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Using the bystander effect in your novels

Take a look at that picture. What do you see in it? A street scene. Tumbled flats of vegetables, corn, green beans, and what look like cucumbers spilled on the pavement. People walking past. What don’t you see? Anybody lifting a finger to help clean it up. The original picture this one was cropped from has over a dozen people in it, and every one of them is probably thinking something along the lines of “Ooh, glad that’s not my problem.”

That’s the bystander effect. It is the tendency for people to offer less help to strangers the more other people are around. The ironic thing is that if there had been only one other person on the street when this little accident took place, that person would have been much more likely to step in and offer assistance.

Why does it happen?

The reasons behind it are pretty straightforward, and psychologists seem to be of the impression that a number of factors contribute to the bystander effect. One is “diffusion of responsibility” (don’t you just love the fancy names psychologists come up with for everything?): not doing anything because you figure surely someone else will. Another is social proof: when confronted with an emergency situation, people’s initial reaction is to look around to see how other people are responding in order to decide how to respond. So everyone looks around, and sees everyone else also just looking around—that is, not doing anything because they’re also busy making the same internal assessment—and decides that the situation must not be all that serious. A third is uncertainty and fear, not being confident of one’s ability to actually help, or to help in a way that the help-ee will actually appreciate. These are all pretty normal feelings, but they all add up to folks not helping other folks as much as we might hope.

So what can you do with it in your novels? Three things, which revolve around the different roles present in these kinds of situations:

Victim

As I’ve counseled many times before, it’s good to do bad things to your main characters, so your poor protagonists may well be the ones in a scene who would like some help.

If you’re writing in an intimate point of view, either first person or third-person limited, then the POV character is the stand-in for the reader. This creates a wonderful opportunity to create reader empathy: Let the POV character need help, but not get any. Let any bystanders in the scene, well, stand by. If you portray the POV character’s need for help as well as his or her growing sense of desperation as nobody steps up to offer that help, you can really put readers on the edge of their seats. Basically, by giving readers enough information to understand that the emergency situation really is an emergency—that help is genuinely needed—they’ll be just as frustrated at the useless bystanders as your POV character.

This can work really well in an opening scene, as a means for quickly bonding the reader to your POV characters in order that the reader cares what happens to them. You need to be careful not to let your POV characters be so utterly helpless and pathetic that readers can’t root for them—which probably means letting your characters solve their own problems after failing to get help from anybody else—but it can be a great way to create a character-based hook for a novel.

Useless bystander

On the flip-side, you might put a POV character into the useless bystander role. Why might you do this? Because it works well in the early chapters of novels that are driven by inner character arcs as a way to drive home the character’s starting point. When you have a character who is going to experience some kind of inner growth as the story progresses, you need a way to show that they are presently in an emotionally blocked or stunted state. Showing that POV character being unable to render aid and assistance can achieve this.

Be careful, though; there is an obvious danger. It’s easy for readers to decide they don’t like a character who sees someone in need but decides not to help. The way around this pitfall is to make sure the reader understands two things: why the POV character cannot help, and that the POV character feels bad about it. You have to let the reader into the character’s head enough to see the character’s internal debate over whether to help, enough to help the reader understand the choice not to, and enough to see that despite that choice the character would have liked to help. Show us the character’s impulses towards helping, and the counter-impulses against helping. If you show us the struggle, we’re more likely to feel positively towards the character even though the character’s better nature loses.

Which is kind of the point. It’s that very self-defeat by one’s own inner demons that sets the stage for the book’s inner character arc.

Hero

Lastly, of course, there’s the hero. The bystander who doesn’t merely stand by, but in fact goes to the aid of the person in need. If you’re writing some kind of action/adventure book, you’re in very good company by using this technique to build up your character as a heroic figure. How many books have we seen that involve some variant on POV characters rescuing kittens from trees, chasing down muggers in order to return an old lady’s purse, et cetera? It’s common, because it works, but I caution you to be careful here, too.

