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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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Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?

I spend a lot of time on this blog helping explain what writers can do to improve their characters. Today, I’m doing the opposite: talking about a mistake writers should not make in their scene transitions and chapter breaks because it can sabotage their characters.

If you’re wondering how scene transitions can sabotage a character, welcome to the club. I was quite shocked the first time I discovered this phenomenon because it’s so unexpected. Scene transitions are only gaps in the narrative, where you presumably skip over boring stuff the reader doesn’t need to see in order to move on to the next moment that’s meaningful to the plot. But “skipping the parts people don’t read,” as Elmore Leonard put it, is a good thing, right? How in the world can gaps reflect badly on your characters?

If you do them right, they don’t. But if you do them wrong, they can leave all sorts of impressions about your characters that you didn’t intend at all.

The Discovery

The first time I discovered this it was in a client’s manuscript where I felt that the main character was way too passive, which was weird because I could see him doing stuff at many points in the story. As I was writing my feedback for the client, I was asking myself why he seemed so passive. And then it hit me. The problem wasn’t in the writing, it was in the gaps between the writing.

The writer was ending a lot of scenes in typical cliffhanger fashion, thus motivating the reader to keep reading to see what the main character was going to do about that end-of-scene crisis. That’s a great technique. But then the next scene would pick up later, after the crisis was over. The writer presented enough recap so you knew how things ended up, but then moved on with the rest of the story. So while the main character certainly did a lot of things during the scenes of the book, I never actually got to see him respond to these cliffhanger crises. It left the impression that he didn’t do anything about them, and thus, that he was too passive.

The Theory

That’s just one example. But an awkward transition can create all manner of misconceptions about a character, depending on the context. It goes something like this.

At the end of a scene, readers have a picture in mind. They know who’s doing what, where they are, what their goals are, et cetera. The scene itself has built this picture for them. Further, at the end of the scene, your readers will have some kind of guess as to how the events may unfold.

But then the scene ends, so at the beginning of the next scene they have to build new mental pictures. If the second scene doesn’t sufficiently lay out the new picture while also linking back to the previous one, your characters can fall right through that gap. Let me see if I can create this effect for you in a short example.

Backstory: A husband and wife are having marital problems following the death of their first child, some five years prior. They’re dealing with the 5 stages of grief in their own ways and on their own timelines. He’s ready to move on and have another child, but she’s not and every time they talk about it they always end up in a fight.

Scene one: Having a pretty good day, the husband and wife decide to go for a walk. Without really paying attention to where they’re wandering, they find themselves atop on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the sea, their picturesque stone cottage in the background. Only, it’s the very same bluff from which their first child fell to his death. They both become silent and sullen. Neither can say anything, so in a moment of tenderness, they embrace, clinging to each other for support.

Scene two: Back in the cottage, the wife is in the kitchen sniffling and wiping away tears while preparing dinner. The husband, still seeming sullen, is stoking up a fire in the fireplace. Later, the doorbell rings and guests arrive for dinner. Husband and wife put on brave faces and attempt to entertain as best they can, although the evening is not a raging success.

Now ask yourself: why was the wife crying in scene two? What happened in between those two scenes? Don’t over-think it, just go with your gut. It’s probably telling you that back on the bluff, the husband must have brought up the subject of having another child again, resulting in another fight on the walk back to the cottage.

“But no,” screams the writer after it’s much too late to protest, “that isn’t what I meant at all! I only meant to show that she was chopping onions. It’s show, don’t tell, just some colorful detail in the kitchen scene. He didn’t bring up having another baby, and they didn’t fight!”

Ok fine, Mr. Writer Guy, but your rough and awkward scene transition reflects badly on the husband. It quite likely leaves readers thinking the guy is an insensitive jerk. They’ll be judging him for not recognizing that she’s still hurting, and critical of him for not giving her the time she needs to heal.

The scene break may be perfectly justified on structural grounds. That walk back to the cottage doesn’t, in fact, advance the story. There’s no conflict in it, so it has to go.

The problem occurs when a reader’s guess about what happens next is neither confirmed nor denied. The walk back to the cottage is the bridge from the first scene to the second. Even if you shouldn’t show it directly, you can’t leave it out entirely or the husband falls to his metaphorical death in the reader’s eyes.

The Solution

Two things need to happen at that scene transition in order for the husband not to come off looking like a cad, or more generally, for writers to avoid unintentionally showing something negative about their characters.

First, the scene break had better be in the right place. In the above example I’ve posited that it was, but that’s not always what writers do. Ending a scene too early is particularly dangerous, because you leave things very vague for the reader. The gap to the next scene can be too wide, leaving the reader with too many possible outcomes to consider. Don’t end the scene until you’ve given the reader a clear sense for exactly what you’re about to skip over. Don’t try to eliminate every possible incorrect guess that may be in the reader’s mind. You can’t build the whole bridge here. But that’s ok. A bridge has two ends, and this scene is just one of them.

Second, the following scene must establish its own mental picture quickly and clearly, in such a way that the reader can see how this scene logically follows from the previous one. Here is where you build the other end of the bridge by dealing with any remaining uncertainty left by the previous scene’s ending. Your job is to give the reader that brief moment of realizing “Ok, I see how we got from there to here.”

Build a Bridge

A scene transition is a gap. Always bear that in mind. Your job as the writer is to provide a bridge over that gap so your characters don’t plummet into the churning waters below.

A scene creates a mental picture for the reader, but it also leaves the reader having a guess as to what might happen next. If the following scene doesn’t clearly confirm their guess or lead them to a different understanding, then your bridge has a hole in the middle. Don’t make your readers guess at what happened. Let them imagine it, sure. But don’t make them guess.

December 15, 2009 19:34 UTC

Tags: character, flaws, transitions, mistakes, writing, bridge, gap

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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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