Tag Archives: character design

Finding the Positive

As I type this, it’s the close of Day 1 of my local community’s lock down. The world has not seen anything like this pandemic since the influenza outbreak of 1918. We are modern. We have prescription insurance and anti-bacterial hand soaps. We shouldn’t have to fear plagues, so what is this? What happened?

In a culture that a few weeks ago was overscheduled, hectic, stressed, busy, and addicted to social media, with nothing more exciting going on than political debates and watching Prince Harry of Great Britain repeating the actions of his ancestor, King Edward VIII, who abdicated royal responsibilities so he could spend his life with the divorced American woman he loved–suddenly, bam, pandemic.

As disruptive and frightening as it is, this health crisis–once and if we and our loved ones get through it–will eventually serve as fascinating fodder for future stories. We have plummeted into changes we could never have foreseen, and our emotional confusion is nearly overwhelming.

A writer’s chief stock in trade is character emotion. It fuels characters. It motivates characters. It drives them to smoulder and plan and weigh options and take action. It makes them seethe, resent, fret, lash out, worry, agonize, fear, flee, and panic.

This month, I have witnessed fear and panic. I have seen empty store shelves–and never before have I ever seen a huge supermarket wiped out of meat in a day. I have seen hoarding of supplies. I have seen generosity and kindness from strangers. I have seen people shaken from their self-absorption in their families and/or their social media friends to instead reach out and speak kindly to people they don’t know. I have seen the good in people, and I have seen barbarous indifference as shown in the Spring Break news feeds. At the latter, we shake our heads, yet it takes time to slow down a country and stop its wheels. We are a nation on the go, and yet now we sit on a side railing, waiting. We aren’t used to sitting idle. It’s unAmerican. It’s weird. We’re supposed to work, to go to school. We’re supposed to be busy and productive. We’re not supposed to sit in our homes, afraid when we venture out to move past the six-foot line. We’re not supposed to stay away from our workplaces or our houses of worship. We don’t quite believe this can be happening to us.

We’re in a situation that can certainly be called a lulu. If you ever needed to study human nature to gain insights into motivation, reaction, true nature, and capacity to act, here is opportunity. We are just over a century from WWI, just over a century from the deadly flu epidemic, just over a century from the sinking of the Titanic. History does repeat. It cycles around, and disaster strikes us when we aren’t paying attention. Disaster also forges us into something better than we were, or it shatters us.

I don’t want to belittle the gravity of what we’re facing now. But it’s a chance to observe, to gain insight into deepening our stories.

The point of plots is to put a protagonist through a stress test to see what this individual is made of. How much can the protagonist take? What does the protagonist fear? What secrets does the protagonist harbor? What is holding the protagonist back, and how can the story events push him or her into changing?

It is typical human nature to resist change. Change is perceived on a psychological level as threatening, and some people dig in so stubbornly to avoid change that they would rather remain in an unsafe situation than do anything differently. Consider the 58-year-old man that’s 250 pounds overweight and at risk for a coronary. His doctor tells him he has to exercise by taking daily walks and eat a healthier diet. Frightened, the guy heads straight to the grocery store and loads up on broccoli, kale, flaxseed meal, and salmon fillets. He struggles his way through a week of power-walking, then skips a day because of work issues, then never catches back up. It’s too hard. It’s boring. He gets too hot. His shoes rub blisters on his toes. He’ll exercise on the weekends. He’ll exercise later. And kale tastes like cardboard. Flaxseed meal makes him itch. The fish doesn’t agree with him. He hates broccoli unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce with bacon bits sprinkled on top. Hey, he can order pepperoni pizza with broccoli on it, right? Sure. And what has he changed within a month of his doctor’s warning? Nothing.

