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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!

Conclusion

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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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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Character Corner -- Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer

It has been some while since I did a character review, but then, it has been some while since I read something quite this engaging. I have to say, I picked up Bloody Jack rather on a whim. I enjoy pirate stories, and have one in the works to write myself, so I’m always interested in seeing how other authors portray that era and life on the high seas. (I also have to say that I would never have picked it up at all except for the awesome swashbuckling cover art shown here which, sad to say, seems to have been chucked in the version currently available on Amazon for a cover which is practically cliched in its bland triteness.)

But, it being a Young Adult title, I have to say I went in with fairly low expectations. I don’t mean that as any kind of dig against YA—I love YA, and most of what I write has been YA. I only mean that I wasn’t expecting much more than a hum-drum tale of pirates and Spanish gold. Boy was I wrong, in the best possible way. It is, as the Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “a rattling good read” that kept me up late several nights in a row, largely on the strength of its amazing protagonist.

The protagonist is Mary Faber, a young orphaned waif making a hard living on the streets of London. How she becomes “Jack” Faber and ends up on a ship in His Majesty’s service is a tale in itself, which I won’t spoil here except to say that it is touching and poignant and heartbreaking in all the right ways. And while striving not to spoil anything else in the book, I do want to talk about the some of the many things Meyer does very much right with his protagonist.

Voice

Meyer has an incredible ear for the language of the period. He portrays 18th century English vernacular with incredible facility. Further, he made the perfect choice in writing the book in first-person POV. Thus, not only does the language of the book convey the setting, but it’s also integral to Mary’s characterization. Everything we see is Mary’s take on events. If you go to writers conferences or attend talks by agents and publishers, you’ll always hear them say they’re looking for books with a strong voice. Bloody Jack is a great example.

Personality

Meyer gave his protagonist quite a personality, and one that is perfectly fitted to her backstory. It is never difficult to believe that she would feel and act in the ways she does. Her ship-board life demands acts of bravery, which she supplies, not because she’s brave (and at several points Mary herself remarks on how she was never very brave) but because she’s a survivor and because she’ll do just about anything to protect the people she cares about. Meyer has done an amazing job of portraying someone who really does wish she could just have a quiet, peaceful, safe life, but can’t, and yet rises to the occasion in order to get by.

Those are Mary’s major themes. But Meyer didn’t stop there. He gave her some additional colorful personality traits—a love of music, a playfully evil mischievious streak, and a right saucy sailor mouth—all of which he works into the fabric of the storyline. None of those traits are there just for fun. Every one of them has a meaningful impact on the ship-board events, and affects Mary’s standing significantly.

He also portrays her as an intelligent, thoughtful girl. This largely comes through in the way she thinks about life, and the occasional deeply insightful observations she makes about it. And if I may go off on a tangent for a moment, I think novels give writers a unique opportunity to make readers think about things they might not otherwise think about. But, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that. The wrong way is to be heavy-handed, preachy, and moralistic in your narrative, to make sure the reader cannot possibly miss how you feel about an issue. The right way is simply to shine a little light on an issue, show your readers how your characters feel about it, and let readers make up their own minds. If you do read Bloody Jack (which I highly recommend), pay attention to Mary’s observations about the differences between men’s and women’s clothing for a great example of how to do that right.

Goals

There’s a saying that in every scene, you have to know what the goals of each character are. Further, characters are supposed to have an over-riding goal for the story, one that is captured in the story’s central conflict. Mary definitely has goals in every scene, but she doesn’t so much have a goal for the whole story as she has a series of escalating goals. One of the parts of Bloody Jack I enjoyed most was watching the evolution of Mary’s goals as the book progresses. In the beginning, her threats are starvation, freezing to death in the winter, and the gruesomely portrayed antagonist Mr. Muck. Her goal is simple survival. But as the book progresses, her goals shift, little by little, until by the end she has gained meaningful long-term goals for her whole life.

Her character arc is wrapped up in her ever-expanding event horizon. In the beginning of the book, she doesn’t expect to live long at all. Street urchins usually don’t. But by the end, everything has changed. Watching her go from hopelessness to hopeful about the future, and watching her have dreams and make plans about the future, was really beautiful to read. Like watching someone come back to life. Masterfully done, Mr. Meyer. Masterfully done indeed.

