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How to part a fool from his money

Money, the root of all evil, plays a large role in more books than probably anyone can name. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that I’m hard pressed to think of any book at all which doesn’t involve money at all. At the very least, practically every book involves someone buying or selling something. Maybe it’s only a pack of gum, but still, money plays a role. Did William Golding’s Lord of the Flies involve money anywhere? Maybe that’s one example, but it has been so long since I read it I wouldn’t swear to that. Somebody refresh my memory.

Why you might take your protagonist’s money away

Anyway, money is everywhere in our stories, which is great for writers because of two things. One, as the saying goes, “when in doubt, make things worse.” That is, when your book feels like it’s starting to sag and you’re not sure how to raise the drama back up, you can do no better than to dump some new problems on your protagonist. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could plausibly happen to him right now?” and do that. A great option might just be to part your protagonist from his cash. If he needs the money for something later (and who doesn’t?), that becomes a great obstacle.

Two, consider de-funding your protagonist for something I blogged about a long time ago, why you should steal your character’s shoes. The idea there is a bit different than merely creating an obstacle. You can read the whole article, but in brief, the strategy isn’t so much to create actual problems for your protagonist as it is to create what the character thinks are problems but really aren’t. The goal is to strip away everything the character thinks she needs but which are really just conveniences, leaving her with only what she actually needs: a willingness to pursue the goal no matter what. Viewed in that light, stripping your character of all her money might seem like an enormous problem for her at first, but upon later reflection, she can realize that money isn’t actually necessary for getting the job done. Useful, maybe, but not necessary. There’s lots of great drama in that.

How to take your protagonist’s money away

You could be blunt about it: simply rob the character at gunpoint, or burn down the house in which all his money is stashed. That would work, but in my view it’s kind of bland. I think the drama and opportunities for character development are ever so much better if you let it be at least partly the character’s fault that he loses all his money. Here, then, are three common mistakes in thinking, perception, and judgment which relate to people and their money. Perhaps one of these money-loss reasons would fit well with your plot.

The denomination effect. This relates to poor money management skills. The idea here is that people tend to spend more money in total if presented with many opportunities to spend small amounts of money than they will if presented with just a few opportunities to make larger purchases. This makes intuitive sense; most of us would think long and hard before choosing to spend a thousand dollars on a sweet new digital camera with all the bells and whistles. Yet few people think anything at all about spending two or three dollars a day on their morning latte, which over the course of a year, adds up to about the same. And over the course of the lifetime of the camera (which for a thousand bucks had better be more than a year!), the camera comes out way ahead versus the lattes. So one option is simply to let your character be the sort of person who makes a lot of small, impulse purchases that lead to an unfortunate shortage of cash at some point when they really need it.

The gambler’s fallacy. Like the name says, this relates directly to gambling, whether through casino-style games of chance or playing the stock market or even investing in real estate. Any time you have a character putting up money against the hope that a future event will break their way, the gambler’s fallacy can come into play. The fallacy itself is when a person gets the feeling or comes to believe that a fundamentally unlikely event is more likely to happen at a particular time simply because it hasn’t happened for a while. Note, too, there’s usually some selection bias involved as well: we only think this way about unlikely events that would be beneficial to us.

In gambling, what happens is that players will keep putting quarters into that slot machine, losing on every pull, but with every loss becoming more confident that surely the next pull will have to come up triple-cherries because “it’s bound to happen eventually.” Or in craps, making bet after bet in the face of continual losses because double-sixes “are due” to happen any time now. Well, no. They’re not. Unless the dice are loaded, double-sixes aren’t “due” at all. Each throw is independent of the last, and no amount of data about past throws tells you a darned thing about what might happen on the next throw.

You can see the pattern. In your novels, to bring the gambler’s fallacy into play you must first subject the character to a sequence of losses leading them to believe that they’re “due to win one.” Maybe they’ve made a series of bad real estate investments, each of which may have made sense at the time, but which turned out badly for one reason or another. “Just bad luck,” your character might think. But knowing that real estate prices do tend to rise over the long run, the character might fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve been playing the market long enough that “prices have got to start going back up soon,” and so might go all-in with their remaining money on one last deal.

Extraordinarity bias: This one relates to people’s tendency to over-value anything which is perceived to have something special about it, however intangible that special quality may be. How do you get a kid to trade a cow for a handful of beans? Convince him they’re special, extraordinary, magic beans. Of course, being a fairy tale the beans really were magic, but the point remains: Jack would never have made the trade except for his belief in the extraordinarity of the beans.

More prosaically, show a sports memorabilia collector two basically identical baseballs, but tell him “the one on the left once belonged to Joe DiMaggio’s cousin. Who knows, Joe may once have held this very ball! The one on the right I bought at Walmart this morning.” If you ask the person which baseball is more valuable, it’s not hard to guess which one he’ll pick.

Similarly, those home shopping channels on cable TV make relentless use of extraordinarity bias in everything they sell: the reason the announcers fill the air time telling you that the diamond chips in these fabulous 12-karat gold plated earrings came all the way from South Africa is to create the perception that there’s something special—something extraordinary—about these particular earrings versus ones you might find at any mass market jewelry store. Never mind that South Africa is where an enormous fraction of the world’s diamonds come from anyway, and as such aren’t any more or less remarkable than any other diamonds in the world.

For fleecing characters of their money, this one has got to be my favorite error in judgment because it is the basis on which a lot of confidence schemes work. The con artist gets someone to believe that a perfectly ordinary, relatively valueless item is in fact somehow very special, and as such, worth a lot of money. Think about your character’s background and interests, and figure out what kind of cheap garbage a con artist could use to dupe him. What’s the baseball, as it were, to your character’s equivalent of collecting sports memorabilia? I love this one because the character ends up broke, with nothing to show for it but a worthless trinket, because he let himself get duped.

How embarassing! The great thing for the novelist, though, is that not only does the con itself create a great moment in your novel, but you can very easily use it as an excellent turning point for the character. If you’re still early in the book when it’s appropriate for things to be getting worse and worse, maybe the act of getting duped undermines the character’s confidence, and leads to a series of poor choices based on not trusting himself anymore and second-guessing himself at every turn. Or, if it’s late in the book, the act of getting duped might have the opposite effect of steeling the character’s resolve to win through anyway.

Money is everywhere

I suspect most of us have something of a love/hate relationship with money. We love what it can do for us, but we hate how hard we have to work to get it. Your characters may well feel the same way, at least initially, but I guarantee if you cause the character to lose all of his or her money, you’ll make that character’s feelings about money suddenly much more complex and interesting. In any event, money is everywhere, in real life and in our novels. Rather than trying to fight it or gloss over it in your story, I hope these tips give you some ideas for how to work with it to improve the depth and layered complexity of your novel.

July 02, 2010 05:21 UTC

Tags: character, money, obstacles, denomination effect, gambler's fallacy, extraordinarity bias

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How to revise your character arcs

This is the final installment, part 6, in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. This is the big one. Today, we talk about character arcs.

The goal of a character arc is to present believable personal growth for your main characters, and to provide a feeling of emotional closure. Yes, successful books can and have been written without any meaningful growth in the character, or with no emotional closure at the end. Thrillers are the typical example of this type of book.

But to omit the character arc, even in a gripping, page-turning thriller, is a lost opportunity. As I’ve said before, a character arc is a way to elevate your novel to another level above and beyond run-of-the-mill books in your genre. The emotional closure provided by leaving your characters wiser at the end of the book than the beginning also leaves the reader wiser. It leaves the reader with the feeling that reading the book was a valuable use of their time, above and beyond the simple enjoyment they were expecting when they bought it.

Have you got any character arc already?

If you do, great. If the arc was intentional, even better. Skip ahead to the next section.

But what if you don’t? If you haven’t considered your protagonist’s personal growth before, where do you look for inspiration? You look to the plot, and look to yourself.

In the plot, look for obstacles of a similar nature that the protagonist faces at various points. For example, let’s say the protagonist gets in a lot of arguments in the course of the book, which is a problem because she’s constantly turning people into minor enemies who no longer want to be helpful to her. Possibilities for character arc include learning some better negotiation and conflict resolution skills, or some introspection. Maybe she could ponder, since arguments always seem to be happening to her, whether she’s the problem. Maybe she can figure out what she’s saying or thinking that tends to trigger these arguments. Revise the early dialogue scenes to more clearly portray her problematic interaction style. Likewise, revise dialogue scenes that take place later in the book to show her practicing not getting in arguments and having better outcomes with people. If she can learn that she was her own worst enemy, even in that one small aspect of her whole life, then you can leave her a better person at the end of the book.

If your plot doesn’t offer any obvious character arc material, then look to yourself. Ask yourself what you know now that you didn’t know when you were younger. What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to give your younger-self one piece of advice? Or, as literary agent Donald Maass put it in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

I do not believe you have no opinions. It is simply not possible that you have never observed a fact of human nature or uncovered a social irony. You are an aware, observant and discerning person. You are a novelist.

So take your observations of human nature, and find a way to show them through your protagonist’s experiences. Take care, though. It’s easy to be very clumsy in adding a message of this type to a book, which only leaves the reader feeling like you’ve hit them over the head with it. You don’t want to do that. To be subtle about it, you never want to tell the message. You want to show it so the reader sees it for themselves. Show it so the reader leaves the book feeling like the message is their own observation about life, not yours. Consider what your message is, then find a series of events that create a character arc which conveys that message without you ever having to spell it out explicitly.

Is your character arc well portrayed?

Remember, being believable is an important part of a character arc. You can’t just toss one into the mix and expect it to magically integrate with everything else in the novel. You want to look at a couple of things with respect to believability.

One is whether the character’s other attributes, the ones the rest of this revision series has talked about, track the character arc. Use the character’s visible attributes, everything the rest of this revision series has talked about, to show the otherwise invisible process of personal growth.

So ask yourself, is the arc reflected appropriately in the character’s dialogue? In their mannerisms? In their attitudes? Depending on the arc, it may even be reflected in the character’s body. For example, if your book starts out with an out-of-shape protagonist having a heart attack, then you can use physical health, strength, and stamina as external reflections of the character’s inner growth.

The other is whether the arc is too clean, too neat-and-tidy, to be believable. Real people, much as they strive to better themselves in earnest, have setbacks. People who are trying to quit smoking sometimes sneak a cigarette in a moment of stress, knowing they really shouldn’t. Recovering alcoholics sometimes fall off the wagon. Parents who are doing their best to raise their kids with love and compassion sometimes get pushed too far and yell anyway.

To be believable, a character arc needs to show believable progress, which usually means including the occasional setback. Certainly it includes initial stages where the character is trying to change but still isn’t doing very well with it. There’s nothing worse than a character arc that is really more of a stair-step: when the character goes from realizing they have a problem to immediately being cured of it. People are creatures of habit , and habits are hard to change. Don’t forget to show the struggle to change along with the change itself.


Although writers can spend a lifetime refining the techniques of portraying believable characters, in everything from dialogue to character arcs, that’s going to do it for this character revision series. If you’ve read the whole thing, thank you! I hope it has helped trigger some new ideas, give you some new tools to work with, and expose you to some strategies for thinking about character portrayal that will help elevate your novels above the run-of-the-mill.

After all, the only way out of the slushpile is up.

< Back to part 5, attitudes

December 09, 2009 19:26 UTC

Tags: character, revision, character arc, personal growth, emotional closure, obstacles, observation, show don't tell, setbacks

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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

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Pop quiz: what's the deadliest urge a writer can succumb to?

