Swimming to find your characters
What lies beneath
Leaving aside for a moment that icebergs probably don’t really glow like that on their undersides, the iceberg still makes a nice metaphor for the characters in your book. Or rather, for the process of coming to know who those characters are.
I’d argue that when we think about our novels ahead of time, our conceptions of the characters are much like the visible part of the iceberg. Pretty, but not nearly the whole picture.
The water hides everything else. You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until—and unless—you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing.
The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.
I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet.
Two case studies
This has never been more evident to me than this past November, during National Novel Writing Month. But somehow, this year’s experience helped me understand the iceberg and the water in a new way, so I thought I’d share.
Now first, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I spend a lot of time before writing figuring out how the story is going to develop, which in turn means figuring out a lot about my main protagonists and antagonists ahead of time. Even before setting out on page one of my novel, I can tell you how my protagonist feels about her general situation in life. I can tell you what she wants. What she’s mad about. I can tell you the same for her mother, her father, and the antagonist who’s going to hound my protagonist’s family for the whole book. For these people, the visible part of the iceberg is a bit bigger. It has to be, because characters drive stories; the plot and the personalities have to mesh just-so in order for the whole thing to work out.
But I don’t spend much time on the minor characters. Their icebergs barely poke up above the water. Before I write, I know their names and how they function in the plot. I have vague mental images of them, but that’s really all. For all my planning, they were barely even one-dimensional characters.
It was only when I jumped into the water this November that I discovered who they were. They became three-dimensional people as I swam around in their scenes. I want to share that process with you, because the thinking behind it isn’t specific to this story. It should work for any writer, and any character, in any scene.
And just to set the stage for you, this novel’s one-sentence pitch is “A frontier girl, the daughter of German immigrants, must help save her family’s homestead from the corrupt railroad barons who would drive them off their land.” It’s a middle-grade western, set in 1863, in the Nebraska Territory.
Here’s what I had about Mr. Harper before I started writing. Mr. Harper is a bachelor who lives a country mile down the road from my protagonist’s homestead. He’s good with horses. That’s it. It’s not much to go on, is it? But I figured, he’s a minor character anyway, what does it matter?
Come on. Every character matters.
The first time my 10 year old protagonist Maria meets Mr. Harper, she’s in a bit of a pickle. She has been out on the prairie, away from home, longer than she should. Now night is falling and she has to get home and she knows she’s already going to be in trouble for being out so late. As it happens, she came past Mr. Harper’s homestead on the way back to her own. I wasn’t exactly expecting Mr. Harper to appear at quite this point in the story, but that’s how the preceding scene evolved, so I went with it.
Suddenly, I had to know how Mr. Harper was going to react to Maria’s unexpected, evening arrival at his homestead. His reaction depends entirely on his own attitudes, wishes, and goals—in short, on what he wants—but I didn’t know what that was.
I know what Maria wants. She wants a ride home. And she probably wants a third-party, someone outside of the family, to be around when she gets home in order to temper the severity of her parents’ angry response.
But what does Mr. Harper want? Right there, in that at-the-keyboard moment of working this out, my vague notions of who Mr. Harper might be crashed headlong into my planning of how the story is going to unfold later, with modern-day readers’ mental image of what frontier life was like and how people acted back then, et cetera.
Mr. Harper might want anything. Maybe he’s a greedy rascal and only wants money. Maybe he’s a reclusive type who only wants solitude. There is a whole gamut of things Mr. Harper might want—goals he might have—which will drive his response to Maria’s arrival.
Except I have a story to write, and I need certain things out of him. And when he does those things, I need them to come across as believable expressions of the man I have previously shown him to be. Starting right here with this first time Maria meets him.
In particular, I need readers and Maria’s family to like him, because of things that happen later in the story. He ends up helping them with a lame horse, and when I raise the stakes later, it’s by also threatening his homestead. That won’t play strongly unless readers care about him, too.
All of which means I need him to be nice in this scene. To help her out. That makes sense: out on the prairie you never know when you might need a good neighbor’s help, so even in selfish terms, helping Maria now gives him a store of good will with neighbors who may help him later.
Filtering the spectrum of possible Mr. Harpers through the prism of what the story needs now and will need later, was enough for me to zero in on what kind of guy he is. Simply thinking through the scene from his point of view—even a barely sketched out point of view—was enough to figure out how he’d react.
From there, it was natural to imagine how he would talk to her in a way that was friendly and neighbor-like. In the course of writing that scene, I discovered a congenial southern drawl that seemed to come naturally to him. He became a genuinely friendly guy, the kind of guy who if he lived in 2011 instead of 1863, would just as soon hug you as shake your hand and you’d be ok with that.
Could I have planned this ahead of time? Maybe. But I liked doing it this way better. I think it has a more spontaneous, organic feeling to it than if I’d have tried to over-specify this minor character ahead of time. He was a lot more fun this way, and is actually kind of a scene-stealer.
Mr. LeClerc is a French-Canadian guy who runs the dry goods store in the nearby frontier town of Columbus. Again, not much to go on. Again, it was only when I jumped into the waters of his first scene that I could see who this character was supposed to be.
Maria meets Mr. LeClerc on the occasion of selling him some baskets she and her mother have made. She and her father are in town to attend to various business, and her father got it into his head that Maria needed to be the one to handle the selling of the baskets, even though she had never done business with anybody before in her life. I didn’t plan that part either, but it seemed like the kind of thing her father would do, so I went with it.
