Character Development Part 4

Character Development Part 4

We’ve been talking about how to make sure your characters are three-dimensional people rather than Flat Stanley. We have been chatting about the four things that readers learn from novels.

Who

What

Why

Why Not

You know who your characters are now. You know more about them than you did before. You know their past and their idiosyncrasies. You know their biggest fears. You know their physical features and jobs. You know your characters better than you know yourself and all of that knowledge is necessary for you to write them well.

The characters are the who part of this concept. Now let’s look at the what part.

The what part is about what your character wants. It’s the goal part. It’s that elusive thing that your character wants to obtain or accomplish. If your character has no goal, well then, they are a weak and boring character.

What is a goal?

A goal, according to the dictionary, is the result or achievement toward which effort is directed. A goal is your character’s aim. And it is your character’s goal that helps your reader to feel your character’s conflict when they aim to achieve or obtain said goal.

What does your character want?

Think about this. Your character should want what they don’t have. This want should equate to having a determined need. They are desperate for this goal. They just gotta have it, gotta reach it. Failure is not an option. The goal has got to be an urgent thing.

When people need something, they tend to act against their own self-interest. Think addiction (apologies to any with this issue – it’s not my intention to make light). Deep down, people don’t want to be an addict. The issue is that they need the drug (or sex, or cigarettes, or gambling, or whatever). The need is beyond their ability to overcome (in this moment).

The goal has to be important enough that your character will move heaven and earth to obtain said goal. They will endure hardship. They are willing to risk their life. If they fail, life will be more than just disagreeable to them; life will be unbearable. The goal must also be urgent. Urgency is paramount to your character’s goal. Not only must they have this thing, they must have it NOW.

Really?

Yes.

Be thinking about your character’s goal. Next time we will consider what kinds of goals are good ones.

Character Development Part 3

There are four things that readers learn when they read your book.

  • Who
  • What
  • Why
  • Why not

We’ve been working on the who part for a few weeks now with the goal of populating our novels with characters that feel like real people rather than cardboard throw-away cutouts. We’ve done character bios for each one, so we know our characters’ backgrounds. We know things like: they were born in Chino, California, but moved to Seattle when they were six because dad committed suicide. We know their idiosyncrasies; they always chew gum because they’ve been trying to quit smoking for thirteen years and even though they haven’t smoked a single cigarette, they are afraid of relapsing because they have an addictive personality. They type with one finger because they want to look cool, but the reality is they never had the patience to learn how to type properly. They are utterly afraid of public failure. Their biggest fear is being inadequate and so they usually try things way too hard, which puts most people off. We know their favorite food is watermelon and their favorite drink is coffee, black, thank you very much, because they don’t drink no stinkin’ silly adult-sippy-cup topped with two cups of whipped cream, and caramel sprinkles. We know all that stuff. We know more about them than we anticipated when we started this project.  And because we know all of this information about our characters, we can think of them as actual people.

Then what?

Then comes the what part.

The what part is the goal. It’s your character’s goal. And every character should have their own goal.

But…but…yes, I hear you. You think your character doesn’t have a goal because…he’s the bad guy and his job is to be evil. For you book to be believable, i.e. a book which will allow your reader to suspend their disbelief (because they know it’s fiction) your bad guy will have to make sense, and so will need a goal that your reader can understand.

Think about it. Why does your character want to achieve their goal? What motivates them? It’s their inability or delay in achieving their goal that is the main conflict of your book.

Next time we will focus on what your character wants. Right now, we need to know who your characters are, and their backgrounds, to understand what they want. See? It all ties together.

Character Development Part 2

For the last couple of weeks, you’ve been working on creating character profiles. Well, maybe. You might have said, “Why do I need to do this?” I know. It can be a weird exercise if you are not used to it. After all, these are not real people. They are fake, pretend people. Who cares?

Here’s the deal.

Before you worked on your character bio, you just had Dr. Betty Boomerang, the expert in Medieval Literature whose expertise was needed to keep the world safe from terrorists who used Medieval codes in their warning memos (or whatever) before they bombed points of interest in your city. Betty rambled from point A to point B, but she never seemed to be a real person. Poor Betty is a flat and underdeveloped character. You’ve made things up for her as you went along to add interest to her as a character. You’ve tried to add some sparkle to Betty’s big blues, but she still seems flat and shallow. Your critique group doesn’t have any connection with her, and Poor Betty is the worst possible kind of character…she is boring.

