Tag Archives: change

Testing Character

As I mentioned in my previous post a few days ago, I’m working now on the ending to my current manuscript. I’m not rushing it because a) my life is filled with distractions/interruptions and I want to get this portion of the story right; and b) I want to make sure I’m testing my protagonist sufficiently and appropriately in these last few pages.

“Test” seems to be an unwelcome word to many of us. It kicks our memories back to schooldays, when teachers put us through the wringer of pop quizzes and frightful exams.

At the time, we suffered through hours of study or wished–too late–that we had cracked our books more than we did. If we were sufficiently prepared, then we felt confident. Otherwise, test days transformed us into bundles of nerves.

But what are tests for?

To enable cruel teachers to torture us? To determine whether we’ve memorized the names of all the county seats in our home state? To make us sweat?

Answer:  They’re a gauge of whether and how much we’ve grown or altered.

To be tested academically means we’re forced or enticed to study and prepare. Doing so  broadens our knowledge, insight, and perception on the selected topic. That preparation forces us to change from having little or no knowledge to possessing increased knowledge.

To be tested physically means we train our bodies to learn tasks and/or skills or to become stronger and more fit. We practice. We stress our muscles. We perform cardio workouts. We gradually improve our body’s state of fitness or we learn to perform certain movements easily, gracefully, and efficiently.

There are other tests, of course, but I needn’t define them all. The point is that tests of any kind are designed to force us to change.

Late Thursday afternoons are when my university’s ROTC units practice marching. This week, I saw cadets in casual student attire standing at attention. By next week, as I leave work, I suppose I’ll see them marching in unison. At some point, they’ll be wearing uniforms while they practice their drills. Every week, I’ll see a more visible change in these young men and women.

So we get it. We don’t like tests, but we recognize their purpose and usefulness. In fiction, a story’s real point is to test your protagonist.

How? And why?

Let’s examine how first:

1. The test for your focal character begins with a problem for him or her to solve. Something has changed in this individual’s life or world. It’s something that directly impinges on your protagonist, something that is immediate and impossible to ignore.

2. As soon as your protagonist attempts to solve this problem or deal with this situation, an antagonist must step in to oppose those efforts. It’s up to you the writer to figure out a plausible motivation for that opposition. Just keep in mind that opposition needs to be strong and direct, and it should grow stronger and more direct as the story progresses.

3. The story problem or situation can be purely a physical one, or it can be a complex one involving emotional or psychological issues within the protagonist.

–If physical, such as wildfires are raging toward the protagonist’s home and community, and she must try to save her family, pets, livestock, and possessions before everything she owns is lost forever, then the plot is purely an external, surface one. There is no deep soul-searching required. How much will she risk? How important is her property to her? How long will she fight to save her house or barn? Etc.

–If internal, such as the protagonist feeling consumed with guilt over having betrayed a friend by sleeping with his wife, then the external plot conflict should move the protagonist toward confronting that guilt, getting the issue out into the open, and solving it once and for all through confession, apology, atonement, or a fight.

As for why we need to test our protagonist:

1. A story about a character that remains static, is never tested, never grows, never changes is not a classically designed story at all, but merely a vignette. A few authors possess the talent and insight to present such a protagonist in an interesting way, but it’s merely a frozen depiction. Is that enough to enthrall today’s jaded and impatient readers the way it did in the mid-twentieth century, the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century?

2. We test our protagonist because classic story design is about creating an arc of change within this focal character. We are showing readers an example that change in behavior, or attitude, or knowledge, or situation is possible. Therefore, we are offering hope and optimism to readers held in the webs of an increasingly stressful and complicated world.

In the controversial (for its day) 1950s film, THE YOUNG LIONS, Marlon Brando portrays a young German who believes that Hitler offers him the hope of change and possibility. He feels that with Hitler in charge of his country, he will no longer be forced to work in the same career as his father, or live his life in the same small village where he grew up. He is eager to break the bonds of an almost feudal system, to reach for all the potential he feels he has. The film follows him as he enlists in the army and then becomes gradually disillusioned, horrified, and rebellious through witnessing the atrocities of a Nazi regime. This character is tested again and again by plot events, conflict, and stress into changing his ideas until he is willing not only to disagree with his orders but to defy them.

3. We test our protagonist because without stress or pressure or opposition or intense trouble, it is human nature generally to resist change. We might desire a certain status or item, but if achieving it takes too much effort we aren’t likely to bother. For example, I desire to be slimmer, but that means changing what I eat and sustaining a regular exercise program. Am I willing to give up chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers? I am not. Therefore, my weight remains where it is.

People have good intentions all the time, but they are like rivers that follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, we test and pressure our protagonists because a) they aren’t real people and we can force them to undergo whatever we design; and b) we use how they handle conflict to show readers that change is possible.

