’s personality well, you have to show it, not tell it. And that, in turn, means creating opportunities for your character to display his or her attributes in action.

There’s lots of ways of working a character’s attributes into a scene, but in an opening scene one of the best ways is to make sure that your main character drives the scene, rather than letting the scene drive your character.

I can’t tell you how many opening scenes of manuscripts I’ve read that have a lot of conflict in them, but in which the main character doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t affect the outcome of the scene. Openings where the main character is buffeted about by events, making no effort to participate in them, letting the chips fall where they may.

That is not a recipe for making readers care about your main character. Who wants to root for a character that doesn’t do anything? One way or another, you have to make your main character drive that scene.

This doesn’t mean that your main character can’t be in a world of trouble. It’s probably better if he or she is. This doesn’t mean he or she has to prevail in the scene’s conflict. In fact, he or she should probably not prevail.

What it does mean is that you need to show the character trying to affect the outcome of the scene. You need to show them making decisions, taking actions, reacting to events, engaging in dialogue.

Every one of those elements is an opportunity to show character.

Actions speak louder than words, right? There’s no better way to learn what someone’s really made of than to watch how they act in an atypical situation. You won’t learn anything about someone from watching them walk down the street, get up in the morning, or any of those other un-conflicted, daily life situations.

But watch them act in the middle of a crisis, and you’ll come to know what kind of person they are really fast. Authors have the extra luxury of not only showing how a character acts, but also of showing how they think. Use it. Give the reader that extra insight into your character’s mind.

Here it is, boiled down: A great hook shows character through conflict.

Tattoo that on your forehead if you need to, but learn it. Take a look at the opening scene of whatever book you’re working on right now, and ask yourself, is this a great hook? Is there enough conflict here, and have I used it to show my main character’s personality? Is my main character driving the scene?

This is how you not only pull the reader into the story by raising questions, but also make them care about the answers.

July 20, 2009 18:04 UTC

Tags: hook, conflict, questions, answers, character, choice, action, reaction, show don't tell

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Un-Clone your characters with distinctive dialogue

In yesterday’s post, I wanted to cover everything about using dialogue effectively to show character, as well as warning of some of the pitfalls. Oh, naive blogger, ye! That’s a whole book, not a blog post, so I’m taking it in smaller bites. Today I’m covering some tips and tricks for creating distinctive dialogue for your characters.

Writing dialogue is hard for a lot of reasons. One, as I said yesterday, is that all readers are experts in dialogue. But another is that we are each so deeply steeped in our own patterns of speech that we have trouble thinking in different patterns of speech for the characters we create.

If we don’t work to avoid it, all of our characters end up sounding like us. And thus, they all sound like clones.

There are a lot of strategies for avoiding this bland fate, and you’ll have to experiment with what works for you.

Strategy #1: Imitate people you know.

Where you come from influences how you speak. American English has different patterns than British, Australian, New Zealand, and Caribbean English. America and the United Kingdom have many linguistically distinct regions within them, and I imagine the same is true for Australia and the rest. So think about people you know who didn’t grow up where you grew up, and try to imitate them.

If you have a character that comes from a place with a distinctive patois, you should take particular pains to learn enough so you can imitate it. Just think about the immediate difference between “Good morning,” “G’day, mate,” and “Good mawnin’, braddah.” Even an otherwise throw-away line of dialogue can be made to show character if it is distinctive.

Strategy #2: Create mannerisms

Most people have at least a few verbal tics that are unique to them. I knew a guy once who sounded entirely normal to me, except he used “whenever” in places everyone else would simply use “when.” Myself, when I was about 12 years old, I developed this habit of inserting the word “basically” into nearly every sentence that came out of my mouth. Fortunately I got over it but you get the idea: for each of your characters, create some particular phrasing that is slightly unusual yet still immediately understandable. And make sure to keep straight which characters have which particular tics.

Strategy #3: Formal vs. informal vs. slang

Some people are very formal in their speech. Some are more casual. Some use a lot of slang. There is a whole spectrum of formality you can draw from, and you should. Degrees of formality are excellent tools for showing a character’s level of education and social background. Yes, it’s stereotypical that upper-class people with more education tend to speak more formally, while lower-class people with little education speak in a streetwise vernacular. I know, we shouldn’t stereotype people, but then again the stereotype wouldn’t exist if it weren’t more or less true. Again, consider the immediate difference between “Would you be so kind as to get me a drink,” and “Yo, my man, grab me a beer!”

If you play it right, you can create some very distinctive characters by explicitly manipulating the character’s level of formality in different scenes. For example, if you have a character from the wrong side of the tracks, who has worked hard to put himself through college and become an upper-middle class professional, this person may well use different speech patterns at work versus hanging out with his old pals on the weekend. It’s a great device for showing the character’s dilemma of trying to fit into two different worlds.

Ok, so how do I actually do that?

Obviously, it’s best if you can work out each character’s manner of speech before you write the novel. That way, you can get it right from the beginning. If you’re one of those writers who creates extensive character biographies beforehand, this is something you could easily incorporate into your pre-novel-writing preparation. Write some sample scenes for your characters so you can practice their voices.

But not everyone works that way. Some writers only come to know their characters in the process of writing the books, so what then? That’s fine, so long as you’re willing to accept that you’ll need to do an edit pass specifically to address these questions of distinctive voice. Just write the first draft, do your best as you go along, but don’t stress about it.

When you’ve finished the first draft, make a list for each character of the verbal patterns you have discovered for them. These could consist of notes like “sounds like my friend Elwyn,” or “says ‘very very’ instead of ‘really’ or ‘a lot’.” Stuff like that. Now compare your lists to make sure they aren’t too similar, and adjust if necessary. When you feel you have a good handle on each character’s voice, do an edit pass on the whole book and adjust every line of dialogue to fit with the speaker’s verbal patterns.

Finally, a word of caution:

There is a difference between how people sound when they talk, and the words they choose to say. The physical sound—how they shape their vowels, whether they roll their Rs—that’s accent. The patterns of words they use, that’s dialect. As an author, you have to learn to control both.

Dialect is straightforward, because it’s just words, but accent is harder. To represent accent on the silent page, you must often resort to intentional misspellings. When done well that can be very effective, but it is all too easy to take the business of accenting way too far, turning it into an ugly caricature that borders on a racist portrayal. Few things will turn a reader off faster than a suspicion that the author is a bigot.

Also, it is just plain hard to invent accent-oriented misspellings that give the sound you’re after but are also easy for the reader to understand. Some writers have a flair for this, but most don’t. For this reason I encourage most of my clients to stick with word-pattern distinctions but shun the accents.

July 15, 2009 18:17 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, distinctive, clones, accent, dialect, imitation, mannerisms, verbal tics, formal, informal, slang, stereotypes

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Making or breaking your characters with dialogue

People have very keen ears for dialogue. They know what sounds right and what sounds strange without having to think about it. That only makes sense; all of us have spent countless thousands of hours both talking to and listening to other people.

You’ve probably seen that recent research finding 10,000 hours of practice at anything makes someone an expert. Do the math: You likely racked up 10,000 hours of listening, developing your ear for dialogue, by the time you were five years old.

No wonder so many writers say that writing good dialogue is one of the hardest parts of fiction: every single reader is an expert in the subject! If your protagonist is a boat builder or a bricklayer or a horse trainer, very few readers will have enough expertise in those fields to know whether you’ve portrayed those activities well. But the second your characters start talking to each other, every one of your readers will know immediately whether your dialogue works.

This is why dialogue is such a powerful tool for creating vivid, believable characters, and showing aspects of their personalities. It is also why a single bad line of dialogue can sabotage hundreds of pages worth of laborious character development.

Some examples are in order. Imagine that Steve and Dan have decided to take a year off between high school and college to go have adventures traveling in Europe. Near the end of their year abroad, they find themselves in Spain. Hard up for money and desperately seeking an alternative to what he perceives as a boring future back home, Steve enters an amateur bull-fighting competition. He does well, placing third and winning fifty Euros. However, the bull does well too, and Steve ends up with a few cracked ribs and a black eye. That evening, Steve spends his winnings on a hotel room and a few beers to share with his friend:

Steve tipped his head back, wincing, and drained the last of his cerveza. He took up a fresh one and held the cool bottle to his swollen eye. “What do you think, do I look like a bullfighter?”

“I think you look like shit, man.”

I intentionally told you nothing about Dan in setting the scene for that brief exchange. Dan gets exactly one short line of dialogue. What does it tell us about him? Quite a lot.

Casual swearing suggests that Dan is not a particularly formal guy. He chooses not to stoke Steve’s ego, but rather, to tell Steve the truth, suggesting that Dan is his own man with his own opinions, and isn’t afraid to share them.

I have not indicated how Dan delivers his line: you could read it as a humorous jibe, or as a frank and serious assessment. Both options imply something about Dan’s personality. Is he glibly laughing off the situation, or is he trying to help Steve see the seriousness of it? Either way, Dan is conveying a subtext of “Dude, don’t be an idiot. This is not a realistic career path for you.” It’s a short line, but it sure gives us an insight into Dan.

Let’s take a different example. Ellen and Julia have become fast friends after Ellen joined the coffee shop Julia works at. They are both in their mid-20s, post-college, figuring out how to deal with careers and boyfriends, how to make lives for themselves. One evening, Ellen calls Julia. After some opening chit-chat, Julia gets the feeling all is not well:

The line was quiet for a while. Julia asked “Hey, are you ok? You sound upset.”

Ellen sighed. “Rick stormed out. Hours ago. He’s not usually gone so long.”

“You guys fight too much. What happened this time?”

“I don’t know. I was cooking. I don’t even know what we were arguing about. I got really upset, and I threw a knife at him.”


“Relax, he ducked. I didn’t hit him. Anyway, he took off.”

“Well, I expect he’ll be back soon enough. Don’t sweat it.”

Let us further imagine that Julia is the protagonist of this novel. The author presumably intends for Julia to be a strong, sympathetic character—someone with a good head on her shoulders. That may be the image the author has worked to craft for Julia, but what does this exchange show about her?

Let’s actually start with what it shows about Ellen. It shows that Ellen probably doesn’t know when to get out of a bad relationship. It shows that she isn’t very good at controlling her reactions, and that she is prone to violent outbursts.

I don’t know about you, but Ellen is not the sort of person I would particularly want to have as a friend. Yet, supposedly she and Julia are good friends. Why? Why does Julia choose to be friends with a scary and dangerous person? It’s not like they have history. Ellen hasn’t given Julia a kidney. They haven’t known each other since kindergarten. There’s nothing like that, so Julia’s casual dismissal of Ellen’s actions at the end of the dialogue does enormous damage the reader’s view of her as a sensible person.

I’m not saying your characters should never say anything stupid. Sometimes they should, because they’re only human and people make mistakes. Sometimes that’s an important part of the story.

But I am saying that writers need to be very sensitive to the implications of the words they put into their characters mouths. If you make your characters say something dumb, it had better be on purpose because what they say says a lot about them.

The good news is that you are entirely well equipped to handle these nuances of dialogue. Remember, you’ve put in your tens of thousands of hours of practice at both speaking and listening, just like every one of your readers. You’re an expert, just like they are. Be confident in your expertise, and apply it to ensure that what your characters say conveys what you want it to.

Tomorrow: How to create distinctive dialogue for your characters.

July 14, 2009 18:37 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, bad relationship

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Carpe Diem!

Although the classic Latin phrase Carpe Diem has spawned many derivative jokes, the core meaning of this cliche—seize the day—is not only good advice for success in life, it’s also good advice for novelists who want to develop strong characters.

Case in point: I recently worked on a book where the MacGuffin had gone missing, through assumedly nefarious doings by unknown antagonists. That’s a fine setup; the MacGuffin was something the main character cared deeply about, and it served as credible stakes for inciting the main character to action.

The author, rightly, aimed to create a situation where this main character (let’s call her Meredith for clarity’s sake), would go to great lengths to recover the MacGuffin and win the day. However, the author wanted (also rightly) to make Meredith an interesting, multi-dimensional character.

This is where things went wrong.

