Plot to Punctuation Logo

The three worst words in fiction

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

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

The chosen one.

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

It’s plot motivation.

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

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

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

It hoses the drama.

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

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

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

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

Faux success

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

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2012 19:47 UTC

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

Permalink Permalink | Comments 13 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Why people are scarier than monsters

It seems like you can’t swing a dead cat in a bookstore anymore without hitting a paranormal or horror book featuring zombies, vampires, werewolves, or even Victorian-era sea monsters.

When they’re done well, there’s nothing wrong with these books. But they tend to leave aspiring writers in these genres with a false impression about the genre: that you need some variety of monster to fill the role of scary villain. This is where things can go wrong, because honestly, monsters aren’t all that scary.

If your aim is to put real terror on the page, consider going with an ordinary human as your villain. The reason is simple:

Monsters don’t have any choice in the matter.

In classical formulations—which aspiring writers often gravitate towards in their early works—monsters are evil because they’re made that way. It’s in their nature. They have no particular choice about it, and consequently, they’re also often portrayed as not very intelligent either.

I can scarcely find a sufficient adjective to qualify the degree to which that saps their power as villains.

Just to pick one, let’s consider the zombie: a brain-hungry, mindless killing and eating machine, with the power to zombify the innocent with their purulent bite. Now I’m not saying zombies fail to register at all on the fear scale. The zombie’s utter relentlessness helps. The whole zombie horde thing does have a certain panache to it. They do constitute a threat, which gives some default amount of fear.

But that’s about it. Once your good guys figure out that they can outrun the zombie-shuffle basically forever, and that the classic shovel-to-the-neck move will save them in a tight spot, the fear is over.

Zombies have no choice about what they do, so they can’t respond to the protagonists in any meaningful way. They can’t change their tactics or even their goals. From a storytelling perspective, when you’re trying to build tension and suspense, that sucks. The same shovel-to-the-neck that saves somebody on page 20 will still work on page 200. Mindless zombies are entirely predictable. How boring is that?

It’s the same with other monsters. Werewolves have to bite because it’s what they do. No big deal: just lock yourself inside somewhere safe on the night of the full moon. There’s a strategy for dealing with werewolves, one for vampires (wooden stakes / crosses / holy water), and so forth.

Emphasis on the singular: A strategy. Monsters that lack free will do present a threat but it’s not enough to sustain genuine suspense, tension, and fear through a whole book. There’s just no tension when the same strategy keeps working, over and over, against the same threat. To get suspense, tension, and fear, your protagonists need to face a series of unpredictable challenges in overcoming the monsters.

Free will creates unpredictability

But what about ordinary humans? Humans have free will. They can and do make choices. This makes them unpredictable, and that’s what creates the fear. Remember, fear comes primarily from the unknown. Something that is unpredictable cannot be known or deeply understood, and thus remains scary.

You never know what a villain who has genuine free will—and the intelligence to use it—is going to do. Readers and protagonists alike have to stay on their toes, because the villain can (and should) spring unpleasant surprises on them.

There’s a second reason why free will creates scary villains. It’s more subtle, but much more powerful. Free will means that the villain, somewhere in his past, made a choice to be bad. Maybe it was all at once, maybe it was some kind of slippery-slope scenario, but somewhere that person decided to be evil.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Somewhere along the line, he decided that satisfying his own twisted desires was in fact more important than the harm he was doing to others. Lecter is smart. He knows what he’s doing is wrong, he just doesn’t care. Somewhere in his past, he had a choice between good and evil, and he picked evil.

To me that implies a level of malice that is so far above the mindless, no-choice evil of ordinary monsters that it’s not even on the same scale. The unpredictability and malice of willful evil creates suspense and fear that trumps garden-variety monsters any day.

Have your brains and eat them too

Fortunately, this is one of those rare cases in life where it’s not that difficult to have it both ways. If you want to put monsters in the lead villain role, fine. Just step away from the classic formulations of them. Give us zombies that may be innately driven to eat the brains of the living, but make them crafty and cunning about it.

Whether living or undead, give your villains free will and the intelligence to use it. Keep them unpredictable and they’ll remain scary for the whole book.

