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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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