So Maria has to negotiate a price with this Mr. LeClerc, a stranger she has never met before, and the poor thing starts out by asking for a price that’s way, way too low. She has no experience with money. She has no idea what anything really costs, so she blows it. She asks for a nickel each—about $1.25 in today’s money—not nearly enough. When in doubt, make things worse, right?
Now, how does Mr. LeClerc react? Again, his goals are terribly relevant. What does any shopkeeper want? To build up a good business and do well for himself. So maybe he knows a great deal when he sees it, and buys the baskets for a song, never letting on how much she’s getting screwed on the deal.
Maybe, but not so fast. I have a story to write, and things that need to happen later. Next time she sees Mr. LeClerc, in fact, I need for her to trust him. And that’s not going to happen if she gets home and her mother yells at her for not getting a fair price for the baskets. She’ll know she got screwed. I’m left with needing a way for Mr. LeClerc to get her up to a fair price, even though on the surface, he would naturally love to buy a bunch of nicely made baskets for cheap.
Thinking it through from his broader point of view, considering more than just the opportunity of the moment, I realized that it’s not a contradictory situation at all. Mr. LeClerc is a frontier shopkeeper. His clientele is kind of limited. It’s a small town, and he can’t afford to be alienating his customers. This includes Maria’s father. So LeClerc knows that if he screws Maria on the deal, it will likely cost him business later.
From there, it was easy. Once I had thought through LeClerc’s goals within the context of that situation, a solution presented itself. I let him reveal that he wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of her in that way: He said, “No! If I buy them for one nickel only, I cannot sleep at night!” From there, they worked out a fair price, and I got what I needed too: the plot moved where I wanted, Maria now has reason to trust him later (because he treated her fairly here), and as a bonus, I got some additional insight into what kind of man he is. He’s a basically honest guy, and kind enough to give Maria a way out of her mistake which didn’t humiliate her.
You must swim the waters
Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you the idea. When you’re stuck in a scene for knowing how someone will act, think about what it is they want to get out of the scene. What are their goals and desires? And think about what you need in order to for the story to go where you intend it to. Between the two of those factors, you will be able to figure out what kind of person will give you a reaction that works. That’s how you see the rest of the iceberg.
December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC
Four ways to use Myers-Briggs personality types in your novels
If you’re at all like me, somewhere in high school or college you and your peers discovered the Myers-Briggs personality type matrix. You all had fun taking the little test and finding out who was an “INTJ” or an “ESFP” or whatever. You may even have been somewhat surprised at how well the capsule description of your personality type seemed to fit you. But, chances are, it didn’t take terribly long for the shine to fade and for you and your friends to realize that people are actually a bit more complicated than a matrix of 16 cleanly defined personality types.
But that doesn’t mean Myers-Briggs isn’t good for anything. It may not be the perfect tool for understanding all the people in your life, but it’s still a useful framework for understanding some broad truths about the human condition. And for writers, it can be quite a useful tool for bringing life to your characters.
Use it to know who your characters are
When you imagine a character in one of your novels, chances are you have a rather holistic picture of them in your mind. For yourself, you have a sense of who that character is. It may be a very strong sense. You may feel like you really know who this person is. But do you? Do you know the person well enough to cast him or her as the central protagonist in your book? Or as the villain? Or even as a sidekick?
Before beginning the novel, a lot of writers undertake various exercises in order to get to know their characters better. Some write long backstories for them. Some conduct interviews of their characters. Some draw sketches. Taking the Myers-Briggs test on behalf of your characters is another exercise you can do to solidify your own impression of who the character is.
I like it for this purpose because it gives you actual data you can work with later. Sure, it can be fun to write a backstory and learn that your character grew up in Topeka and had a dog named Bo that he loved more than anyone else in the world. Or it can be fun to interview a character and have her reveal that her first kiss was, on a dare from her friends, with a cute boy re-folding shirts in the clothing section at a department store, and she didn’t even know him. Fun stuff, even if it never finds a home in the story.
But if you take the time to sort out your character’s Myers-Briggs scores, that’s data I guarantee you will come in handy while you’re writing the story. Hint, though: take the test for yourself, first. Make sure your character isn’t just a clone of you (unless you’re doing that intentionally, of course)
Use it to create more believable behavior
This is why I guarantee you that sorting out your character’s personality type will come in handy, because the broad strokes of the Myers-Briggs system—introvert-vs-extrovert, thinking-vs-feeling, and so forth— affect how people behave in various situations. Your characters are no different. They should behave in ways that are true to their personalities too.
People who are strongly introverted don’t generally like loud, crowded, overtly social settings. Someone who scores high on the “feeling” attribute will usually go with their gut in making decisions. You don’t have to go back to college to get a degree in psychology to work with this stuff, but having a basic understanding of how the eight core qualities of the Myers-Briggs system play out in people’s reactions will help you do a better job of making sure that your characters are acting in ways that are both realistic and true to themselves.
Make sure you don’t have a cast of clones
Books where all the characters seem to be the same are kind of boring. Myers-Briggs can help you make sure that’s not the case in your book. If you’re going to figure out the personality types of your protagonist and antagonist anyway, why not do it for all the significant characters in the book?
If you find that you’ve got twelve “ESTJ” characters in your book, then you’ve got a problem, and chances are that problem is expressing itself as an overall lackluster feeling to the book. Mix it up. Re-think some of these people. Flip some of their scores. Ask yourself “what if the love interest was a Feeler instead of a Thinker?” What would change? Do that to everybody in the book, make them all distinctive, and I promise you the book will start to feel a lot more lively.