The common-ness of this technique pushes it dangerously close to cliche territory. Further, it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with an implausibly melodramatic result. That’s fine, if you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek superhero novel or something, but most of the time it damages the reader’s belief in the character. I mean, sure, real life does have its selfless heroes who, without hesitation, run into burning buildings or dive into flood-swollen rivers to save other people.

But most novels need something a little more tame in order for readers to believe in the character as a real person, and that something is exactly what those real-life heroes don’t have: hesitation. Again, it’s all about letting the reader into the character’s head. For my money, you get a much more believable and sympathetic hero if you show the character’s internal debate about helping. The only difference between the hero, then, and the useless bystander is which side of the character’s personality wins the debate. So let us see the character asking himself, “Does that person really need help? Should I jump in? The character is a proxy for the reader here, too, so it’s very helpful to show the character asking himself the same kinds of questions readers would be asking themselves in that situation.

Then, all you need is something to break that internal logjam in favor of acting. It could be anything. Empathy for the victim because the hero suffered a similar problem in the past isn’t bad, if a little cliched still. For male POV character’s, there’s always the allure of playing the hero in order to impress a girl. That always works. But my favorite reason to jump in is frustration at not seeing anybody else jump in. You take the POV character from seeing the situation and thinking “gosh, somebody should really help that person,” to wondering “why is nobody helping?” and finally to “Dammit! I guess I’ll help, then!”

Conclusion

So, there you go. The bystander effect, and three ways to make it work for you in your novels. I’m curious to know, is this something you’ve used in your novels before? Is it something that could help your current work-in-progress? Tell us about it down in the comments!

August 03, 2010 21:34 UTC

Tags: character, bystander effect, victim, hero, sympathy, inner character arc

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Four tips for portraying young adult characters

I asked Karly Kirkpatrick, who had the fortune to be my 500th follower on Twitter, what character development question she’d like me to tackle next on my blog. She asked for tips on portraying young adult characters. So here you go, Karly, this one’s for you.

There’s a pretty wide (and somewhat ill-defined) range for what ages put a character into YA territory, but for our purposes let’s call it 13 through 17, those often difficult and awkward teen years before the responsibility of adulthood is fully thrust upon one’s shoulders.

Personally, I think it’s somewhat ridiculous to lump all those ages into a single category, because let’s face it: people change an enormous amount from age 13 to 17. To do the subject justice would probably take a five-volume set of books, one per year, rather than a blog post. But a blog is what I’ve got, so here goes. Four tips for writing YA characters.

Treat dialogue as dialect. Kids these days, with their texting and their sometimes impenetrable idioms drawn from video games and slices of pop culture adults don’t often partake of, might just as well be speaking a different language sometimes. It’s not—it’s still English. Mostly—but it does come to resemble a new and ever-changing dialect. If you do a good job capturing the flavor of that dialect in your books, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

Here’s the kicker. YA dialect really is ever-changing. The nuances of it are highly sensitive to the time period of your novel. A novel with YA characters set in the year 2010 will have a different YA dialect than one set in 2000. And James Dean may well have been Hollywood’s ultimate YA icon, daddy-o, but nobody talks like him anymore. YA dialect is also hugely influenced by subcultures—inner city versus suburban, skater doodz versus goths (we still have goths, right?) versus jocks—every little subculture has its own vernacular, and it’s your job to get it right. So treat dialogue as dialect, but do your research.

Attitudes. Not to paint with an overly-broad brush or anything, but let’s face it, there are definitely some recurring themes among the attitudes of young adults. Obviously not every young adult feels or acts the same, but these tropes are sufficiently well-grounded in reality that they’ll help with the believability of your characters. Your job is to portray them vividly, without being clichéd. Here are just a few of them.

Separating from parents. The YA years are when kids experiment with independence, and intentionally create distance from their parents. Having had their entire lives defined by dependence on parents, kids are often eager for a change. This is why moms who may have been best friends with their daughters may suddenly find that the daughter no longer wants to hang out with mom on the weekends to shop or go to a movie.

Pushing boundaries. Young adults rebel against externally imposed boundaries. Be home by ten? No way, you can’t control me! This is kids experimenting to find out how far they can go, what they can get away with, motivated by a desire to set their own rules. And can you blame them? If somebody had been telling me what I could and couldn’t do for 13, 14, or 15 years, I’d be fed up with it too.

Frustration. I wish I had a more specific, pithy tag for this one but I don’t. Follow me here. Kids have been growing up, from birth to the YA years, undergoing an enormous character arc. They’ve learned so much, they’ve grown so much, they’ve changed so much they’re hardly the same person anymore. And they know it. They’ve experienced an overwhelming inner character arc, resulting in a new view of themselves. Where they had previously viewed themselves as generally incapable and dependent on others, they can now see their capabilities, and have a newfound belief in their own ability to be independent. They feel like adults, even though they aren’t fully there yet.

Actual adults know this; these kids’ parents and teachers know full well that the chicks aren’t quite ready to leave the nest. So there’s a mismatch, as the kids feel like adults but nobody treats them that way. Result: frustration, and all the emotions that come with it. This is a big topic, and for more on the difference between inner and outer character arcs, I’d encourage you to read this article from last October.

Know-it-all syndrome. In the YA years, kids finally start to get a clue about life and how life works. The world stops being quite so confusing. When that happens, illusory superiority sets in: kids misinterpret having a clue about life as being an expert about life. Result? You can’t tell ‘em anything. They’re convinced they already know. It’s a problem, because often they don’t already know yet they reject information and advice from adults because they’re over-estimating their own expertise at this whole life thing.

Power struggles and bad choices. Young adults will vigorously fight to get their own way, even if their way looks dumb to a more experienced adult, simply because they are desperate to be in control of their own lives. Thus, the ability to make any choice at all, about anything, often takes on significance out of proportion to the choice itself. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of the YA years, because kids will often make bad choices—ones they know to be bad—simply because they can. Because it’s a choice they can make, that they know their parents can’t stop them from making. It’s all about being in control.

Trying on new identities. This is a big one, too. Young adults are becoming aware that there’s a whole range of options for what kind of person they could be. They’re cluing in to white collar / blue collar class and professional distinctions, to the variety of careers, modes of dress, subcultures, et cetera that they could potentially belong to. Life’s whole palette is becoming visible to them, and while it’s exciting as hell, they don’t yet know which of those choices is right for them.

So they experiment. They try out different personas, different political and spiritual attitudes. They may begin to champion a social cause, such as suddenly declaring “meat is murder!” and going hard-core vegan. They may join and leave a variety of cliques at school. Experiment with being straight, gay, or bisexual. Come home from school with their hair suddenly dyed blue. The variety here is endless, but if you’re looking to show a teen who can’t yet answer the question “who am I?” this is a great way to go.

Steal from your own life. We were all kids once. Not to discount the few gifted teenage novelists out there or anything, but most of us writers are well past the YA years ourselves, which gives us an edge. We’ve been there. We’ve lived through it. We can look back on our own youths with a much different perspective, and by all rights this ought to give us some good insights into how to write YA characters.

If ever there were an excuse to “write what you know", this is it. Just look back on your own youth. Try to remember how it felt. What struggles you faced. What made you really mad. What giant arguments you had with your parents. Think about them, and try to figure out why those things happened. Maybe they happened for some of the reasons I’ve discussed here, or maybe for other reasons entirely. When you figure it out, I promise you a little light will go on in your head for how you can apply that to your own YA characters.

May 28, 2010 17:32 UTC

Tags: character, young-adult, dialect, slang, attitude, inner character arc, power, choice, identity

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Top nine character development tips of 2009

If you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing a “best of” post to cap off my blog, I’d have said “What blog?”