Treatment

Finally, the way Meyer treats Mary in the book is perfect. She has a hard life, and Meyer doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t do the worst thing possible to her, which would be to baby her. If you want to read a great example of the adage “when in doubt, make it worse,” read Bloody Jack. Because Meyer relentlessly makes her situation worse, while at the same time making it much, much better. It’s a great piece of writerly jujitsu, watching how he alleviates one problem in her life only to reveal more subtle, darker, sinister problems lurking in wait.

All in all, I loved Bloody Jack. Even better, it’s the first book in series chronicling the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy. I’m excited to read the rest! Give Bloody Jack a try. You won’t be sorry.

August 20, 2010 18:11 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, L.A. Meyer, Bloody Jack, voice, personality, goals, treatment

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Three steps to a breakout story

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

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

1. Pick a compelling goal

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

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

2. Show that the goal is worthy

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

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

3. Go after the goal

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

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

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

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

Make it personal

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

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

May 17, 2010 22:54 UTC

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

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Seven ways to show character growth

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

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

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

Seven strategies to create a strong character arc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 14, 2010 21:31 UTC

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

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Three ways relationships can reveal your characters

Characters are never alone. You ever notice that? Abbot had Costello, Lucy had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper. Why is this? Psychologically it’s because people are social creatures. We go better together. Some part of us needs to be able to share our thoughts and feelings with others. But as writers, we create sidekicks and foils because relationships are a marvelous tool for revealing your characters.

Even characters who seem alone, aren’t. There’s always a sidekick, even if it isn’t human. Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, had his volleyball. Bruce Dern’s character in the Sci-Fi classic Silent Running had three cute little robots with him. And of course, Keir Dullea’s murderous computer nemesis in 2001: A Space Odyssey needs no explanation at all. Those characters’ sidekicks weren’t people, but they still provided a relationship that revealed a lot about the character.

You could probably write a whole book on this, but let me instead just give three highlights, three quick methods for using relationships to show what kind of people your characters are.

Use shared or borrowed goals

Any time you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own something that is a goal for the other character. You might have your love-struck hero take up volunteering at an animal shelter, because he learns that the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He might even adopt a sad, mangy dog, despite his own allergies (they’ve got pills for that, right?) just to impress her.

Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it works for other situations too. Not long ago, I finished Michael Snyder’s book Return Policy, in which there’s a sub-plot about one character seeking to land a promotion by voluntarily taking on a tedious, boring data entry job that everyone else in her office has been avoiding. It means longer hours, time away from her son, but she knows it will make her manager look good and hopes it will tip the scales toward her.

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

Relationships always have levels to them. For example, you might have a character who is always creating little competitions between himself and his friends. His notion is that he’s creating opportunities for fun and that this will make people like him. How he reacts says a lot: is he gracious in victory and defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser to boot? How his friends react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or are they annoyed? It’s this interaction between the characters that is your vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak. How the relationship plays out on the page says everything.

Or going back to the love-struck mangy dog owner, while that behavior may seem sweet and fawning at first, there’s a darker side lurking underneath. It is ultimately selfish: he doesn’t actually care about the dog, except to the extent that the dog can help win him the girl. And how disrespectful he must be of her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way, or that she won’t see right through him. Does he even actually love her for herself? If he’s so willing to alter his outward image—and mask his inward nature—to impress her, perhaps he is more attracted to his outward image of her than to the person she is underneath.

The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of surprises. Affection can mask selfishness. Competition can mask self-importance. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals. It’s the best way to surprise a reader, by letting them learn something new about your characters that they didn’t necessarily expect.

Show multiple points of view

Finally, as I wrote last month, nobody sees themselves the same as other people see them. If your story has multiple POV characters, you can readily exploit this to show the contrast. For example, the competitive boy sees his competitive habit as an attempt to create fun between himself and his friends. But his friends, who have grown weary of seeing who can throw a crumpled napkin into the trash can from the farthest away, see it as something else: annoying egotism.

There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs, though, that goes deeper than simply showing a contrast between some character’s self-opinion and how others see him, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss out on. Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery rather than solves it. That is to say, when you’re done showing both parties’ view of the situation, have you left the reader wondering who is right?

If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to also create a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later by springing yet another layer on the reader, revealing that nobody is right! Reveal that he’s not as fun-loving as he thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think. Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he creates all these competitive situations because really he’s struggling to reassure himself of his own abilities.

It’s not a meaningless reversal, of course. It’s not there just to keep the reader guessing. To really work, it had better be part of a meaningful character arc. But I hope that at least gives you gives a taste of how these strategies—just like people—go better together than alone.

November 09, 2009 21:50 UTC

Tags: character, relationships, Michael Snyder, goals, reversals

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