Let’s hammer this point with another example:  the elderly individual that won’t leave her house despite widespread flooding and an evacuation order. She has nowhere else to go. No family to take her in. She’s terrified of being put in an old folks’ home. Her cat has disappeared in the rain and if she leaves her cat won’t have anyone to come home to. So the water rises, and every day the woman climbs higher in her house, until she’s trapped in the attic. Finally her little house is swept off its foundation and goes bobbing along in the torrential waters, necessitating rescue personnel to risk their lives to save her.

Or consider the person that stays in an abusive relationship, afraid to leave for the children’s sake. Never mind what this toxic home life is doing to the kids. They deserve parents that stick together. They deserve the nice house, their own cell phones, laptops, and tablets, the pool, and their generous allowances. Such things will more than make up for the emotional misery and psychological/verbal abuse that poisons everything in this dysfunctional family day after day. Right? Otherwise, what’s it all been for?

How about the writer that sweats to complete a novel manuscript, but won’t submit it to a publisher because it needs just a bit more polish? It could be self-published digitally, but no it really needs a third-act rewrite. Despite the fact that it’s been written and rewritten six times in eight years, it really isn’t quite ready because the writer is afraid to expose it to any potential criticism. After all, it might be published and what would be so bad about that? Well, the writer would have to change by working on a new and different project. On the other hand, if it bombs, the writer will have to face that it’s no good and then change by working on a new and different project.

Change–good or bad–is threatening because it upsets the status quo. It makes things different. It jolts us from our ruts, our routines, our habits. While in real life we dodge change as much as possible, in fiction we need it. We should use it to jump-start our stories at the beginning, then let it pressure and challenge our protagonist into a steady arc of evolving in order to win, to succeed, to survive, to become better. Or, if you’re channeling Mario Puzo and design your protagonist to devolve, the arc of change will end in disaster and defeat.

And all the while, our protagonist is battling not just an antagonist, not just physical or emotional danger, but fear. Fear of the story situation, fear of the antagonist, fear of the mission going wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of a worsening spiral of trouble, fear of failure, fear of daring to leave the box and leap for a risk never attempted before.

Change and emotion. They force character action. They ignite the sparks of conflict. They push the protagonist into doing something, into taking risks, into leaving what’s familiar and known to try what’s different.

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Setting & Character

Disclaimer:  This post does not mean that I’m finally softening my long-held stance against stories about man versus nature.

Setting, however, does and should affect character–whether that individual is Judah Ben-Hur, a condemned man chained to a Roman-galley oar until he dies, or the young protagonist living in virtual realities in READY PLAYER ONE.

If your characters seem oblivious to their setting, why did you choose an unremarkable location? Instead, why not make setting an inherent part of the situation and story problem? By this, I don’t mean that you should inject a raging typhoon or catastrophe into every plot scenario, but if you strand your characters in a life raft bobbing on the Pacific Ocean, that watery surround had better have an impact on each of them in individual ways. And if you pick Boring, USA, why are you making your writer job harder than it needs to be?

Is your protagonist comfortable with the setting you’ve plunked her into, or is she a fish out of water? As soon as you make that decision, you will be directed by the option you’ve chosen into selecting or rejecting other design possibilities.

Consider the following:

If your protagonist is an intrinsic part of his setting, knows it, is prepared to cope with it, stays calm and competent in dealing with its dangers or eccentricities, etc., then that means the locale is going to recede in prominence. Your hero will meet trouble from other characters who then serve to generate complications and story problems.

On the other hand, if your protagonist is a fish out of water, then her unfamiliarity with the setting can inject danger, misunderstandings, disaster, or–conversely–comedy into your story. An unknown setting helps you present sense-of-place details to readers as your protagonist discovers them. In doing this, you can avoid awkward information-dumps that usually stall story progress.