4. We also test our protagonists to make heroes of them–at least we do in commercial and genre fiction. We are entertaining readers by showing a transformation, and readers participate vicariously in that experience. Thematically, transformation is extremely popular with audiences of all ages. Fairy tales explore transformation of many kinds. Small children tie bath towels around their necks for superhero capes. Fathers take their children to movies in the STAR WARS franchise to show them the mythology surrounding the Force. Little girls grow up planning their weddings, when–at least for a day–they become a princess like Cinderella, conveyed in a limo, wearing a fabulous gown, and destined to dazzle the eyes of Prince Charming waiting at the altar.

5. Finally, we test our protagonist to prove to readers that he or she can take all the hits the story problem is going to dish out, cope with them, and survive. We show readers that the protagonist deserves to achieve the story goal, deserves to solve the story problem, deserves to win, deserves recognition and reward because the protagonist has taken the test and passed it. Giving a character what he or she deserves is meting out poetic justice.

When so much of real life can seem unfair, reading a story where matters work out as they should and heroes are rewarded while villains are punished is very comforting indeed.

And comforting, rewarding, just, optimistic, transformative, fair, and affirmative stories sell.

 

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Grab ’em quick!

Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?

Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?

Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?

Open with a hook.

Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)

Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.

Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:

Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES:  She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]

Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW:  Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]

James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER:  1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]

Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET:  DAUNTLESS:  The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]

Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL:  They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]

Jude Watson’s LOOT:  No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]

And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE:  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]

Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.

In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.

You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.

So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month:  school begins. Consider August, a good month:  school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine:  there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

See what I mean?

Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.

Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.

Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.

Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.

 

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O Frabjous Day! Uh … now what? Writing Diagnostics II

Bam! Your new plot idea hits your mind like a package dropped on your doorstep by FedEx.  You’re excited and eager to write, but then doubts start to nibble away your confidence.  Is this idea any good?  Is it worth working on?  Should I do this?  How do I know?

There are several criteria that I use when evaluating an idea for potential development.  I start with this one:

Is there any change with consequences impossible to ignore?

I’m sure most of us have read or heard several variations of this standard writing principle.  Start in the middle of things; start in the middle of action; start with a problem; throw your protagonist into trouble on the first page … etc.

Writers seek change for their characters because they know that change is threatening.  Change upsets us.  Change excites us.  Change scares or worries us.  Things will be different.  Will we like that difference?  What will happen?

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Whether positive or negative, change signals that new challenges lie ahead.  If I move to a bigger house and gain the extra space I need, will I get along with my new neighbors?  Will my children have to attend a different school?  What if the house affects Granny’s allergies?  Can we afford the larger mortgage?  What will we have to sacrifice?  How far will it be to shopping and amenities?  Will my commute to work be longer?

Avoidance of change keeps real people stuck in jobs they dislike.  It keeps some teens from leaving home to go to college.  It keeps some college students perpetually in graduate school.  It keeps some folks in abusive marriages.  It keeps others from taking risks to grow their business.  Some writers are hesitant to branch out into different genres.  Some artists dodge exhibiting their work.

Staying safe, staying where things are known, avoiding risk … all part of human nature.  Yet fiction should sweep characters out into the unknown, forcing them to cope with challenges.

So can you think of an upheaval to launch your story?  Of course you can!  Be careful, though.  It can’t be just any old kind of change stuck to the story with a piece of tape.

Example:  Say that the story is about a couple having marital difficulties.  Arthur Author doesn’t want to open with the pair sitting in the living room, glaring at each other.  Too static!  Instead, Arthur Author decides to open with the couple’s child — stressed by his parents’ spats — abruptly throwing his first tantrum on the carpet.

Hmmm ….

This is action, all right.  There’s character movement.  Little Johnny is breaking his toys, flailing, screaming, and turning very red in the face.  Chances are the parents will give him the attention he wants and stop bickering briefly while they cajole or punish him.  Once he’s in bed and out of the way, they’ll probably blame each other for his behavior and the arguments will start again.

There!  Arthur Author is happy.  He’s opened with a change and so he types happily for a few pages, only to wonder soon why his story is going nowhere.

What has Arthur Author done wrong?

He hasn’t written an opening of true change.  There are no real consequences to the tantrum.  The situation remains unaffected; status quo is maintained.  The arguments are circular.  Boredom sets in, and Arthur Author abandons the manuscript.

But if there is change with consequences, the story has a chance.

Example:  Let’s go back to that same miserable family.  The parents are unhappily married, busy with dual careers, and stressed.  Little Johnny takes the lighter from Dad’s barbeque supplies, goes upstairs, and sets fire to the bedroom curtains.  The house burns down.  Now the family is homeless, and DHS wants Little Johnny taken to counseling.  Are the parents going to pull together to help their young pyromaniac?  Where will they live?  Does the fire cause Mom to flub her big work presentation and lose her one shot at gaining promotion and a higher salary?  What will become of them all?

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Do you see how Arthur Author now has somewhere to go in dealing with the ramifications of his characters’ actions?  The story idea is starting to grow, and that’s always a very good sign.

Pick up a handful of novels, and look at the opening page.  See how many of them start with change.

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