Create tension, friction, and conflict
This is perhaps my favorite use of the Myers-Briggs system. In real life, we don’t get to choose the personality types of those we encounter. But we do get to choose the personality type of everyone in our novels. That’s an opportunity. Choose the types strategically in order to create tension, friction, and conflict.
Let’s say you’re writing a crime drama with a pair of homicide detectives as the protagonists. You could, I suppose, make them polar opposites. Make one of them an “ESTJ” (extrovert/sensing/thinking/judging), and the other an “INFP” (introvert/intuitive/feeling/perceiving). Characters with such completely opposed personalities are going to have very different approaches to an investigation. One will want to get out there, collect a bunch of hard data and evidence, then stand back from it to make a thoughtful, rational decision. The other is more likely to want to learn about suspects’ backgrounds, figure them out from a more theoretical “profiler” model, and then attempting to empathize with the suspect in order to “get into their head” so as to figure out if the suspect is the sort of person who would have committed the crime. Now, how are those two characters going to work together? Chances are, they’re going to have kind of a hard time, especially if some of the physical evidence (held in high esteem by the Sensing character) doesn’t fit well with the psychological model (held in high esteem by the intuitive character) that seems to fit the suspect best.
Bam! Instant inter-personal conflict, as the two of them argue it out. Even better, because the characters’ other opposing traits are going to shape the way that argument goes. Introversion and extroversion most particularly. If the introvert is actually right, but the extrovert wins the argument simply because he’s the more garrulous personality—or maybe they appeal to the Chief, who sides with the easy-talking extrovert—then you’ve got the makings of a very dynamic inter-personal layer underneath the plot layer of the story.
You don’t have to go with polar opposites, though. They make for a nice example, but it can also be good to align two characters in some ways, but oppose them others. Sometimes, then, these two characters will be able to act and function as one. They’ll get along great. But when an issue comes up that plays to their opposing characteristics, suddenly they’ll be like cats and dogs.
Imperfect, but useful
Like I said, don’t take the Myers-Briggs type indicator system as infallible. Myers-Briggs is most often criticized on the grounds that real people are usually somewhere in the middle on most of the attributes. It’s a fair criticism.
But we’re talking about fiction, not real life. In many ways, successful fiction doesn’t present real life the way life really is. It presents a distillation of the elements of real life, in their stark, archetypal forms. It is exactly because Myers-Briggs explains personalities through opposing archetypes that it is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the novelist.
March 29, 2011 18:54 UTC
How to establish your characters: endings
In this series, we’ve been working with some example characters: a frontier wife in the Old West on the run from her past, and a shrinking violent character who rarely gives anything his full effort. We’ll extend those examples further in this article, to show how to bring them to full fruition at the book’s climax.
Show your characters mastering situations
At earlier stages in the book, situations mastered them. But as the character struggles with his character arc, he ought to get better at it, right? Practice makes perfect, which is just as true when someone is practicing how to be a better person as it is when they’re practicing the piano. The way to show us a character’s improved self is to show how their internal change results in better outcomes for them.
Take our milquetoast character Charlie; for him, the character arc kicks off when the woman he wants flat-out rejects him because he doesn’t give his all. After some false starts and further failures while he works through his denial about his problem, he may turn over a new leaf and begin trying harder at his job. He may resolve not just to do enough to get by, but to produce truly excellent work. If he’s a graphic designer at an ad agency, his clients may start complimenting his work to his boss, and maybe he sees a benefit in terms of landing an assignment for a new high-prestige client. He’s not done yet—he still has to nail that assignment too—but it’s a start. And who knows, maybe the girl of his dreams will notice his new attitude.
Resolve earlier mysteries
In part 1 and 2 of this series, I encouraged you to establish some mysteries, and to partially solve them while using those solutions to heighten the reader’s curiosity about the unsolved portion. The book’s climax, or often immediately before the climax, is the place to finally satisfy that curiosity. Note, I don’t mean you need a lengthy infodump, backstory passage that answers every possible question a reader might have about the character. I mean this is the spot to answer the big, juicy mysteries. Chances are you know which ones these are, but if you’re not sure, here’s a litmus test: would the solution to the mystery help the reader understand, or believe, the character’s subsequent actions and behavior during the climax itself? If so, solve that mystery. If it’s not essential to the climax, and especially if the reader can well enough imagine a plausible solution on their own, don’t waste words on it.
A great time to resolve the mystery before the climax is when by doing so you can make the character’s situation “darkest before the storm.”
Remember our frontier woman? She escaped her domineering family by dressing as a man and joining up with a cattle outfit. Except, something happened and she ended up on the run from the Texas Rangers. She went back to her female identity, got married, and believed her past was behind her until the Rangers catch up with her later. But why is the law after her? This is the mystery you have withheld from the reader. We know something happened, but we don’t know what. We don’t even know if her husband and children know about it.
One can imagine the woman doing her best to hide in plain sight, struggling to keep her husband from finding out the Rangers are after her, until at last that becomes impossible. Perhaps the Rangers have enlisted the help of someone from her old cattle outfit, someone who recognizes her. The jig is up. She goes to her husband, frantic, and says they have to get out of Dodge. He demands to know why, so she has to tell him.
“I— Don’t hate me, Clemson, but back in Texas, I killed a man.” She goes on to explain about her past (part of which the reader may already know), and how the dead man found out she wasn’t really a man and tried to have his way with her. She defended herself, and he ended up dead. Bonus symbolism points if she killed the would-be rapist with a rope, thus turning what was a tool of life in the book’s beginning when she used her surprising rope skills to save her husband from drowning, into a tool of death as well.
“I’ve wanted to tell you, Clemson, I have,” she might say. “But I was afraid how you’d take it.” And sure enough, he doesn’t take it well. Not only is she a killer, but she used to live as a man; he takes that as an affront to morality and to his own manhood as well. He kicks her out. Now things are as dark for her as they’re going to get. She must face her pursuers with no support from anyone else.
But that’s ok. With the mystery solved, now we understand what she has been through. Now we know what she is truly capable of. So when we see her wipe the tears angrily away from her eyes and mutter “I’ve done fine on my own before, I can do it again,” we’ll believe her. The solution to the mystery helps the reader both understand and believe in whatever she’s about to do to in the book’s high-noon showdown.
And, as a little bonus character arc, having the husband react in this way sets the stage for a side-arc for him, too. You could go back to the book’s beginning and middle to establish him as a very black-and-white kind of person, who sees events and people as all-good or all-bad. Someone who, if you cross him once, writes you off forever. You might let that tendency cause the family some troubles along the way, giving him fodder for relaxing his own strictness. Then, in the denouement after his wife has cleared things up with the Rangers (I’ll leave you to imagine the many ways she might accomplish that), maybe he comes to her hat-in-hand to apologize, ask her back, and say how he can see that everything she did was necessary for her survival.
Show the character’s final breakthrough
Readers have to see what happens to finally allow the character to grow, to complete his or her arc. Surprisingly, sometimes authors forget to put this in. They take it as a given that the character is going to overcome whatever personality flaw has been dogging them the whole book, when in fact that’s not true. You might bring a character right up to the brink of meaningful, lasting, inner growth, but that’s not enough. You have to take it the rest of the way.
Let’s go back to Charlie. His job successes are fine, but they’re probably not enough to create a satisfying ending to the novel. Nor would mere professional success leading to him getting the girl. Charlie’s problem runs deeper than simply not trying hard enough. It’s a failure of commitment to what he does. Odds are, the middle of Charlie’s story is going to show him achieving some successes, but suffering a number of continuing failures as well. He needs something to give him that final breakthrough.
Odds are, the central conflict in this book is going to be about something other than Charlie’s job or love life. It’s going to be something that will require Charlie to make a deep commitment to achieving some result, even though achieving that result will demand from him a significant sacrifice. Maybe Charlie witnesses some terrible crime, and ends up involved in an organization devoted to eradicating the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution (which, yes, sadly does happen in this country). The organization asks Charlie to lend his graphic design skills to an edgy, provocative ad campaign that will run in major cities nationwide. His boss learns about this and tells Charlie to drop it because their up-scale, corporate ad firm “doesn’t do social causes". Charlie needs to make a commitment, even if it costs him his job.
But he can’t do that and follow through simply because he happens to be in the mood to be helpful on that particular day. That won’t be satisfying. The reader needs to see Charlie have a final breakthrough moment so we can be confident that his commitment, even at the sacrifice of his job, comes as the result of true inner growth instead of happenstance.
Maybe what he needs is something symbolic. Something he can hold onto like a totem, to remind himself of what he knows he needs to be doing. It could be anything, really. It could be a photo on the news from some catastrophe half a world away, where he sees bedraggled rescue workers struggling with bloodied fingers to dig survivors out of a collapsed building following an earthquake. Dramatic, yes, but kind of blunt in narrative terms. Anything that hits Charlie at a vulnerable moment (say, after a late-stage failure that give him his own “darkest before the storm” moment), when he’s receptive to growth. Since Charlie’s fortunes are tied up with this character flaw, let’s make it a fortune cookie. Use it to delivery to Charlie a pithy saying that he can hold onto. A mantra for a better Charlie. “If you’re going to do a job, do the job.”
Simple. Almost tautological. But if it hits Charlie in the right frame of mind, he can read all sorts of deep meaning into that. Be true to your word. Be the sort of person whose word people trust. Don’t say yes unless you’re willing to back that up with action. Whatever you think Charlie really needs to glean from the little scrap of paper hidden inside the cookie, there it is. He can tuck the slip of paper into his wallet, to carry around with him forever.
This is a small, quiet final breakthrough. Its power hinges on what has come before, on Charlie being in a bleak, desperate place when it the breakthrough happens. I use this as an example because I think too often writers feel like the breakthrough has to be something big and loud. Something with explosions and car chases, be they literary or literal. Not so. That can work, sure, depending on the nature of the book. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re struggling with creating a believable breakthrough moment because what you’ve got doesn’t feel right, maybe you’re reaching for big and loud when what you need to be reaching for is small and quiet.
Other strategies that work well
There are other some end-game strategies that are also useful, which you can use as necessary or if they fit your particular book.
Show a meaningful behavior change that affects the climax. This goes hand in hand with the breakthrough moment. The whole point of a character arc is to create a new person who is better than the old person. But what good does it to do be better on the inside if there’s no difference in your behavior on the outside? The breakthrough moment is the true crux of the character arc, but the arc itself doesn’t matter until we see it play out in meaningful behavior when the stakes are at their highest. So, when that climactic moment does come, we’d better see the character doing something he or she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have done before.