For example, the vintage film CROCODILE DUNDEE begins in the Australian outback, where civilization is basic and the setting is full of physical dangers. Dundee, however, is an intrinsic part of the setting. He’s comfortable with poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. He knows how to survive in the brush. His surroundings–although hazardous–create no problems for him. The girl, by contrast, is a fish out of water. She’s in physical danger constantly because she doesn’t know the pitfalls to look for or avoid. In the second act of the film, the setting shifts to New York City and flips the circumstances for these two players. Now the girl is comfortable with her big-city backdrop and wise to its ways, but Dundee has become the fish out of water. His initial bewilderment and quirky solutions inject comedy into the story. And, I might add, he adapts very quickly.

Let’s pick a scenario of elderly woman suffering from dementia that wanders away from home.

The setting of such a story immediately dictates character actions and therefore guides the plot events to come.

For example, if this story takes place in the summer in a harsh desert climate miles from the nearest town, then the desert-savvy protagonist will not be able to seek police or county sheriff assistance. The protagonist will be largely on his own. He’ll know to start a search at dawn before temperatures exceed one-hundred degrees, to seek Granny’s tracks in the sand and follow them through the brush, to carry plenty of water and a weapon in case he encounters rattlesnakes or rabid wildlife, and be conscious of the necessity to find Granny before the intense noonday heat gives her sunstroke or she becomes dangerously dehydrated. Unless you’re trying to build suspense, it’s unnecessary to lavish endless details of the search and throw snakes, wild pigs, and fire ants at the protagonist. Instead, summarize the search and let the story action center instead on conflict between the protagonist and a wild-eyed, distraught, and possibly injured Granny who won’t cooperate as he tries to get her home.

If Granny has wandered away in a crime-riddled metropolis, depending on the customary missing-persons procedure, the protagonist will notify authorities to issue a silver alert and then set out on a house-to-house search through the neighborhoods closest to where Granny lives. Maybe–if it’s a gated community–an email alert will be sent to everyone and Granny’s photo will be posted on light poles. Then it’s a matter of getting in the car to check along major arterial roads or bus routes, pausing at strip shopping centers to ask store owners if they’ve seen an elderly woman trudging along, and looking in alleys while always hoping he won’t find Granny lying unconscious from a mugging behind a Dumpster. Maybe–if Granny hasn’t dropped her cell phone–the hero can ask authorities to track her SIM card. Or, the protagonist will be entirely dependent on the police to find her and will instead go to work, checking search progress periodically via his cell phone. Instead of having the protagonist facing down would-be muggers or being car-jacked in a misguided effort to generate plot from a setting the character is knowledgeable about, why not focus the plot on his conflict with authorities who may require him to wait twenty-four hours before they’ll take action?

When it comes to how setting affects character design, another factor can come through the story person’s background. Characters are usually shaped by the places where they grew up. Was a sidekick kept isolated from others, home schooled, and spent his childhood in a hippie commune in a remote rural area without cellular phone service or satellite dishes or internet?

Even if that past has no connection to your plot, such factors as these will affect the sidekick’s personality, behavior, and reactions. He may be very self-reliant, independent, skilled, and resourceful. He may feel uneasy in social situations, avoid parties or crowds of people, and be a difficult co-worker. At the other extreme, he might actively seek city life and parties, binge-watch Netflix, own every electronic gadget on the market, and be a profligate spender to compensate for all the things he thinks he missed while growing up.

Can setting, in turn, be shaped by characters? Not, perhaps, as directly as how setting affects individuals, but reader perception of a locale can be colored by character perspective, personality, and attitude. Consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a train headed away from London to some remote corner of England. Watson gazes out the window at green meadows, grazing sheep, and tidy cottages with his usual optimistic, upbeat sentimentality. He comments how good it is to see such dear old homesteads. Holmes, huddled in his greatcoat and uninterested in the passing view, replies that more murders are committed in isolated farmhouses than in the most crowded, squalid sectors of the city.

(That’s one way to shut down a happy conversation.)

 

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Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.

 

 

 

 

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Tag That Character

Character design is one of the more intriguing and fun aspects of the writing process. After all, we can invent our story people to suit ourselves. We can make our hero tall and lithe, our villain capable of tossing deadly wizard fire, and our minions a small army of tiny, red-eyed, spider-folk capable of telepathic communication.