January 12, 2010 19:13 UTC

Tags: character, choice, good and evil, malice, monsters, fear, drama, suspense

Permalink Permalink | Comments 9 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Villains are heroes too

In the last part of my character revision series I made the case for why all your significant characters should have some kind of arc. That includes your villains.

Look at it from their perspective: The villain is the hero of his or her own story. Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t consider herself to be a bad person. She was a person who felt she had been wronged, and wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: Exact justice on Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas). We’d call it revenge, but to her, it was justice. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it. So why shouldn’t she get a character arc too?

She should, and here are four good reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:

Believability and drama A villain who feels like a one-dimensional stereotype isn’t particularly believable. Real people are rarely so simple. If you’re doing a serial-killer thriller, say, but the whole of your villain’s development is contained in the two word phrase “serial-killer,” nobody’s going to put much faith in him as a real person. His actions and motivations will be all too predictable, and consequently, there is no drama.

A believable person is unpredictable. Unpredictability equals threat, which generates fear (both for the book’s hero and for the reader), which increases the whole book’s sense of drama.

Depth If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel more depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes, and that’s really all there is to say about that.

Message and meaning Giving the villain an arc, with its attendant set of credible, carefully considered beliefs and motivations, gives you an opportunity to play with the similarities and differences between your hero and your villain. That, in turn, creates a perfect opportunity to give your book a deeper message and meaning beyond what’s in the plot. Sure, giving your villain any random character arc at all will still help your novel. But why be random when you can be smart?

If you’re clever about what arc you give the villain, you can a wonderful possibility for playing the two arcs off of each other. By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.

Take suffering: perhaps both hero and villain are being driven by suffering from a previous emotional wound. But the hero works to overcome it, while the villain allows the suffering to drag him down into the darkness. This technique is great for giving your book a message and showing the complex, not black-and-white but gray nature of the world, without you ever having to point it out to the reader.

In this example, readers are likely to begin the book with a default attitude that suffering is bad. After all, nobody likes to suffer. We try to avoid it if we can. But by showing your hero emerge from suffering as a stronger person, while the villain succumbs to it and is ultimately defeated, you can show a more complex picture: Suffering itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how we choose to react to it. The best part is you never have to explain the message to the reader. It’s shown, right there in the two arcs.

Hope Boiled down to the barest essence, a character arc represents hope. It is a signal that some kind of change is coming, and if there can be change, there can be improvement. If your serial-killer villain has a character arc going on, then the reader can have hope that he may change and not, in fact, kill the victim he is presently stalking. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.

Now, you don’t have to redeem the villain just because you gave him or her an arc. Absolutely not. But take care: If you’re doing it right, the arc will come with a pivotal moment somewhere in the plot, where the villain chooses the redemptive path or the path of condemnation. The serial-killer either chooses not to kill, or gives in to the bloodlust and does the victim in anyway.

Whichever you choose, that pivotal moment for the villain is also a pivotal moment for your book because the villain’s choice must be absolutely believable to the reader. You can’t just write up to that point then flip a coin to see what happens. Everything that has led up to that moment must, in the reader’s hindsight, support the choice the villain makes. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph the choice ahead of time and give away the ending, but the ending must fit what has come before like a glove.

Well, I guess you could flip a coin about it, as long as you’re willing to go back in revision to add support for the result. As novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture:

As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”

December 18, 2009 19:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, antagonists, villain, believability, drama, depth, message, hope, redemption

Permalink Permalink | Comments 1 Comment | Tweet this! Tweet this!

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

Permalink Permalink | Comments 4 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Dramatic frustration: remember to keep the emotions real

Last week I wrote about how you can steal your character’s shoes in order to bring a dull character to life and create a mounting sense of drama in your plot. It’s an effective technique, but it’s not the only one for achieving those ends.

A related technique is not to steal their shoes, but rather, to make their shoes irrelevant to the task at hand. Show them that they’ve got the wrong tools for the job.