Consider role reversals. Depending on the novel, a role reversal can be a wonderful way to signify growth. This gives us stories in which children become caregivers to their ailing parents, who had once taken care of them. It gives us heroes taking control from villains who have up to that point been in control of the situation. Look at the elements of your plot and especially your climax, and see if there’s some kind of duality along those lines you can work with. Some way you can have your character switch roles with someone else in the novel.
Leave it bittersweet. Nothing is all good, and fairy-tale endings aren’t believable. Well, except in fairy tales. The character did, after all, make a bunch of mistakes along the way. Some of those mistakes should have lasting effects, which take a bit of the sheen off of the character’s ultimate victory. Some genres love the pat, perfectly wrapped up happy ending. But I think you have a more powerful, more poignant, and more realistic ending if you leave the character with some regret over past mistakes, some level of “if only I’d done that differently.”
To sum up, your jobs at the end of the book boil down to just a few things. Bring the character’s arc to a simultaneous conclusion with the story arc. Satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the major mysteries enough to make the climax believable. And leave readers with the feeling that the book meant something. A plot that wraps up with characters who are no different than when they began may have been a fun adventure, but it lacks depth. An adventure which leaves the characters stronger and wiser than when they started gives the reader a final bit of payoff, a feeling that there was a purpose to the book.
And who knows, you might even just help the reader learn a little something too. After all, stories are often how we learn what life is.
February 28, 2011 23:43 UTC
How to establish your characters: middles
Last time I wrote about how to establish your characters during your book’s opening. Having done so, readers are poised to watch those characters evolve as the book progresses. How do you deliver on that in the 80% or so of your book that takes place between the opening and the climax?
Last time we worked with some example characters: a lost job applicant in Chicago who smooth-talks a local into escorting him to his interview, a frontier wife whose unexpected rope skills save her husband from drowning in a difficult river crossing, and a shrinking-violet character who holds back, never giving his all. We’ll extend those examples in this article.
Give the character an epiphany moment
You establish that a character needs to have an arc by showing us some flaws in them. The beginning, when you were illustrating key personality traits or creating mysteries about the character, was when you were showing us that this character has some room to grow. To change. That’s necessary for a character arc, but it isn’t sufficient.
That is, it’s not enough for readers to see this. The character needs to have an epiphany moment in which he or she realizes it too. Something has to happen which lets the character see the deficiency within themselves. The establishing stuff in your book’s beginning just sets the stage. You need the epiphany moment to kick off the character arc, to put it in motion.
For example, perhaps after our shrinking-violet character blows the game for his team by not giving 100%, he gets chewed out by his teammates and the girl on the team he was interested in—who had maybe just agreed to go out to dinner with him—decides she doesn’t want to see him socially after all. “Look, Charlie. You’re a nice guy, but you don’t come through. If the team can’t count on you to dive for a catch, how can I count on you if things get serious?” That could serve as a wake-up call to Charlie that, indeed, he could try harder.
Bear in mind, that’s not the beginning-and-end of his character arc; a character arc can’t flit by in a single moment. The epiphany moment is just the start, and in the beginning Charlie will likely rankle against this new-found and unwelcome insight into himself, rationalizing and retrenching his behavior before he actually begins to change.
Show signs of altered behavior
Still, the middle of your book is a pretty long stretch, and you’ve got plenty of space in there to move the character past that initial epiphany. To do it, you have seven ways to show character growth at your disposal. Since there’s already a whole article about that (c’mon, click the link; you know you wanna) I won’t rehash it all here except to say that here in the middle of your book is not the place for the character arc to come to its conclusion. Save something for the end, you know?
Reveal some backstory
Back in the beginning, when you were creating mysteries about your characters by showing surprising skills and abilities they have, what you were really doing was hooking the reader by eliciting the reader’s curiosity as to how the character came to have those skills and/or abilities. The middle of your book is a great place to give drips and dribbles of backstory which reward readers for their curiosity. Give us some payoff.
But, don’t simply answer the question. Give us part of the answer, in a way which is satisfying to some portion of your readers’ curiosity, but which also heightens their curiosity. In other words, let the answer raise its own, more significant questions.
Remember the smooth-talking job candidate? In the middle of the book you might reveal that he used to work for the FBI, studying con-men in order to help the bureau catch them, until he was kicked out for ... well, you hold that part back. Now the reader wonders why he was kicked out. Is our guy really a smooth-talker by nature, or is he just employing techniques he studied from real con-men?
Or take the frontier wife with the husband-saving rope skills. As the book’s middle progresses, you might slowly reveal that in her youth, she escaped her domineering, controlling parents by stealing a pair of her brother’s clothes, dressing like a man, and joining up with a Texas cattle outfit. But something happened, and while she is now living as a woman again, she’s also secretly on the run from the Texas Rangers. Why? What happened? Do her husband and children know about her past? Don’t tell us. Yet.
Give us a meaningful payoff for our initial curiosity for our characters, but do it in a way which makes us even more curious for later.
Struggle with the book’s underlying conflict
But perhaps more important than any of that, you establish your characters in the middle of the book by showing them struggling with the book’s underlying conflict. Whatever it is, it ought to represent a significant challenge or obstacle for your characters in pursuit of their goals. Maybe the smooth-talking ex-FBI man is actually a good person whose major problem is staying true to himself. Suppose the reason why he got kicked out of the FBI—not time to reveal that yet!—is making it such that he can’t pass a background check, and as thus can’t get a decent job. This threatens him at the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, which puts him in a bind: does he continue to struggle, to rebuild his life while being true to the kind of person he wants to be, even though he knows it would be a lot easier just be a con-man? He spent years at the FBI studying those very skills!