However, design can become a tar pit of pending decisions. Should I give her red hair or blue? Should she have tattoos? If I make her afraid of heights, does that mean my story has to be set in the Alps?

A simple, basic guide to organizing those decisions is to focus on the following basics:

Dominant Impression

Memorable Introduction

Reinforcement

In this post, I’ll focus on dominant impression. This is where you create the appearance, personality, background, and goal of a character then boil it all down to one or two words, such as ruthless killer, sweet innocent, drama queen, clown, diva, swindler, warrior prince, responsible, box-thinker, rule breaker, etc.

If you want to start with a dominant impression and then create the appearance and personality to support it, that’s perfectly fine. But dominant impression keeps the character clear and easy for readers to visualize. It also helps writers stay on track since, when we’re trying to create dimensional characters, we may muddle them unintentionally and fail to achieve the effect we want.

To show dominant impression to readers, we tag our characters by assigning them behaviors, actions, and dialogue that will demonstrate their personality.

For example, if you wish to demonstrate nervous Nellie as a character’s dominant impression, think about this individual’s traits, habits, tics, and behavior. Chronic nervous indicators can include nail biting, fidgeting, clumsiness, restless pacing, pencil gnawing, muttering, rapid-fire speech patterns, and high-pitched laughter.

Each time your character uses one of these indicators (which I call tags of personality), you’ve reminded readers of the dominant impression without author intrusion or telling.

It should be noted that other types of tags include a character’s name, appearance, clothing and possessions, habitat, pattern or style of dialogue, and mannerisms.

Each helps to remind readers of who this character is–distinct and separate from other characters in the cast–while also providing useful information.

While you don’t want to overuse the same tag to the point of exhausting reader patience, a variety of tags should be utilized often. My rule is at least one tag per character per page. Just using the character’s name will satisfy that rule, and if I can reinforce dominant impression at least once on the page then I feel I’m keeping that character vivid and easy for readers to remember.

My next post will address vivid, memorable character introduction.

 

 

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Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.

 

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Finding Your Story

Writing fiction involves a variety of elements:  knowledge of the craft, story sense, intuition, preparation, flexibility, focus, and trust. Some writers can only manage to juggle a few of them. For example, a writer may cling to writing technique so rigidly that he or she is unwilling to receive constructive criticism, reluctant to revise a single word, and resistant to deviating from the initial story outline. Other writers may rely so completely on inspiration or the muse that they can’t stay focused from start to finish, and the very suggestion of planning or outlining makes them break out in a panicky rash.

Those are the extremes on opposite ends of the spectrum, of course, but they illustrate accurately the issues that some writers suffer in trying to get stories on the page.

Let’s look at these elements more closely:

Knowledge of the craft involves knowing how to write sentences well, how to convey meaning clearly and coherently, how to spell and punctuate, how to open a story, how to build conflict, how to design characters, how to deal with viewpoint, description, rising action, pacing, and how to write an emotionally cathartic climax that resolves the story in a way satisfying to readers. Craft comes easily and instinctively to some. For others, it can be an arduous, challenging ordeal of practice and study. Either way, you must know your craft if you are to become an effective writer. Not only in terms of your readers, but also in view of how the process of putting a story together needs to be something you’re so well trained in that you no longer have to consciously think your way through scene construction, for example, but can instead put your full attention on the content of that scene and what your players need to say and do in it.

In short, knowledge of the craft frees your mind to concentrate on the actual story.

Story Sense stems from your talent and how exposed you’ve been to stories. Have you read copiously for a long time? Doing so builds and enhances your story sense. Are you a film buff, one that watches movies not to examine stage direction or camera angles but the story and emotions? Then you’re adding to your story sense.

Avid readers possess excellent story sense, and that’s why they become irate if a plot suddenly veers off course or a character reacts in a way inconsistent with her design. Think of the little boy in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, protesting when he thought his grandfather was messing up the story. That’s story sense at work.

