Tag Archives: protagonists

The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

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Slump Stumped

When you write long fiction, does it sag in the middle? Does it slow down, drag, stall, or hit a dead end? Do you feel lost, unable to figure out what to do next? Are you doubting your story idea, hating your characters, feeling tired, or are you simply bored and frustrated with a story that begin with such promise but has now become as heavy as cement boots pulling you to the bottom of the lake?

Been there, folks. And without trying to sound like a TV commercial for indigestion, there is a solution to the bleak, daunting, soggy, sagging middle. Give your story oomph!

Generally story oomph comes from a strong, focused plot, characters in direct opposition, high stakes, and fast pacing.

But specifically, you can add oomph by utilizing hooks, tossing in unpredictability, and boosting motivations.

Let’s examine these three methods separately:

  1. Hooks:  When scenes are written effectively, each scene conclusion should end with some kind of setback or additional trouble for the protagonist. That means an automatic hook is created to draw readers forward. However, hooks can be set anywhere in your story. In chapter openings, in character introductions, in narrative, in scenes, in viewpoint changes … all sorts of places. If the zombies hadn’t been trying to kill me, I would have enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon. Or, “Lucy Cuthbert, if you don’t find someone to marry by the end of this afternoon, I will cut you out of my will.” Or, When Bob opened the desk drawer in search of a paperclip, he didn’t expect to find a clear acrylic box filled with writhing, agitated scorpions. Or, Jane had expected her new stepmother to be small, fragile, blonde, and vicious. Instead, she walked outside to see a statuesque, bikini-clad Amazon poised on the pool’s diving board, holding a martini glass aloft and singing an aria from Carmen at the top of her lungs.
  2. Unpredictability: Plot twists and turns add zest to stories. If your protagonist carefully plans what he intends to do next and then executes that intention, your story is focused and easy to follow but predictable. Without the element of the unexpected, stories become dull, and dull stories bore their creator while guaranteeing a rapid loss of reader interest. So if you’re bored by a passage, scene, or chapter, imagine what your readers will feel! Shake your copy out of the doldrums. Add some zing. Set up a scene to go in a certain direction and then knock it sideways by a wily, ruthless villain. Think about a scene you’re about to write. Within the context of the story and the parameters of your protagonist’s objectives, what can you toss in that will be completely unexpected–yet not wholly illogical? When I was writing the manuscript that would become my first published book, I hit a dull spot in the story where my heroine was going on a picnic with the hero. Romantic? Yes. Lively? No. So I thought about it and let the imp of unpredictability loose. As a result, when my heroine opened the wicker food hamper, she discovered a dead rat inside. Needless to say, that livened up the scene considerably as she screamed and tossed the basket away. (The villain had bribed his lordship’s kitchen servants to put the nasty rodent in the basket.) It wasn’t great plotting, but it served its purpose. Of course, you don’t want to throw a carcass (or its equivalent) into every scene. That, in turn, would become predictable. But eschew timidity when you write. Be daring with characters and their actions. And don’t always follow the expected path.
  3. Boosting motivation:  Often books lose steam because the characters involved don’t care enough about what they’re doing. Maybe the characters did care in the book’s opening chapters, but Amy Author has forgotten that she must strongly motivate her protagonist from start to finish. I’m not saying a protagonist who’s battered by a string of setbacks should never feel doubt, but the character must keep finding new, tougher determination to continue forward despite everything. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Rose is motivated to destroy a German warship patrolling an African lake because of the brutal destruction of her brother and his life’s work by the German army. Her brother is an insignificant missionary, trying to bring Christianity to the native population. He is a harmless civilian, but he is so shocked and broken by the soldiers’ cruelty that he dies, and Rose wants revenge. To get it, she is willing to attempt the impossible. Vast distance, dangerous jungle, impassable rivers, rapids, clouds of vicious insects, and grueling physical hardship do not matter to her. She never gives up because her motivation is like a spear in her back, driving her forward. But not only the protagonist should have powerful motivations. Remember to give your villain motivations as well. Consider the complex villain Imhotep in the 1999 film The Mummy. Imhotep is a ruthless killer, but he is also sympathetic. He is driven by his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. We can understand him, perhaps even feel sorry for him, while we disapprove of his extreme actions. Still, it is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and that powerful drive to succeed forces the good guys to become tougher and more determined to thwart him.