But, if you worked up Betty’s bio, you would know that Manny Stump pushed her off the back porch and chipped her front tooth when she was in third grade, and this is why she is self-conscious and doesn’t smile much. People think she is super serious, though she isn’t. Sure, Betty could get her tooth fixed but she was raised not to be vain by her hyper-religious mother, and this is also why Betty is single. Her guilt and shame regarding sex are not something she has overcome yet, even though she is thirty-seven. You would know that Betty saw her sister fall from a tree and die at the age of nine, and this is why she has an unnatural curiosity regarding death and death practices. It stems from Betty’s early childhood. Consequently, she has spent her life studying Medieval literature and all the ways that people died and were tortured in the middle ages, and why she knows all about Malleus Maleficarum. You would think that Betty would be frightened of confronting terrorists and seeing the dead at the explosion site, but Betty’s motivation is so great that she revels in beating the terrorists and saving lives. Now Betty is a real person, with a real past, and when you write her, whether consciously or unconsciously, Betty comes alive. By the end of the book, maybe she even has a wild and crazy night with the super cute detective she met on the case. That certainly stirs things up for her character and is a nice ending to her internal story arc.

Will you use all this stuff you created for Betty in the book you are working on? Probably not, but the fact that you now think of her as a real person, instead of a flat character makes your book all that much better. Your critique group is thrilled! Maybe you will submit this manuscript to a publisher!

Having a past makes Betty more interesting, and the fact that you now know her intimately means that you can use some of that knowledge to figure out your plot. You can use Betty’s past to figure out her motives and goals, and how she will overcome all the conflict she is about to encounter.

Knowing this stuff helps you with the four things that readers learn when they read your book:

  • WHO
  • WHAT
  • WHY
  • WHY NOT

If you haven’t yet created your character bios, I do recommend you work on it for each and every character in your book. It will help each character be a distinctive, three-dimensional person with their own voice, motives, and goals. No flat and boring characters, please.

Next time: We move toward WHAT

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Character Development

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You answered all the why questions from last time about why you want to write a novel, and are still here. Good for you!

So, let’s press on.

Readers generally learn four things from books.

Who, what, why and why not.

  • Who = the protagonist
  • What = the plot
  • Why = the goals and motivation of the characters
  • Why Not = the conflict

Today let’s talk about the who.

The who part is your protagonist or main character. You probably have a good idea of who your protagonist is or so you think. But do you know enough? Do you know your characters past? Do you know their deepest desire? How does this character shape your plot?

Should you really know who your main character is before you start writing?

Yes.

Seriously.

It can be very helpful to create a bio for your protagonist. Actually, I recommend that you create one for each character in your novel because you may discover character traits that you can use to add interest and tension to your story.

A character biography is everything about everything about your character, and if you create a biography, you can reference it later to make sure your character stays true to themselves. The bio may contain information not important now, but may be very important later.  The biography will also help you understand your character so you can convey that to your reader.

If your character seems vague, it’s because you don’t know who they are. If your reader finds your character vague, they will close the book. Not good.

For each character, consider creating a bio that includes all or some of the below.

Name:

Role (what role do they play in your story):

Age:

Income:

Birthplace:

Marital Status:

Children and their ages:

General appearance:

Props (cane, pipe etc):

Do they use specific phrases:

What does their voice sound like:

Living arrangements:

Occupation and employment information:

Degree of skill at occupation:

Character’s feelings about occupation:

Family background:

What do they want:

Why do they want it:

Flaws:

Vulnerabilities:

Attitude:

Arc (how does this character evolve from the beginning of the book to the end):

Biggest fear:

Likes:

Dislikes:

What secret is in their past:

Relationships:

Believes in god/religion etc:

The primary reason to create a character bio is so that you will know who they are in detail, and also so your characters will become fully fleshed-out people instead of boring cliché characters.

Creating the bio will also establish why this character is in this story. If they are throw-away characters, should they be in the plot? Maybe not.