What a difference a year makes. Without further ado, here are my top nine character development tips from the past year. Enjoy, and raise a glass to 2010. May all your characters come to life, and your books to unimagined success!

*9. Do you know the right way to use backstory?* Because a lot of writers don’t. It’s easy to get seduced by your excitement over the characters you’ve created, and in your zeal to share with the reader, dump a lot of plodding backstory into the novel in ways that kill the pacing and the intrigue. This article talks about using backstory to support and build your novel’s mysteries.

*8. Drive a stake through your character’s heart.* If you’re writing a vampire novel, you may or may not want to take that literally. In this article, I don’t mean it literally, but rather, I show a technique for raising the stakes in your novel by challenging a character’s assumptions about who they are: an identity crisis may suck in real life, but it can do wonders to elevate a novel.

*7. Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?* The typical outer character arc is all about characters changing and growing by learning from the events of a novel. But there’s another kind of character arc, the inner kind, which stems from resolving differences in the perceptions that characters have about each other.

*6. Do your characters’ flaws work on more than one level?* The tragically flawed hero or heroine is a workhorse element of much fiction. As readers, we like to see characters who aren’t too perfect, because we can empathize with them better. But as a writer, are you taking advantage of your characters’ flaws to enhance the drama in your plot as well?

*5. Don’t forget to revise your characters too* After National Novel Writing Month wrapped up, I wrote about a series of techniques you can apply while revising your novel to strengthen your characters. This series covers everything from speech patterns and mannerisms to deep issues of motivation and goals. Characters are the soul of fiction, so it pays to make them as vivid and lifelike as you can.

*4. Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?* Most of us have our first, formative writing experiences in school, where we learn to use the passive voice to put the emphasis on the facts we’re conveying rather than on ourselves. But when we begin to write fiction, passive voice becomes the kiss of death. Not because it hides the author from the reader, but because it hides your characters from the reader.

*3. Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?* Nearly everything in a novel reflects in some way on the characters. In this article, I show how characters can be damaged quite unintentionally by the gaps between scenes and chapters in a novel, and teach you how to build bridges over those gaps for your characters to cross.

*2. Hook ‘em with character* Every novel needs a good hook. You have to grab the reader’s attention and get them interested in what happens next. Plot-oriented hooks can be quite effective, but they’re not the whole story. Character-oriented hooks are quite powerful as well. In this article, I explain how a great hook shows character through conflict.

*1. The five stages of grief* Number one for the year is this article about the five stages of grief model of emotional response. Nothing makes a character come across as wooden and unbelievable faster than when their emotional responses aren’t believable, and nothing kills a novel faster than when this happens at a moment of high drama. You can fix both by getting the emotions right, and in this article I show a template for creating believable, compelling emotional responses for the most dramatic moments in a novel: when bad things happen.

Happy new year, and I’ll see you all in 2010.

December 29, 2009 17:15 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, identity crisis, inner character arc, perception, flaws, outer plot, revision, passive voice, gap, transitions, hook, conflict, emotion, grief, meta, best of

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Do your characters' flaws work on more than one level?

This weekend I came across a fine article at Men with Pens about why it’s a good idea to give your characters flaws: Because flaws make your characters believable, and make readers care about the characters.

It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.

To really make your story come alive, you’ll also do well to give your characters flaws which enhance the story’s underlying drama. It’s all well and good to have a character who is afraid of the color yellow, or who simply cannot remember anybody’s name until the third time he hears it. But does it really help your story?

Most novels rely heavily on the strength of the story’s central conflict, that thing which drives the whole plot forward towards the climax. The reader’s perception of drama and tension comes from that conflict, and from the degree of challenge the protagonist faces in addressing that conflict. This is where your character flaws come in.

Pick a flaw that makes the job harder.

One thing experienced writers do very well is to make the elements of their novels work on two levels. By itself, a character flaw works on one level. It makes the character more believable and sympathetic. You can make it work on a second level as well by choosing a flaw that directly impedes the protagonist from addressing that central conflict.

When looking for a good flaw, I like to brainstorm around two aspects of the story. One is the details of the plot, settings, clues, and specific events in the outer story arc. The other is the protagonist’s personal attributes, his or her age, occupation, socio-economic status, and all-around situation within society.

Story arc flaws

Working from the perspective of story arc and plot elements, let’s say you’ve got a murder mystery where you know that the climactic scene is going to happen in a disused subway tunnel deep under Manhattan. In fact, many of the book’s clues will be found in the pipes and tunnels beneath the Big Apple. No problem! Make your detective be afraid of going underground. This requires some backstory, so let’s say that your detective and his brother used to go caving when they were kids. Only, the brother died when the two accidentally triggered a cave-in. So now he’s terrified of being underground. The memory of his brother creates a suffocating, claustrophobic fear of the millions of tons of soil and rock overhead.

Now you have a flaw that directly impedes the detective’s job of investigating the crime scenes and catching the killer. You also have a fun reversal in the fact that despite the detective’s experience in operating underground, which ought to serve him well, his phobia blocks him from putting that experience to use.

Protagonist’s personal attributes

Working from the perspective of the protagonist’s general qualities, let’s say you have a story set in a high school, with a sophomore girl as your protagonist. The story’s central conflict revolves around some sort of garden-variety misunderstanding between her and another student, of the kind that happen all the time between teenagers. The misunderstanding spins totally out of control into a huge rift that divides the student body into two camps. In the climactic scene, where the core of the misunderstanding is finally brought into the open, the resolution will depend a lot on how the rest of the students feel about your protagonist and antagonist. High school is nothing if not intensely political. It’s an environment where reputation is everything, so why not give the girl a flaw that undermines her reputation? Maybe she’s basically a good kid, honest about stuff that matters, but she tends to exaggerate the little stuff or embellish events to her own advantage.

When the big climax comes around this flaw can come back to bite her. People will be a lot less likely to believe her version of events—even if it’s true—because of her reputation as a fibber.

Both options raise the drama and tension

These two different sources of character flaws are different in an interesting way: In one the character is obviously aware of his flaw, whereas in the other the character may be blind to it. Yet, both options create drama.

In one, we can watch the detective fight against his phobia, wondering with each new scene whether he’ll be able to summon the nerve to step underground. A succession of failures, perhaps with increasing consequences from each, pushes the drama higher and higher.

In the other, we can watch the protagonist create a situation where her self-image is increasingly different from how others perceive her. That serves to raise the tension because as readers we know that eventually this will come back to haunt her. A series of lies and fibs that she believes she’s gotten away with raises the tension as we wait for her house of cards to come crashing down.

Be smart about the flaws you pick

Both of these character flaws work because they turn the characters against themselves. Each becomes his or her own obstacle, which serves to heighten the reader’s perception of drama and tension. These flaws also work because they tie the outer story arc to the inner character arc: addressing the story’s central conflict becomes an exercise in character growth.

So give your characters flaws. Do it to make your characters believable and sympathetic. But be smart about it. Find a flaw that works on two levels. Think about your plot, and think about your protagonist. Somewhere in there you will find a flaw which enhances your overall story by raising the drama and tension of the central conflict.

November 16, 2009 20:24 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, flaws, inner character arc, outer character arc, outer plot, drama, conflict, tension, traits

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Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?

We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.

Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.

Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?

Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her

For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.

The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.

So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.

Outer character arc

An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.

The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.

For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.

I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?

Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.

Nobody is ever exactly how they seem

That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.

Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.

This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.

Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.

This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.

Do change the character after all.

This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.

An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!

October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC

Tags: character, inner character arc, outer character arc, introvert, conflict, POV, self-image

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