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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Shortcuts to Character Design

For those of us who don’t arise with the morning lark with a full-blown character in mind, courtesy of a dream, character design can sometimes be intimidating.

After all, there are so many details to consider — from what this fellow looks like, to how many siblings he grew up with, to his years of military service, to his self-concept, etc. In previous posts, I’ve delved into numerous aspects of design to consider. (And in my forthcoming book, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, there are a staggering number of questions that can help writers shape complex story people.) For the unwary writer, however, character design can become a tar pit of procrastination equally as dangerous as setting research.

After all, what if you don’t want to write a multi-volume epic? What if you’re intending instead to tackle a short story or novella?

Do you really want to be sidetracked into generating an elaborate, thousand-word background dossier for the protagonist of a two-thousand-word story?

Perhaps not!

Here are four shortcuts to utilize when you want to create a character quickly, or to deepen a character you already have:

FLAW

Your character should come with a built-in drawback or something inside that needs repair. The plot of your story will exacerbate this flaw enough to bring it out into the open, where the character can’t ignore it, conceal it, or deny it anymore.

Perhaps your character can’t commit to a new relationship because of trust issues. Perhaps your character is too stubborn and won’t accept change, good or bad. Perhaps your character is trying to overcome the temptation to embezzle from the company she works for.

FEAR

What is your character’s secret worry? What is vulnerable inside your character? Maybe it’s something from your character’s past that’s been kept hidden for years. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Or maybe — like Indiana Jones — it’s a fear of snakes.

Whatever the fear may be, the story circumstances of your plot should put the character there, facing it, by the story’s climax.

DESIRE

What does your character want most of all? This element speaks more to motivation and a psychological/emotional goal than simply being the plot’s McGuffin. Harry Potter chases after the sorcerer’s stone, but inside he really wants to belong, to have a family that loves him.

OPPONENT

Who is your character’s enemy? Who stands in your character’s way? Who is determined to thwart your character’s desire, push your character into the situation she most fears, and take advantage of your character’s flaw?

Obviously you will have to flesh out a few details beyond these four elements, but use them as a foundation. Start with them and you should find the other details — such as name, hair color, and favorite foods — falling quickly into place.

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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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Love and Smother

How long have you known your characters in your current writing project?

Did you create them recently? Or have they been your companions for a very long time?

Perhaps a character came to you in the long distance of your memory and inspired you to build a story for him or her. Since then, have you created an entire world for this character to inhabit? And if so, how long have you been living there? A few months? Or several years?

If you and this character have been cohabiting for YEARS, then it’s time to re-evaluate the situation by asking yourself some questions:

a) Why are you still writing about this same character?

If it’s because you’re writing a series, fine. Good for you.

If it’s because you’re still writing the countless draft of the same manuscript that you began in 1983, then it’s time to try something new.

b) What about this character fascinates you so much?

If the character is nuanced, multi-dimensional, complex, fascinating, and dynamic, fine. If you have such a character and your story is stuck, chances are you haven’t developed sufficient writing skills worthy of your creation.

However, if you’re clinging to this character from a psychological or emotional need only, then it’s time to date a new protagonist.

c) Is this character based on a real person?

If you’ve gleaned a few personality traits from various people you know and combined them into one invented individual, okay.

If you’ve based this character solely on one real person or someone that experienced the plot events you’re trying to write about, then you’re going to be hindered or inhibited from writing your story to its best dramatic potential.

d) When a writing coach gives you constructive criticism about changing this character, do you become defensive or angry?

If you’re acting like a mama bear defending her cub, that hostility is a sure indication that you’ve grown too attached to the character, and the character is now smothering your creativity. It’s possible to become rooted in stone, too rigid to accept change.

It can be hard to break up with a protagonist you’ve cherished too long. Perhaps this imaginary individual was part of your first experience with creative inspiration. Perhaps this imaginary individual led you to becoming a writer.

You don’t have to stop cherishing this character in order to move on. You aren’t going to be a failure because you’ve never satisfactorily written this character’s story. You aren’t betraying this character just because you create another one.

You aren’t killing the character or destroying the character in any way. But you shouldn’t let your fascination with him or her impede your progress or growth as a writer.

When we become too enamored of a character yet we can’t complete that person’s story, we become stalled in a creative corner. In such cases, we don’t always realize what’s happened. We aren’t always aware that we’ve constructed a protective shield over the character, a shield that prevents us from altering the character’s behavior or even the plot.

Such a situation becomes a quagmire, especially if the character is based on a real person. You’re unwilling to change the character because that wouldn’t be what she’s really like, and yet until or unless you do, the story will remain stuck.

Keep in mind that real life and fiction aren’t the same thing. Fiction is art. It can mirror reality. It can replicate reality. But it’s never identical to reality or a true duplication of it. Things that happen in the real world may seem completely unbelievable on the page.

Solutions:
1) Remember that you’re the author. You’re in charge. You can create or delete a character. The character never controls you.

2) Set the character and your stalled story aside. If you feel as though you’re abandoning it, think of this move as a temporary shift to a new idea.

3) Divide your weekly writing time equally between the old character and plot and the new ones. For example, work on old story Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and new story on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Gradually apportion more days to the new story.

4) Even if you don’t much care for a new protagonist, play fair and give this character a chance. Devise personality traits, a background, tags of appearance and behavior, goals, and true nature. If it feels awkward, reassure yourself that you’re conducting drill exercises.

Practicing and experimenting with “temporary” characters is a better way to hone your craft anyway. Your cherished character isn’t threatened, and you don’t have to feel defensive.

5) Create one new protagonist a week. Sooner or later, you’ll invent one that ignites a spark of interest inside you. Write a short story featuring that protagonist.

6) If you still like the protagonist after completing a short story, then ask yourself if you could expand that story into a novel.

You will be on your way toward new growth as a writer.

You won’t feel defensive and threatened.

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Direct Opposition–Part II

In this series, I’m discussing the array of possible villains at our disposal. Here’s the list:
Concealed villains
Visible villains
Enemies
Antagonists
Opponents

Previously, I provided an example of how to bungle conflict using a concealed villain.

This time, I want to look at handling visible villains.

Wilbur Writer, fuming over having been chided so publicly in my prior post, has tweaked his story’s scenario as follows:

Peter Protagonist, determined to seek adventure, has enlisted in the Planetary Patrol. As soon as he’s completed basic training, he’ll be shipped off to a rebellious colony world to suppress an uprising.

Velma Visible, Peter’s mother, believes in galactic peace and worries about the safety of her only son. (Motivation) She leads a protest march through town, carrying a placard that reads, Moms Against Enlistment. She argues with his recruitment officer–thereby embarrassing Peter. She throws a hissy fit when Peter leaves for boot camp.

“There!” Wilbur declares with satisfaction. “Velma is right out in the open. She’s causing trouble. I have a good story premise now.”

Not so fast, Wilbur!

Let’s look at this example again. Do we have direct opposition between Peter and Velma?

Not quite. Velma’s certainly making her presence known. She’s raising a ruckus, but what happens to her when Peter ships out?

What carries the conflict through the other 215 pages of Wilbur’s story?

Once again, Wilbur has chosen oblique opposition over direct. The result may be anger, but Wilbur doesn’t even have Peter and Velma arguing face to face. Instead, he’s got Velma leading a march, Velma confronting the recruitment officer, and Velma crying and yelling instead of bidding her son farewell.

Oh, Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur, what are we going to do with you?

First, we’ll correct the obvious problems by looking at Peter’s goal, then positioning Velma directly against it.

A.) If Peter is determined to join up, then Velma should be equally determined that he won’t do it.

B.) If Peter has enlisted before his mom finds out and she heads to the recruitment office to rescind Peter’s enlistment, Peter will do his best to stop her from going.

C.) If Peter is in line to board the ship, then Velma should be throwing herself bodily in front of him, physically trying to stop him.

Even so, these corrections will help Wilbur only until Peter Protagonist boards his ship. The rest of the story still lacks a central antagonist.

“Don’t worry,” Wilbur cries with sudden inspiration. “I’ll introduce lots of enemies that will confront Peter. Wait and see!”

I see already the pitfalls that lie ahead of Wilbur. Do you?

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