Each character should be multi-dimensional, distinctive individuals with their own voice, goals, motivations, conflicts, attitudes, indiosyncrasies, vulnerabilities, and personalities, etc.

There are tons of character biography examples on the Internet, so if you need to expand this questionnaire, you are sure to find more questions.

 

 

Writing and New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year!

I expect some of you made a New Year’s resolution somewhere along the lines of writing, or writing more, or writing every day. Good for you! I wish you much diligence and consistency. Some of you made different goals. You are going to write a book this year, or you are going to get published, or you have always wanted to be a writer and this year you are going to write a book and get published. Or some variation of the theme. Good for you!

But here’s a question.

Why?

I am not trying to be snarky, or ornery, or belligerent. I really want us to think about our motivations. What is your reason for wanting to write a book? Writing a book is work. Most writers I know don’t like the act of writing overly much. They like having written a book.

I say again, why?

Do you just have to write? That’s sort of okay, I suppose. But Why? Why do you just have to write? It is obsessive compulsiveness? Is writing how you work through your inner demons? Writing is a good way to do that. But what has just having to write got to do with writing a book? They aren’t necessarily the same thing. Are they?

Do you want to write a book so you can be an author? Why? Do you want to have something to talk about at parties? Do you want to use it as a pick-up line so you can get a date? I know someone like this, so I am just asking. Why do you want to be an author?

Do you want to be able to say you wrote a book? There is value in that, don’t get me wrong. But if this is your reasoning, will you be content with anything you throw down on paper or are there standards involved?

Do you want to write a book other people will read or is writing the book just for you and your identity? Either option is fine, but these will lead down different paths.

Do you have something to say? This is a good reason in my opinion. You want to write a book because you have something to say. Are you willing to learn the necessary information so you can say what you want to say in a way that the person (or people) you want to say it to will actually read it?

Do you want to entertain? This is also a reasonable thought. Will you work on your writing craft so that you actually write something entertaining?

Do you need or want your book to sell? For some, this doesn’t matter. For some (most?), being able to sell their book and have people like it is enough. Some want to be a New York Times bestselling author. This is also a good goal but will also take practice, and time, and work.

Let’s move forward with the assumption that you want to write a book because you have something to say that you feel is important to put out into the world (remember books have premises and themes that put the main idea out there, even in genre fiction), and you want to have your book read and loved by as many people as possible. Are you willing to do the work involved even if there is no guarantee that your book will sell, or be loved? If you get bad reviews from readers, will you use that as a learning tool but keep writing, and keep working on being a better writer? If you book only sells three copies because it is competing with three million other books published that year, will you be content that you want to write books and keep writing?

I ask that question because I know more than a couple of reasonably successful authors that got upset about something or other and quit writing. They were more successful than most writers, and yet they quit. Their success didn’t meet their own expectations. What are your expectations about your writing? If you don’t meet those expectations are you going to keep going? Are you going to quit? Think about that now.

What kind of book do you want to write? This is important, so pay attention, because you want to publish a book that sells and that readers will love, or so you said a minute ago. You need to know the marketing category, and the genre, and tropes, and reader expectations, and more if you want readers to love your work.

Why? Why does the kind of book matter?

Because readers have certain expectations of what a particular kind of book, i.e. the kind of books they like to read, looks like. This means that you, the author, need to know what that is so you can meet your readers’ expectations. I am not saying write in the hot genre of the moment. I am saying that if you want to write a thriller, you need to know what thriller novels are, how they work, what they feel like, etc.

If you want to write a thriller, how many thrillers have you read? Yes, that matters. Do you read thrillers? Have you read any thrillers? If you want to write a thriller shouldn’t you read thrillers, and have read as many thrillers as possible so you have examples in your brain to draw from? How do you expect to write a great thriller if you’ve never read one?

Think about it. Think about your motivations. Why do you want to do what you do? Why do you want to do what you’ve made a resolution to do? What will discourage you or keep you from writing? And how will you get there?

This coming year, I encourage you to not only write, but improve our writing. Learn the craft of creating characters with clear motivations, and conflict, and learn how to write great dialogue, or plotting, or scene setting, or whatever craft element is your weakest skill. You will have to practice these things to improve them. It’s possible that this book you have in mind to write is just a practice book to help you learn craft. That is an okay motivation for writing a book too. You want to write a book so you can learn the process of writing a book, and become a better writer. It’s all good. But start writing it now.

Writer’s Block

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and given the number of people participating, and the number of complaints about low word counts or zero word counts, I thought we should chat about writer’s block.

What is writer’s block?

If you look on Wikipedia, writer’s block is a “condition.”

Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.

Some people believe it’s an actual thing that happens to people.

For the sake of transparency, I’m in the camp that believes writer’s block is not an actual thing. It’s an excuse.

Let’s look at some of the problems and solutions for having writer’s block.

The Problem: I have been working diligently on my story for a month, and now, suddenly, nothing comes. I just stare at my computer screen.

The Real Problem: This writer doesn’t know where their story is going. They didn’t plan or outline their plot, and so doesn’t know what comes next or how to solve the problem they have written themselves into.

The Solution: Sit your butt in your chair and take an hour, or two, or day, or two, and outline your story so you know what has happened with your plot, where you are currently in your story, and figure out where you need to go to get to the end. Hint: Having an outline, no matter how brief, will help you stay on track. Then write it.

The Problem: I just don’t have any ideas of what to write about.

The Real Problem: This writer wants some kind of magical experience. They are waiting for the muse, and because the muse is on vacation, they don’t know what to write about.

The Solution: Sit your butt in your chair and just write about something. Practice writing. Write about your breakfast. Hint: Writing is five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent doing the consistent work of writing.

The Problem: Pick any excuse for not writing.

The Solution: Sit your butt in your chair and write. Hint: Remember Newton’s Law: objects in motion tend to stay in motion. In other words, it is easier to write consistently if you are dedicated to writing consistently.

Next time: TBD

Anatomy of a Scene

The Final Scene

We’ve been writing off and on (mostly on) about using scenes to write novels, and the kinds of scenes to think about, since (I had to look it up) July of 2016. It feels like we’ve been focused specifically on scenes for a long, long time. But this is it. This is the last installment. This is the Final Scene.

Your book is done, finished, -30-.

What is the final scene? It’s the end for your protagonist. Your character is probably not dead and doesn’t die in this scene, but this scene is the conclusion of every earlier scene in your book. It should be satisfying for your reader to get to this scene, read it, and close the book. But your ending should be memorable so your character can live on in your reader’s mind.

The final scene can also be a sort of rebirth for your character. But it should:

  • Show your reader where your character is after the climax
  • Allow your character to reflect on the plot
  • Bring your reader full-circle back to where your story started.

In this final scene, you will need to show your character as transformed. They should be a different person from who they were in your opening scene. Showing this transformation will help your reader to feel that the story was fulfilling. Note that there are occasions where the character doesn’t transform, but this transformation will apply to most protagonists.

The final scene should show the consequences of the main actions and decisions of your character. Let your character reflect on what they have learned, and how the world has changed. If your story was a mystery, the mystery has been solved. If your story was a thriller, the bad guy has been thwarted and the world saved. If your story was a romance, then you heroine will live happily ever after with the partner of her choice.

Make the final sentences in your final scene evoke the scent that wafted through your story. Leave your reader with a visual image of the book’s premise. If you book is a sequel, the final sentence could hint at the next adventure, but if it does that be careful that it isn’t a cliffhanger. The final scene is not about cliffhangers. It’s about resolution.

After you work on the perfect final scene, with a satisfying ending and visual image that’s it. You’re done. Write The End and put the book away in a file. In three months pull it out and read it. No edits. No tweaks. Just read it. Out loud. And be proud of yourself.

Next time: I don’t know yet. Shoot me a message at oosuzieq AT Gmail DOT com if there is a particular topic or series that you’d like me to write about.

 

It’s Time for the Climax

The climax scene, that is. We’ve been thinking about scenes, and writing our novels in scenes, for some time as a way to improve all aspects of our books, and this week we will focus on the highest point of action and drama.

First off, the climactic scene is the final turning point of action in your novel. Everything, every action, every bit of subterfuge, every red herring, every twist, and turn, leads to the climax scene. And once the climax is over, it’s your job as the author to tie up all the loose ends quickly after the climax and leave the reader satisfied. The climax is the grand finale.

So what happens in the climactic scene?

  • It’s the main battle scene
  • Dichotomous forces collide
  • Your protagonist and antagonist encounter each other
  • The climactic action relates to the most important plot line
  • This is where your protagonist is changed through conflict (internal and/or external)
  • These are the highest stakes in the story. It’s life and death. Your main character must win or die
  • The pacing is fast
  • The emotions are high

Open the scene with impending action. The easiest way to do this is to leave your prior scene in suspense. The reader may not know exactly what will happen in the climax, but there are absolutely clear that it is upon them. Things are coming to a head.

In your climactic scene, get to the action quickly. Build the action steadily with the goal of bringing all the conflict to a logical highpoint. Test your characters. Push them. Remember it is the all or nothing, live or die moment. Because of this moment, your character will be forever changed. The climax should be life altering.

And then your character is through to the other side. They won.

Now wrap up all of your loose ends and get out of there with your final scene which we will discuss next time.

The Epiphany Scene

Epiphany scenes are one of my favorites. I love learning new and transformative information as a reader.

What is an epiphany?

An epiphany is a sudden, intuitive perception of insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple common place occurrence or experience.

Sounds simple?

Think of it this way. Your character is running on their quest to solve the story problem when suddenly, the proverbial light bulb turns on. Your character realizes something important, that changes your character in some way. This sudden realization, sometimes, is at odds with your character’s beliefs and perceptions about what things in the story world, and because of the epiphany, your character may realize they were wrong. Ouch!

Sometimes, the loss of the character’s viewpoint allows them to struggle to regain or renew hope in their beliefs or mission. The epiphany provides your character with a way to grow, or transform, and can be essential for your character arc.

The epiphany scene:

  • Comes at a cost to your character or it renews hope or faith
  • Never comes out of the blue
  • Always comes about based on earlier plot events and information
  • Surprises your character (and hopefully your reader)
  • Sometimes allows your character to break through denial
  • Forces your character to make a choice or a change
  • Most likely follow dramatic scenes or suspenseful scenes

Make sure the information that triggers your character’s epiphany has been earned by your character through their experiences within the plot.

Kinds of epiphanies:

  • Your character was in denial but wants to know the truth
  • Your character learns what they were meant to become or do
  • Your character must accept that something bad will not change
  • Your character realizes something about themselves which they suppressed
  • Your character is forced to change by circumstance

To write an epiphany scene, start with your character in conflict, then drive them to that aha! moment which will allow your character to change because now they know the truth, or they know who they really are.

Next time: More on writing in scenes

Flashback Scenes

Admittedly, I am not a fan of the flashback scene, generally, because these tend to be written poorly and (mostly because I am in a snarky mood), end up being a huge information dump of weighed down cumbersome luggage. They wallow in or lean toward boring, and usually, the information contained in a flashback scene can be spooned into the prose where necessary.

Sometimes flashbacks are done well. And since we are talking about writing in scenes, and I want you to write your flashback scene well, in spite of my snarky temperament, it’s time to highlight the flashback.

What is a flashback scene?

A flashback scene is a scene that shows your character’s backstory to the reader. Backstory is your character’s history prior to the beginning of your novel and it is backstory that runs the risk of sucking your reader out of the present moment in your book.

A flashback scene should still contain all of the necessary elements of a good scene: setting, characters, movement, conflict, and tension etc.

A good flashback scene should be used infrequently, should be short, and be as quickly paced as possible. Most importantly, the flashback scene needs to be there for a reason. If it is just there to tell your reader about your character’s past, think about other ways to portray this information to your reader.

Flashback requirements:

  • Create a clear transition so your reader knows that they are reading a flashback.
  • Use past tense
  • Show a specific incident or use memories of specific incidents.
  • Make sure the flashback scene is tied to the current plot point.

At the end of your flashback, provide your reader with a clear transition back to the present plot. If you don’t provide a clear transition, you risk confusing your reader.

Next time: less snark. More scene writing.