The goal is to find whatever skills and strengths makes your protagonist and everyone else believe she’s the right woman for the job, then reveal that the job isn’t what everybody thought it was so those skills are no good after all. It’s like shoe stealing, in that it forces the character to develop new skills or rely on abilities she isn’t confident about, but there’s a critical difference.

The character’s emotional response isn’t the same

If you steal the character’s shoes—if you literally make character’s assets unavailable—the character should respond with some form of the Five Stages of Grief. You’ve just subjected them to a loss. Any loss, whether it’s killing off the character’s beloved sidekick or simply taking away your sharpshooter heroine’s sniper rifle, should evoke the same pattern of emotional responses. The only difference is degree.

However, if you let the character keep her shoes but make the shoes useless, the character should show a different emotional response. There are a variety of emotions that would be believable, in response to realizing that there’s a mismatch between the character’s skills or tools, and the job at hand, depending on the situation. You’ll have to put on your empathy hat to figure out which one is right, but then, we writers ought to have that hat sewn onto our heads permanently anyway:

Frustration. This choice is apt when it’s the mismatch is the character’s own fault, or when she can credibly believe it’s her own fault. Think about how you feel when you set out to do some little odd job around the house, like tightening a loose screw on a cupboard door, only to find that you’ve trudged all the way down to the garage and back up to the kitchen with a Phillips-head screwdriver instead of a flathead. Frustrating. If the job has to be done under any sort of time pressure or other chaotic situation, that only compounds the feeling.

Anger. This is a good choice when the mismatch isn’t the character’s fault. If someone sent the highly trained sharpshooter heroine on a mission that turns out to involve sabotaging a battalion’s worth of the enemy’s heavy artillery, she would justifiably be angry about it. The core response is some version of “Why the hell did they send me?”

Fear. Consider a fear response when the stakes are high, and the mismatch elevates the danger of death or injury from failing to get the job done. The character’s sudden realization that she isn’t nearly as well equipped for the job as she thought could easily trigger a fear response. This applies to male characters just as well as female characters.

Humor. Let’s face it, sometimes a mismatch is just plain funny. Surprise is the core element of much humor, and on some level it’s going to be a surprise to turn the character’s expectations how she’s will deal with the situation on their ear. You can do this to lighten the tone of the book, at least briefly, if things have been dark and heavy for a while. Give the characters—and the reader—a little emotional high spot in the middle of the drama.

Mix it up Try combining some of these four core emotional responses into more complex, nuanced feelings. For example, combine fear and humor into a terrified character letting out a desperate laugh. Let her be laughing not in the face of danger, but simply because it’s the only way to keep her sanity while trying to survive the situation. This can create not only a vivid scene, but can work to underscore the sensation of crisis.

Always keep the emotions real.

Whatever you do, the strategy remains the same: create an obstacle for your protagonist by changing the situation she previously felt confident about into one she is ill-equipped to deal with. Watch her struggle through it, and while she does, pay careful attention to creating a believable display of emotions. Nothing sabotages a character faster than when her emotions don’t match the situation.

October 16, 2009 19:40 UTC

Tags: character, drama, crisis, frustration, anger, fear, humor, emotions

Permalink Permalink | Comments 2 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Why you should steal your character's shoes

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

Maybe you need to steal his shoes.

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

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

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

Thus fully prepared, he set off to battle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 09, 2009 16:12 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, drama, protagonist, obstacles

Permalink Permalink | Comments 3 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.

Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.

I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).

Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.

Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.

First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.

A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.

Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:

Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.

Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:

Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?

With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.

Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.

But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.

Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.

August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC

Tags: character, habits, smokes, believability, drama, reversals, distinctive, shorthand, show don't tell

Permalink Permalink | Comments 2 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Getting the bones right

I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?

This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.

My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.

This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”

Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.

That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.

This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.

This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.

Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.

But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.

Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.

I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.

You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.

Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.

It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.

If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.

August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC

Tags: bones, story structure, deep structure, PNWA, premise, Donald Maass, outline, themes, pacing, drama, rising stakes, rising tension, Stephen King, fossil, inspiration, Elizabeth Lyon, writer's block

Permalink Permalink | Comments 1 Comment | Tweet this! Tweet this!

For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar