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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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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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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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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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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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