You see, the author saddled Meredith with a bad relationship, a marriage to an unfeeling, unsympathetic, and controlling husband. Roger, we’ll call him, didn’t give one thin damn about the MacGuffin, didn’t care at all for the anxiety that Meredith was suffering because her precious MacGuffin was lost, and constantly belittled Meredith’s ideas and strategies for how she might get the MacGuffin back.

This is not in itself a bad character development strategy. It offers the potential for character growth, for showing Meredith coming into her own as she chases down that MacGuffin no matter what. It allows an opportunity for readers to root for her, as we watch her growing awareness of her own power and self-determination as a human being.

But the author attempted to create a situation where Meredith had no one to help her but herself, by constantly leaving avenues of investigation un-pursued, possible actions un-taken. He didn’t want to take the time to write the scenes showing her doing those things and having them fail, so he simply left them un-pursued.

The reason for this passivity was always that Meredith was afraid of what Roger (or frankly, anyone else in the novel) might think of her. Was she being silly, for wanting this MacGuffin back so much? Would the cops laugh at her if she called them for help? Did she dare bother the neighbors to ask if they had seen anyone strange at her house?

In every case, the author made poor Meredith opt for preserving other people’s opinions of her (which couldn’t have been that great to begin with) rather than pursuing the goal she really wanted. The author, in attempting to force Meredith into a situation where she had to take control, instead showed that Meredith was passive and weak beyond all possible expectation, blowing with the changing winds of other people’s attitudes.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that’s what he showed.

It would be one thing if she was like that in the first few chapters, but then got over it and started doing something. I kept waiting for Meredith to tell someone—anyone!—to stuff it and get out of her way. But she never did.

Poor, poor Meredith, she never did a darned thing to recover her MacGuffin. So when the MacGuffin more or less fell back into her lap at the end of the book (gotta have that happy ending, you know!), I wasn’t emotionally moved at all. After all, Meredith hadn’t done anything to deserve getting it back. She was just as sad and pathetic as she had been on page one.

It didn’t make for good characterization, nor did it make for a satisfying story.

July 10, 2009 17:07 UTC

Tags: character, carpe diem, seize the day, bad relationship, passivity, MacGuffin, stakes, multi-dimensional

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Making good choices for your characters

This past Saturday I spent some time reflecting on how the choices we make tell others about our own character. In that post, I promised an article on how that applies to fiction. That promise has been on my mind ever since, and I may only banish it by writing about it.

First, a quick poll. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the following in a TV show: The hero manages to get the drop on the antagonist. The hero’s gun is drawn. The antagonist is backed into a corner. The drama is high. It feels like the climax of the show, except there’s one problem—the hero doesn’t just shoot the damn villain and be done with it.

Is your hand up? Yup, mine is, too.

Now, you know, and I know, and the show’s writers know that when the show does finish the villain is going to be dead. One way or another, we all know that’s going to happen. So why doesn’t the hero shoot? Well, there’s one little problem. There’s still 20 minutes left in the show and you can’t very well dispose of the bad guy now! What would you do for the next 20 minutes? All the drama would be gone!

So, the good guy doesn’t shoot. The bad guy somehow escapes, and the story continues. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

The story problem (or to put it more bluntly, the writer’s problem of figuring out how to drag a thin story out for another 20 minutes), has only been traded for something worse: a characterization problem. It’s a solution that leaves the viewer wondering why the hero is such a friggin’ idiot: He’s got the bad guy literally in his sights. Whatever nefarious doings the villain has been up to, the hero can put a stop to it right then and there. So why doesn’t he? Within the world of the story, within the events leading up to that moment, there’s no good reason at all not to. Yet, the obvious thing fails to happen and the viewer is left with no choice but to conclude that the hero is a moron.

I hate when that happens in TV shows and cinema. But sadly, it happens all too often in books, too.

When this happens, a good writer will go back and enhance the events that have led up to that pivotal moment so they take 20 more minutes—or a hundred more pages—so the climax naturally happens at the end, where it’s supposed to, at a moment when the hero really can go ahead and pull the trigger.

A mediocre writer will turn their character into an idiot, because they’re excited to move on to the next scene and the ultimate really really big finish they’ve had in mind since they started the book.

Don’t do that to your characters. Please. You’re a writer, right? Writers are supposed to love their characters. Why would you do that to someone you love?

What I’ve described is the (sadly, all too common) extreme case of bad characterization through poor decision making. Don’t just worry about the big situations in your novels. Choices happen at all levels, throughout a book.

Good novels continually present their main characters with crises: problems, challenges and obstacles to overcome. Some will be small, some will be grand. A mediocre writer will let their characters do the first thing that comes to mind that solves the writer’s problem. A good writer will let their character do the smart thing in that situation, even if doing so creates other challenges for the writer. A great writer will construct the situation such that there is only one thing the character can do, and it’s simultaneously the smart thing but also unpleasant or difficult.

At every moment where your characters are faced with a non-trivial choice (I’m not talking about “hmm, mocha, or espresso?” situations), you must ask yourself some questions:

What do I want the character to do for reasons of advancing the plot in the direction I want it to go?

What is the smart thing to do, that a real, intelligent person would do in this situation?

If the answer to those questions are the same, you’re in good shape. If not, you know what to do: fix the setup so they are the same. You’re not done yet, though. Having decided what the character should do, ask yourself a third, pivotal question:

What does that choice reveal about the character?

This goes beyond “does it make your character look like an idiot?” Was it a difficult choice for the character to make? Does the character have to sacrifice anything by making that choice? If not, you risk making your character seem risk-averse, someone who takes the easy way out.

Did the character come to that choice immediately, or did he/she have to wrestle with other courses of action before deciding what to do? Even if there really is only one viable choice, if the character immediately jumps to that decision you run the risk of making your character seem rash or reckless. (Worse, if the choice isn’t necessarily obvious, you show your hand by making the plot seem foreordained. But that’s a subject for another article.)

If you don’t like what the choice says about the character, go back to the first two questions and start over.

Like I said in my earlier post, choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. So have a care. What your characters choose, how they choose it, how they arrive at their choices, and even how they feel about those choices: all of it contributes enormously to how readers perceive your characters.

Yes, it’s work. Yes, you may have to think hard to find the right choice for the character. Nobody said this was easy, but don’t turn your beloved characters into idiots (or worse) by worrying about solving your writing problem more than you worry about how best to portray your characters.

July 07, 2009 21:54 UTC

Tags: choice, character, hero, villain, smart, idiot

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The freedom to make choices

Writing is nothing if not a series of choices a writer makes on behalf of his or her characters. Every sentence, paragraph, and chapter offers opportunities for choice: How will your characters react? What will they say? What will they do next?

Those choices reveal a lot about your characters. Choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. Stronger than dialogue or dialect, stronger than mannerisms or mode of dress, choices give a glimpse into the deepest level of character: how someone thinks.

Someday I will write a lengthy article on the power and pitfalls of the choices your characters make. But today is Independence Day in the United States, so I want to talk about something a bit different.

Independence. Freedom. Liberty. Whatever you call it, it amounts to the same thing: the ability to make unfettered choices. Life, after all, is nothing if not a series of choices for you to make on your own behalf. How will you react to your circumstances? What will you say? What will you do next?

In life as in fiction, the choices we make every day reveal a lot about our own character. Do you choose to sit on the couch and watch other people’s lives go by on the T.V., or do you go out to do some living of your own? Do you spend your time looking out for number one, or do you work to improve the lives of others?

Today we celebrate a historic declaration that the people of the American Continent are—whether King George III liked it or not—a free people. That we would have our unfettered right to choose our own destinies, absent the dictates of a distant and unsympathetic ruler.

Thus, I think the choices we each make about how we spend this day, among all others of the year, perhaps says something more about us than usual.

A lot of us are bringing out our flags for the day, firing up the barbeque, and figuring out the logistics of how to make it to the nearest fireworks show.

But some Americans are spending the day standing on hot street corners, baking in the sun, holding up signs demanding an end to the war. Some are calling the offices of senators and congressmen, demanding a “public option” in health care reform. Some are working to end mountaintop removal strip mining in Appalachia.

It’s not hard to see what those choices reveal about their character. My hat is off to them, and I thank them for their service to their country.

July 04, 2009 21:20 UTC

Tags: Independence Day, choice, character, King George III, peace, health care

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