The worst thing we can do to the characters in our novels is be kind to them. Especially our main characters. The absolute worst thing we can do is make sure our characters never have to face any difficult problems or overcome any daunting obstacles.

Let me tell you about some unpublished books I’ve read lately. These are all books that I hope become published, because at their core each one has something really unique to offer. (For obvious reasons, you’ll understand that I can’t give you the titles or authors’ names.)

Book number one is a spy novel, a straight up cold-war era thriller. The main character has problems, sure, but they’re in his home life. His difficulties and challenges do not relate to the outer story goal of smuggling the you-know-what out of you-can-guess-where. As far as the potentially thrilling part of the thriller goes, the good guys’ plan pretty much went off without a hitch. I wasn’t thrilled.

Book number two is a young adult adventure, with a fantastic premise and setting. It’s really creative and unique. But this book’s main character doesn’t really have any problems. He’s smart, has a materially-comfortable life with loving parents, supportive friends, and ready access to all the tools, materials, and money needed to get the job done. Nothing significant ever goes wrong, and the insignificant things that do go wrong, never get worse. The result is that nothing is challenging, and his ultimate victory feels foreordained.

Both books fall flat. Both authors seem reluctant to let their main characters have it. I mean, really screw ‘em over. They seem unwilling to throw the characters into the frying pan, and when the characters jump out, have them land in a fire that happens to be built inside an even larger frying pan. That would be interesting, but that’s not what they did.

I understand this. I’ve done it myself in earlier novels that I can now see I need to go back and make worse before I send them out to agents.

We authors grow to love our characters. We have created them, thought obsessively about them, nurtured them in our minds. We have taken care of them, and as with anything one cares for we come to love them. It is only human not to want to hurt them or ever let anything bad happen to them.

This nurturing, parental urge, this above all we must resist. We have to let our characters get into trouble—real, serious trouble—so they can get themselves out. We have to let them get hurt, so they can overcome. We can’t coddle them as though they were toddlers. We can’t put gates across the stairs and padding on all the sharp coffee table corners. We can’t hover over them every second, waiting to snatch them out of trouble the instant danger looms.

Rather, we can, but if we do our characters won’t be interesting to anyone. What reader can really get behind a character that never struggles with his or her problems? What reader roots for a character who never encounters any problems to begin with? Not me, I’ll tell you that much.

So what about that third book? The protagonist in that one is a three year old girl, already someone an author is going to want to protect. But this toddler has not been coddled. No, the author has put her in a desperate and deeply destitute situation. She is so chronically malnourished she can’t walk, can’t even get out of her bed. Except her bed isn’t a regular bed, it’s just a wooden box with some filthy rags for padding. And the girl’s parents? They’re gone. They have abandoned her along with their homesteader’s log cabin, somewhere in the middle of the woods in 1865. The poor girl doesn’t even know her own name.

Problems? That girl’s got problems upon problems upon problems. Every one of them just breaks my heart. Every one of them is something that would make any lesser person give up.

But she doesn’t. She views her situation with every bit of naive optimism innate to any three-year-old child. She has a great attitude, an amazingly compelling voice, and she doesn’t give up. To see this utterly helpless little girl overcome her problems, that’s powerful stuff.

I root for her because it’s all I can do. What I want to do is reach into the book to help her. Of course, I can’t. I can only read her struggles, helplessly rooting for her to overcome. The very depth of her troubles makes me root for her as much, if not more, than I have for any character I’ve encountered in a New York Times bestselling book. And bear in mind, this is just in the book’s opening scene.

As a writer, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want our readers rooting for our main characters? Don’t we want them cheering when our heroes and heroines emerge victorious?

Of course we do. But that isn’t going to happen unless we make it hard. If we don’t make the obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the problems seemingly unsolvable, then we make our characters’ jobs too easy and their victories meaningless. We make the characters themselves boring and lifeless.

Oh, and we also make our novels un-publishable. I’m just saying...

September 17, 2009 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, problems, obstacles

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