Think hard about what your character’s most deeply rooted conflict is within the story, and let the surface level conflicts bear on that deeper struggle. Think deeper than your mere plot. This example character’s surface level conflict is about getting a job, but the challenges he faces in doing that bear on the deeper, personal struggle he is going through.
To sum up, your book’s middle section needs to do these things:
Get your character arcs moving with appropriate epiphany moments.
Follow through on that by using the seven ways to show character growth as the bulk of the plot progresses.
Reveal enough backstory to satisfy part of your readers’ curiosity, while using what you’ve revealed to raise bigger questions.
Show your characters wrestling with—sometimes even being beaten by—the deep, personal conflict simmering underneath your plot.
The middle of a novel is a big, tricky balancing act for the novelist. You must balance the revelations and discoveries you present to readers with new mysteries, conflicts, and stakes. You must do both, because with no revelations at all, the book becomes difficult for readers to sustain. But if you don’t sustain any mysteries, readers will be left with little motivation to continue reading. The techniques in this article help you with this balancing act. Epiphany moments give the reader satisfying moments of drama (because they usually come out of some kind of confrontation), yet they presage the whole chain of the character’s arc. Answers to surface-level backstory can lead to questions that dig below the surface.
< Back to part 1, openings | Next time: part 3, what to do at the end of your book. >
January 25, 2011 22:23 UTC
How to establish your characters: openings
Among the many jobs a book’s opening needs to accomplish, one of the more important is to establish your book’s characters. You need to let your readers know who the players are, what their relationships are (at least initially), and enough about what kind of people they are that readers can develop a sensibility about how these people are likely to act.
It’s a tall order, but there are some core strategies you can use to help achieve these goals, while at the same time moving your story forward.
Show your characters in action
First, please, show your characters in action. Show them doing something. And I don’t mean walking down the street. Show them in the act of attempting to achieve a goal, prevent something bad from happening, et cetera. I don’t really care what it is, just show them trying. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, but readers need to see the effort and the reason for it is pretty simple. Seeing the effort reassures us that this is a character who will be worth watching for 300 pages.
When your book’s opening shows us a guy walking down the street, or a lady sitting at her kitchen table having tea as her day begins, that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in that character as being someone who can bear the heavy load of being a protagonist. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character who doesn’t do anything.
This is not to say that you can’t put a guy walking down the street on page one. You can. But you need to show us why that’s interesting. You need to do something with that scene that allows the character to make a meaningful choice or take a meaningful action. Maybe the guy is in Chicago for a job interview, trying to make his way on foot from his hotel, only he isn’t quite sure which way to go. He’s going to have to choose whether to go left, right, or straight, and his choice is critical to arriving at the interview on time.
Show your characters in conflict
Within the action, look for ways to put your characters in conflict. Conflict, in novel-writing terms, is any situation in which a character’s goals are impeded by something. Could be an explicit antagonist trying to mess up the protagonist’s plans. Could be a physical obstacle, a raging river that was only marked as a stream on the map. It could be a situation, not enough dinner to feed the family and the surprise guest/business associate the thoughtless husband brought home. The obstacle could be internal, as in the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of how to get around the streets of Chicago.
Again, the reason why conflict is an effective characterization tool is simple: the conflict itself forces characters to respond. In watching their responses, we learn about them. Does the interview guy stop to ask directions, or does he wander around hoping for the best? Does he call to warn the prospective employer he might be late, or does he arrive tardy with some half-baked excuse about the hotel’s wake-up call being late? A character’s response to any conflict tells us a great deal about who that person is.
Conflict is also dramatic. Conflict carries with it the implicit threat of failure. The guy might actually be late for the interview, heightening the stress of an already stressful situation. The raging river might sweep away the frontier family’s horse and wagon, greatly increasing the danger that they won’t make it to California. Opening your book with a strong conflict for your character to face is a wonderful way to kick things off with a bang.
And speaking of the threat of failure, I would argue that in your book’s opening, the stronger choice is usually to let the character fail. Let him be late and lose the job. Don’t just give the family a moment of panic when the horse stumbles halfway across the river, but let the river win. The reason for this, too, is simple: failure throws the characters’ plans into disarray, and forces them to react. Just as with watching them respond, their reaction to failure teaches us a great deal about them.
Open your book by putting your characters in conflict situations, so we can watch their response, the outcome, and their subsequent reaction.
Create mysteries about your characters
So you’ve created a conflict situation, put your characters into a stance of action, the question then becomes how can you work the character’s choices and actions in order to deeply hook the reader? You can create mysteries.
The idea here is to show something unexpected about your character, something that is naturally applicable to the scene, without explaining it. Show us a skill, a talent, an attitude we’re not expecting. Maybe the interviewee stops a random person on the street, and smooth-talks that person not into giving him directions but in fact escorting him by cab to his destination and paying the cab fare for him. We’re likely to be surprised and intrigued to see such a display of charisma and persuasion. After the horse goes under, maybe the father also falls into the river and is only saved by his wife’s quick-thinking and dead-eye aim with a lasso. We’re likely to wonder how she came to have such impressive rope skills.
