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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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Plot Is a Four-Letter Word

Lately, quite a few people have been requesting more information about plotting, so let’s consider a few basics:

1) P is for persistence:
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “persist” as to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning.

Your protagonist must be a character who persists in pursuing the story’s objective, no matter how difficult the circumstances or opposition become.

Plot hinges on conflict, and conflict comes from two goals in opposition. Therefore, both the protagonist and antagonist are persistent people. They are focused on what they want or are trying to achieve. They are highly motivated. They are determined to succeed. They refuse to give up. And each scene of the story … each event within the plot should center on these stubborn, focused people who are maneuvering against each other to win.

2) L is for length:

How long will your story be? Short, say about 3,000 words? Or long, about 70,000? Whatever the length, that is your border. The story has to fit within its perimeters, whether those are set by genre or publication specifications. Knowing your intended length helps you determine your priorities as you select the list of events that will occur in your story.

If, for example, you’re supposed to be writing a novel about star-crossed lovers and your assigned length is 65,000 words, you’re going to need a lot more happening than they meet, they feel instant attraction, they quarrel, and they make up in time to live happily ever after.

Consider the comedy film, THE LADY EVE, by Preston Sturges. Starring Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, the story revolves around a con artist father and daughter who set up a meeting with a wealthy, reclusive, naive young man. Eve weaves a rapid spell around him, and he quickly succumbs to her charm and beauty. By the end of a few days they’re engaged to be married. That comprises the movie’s first act. How will Sturges fill the remaining two-thirds of the film’s length?

Act Two must have a breakup between the two lovers. So Henry’s character discovers that Eve is an adventuress and her father is a professional card sharp. He breaks off the engagement at once. However, Eve has truly fallen in love with him. Angered by his dumping her, she sets out for revenge and “meets” him once again, this time posing as her identical twin half-sister. And she makes him fall in love with her a second time.

Act Three is where she marries him, then–on their wedding night–talks about her numerous liaisons with countless other men. All of this is invented, of course, but poor Henry doesn’t know it. He flees again, heartbroken and distraught, only to encounter Eve a third time–once again in her “real” card-playing persona.

Beyond this bare bones summary of the central storyline, there are subplots, amusing secondary characters, and comedic stunts to help fill the length.

However, trying to fit a story of this scope into a short story’s limited word count would involve chopping it down to a mere sketch of two or three scenes. A LOT would have to be left out. In effect, it would be a radically different plot.

3) O is for outline:
Most writers start out with a character in mind or perhaps a setting or a handful of events. From that kernel of inspiration, the actual plotting has to be worked out. Outlining can be challenging, but no matter how difficult it may prove to be, the time invested is nearly always worthwhile. Would you rather spend your hours writing and rewriting an outline of five to ten pages, or write fifty to one hundred pages of poorly thought through manuscript that then has to be thrown away?

*Start with your protagonist. What does she want? Why?
*Next, create your antagonist. Who is opposed to your protagonist achieving that objective? Why?
*Write down a list of possible plot events as quickly as possible. Don’t edit or analyze. Just jot them down.
*Later, determine which of the events to keep and which to toss aside.
*Put the kept events in sequential order. Don’t worry if they don’t precisely connect. These will possibly be your key turning points.
*What signifies a huge or significant change in your protagonist’s life? Put that first.
*Look at your list of events again. Do any of them follow logically from the event of change? If not, think about what might happen next. Toss and keep events as needed.
*What is your protagonist’s plan to achieve the goal?
*What step will your protagonist take first?
*What is the immediate outcome of that attempt?
*How does the antagonist thwart this attempt?
*What will your protagonist do next?
*How does the antagonist thwart that?
*Do any of these attempts and failures lead logically to one of the plot events on your list?
*If not, what crisis do they lead to? That will be your first turning point.
*Think about what might happen next after the first major crisis. Plot from there to the next crisis/turning point. Follow cause-and-effect logic.
*The climax of the story should be a big showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. Plan for it. Make sure that what happens in the story leads in that direction. It is your story’s destination.
*Look at your outline again. If anything seems contrived or out of place, shift it or motivate it. If it still seems wrong, delete it.

4) T is for trajectory:
Think of your plot as an arc spanning the story from its start to its ending. At all times, the protagonist is working toward achieving his objective. With each attempt, and failure, the protagonist should find a plausible motivation for why he’s willing to continue. And he should try again.

All of those efforts will result in gradually changing the protagonist. That alteration may be slight or it may be profound. Either way, the protagonist should be forced to either grow as an individual or devolve.

Consider two examples of trajectory: Scarlett O’Hara from GONE WITH THE WIND and Michael Corleone from THE GODFATHER.

Scarlett starts out as a pretty, willful, headstrong young girl who is infatuated with her neighbor Ashley Wilkes. When he chooses to marry his cousin, Scarlett plunges into an impulsive marriage of her own. Through the course of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that follows, she changes into a survivor, a businesswoman, and a mother. She’s so goal-driven and stubborn that it takes a lot of heartache to shake her from her infatuation with Ashley. By the end of the story, she realizes who she actually loves instead and is finally willing to at least try to work out a real relationship with him. Her character trajectory seems slight because it’s so gradual, but at the end of the story she has at least set her feet on the path of true change.

Michael starts out as a young man who knows what his father does for a living but thinks naively that he can remain separate from the mob activities. He’s distinguished himself heroically in WWII and is planning a political career. It’s not until his father is gunned down in an assassination attempt and lying helpless in the hospital that Michael involves himself directly in his father’s business. He protects his father, saving the don’s life. Beyond that, Michael takes revenge on those behind the plot by coldly executing them in a restaurant. Then he seizes the reins of his father’s empire from his older brother. He lies to his wife, promising her that this is temporary and that he’ll get out of the business. But instead he goes in deeper and deeper into the cesspool of organized crime. He eventually becomes far more ruthless than his father ever was. And when he orders the execution of his remaining brother, his trajectory downward from a respectable young man to a ruthless monster is complete.

Story plot, ideally, should be an entwining of the protagonist’s outer story problem and attempts to solve it and the inner problem or trajectory of change that happens along the way. The plot events should affect the protagonist in one way or the other from start to finish.


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