As a writer, listen to it and let it guide you. There are times when writers hit what seems to be a dead end or they face putting together a huge and complicated story event that intimidates them. But even if they lack sufficient craft to know how to handle what lies ahead, if they will heed their inner instincts they usually come out fine.

It can be challenging to obey story sense. So often we’ll think of something for our protagonist to say or do and then we talk ourselves out of it. Later, an editor or writing coach will ask, “Why didn’t Irmentrude open the door?” and you shout, I thought of that! I was going to do that! And then … I sort of talked myself out of it.

Why?

You lacked confidence in your own story instincts.

Intuition is closely allied with story sense. Maybe it’s another term for the same quality. But it’s an emotional feeling about where you should take your story next, or about what you should write about, or about which character should be your protagonist. Intuition is your gut telling you to have your hero leap off that building, even if you aren’t sure how to ensure his survival. Intuition pushes you to take creative risks, to dare let your characters say and do things that you wouldn’t in real life. Intuition is your gateway into creating larger-than-life story people and situations.

Preparation involves thought, research, planning, plotting, testing, and outlining. Good prep saves writers time. Yes, it delays actually typing words when you’re dying to get started. But it rescues you from dead ends, mental roadblocks, plot holes, and other dangers that can force your plot off course. What’s so horrible about writing a plot outline anyway? It makes you face the soft spots in your idea. If you face them, then you can fix them. Better by far to do that than write fifteen pages that later have to be thrown away.

Some writers, especially when they’re inexperienced or still learning their craft, shy away from outlining because they don’t have many ideas and they’re afraid to over-examine what they have. In fact, they may know instinctively that their idea is weak and won’t hold up to examination.

But if your story idea is so fragile that it will crumble in an outline, it’s not worth writing. Good ideas can’t be destroyed. You can examine them, thump them, test them, play the what-if game with them, invert them, change the characters around then back again, and they will hold together. What a relief that is!

You prepare by making sure you have a central protagonist, a central antagonist in direct opposition, and a clear goal. With that triad, you can then logically and systematically create a series of events that will occur as these two opposing characters maneuver against each other to achieve what they want.

If you skip this preparation or ignore the triad, then you will be doing a lot of writing and tossing, again and again. Perhaps that’s your method and you persist until you finally find some sort of plot you can follow. But often, writers who are unprepared hit too many roadblocks and obstacles and end up confused, frustrated, and willing to abandon what might have become a very good story.

Flexibility means being willing to allow a story leeway. It means that despite the planning and outlining and careful thought, there is still elasticity in the story’s framework for a few unplanned details and incidents that will enhance and improve the plot. It also involves being willing to listen to an editor or agent when they make good suggestions for the story’s improvement. It means keeping yourself humble enough to continue learning no matter where you are in your writing career.

Focus is achieved through preparation, through knowing you have a solid plot that will go from start to finish without dumping you somewhere in the middle, and then sticking with it. Not rigidly, but following your outline without taking wild tangents or impulsively changing your protagonist’s motivation for no better reason than a dream you had the night before.

Focus is about sticking with a draft until the story is completed. It’s about pushing aside distractions and doubts and worries and fatigue, and continuing until you type “The End.”

Trust was perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned in my training–other than the actual craft itself. Because once you know how to construct a story and how to put the triad in place and how to line up goals, conflict, motivations, and reactions, you have to trust the process. Even with an outline, I find myself in the fog partway through a novel. I’m human. I’m a writer with a big imagination. I can conjure up fears and self-doubt as well as anyone. I can grow weary of my characters. I can be so tired I can’t hear my story sense sometimes. And yet, I have to trust that what I’ve set in motion will keep going. I know that if I line up certain pieces of any story properly, it will move successfully to the finish. And I have learned to trust that, whether I can see light at the end of the tunnel or not.

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