But don’t explain. Let us wonder. The reader’s curiosity is your most powerful asset, and if you can show us something we don’t quite understand, we become wildly curious to learn the backstory behind it. Don’t give it to us. This is the wrong time for a backstory infodump. Make us read onward into the story in order to learn why the character can do those things.
For instance, maybe the interviewee used to be a ... no. I’m not going to tell you now, here in the opening of this three-blog-post series. I’ll tell you in the next installment about what to do in the middle of the book, and ditto for frontier-woman and her rope-work. See? Now aren’t you at least a little bit curious how they came by those abilities?
I should warn, though, there is a danger to be aware of: if what you show the reader is so surprising and unusual that we can’t even imagine how it’s possible for the character to do that, then what you’ve created isn’t mystery but incongruity. Maybe it really does make sense in light of backstory you don’t want to give us yet, but you can’t let the reader think it’s just some weird, crazy thing you pulled out of your butt in order to concoct an exciting opening. That’s a sure way to lose the reader. So, if the thing you reveal is that surprising, what you can do is let other people in the scene wonder, too. That reassures readers that you know what you’re doing. That you understand how hard it is to believe what they just read, but that you have a plan and all will be revealed in good time.
Illustrate key personality traits
Again, readers want to know what kind of people they’re dealing with. Particularly helpful is when you can illustrate a personality trait that is at the heart of the arc you’ll be putting that character through. Perhaps your protagonist is a bit of a shrinking violet in the beginning, afraid to take risks and make sacrifices. Imagine you have in mind that by the end of the book he will be called upon to take a significant risk, and that his ability to do it stems from the personal growth he experiences during the story. While you could open your book with something like this:
Charlie was the kind of guy who held back, never giving his all.
you’ll do much better to illustrate that trait in the course of an early scene. Readers will believe it a lot more strongly if you make them understand that for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. So you’ll put Charlie in a position where he could take a risk, but doesn’t.
Maybe he has joined an Ultimate Frisbee team because the woman he’s interested in plays on it. Other players routinely make leaps and diving catches, but not Charlie. At a critical moment during a big game, Charlie doesn’t dive for a pass he could have caught, resulting in the other team taking possession, and Charlie’s team losing the game.
His teammates chew him out for it. “What’s the matter with you? You totally could have caught that if you’d tried!” Charlie, of course, will have a perfectly good rationalization for his behavior. “Why should I risk injuring myself diving to catch a frisbee? It’s just a game.”
Seeing those events transpire will be a hundred times more convincing than simply telling us that Charlie’s a milquetoast fellow. It does so through action and conflict, thus keeping our interest high. And it sets up his overall character arc, so that by the end of the story when he finally learns that sometimes risks and sacrifices are necessary, his eventual act of bravery will hit home much stronger.
To sum up, your book’s opening needs to do these things:
Show us who the character is.
Make us curious about that person.
Give us a reason to care about the person.
You do this because your opening scenes and chapters need to hook the reader. Part of your hook comes through the (hopefully) intriguing nature of the situation you show. But the other part, and I would argue the larger part, comes through your characters. Novels are ultimately about characters doing things. Trying to affect the course of events. Your opening needs a hook, but your characters are the bait.
Next: part 2, How to establish your characters: middles >.
December 17, 2010 19:02 UTC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Great characters are like origami
At the start of a book, readers face the book’s characters in much the same way as the writer faces the book itself: as a blank page. The characters are flat and featureless. Readers don’t know who these people are, what they can do, what they care about, what pisses them off. We don’t know any of that stuff, until you show us.
Certain broad strokes—and fairly irrelevant ones—such as name, age, gender, height, weight, and socio-economic class can be established quickly, and I would argue that you should do so. While these are surface features that don’t relate to the substance of your characters, surface features do help the reader to picture the characters and keep straight who’s who. So do that first, and do it quickly.
But once you’re into the substance of a character, once you’re showing us features of a person that really matter to how they think and act, complications arise.
Static personality features
A person may have many substantive qualities. Positive ones, like bravery, intelligence, chivalry, kindness, generosity, as well as negatives like cowardice, selfishness, arrogance, and cruelty. These are essentially fixed for the character, and we don’t expect them to change.
But you can’t show them all at once. Let’s say you have a protagonist who is smart, well off without being filthy rich, generous towards his friends and family, but with very little tolerance for idiots and people who make poor choices. As characters go, that’s a pretty well-rounded description. There’s a lot there for you to work with in the course of your novel. But you can’t show us all this stuff at once. It’s just too much.
I suppose you could create some kind of bizarre, tortured scene in which all of these come into play, but I doubt it would feel natural. You have to spread it out over several scenes, letting each scene touch on one or maybe two personality features, until we have the whole picture. Further, let these scenes be natural to the story, ones that arise in clear relationship to the plot, so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs. The last thing you want is readers thinking to themselves “Ah, this seemingly irrelevant scene must exist in order to show the guy’s generosity.”
Dynamic personality features
The other category of personality features are the ones that do change. These are the ones that constitute your novel’s character arc, in which your protagonist undergoes some kind of personal growth. Often this growth relates to those negative personality attributes, and by addressing them through the novel’s character arc, the protagonist becomes a better person by the end of the story.
For example, maybe that character described above learns to have some tolerance for “idiots and people who make poor choices.” You could involve him in the lives of people who are not well off at all, or you could attack his own financial situation. In the end he could come to see that not everyone has it as easy as he does (or did), and would learn that what he thought was evidence of bad choices by people he perceived as idiots, wasn’t. What he was actually seeing were reasonable and sensible people making the best choices they could under very difficult circumstances. Sometimes life deals you a bad hand, and your best options still suck.
You can’t show character arcs all at once either. You can’t have your protagonist be short tempered with the downtrodden for the first 20 chapters, then suddenly have him switch in chapter 21. Ask anyone who has had to change their eating habits to fend off heart disease, or who has had to overcome a substance abuse problem, and they’ll tell you: these things don’t happen overnight. Neither can we expect people’s substantive personality traits to change overnight. You need to craft a sequence of scenes which sets the stage for the change, creates an epiphany moment for the character, and then shows the new thinking taking hold as the plot progresses.
Many steps make a path
Why are great characters like origami? Because origami models and characters in novels both start from blank paper, and both take many steps to get where they’re going.
In origami, you don’t go from flat square to crane in one step. Every step, every fold, adds complexity and refines the model’s shape. Some steps are simple mountain and valley folds. Some steps are tricky petal folds, squash folds, or outside reverse folds, but in the end, you have a beautiful crane.
In writing, you don’t go from blank page to fully realized character in one step. Every experience you subject the character to adds complexity and interest. Every realization a character makes about his life, the world, or other people is another scene—another fold or crease. Some scenes will be simple and straightforward to construct, others will bedevil you, but take the time to get them right. In the end, you have a beautifully realized character who is a joy to write for and a joy to read.
March 12, 2010 17:42 UTC
How to show character through dialogue
A long time ago, I wrote a pair of articles about dialogue: one about the importance of realistic dialogue, and one with techniques for creating distinctive dialogue. This, then, is part three: techniques for revealing details about your character through dialogue.
Dialogue is all about nuance. After all, there are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to say, but each one carries its own flavor. Showing character through dialogue is all about being sensitive to the nuances of these different flavors, and picking the one that best matches the traits of the character saying the line.
Consider, just for example, the difference between “Would you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?” and “I’d like a ham sandwich,” and even “fix me a ham sandwich.”
Attitude towards others
Speaking of ham sandwiches, that example shows clearly some differences in attitude towards others. Respect versus disrespect. The part to clue in on is the grammatical nature of the sentence. The question is the most respectful. It gives the listener the opportunity, at least on the surface, to say no. It expresses the speaker’s wishes without being too pushy about it. The simple declarative sentence is pretty neutral. Context would indicate whether it’s a request or just a wish. The imperative sentence, a literal command, is the least respectful as it leaves no linguistic room for the listener to say no. It attempts to impose the speaker’s will on the listener.
When attempting to convey nuances of respect or disrespect, look to questions, statements, and commands as your tools. And remember, respect and disrespect factor into all sorts of personality traits. For example, simple arrogance—a character who always feels he knows better than everyone else—can manifest as a tendency towards issuing commands rather than stating his opinions declaratively. He would say “You don’t want to do that,” rather than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus declaration.
This is also a useful tool for underscoring relationships between characters where there is a difference in social power. For example, an employee/boss relationship, a soldier/commander relationship, et cetera. The person in the higher position of power can get away with using the less respectful forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the more respectful forms. And if you have a character intentionally break the pattern, watch the sparks fly: Employees and soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and those of higher rank.
Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not respect-to-disrespect, but rather, calmness-to-agitation. And the tool for revealing it is grammatical correctness.
A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in sentences that are more complete and more correct than one who is agitated. When a character totally freaks out, it’s natural for them to stutter and splutter, speak in sentence fragments, re-start sentences or switch to a new sentence half-way through the old one, and generally exhibit all manner of verbal tics.
This is not to say that a calm character should always speak in flawless King’s English. No. Of course real people speak in ways that are very different than written English, even when they’re calm. But the more agitated someone is, the farther they tend to stray from the strict rules of grammar.
Another core character trait that dialogue excels at showing is the scale from introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for doing this is simple word count: Expansiveness versus brevity.
Shy people don’t tend to talk as much. When they do, they choose their words carefully. Outgoing people tend to talk more. They’re more likely to gab, to expand on a thought with tangents and side-thoughts, and so forth.
Let’s say a patron walks into a library and asks where to find a book on Detroit muscle cars of the 1950s. One librarian says “Those are in the 629s,” and points you towards a particular shelf. Another librarian, given the same question, says “Oh, yes! All the stuff about cars is in the 629s. Here, let me show you.” She comes out from behind her desk to lead you to the right shelf.
One is all business, she says the minimum necessary to end the conversation. The other is happy and personable, and attempts to make a connection with the patron. Nobody expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a weekend bar-b-que or anything, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to make a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.
Those are just three character attributes you can play with. But you can take this technique much further. Most personality traits have an opposite. That is, there’s a spectrum for that attribute, just as with the three I’ve covered here. Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel. There’s always an opposite, which means there’s a spectrum.
Take that ham sandwich line—or the particular line you’re struggling with—and ask yourself how someone from each end of the spectrum would say the line. For example, the greedy person would say “where’s my ham sandwich,” the use of possessive grammar indicating a focus on what belongs to him. The generous person might not ask at all, but might instead suggest a trade, “Boy, I’d give you the keys to my car for a ham sandwich right about now.”
Those are extremes, but considering the extremes can be very instructive. Once you have a handle on the spectrum you’re working with, you’ll have a better sense for where to pitch your specific character’s line of dialogue.
November 20, 2009 21:05 UTC
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