Plot to Punctuation Logo

How to establish your characters: endings

This is the long-delayed final installment in my blog series on how to establish your characters within various portions of your book. If you’re new, check out part 1 and part 2 as well.

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.”

End Goals

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.

< Back to part 2, middles

February 28, 2011 23:43 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, behavior, reversals, conflict, mystery, curiosity, backstory, personality

Permalink Permalink | Comments Add a comment | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Why you suck but I don't

Ok, ok,you don’t suck. Jeez, don’t get all excited! But people committing the fundamental attribution error think you do.

The fundamental attribution error relates to how we interpret things when somebody screws up. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people’s default tendency is to apply an egregious double-standard in this regard: we interpret our own failings as the result of circumstance, but we assume the failings of others are the result of obvious and tragic character flaws within them.

Or in other words, “I was late because I hit all the red lights and got stuck behind an old granny in a land-yacht who didn’t understand what the gas pedal was for, but you were late because you obviously don’t know how to plan and manage your time.”

We commit this double standard for a pretty obvious reason: we know everything about our own circumstances, but comparatively little about other people’s circumstances. We don’t see other people walking around with their circumstances all nicely labeled for us. We don’t know if a co-worker was late for an important meeting because he really is lousy at time management, or because he was taking a call from his mother who lives three states away, panicking because his father had slipped in the shower and she didn’t know what to do.

Had we known that, we’d likely have cut the guy some slack for taking five minutes to talk his mom down and get her to dial 9-1-1. But we can’t see that. All we see is him coming into the meeting late and with a sheepish look on his face.

That’s the fundamental attribution error. And like most human behaviors, there’s a lot writers can do with it.

Create empathy. If you want readers to empathize with a somebody who screws up, just make sure they know the circumstantial reasons contributing to the screw-up. Novels give us a freedom that real life doesn’t, which is to show our readers the circumstances attached to any characters we care to. Use this power wisely.

Show positive personality traits. If you want to show a character as being fair-minded, empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, et cetera, then show them working hard not to commit the fundamental attribution error. Show them trying to think of what circumstances might have contributed to another character’s mistakes. Simply letting a character wait for evidence to come in, rather than rushing to judge someone, can work wonders for casting that character as a thoughtful, considerate person.

Show denial. Sometimes, people really do screw up because of core character flaws, and yet, under the right circumstances others will work very, very hard indeed to find a circumstantial explanation for that person’s failings. Wives who cover for their husbands’ alcoholism (or vice versa) is perhaps the most cliché example, but there are many others. While we never have all the information about someone else’s circumstances, we always have some; the difference between denial and commendable fair-mindedness is in how we heed or ignore the evidence we do have, especially when ignoring it leads to bad consequences for us.

Create a Pollyanna character. A Pollyanna is a naively or hopelessly optimistic character. One who always looks on the bright side, despite any and all evidence to the converse. Applied to people, this philosophy can certainly be a good thing (see show positive personality traits, above). Still, you know what they say about too much of a good thing. Imagine that you have a co-worker who is habitually late, and another co-worker who always gives that person the benefit of the doubt, or even goes so far as to invent hypothetical excuses on that person’s behalf ("I’ll bet he just had car trouble"). What would you think about that second co-worker? Chances are, that’s not someone whose judgment you’d particularly trust, since they’re ignoring what is obvious for all to see.

Create a hothead or unreliable flake. The flip-side is that if you want to if you want to show a character being judgmental, showing them rushing to judgment—committing the fundamental attribution error—is a great way to go, especially if you couple it with that same character going to great lengths to explain away his own failings to others. This is the person who always thinks the best of himself and the worst of others. Note, for this you’ll need to be using a narrative point-of-view that allows the character and the reader to have different information, so the reader can empathize with the mistake-maker, while hothead character rushes to judge.

Create a dramatic twist. Finally (and this is one of my favorites), if you want to spring a reversal on the reader in which you take a character from being viewed negatively to being viewed positively, let the reader and any relevant POV characters commit this error, but then later, reveal to them the circumstances. That is, show the character making a mistake, and other characters attributing it to the mistake-maker’s personality. If you’re not too heavy-handed about it, chances are the reader will go right along with it and make the exact same mistake themselves. Then later, you can reveal the circumstances leading up to that person’s mistake, and use that information to pivot everyone’s attitude about that person.

Got any other great ways to take advantage of the fundamental attribution error? Share them in the comments!

June 03, 2010 23:45 UTC

Tags: character, fundamental attribution error, judgment, pollyanna, reversals

Permalink Permalink | Comments 4 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Three ways relationships can reveal your characters

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

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

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

Use shared or borrowed goals

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

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

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

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

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

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

Show multiple points of view

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

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

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

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

November 09, 2009 21:50 UTC

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

Permalink Permalink | Comments 1 Comment | Tweet this! Tweet this!

Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.

Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.

I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).

Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.

Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.

First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.

A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.

Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:

Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.

Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:

Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?

With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.

Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.

But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.

Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.

August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC

Tags: character, habits, smokes, believability, drama, reversals, distinctive, shorthand, show don't tell

Permalink Permalink | Comments 2 Comments | Tweet this! Tweet this!

For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar