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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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Happy Memorial Day!

Here’s an opportunity to thank every veteran you know, every reservist, and everyone on active duty. Our freedom comes at a price, which these individuals have paid over and over with their courage, sense of duty, and service.

Above all, we honor our dead heroes who gave their lives for America. Let us always remember their sacrifice. Let us always remember what our country stands for. Let us celebrate our differences, speak our various opinions, but never forget to stand united, shoulder-to-shoulder, as Americans.

And let us remember loved ones whom we’ve lost over the years–whether family or friends. Whether our grief is fresh or years old, we can cherish our memories and be grateful for how they touched our lives.

Let summer begin. Stay safe.

liberty urn

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Bubble, Boil & Trouble

Just the other day, I told my class that more amateur fiction fails from insufficient conflict than for any other reason.

Conflict, problems, adversity, bad luck, pressure, stress, worry, anguish–these are all part of a writer’s toolkit and should be at the center of stories.

However, sometimes new writers stumble over these variants of character trouble or dodge them altogether.

Instead, let’s look ’em right in the eye:

TROUBLE

Conflict is the linchpin of scenes. I always define it as two characters in direct, active opposition to each other. They meet in confrontation. They argue, fight, interrogate, bicker, evade, etc. Each one comes into the confrontation with a strategy and maneuvers through various tactics and persuasions in an effort to win the encounter.

So as long as you’re writing scenes, fill them with conflict.

If your characters won’t confront each other, you have a problem, and the scenes will crumble.

Problems that can’t be ignored or evaded give your characters something to do. Problems in the story’s opening situation, in the story’s subplots, in the characters’ backgrounds are all useful devices for filling mushy places in your plotline where the story action might otherwise flag.

Adversity (aka random bad luck) carries a warning label because it’s so often misused whenever inexperienced writers try to substitute it for conflict.

Let me state this clearly:  conflict and adversity are not the same thing. Adversity is conflict’s weaker cousin and it can’t do the job that conflict is responsible for.

Even so, occasional adversity doesn’t hurt. Like problems, adversity in small doses injected strategically brings another level of trouble to a story. If you’re writing plenty of conflict and your scenes are strong, adding an occasional dollop of bad luck will help raise the story stakes and keep your plot less predictable.

However, adversity alone just doesn’t carry a story well. Random bad luck is the volcano spewing molten lava on the spot where the hero just happens to be standing. Had the sidekick been there instead, the lava would have melted him. The lava doesn’t care. It has no intelligence, let alone a reason for doing what it’s doing.

Yet if lava spewing danger to a resort Hawaiian community is a catalyst that kickstarts a story and gets the protagonist moving in an effort to warn the community residents or evacuate them, then the volcanic eruption works very well as a backdrop of added danger. But on its own, it is not an actual antagonist.

Pressure ups the stakes. Pressure comes from deadlines, bad luck, and threats. Just when your protagonist has more than enough to cope with, add more pressure. Maybe Granny decides to have a coronary just as the protagonist is trying to load everyone on her neighborhood block into a van for evacuation ahead of the lava flow. The ambulance is cut off from rendering assistance. Minor characters are panicking. And now the protagonist has to find a way to save Granny.

Stress is a by-product of trouble and pressure. And while I want to experience as little stress in myself as possible, I certainly want my protagonist to suffer through a lot of it. Because stress indicates my protagonist is being tested, which is what fiction is really about.

Worry in a hero when things are going from bad to worse creates a corresponding concern in readers. And that helps keep pages turning.

Anguish stems from scene conflict that’s more challenging than the protagonist expected, ending in setback or disaster. Think about times in your life when you’ve wanted something so very, very much and it did not happen. Look at the faces of Olympic athletes who’ve trained for years for the split-second ending of a race when they reached out with all they had and fell short.

That’s your protagonist, reaching through conflict and opposition so bad he isn’t sure he can survive it, and feeling intense anguish as the story goal looks to be dropping away, lost forever.

BOIL

Conflict, problems, and trouble have to start strong and grow harsher and more formidable as the story progresses. This kind of story pressure will then force your protagonist into taking risks and growing. It will push your protagonist’s emotions into a churning turmoil of conflicting feelings.

If your viewpoint character isn’t “on the boil” inside, then chances are you haven’t pitted him or her against enough opposition.

Raise the stakes and stop protecting your protagonist.

BUBBLE

What’s bubbling beneath the surface? What do you know that your readers don’t? Is your protagonist torn within, at conflict with himself as he struggles to find a way out of his current difficulties?

External plot conflict should exacerbate whatever flaws your hero possesses. Not just little things like failing to pick up her clothes, but areas where your protagonist lacks something necessary to win, to survive the story situation.

The external conflict should force your protagonist to grow. And a character grows whenever he’s pushed from the cocoon of physical, emotional, or psychological safety where he’s taken refuge.

Trouble with consequences that can’t be ignored is the first step toward shoving your protagonist beyond the safety zone. Being pitted against an antagonist that shows no mercy will compel your protagonist to strive to do things never tried before despite that inner flaw or fear. The story’s plot is all about making your protagonist face her fear or overcome her inner weakness despite all the internal doubt and uncertainty holding her back.

Without trouble, boil, and bubble–protagonists are flat and lifeless on the page. They never quite come to life. They fail to be compelling.

Reach past your personal comfort zone and stop protecting your hero. Amp up the challenge, and kick emotions to life.

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In Search of the Elusive Antagonist

Are bad guys becoming extinct?

Are villains on the endangered species list?

Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”

Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.

An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.

It’s. That. Simple.

If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.

Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.

Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.

Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.

See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.

Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.

But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.

Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.

Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?

They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.

Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.

The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.

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Bonding with Your Characters

The relationship your readers feel for your characters shouldn’t be left to chance. You’re in charge of how readers respond to your story people.

Or you should be.

We want readers to either love or hate our characters. What we don’t want is a “meh” reaction. Or even worse, “Who? I don’t remember her.”

LOVE ME:

1) The best place to start in creating a likeable character is to think about the qualities you like, the traits that you respond to.

For example, you might admire someone who’s good, honest, loyal, sensitive/empathetic, intelligent, and has integrity.

2) Think about characters you’ve loved in books. Not just enjoyed, but loved. Can you remember their traits? What aspect of them did you admire most?

3) Combine these two lists into one and see if any or all of the qualities on it could apply to the character you’re designing.

4) Add some flaws, but make them endearing or provide shortcomings that readers can relate to.

5) How can you show your character demonstrating these qualities in action? Can you build scenes or show confrontations where integrity–for example–would be tested?

HATE ME:

1) Think about behavior you despise. Is it cheating, lying, being abusive or manipulative?

2) Consider the most vivid villains you’ve ever read. What made them stand out? What made them memorable to you?

3) As before, combine your lists and award your villain with some of these despicable qualities.

4) Make sure to give the bad guy a likable quality or a bit of charm because you don’t want a cartoonish Snidely Whiplash villain. In other words, this individual has the potential to be good but has chosen not to be.

5) Figure out opportunities for your less-than-likable characters to behave in ways that will make readers hate them.

For example, in Naomi Novik’s novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, the protagonist meets a character who seems cheery, friendly, helpful, and refined at first but is in fact neglectful of his dragon. Again and again, readers are shown the valiant dragon drooping in his pen, depressed and insufficiently cared for. We see the man criticizing his dragon unjustly. And when the dragon is wounded and dying, his handler has to be coerced to pet the creature and give him a few kind words.

Character actions will have much more effective impact on readers than any amount of description.

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Fascinate Me: The Intriguing Character

When I began my writing training, my characters weren’t much more than a name, hair color, and a series of tasks I wanted them to attempt. Sometimes I jotted down a list of dialogue points I wanted them to make in scenes. Without my list, I often got sidetracked and my scenes didn’t always come out the way I wanted.

Since then, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to characterization than that. What makes us love a certain character and remain indifferent to another? What makes one character live beyond the story he appears in, while others fade from memory the moment we shut the book? Why are some characters intriguing and others dull?

An intriguing character doesn’t have to be the good guy.

Count ’em on your fingers … Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Captain Bly, Bill Sikes, Sauron, Mrs. Danvers, Count Dracula, and Cruella de Vil … to name only a few memorable villains. (Yes, I left out Moriarty and Voldemort on purpose.) No doubt you can come up with many, many more, and there are lists of fictional villains on the Internet to jog your memory.

Let’s take Treasure Island’s Long John Silver as an example. He’s a ruthless, black-hearted pirate who signs on as ship’s cook. During the voyage, he deliberately befriends the young boy Jim, taking advantage of Jim’s naivete and trusting nature. He serves as a confidant and mentor to Jim, only to betray the boy later. Worst of all, when his true self is revealed, he expects Jim to stick with him and also turn on the others. Jim, of course, won’t do that. Silver reproaches the boy, saying plaintively, “I thought you and me was friends.”

Our fascination with Silver is less about his piracy and more about the psychological damage he’s wreaking.

Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a nasty piece of work. She hates the new Mrs. de Winter from the start and does her best to sabotage the young bride’s self-confidence, marriage, and chances of social success. Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper, supposed to serve and assist. Instead, she despises Mrs. de Winter and preys on every weakness, even compelling the girl to almost commit suicide. Finally, when she can’t break the girl, Mrs. Danvers burns down the house.

If we look only at Mrs. Danvers’s cruel actions, we have a one-dimensional villain. It’s not until we examine her motivation that we can see her complexity. She loved the first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful, vivid woman named Rebecca. She was Rebecca’s nurse and remained a servant to her–becoming housekeeper–even after Rebecca married. Mrs. Danvers can’t and won’t accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers lays out Rebecca’s clothes each day, has preserved her room exactly as it was, has forced the household to continue doing everything the way Rebecca preferred. Mrs. Danvers has been warped by her grief. If she accepts the second Mrs. de Winter (who’s never named in the book), then she’ll have to accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers is far too cruel and sick to evoke our compassion, but she’s anything but ordinary.

Not all intriguing characters are villains.

Consider Zorro, Superman, Batman, James Bond, Tarzan, Rhett Butler, and Sherlock Holmes–to name only a few.

What makes these fictional individuals so compelling?

I found the answer in Robert McKee’s book, Story, where he discusses a writing technique dealing with “true character.” McKee says that audiences are fascinated by characters whose true nature is in contrast to their outward appearance or behavior. At any moment, the mask may drop and we glimpse the real individual inside.

Zorro is literally masked. By day, he hides behind the mild persona of Don Diego. Batman is a wealthy businessman who dons the cowl to fight crime. Superman and Tarzan are also double-identity heroes. James Bond doesn’t wear a mask or costume, but we have a heroic super-spy capable of killing, jumping from airplanes, and blowing up facilities who conceals his violent abilities inside a tuxedo and suave demeanor. Each time we watch Bond sauntering through a glitzy casino with a beautiful woman on his arm, we’re anticipating the moment when the action hero will be revealed. Rhett Butler is not a crime fighter, but we never know when he will drop his mocking cynicism for kindness and generosity. Sherlock Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive abilities are jeopardized by his cocaine addiction. We fear he will break apart, never to be mended by Dr. Watson.

In designing your characters, strive for a contrast between the surface and the truth. Look at the why behind their actions and make those motivations work. If you can create a complex character, chances are you’ll have a compelling character.

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