Tag Archives: characters

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

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When You Have Too Many Characters, Let the Zombies Loose

 

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I’ve been commenting on a friend’s work in progress. It’s a fantasy novel, and the number of characters is large. The novel is the first in a planned seven book series, and many of the characters are important. There are ten children/teens and three adults, for a total of thirteen main characters.

While there is no firm rule about how many characters to include in a novel, oftentimes fewer characters is better. Fewer characters tend to mean increased readability and emotional power.

When you have too many characters, several things can happen:

  • Reader confusion. While you have thoroughly thought out your story, readers haven’t. They don’t know all the ins and outs of every single character. As more characters get involved, plots and relationships grow more complex. It’s a lot easier for readers to forget what’s going on. Characters are forgotten and readers get frustrated.

 The most recent chapter I commented on for my friend’s book was one scene that contained ten characters. The chapter was about twenty pages because my friend wanted each character to get an equal about of time in the limelight. However, this novel is in limited third-person point of view, which means that the story is told through the eyes of one character. This sole character should have the lion’s share of the story. By my friend attempting to give all the characters equal show time, the protagonist’s voice was lost in the shuffle.

  • Tedium takes hold. When you have a large cast of characters, you need to take time to introduce them all. Characterization is pivotal. But, each character should get a percentage of readers’ attention. The more important a character is the more she should be in the story. Spending too much time explaining isn’t interesting. You don’t want readers to say that your novel was slow.

Many of my friend’s novel chapters are intense. I want to keep reading. Yet, I find that the characters spend too much time conversing. I want action, and too often I get five or more characters in a scene and for some reason all of them have to voice their opinion or I have to know what each one is doing at all times. This slows down the action and the tension.

  • Too much fluff. Writing characters is fun, as is creating playful banter and showcasing each character’s viewpoint, for the writer. Readers are only interested in characters that serve a purpose. If you’ve got characters in your story that don’t add to the plot, get rid of them. It’ll do your book good. The tighter your cast is, the more impactful your story will be.

As I’ve been commenting on my friend’s chapters, I’ve used track changes to delete swaths of text. At first I felt bad, but after a while, I realized that what I was doing was cutting out the fluff. There are so many characters that many times the important parts of the plot were pushed to the side. And, too often, when I wanted to know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t find the protagonist anywhere in the story.

Having a large cast of characters is fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. Do you need all those characters? How many of those characters will be in the story’s climax? Will anyone miss character 13 if you cut him out?

Like the title says, when you’ve got a huge cast, it might be time to let the zombies chow down on a few of your characters.

(Photo courtesy of Birgit Fostervold.)

Making Sure Your Protagonist Beats Out Others

The protagonist is one of the most important attributes of a story. If someone doesn’t like your protagonist, for whatever reason, it’s highly unlikely that person will finish your story.

We all can probably conjure up a few short stories or novels we haven’t finished because of our dislike for a protagonist. The most immediate one that comes to my mind is from a young adult science fiction novel, where the protagonist consistently made the opposite of intelligent decisions and yet somehow survived and was lauded as a hero. It didn’t matter how many times other people were injured, captured, or died because of the protagonist’s terrible decision making skills, or how many times the protagonist had to be saved by others, the protagonist was still considered this fabulous, fantastic person, instead of the fool.

Other times, while the plot and backstory may have holes in it, the story can be immensely enjoyable because of the protagonist. One book I read was a young adult dystopian novel where the backstory was horrendous. There were too many inconsistencies to count, however I liked the book because of the protagonist. I found the protagonist funny and relatable. I couldn’t put the book down.

So, how do you create a protagonist that isn’t a flat cliché or someone that people would like to shove off a cliff?

One way is to make sure that the protagonist is integral to the story. That sounds obvious, right? But many times I’ve seen the protagonist being dragged by the story, instead of forging it ahead. While having a reluctant protagonist is one thing, the protagonist must have something else that makes him stand out from all the other potential protagonists for your story.

There’s a reason the protagonist is the protagonist. The story is best told from his point of view. In fact, the story couldn’t be told from any other person’s point of view without diminishing the story in some way. A few years ago, I read a book where one of the secondary characters stole the spotlight from the protagonist. I didn’t care about the protagonist; I wanted to know what was happening to that secondary character. The author might have been better suited using that secondary character as the protagonist.

Another way is to have the protagonist be more than the standard hero-type. When the protagonist takes on the role of hero and goes on a quest to fulfill his hero nature, the writing can turn shallow. It’s fine for a character to be the hero. The vast majority of protagonists end up saving someone or something. However, by avoiding using terms like “hero” and “quest,” you give yourself room to explore your protagonist more in-depth. There’s always more to a character, and every hero is not perfect. People have flaws, goals, dreams, problems…they’re a mixture of virtuous and selfish and driven and condescending and a whole bunch of other stuff that makes them this extraordinary puzzle to piece together.

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Have you ever heard a person in real life state that they’re going on a quest? I’m not talking about children playing make-believe. I’m talking about individuals that are firmly grounded in reality.

It’s rare to hear someone declare they’re going on a quest or that they’re going to be the hero. Most often, people become heroes because a situation demands it. There’s a quote from the TV series Lost Girl. It’s when Kenzi is talking about her personality. She states, “General cowardice with moments of crazy bravery.” This quote holds a lot of meaning because Kenzi sacrifices herself for Bo, the series’ protagonist, on multiple occasions. Kenzi is an incredibly caring and giving individual, but she’s also sarcastic, dramatic, a bit selfish, and a thief. She’s complex, and in the end, she’s also a hero. One that people can relate to.

Having a phenomenal protagonist means delving into the core of human emotion. It doesn’t matter if your story is based in the ABC Galaxy that was discovered in 2206 and was colonized in 2447, and you’re protagonist is a dog-bee-human hybrid. Human emotion and strife and success is essential to a protagonist. The common ground that readers and fictional characters connect on is what makes readers respond to characters.

(Photo courtesy of Courtney Wright.)

Developing that Photograph: Knowing Your Characters

ws_Developing_a_film_1440x900Just as it takes time to get to know a friend, it takes times to get to know your characters.

Every single person on this planet is different. We are all born with a set of personality traits and then the environment, our experiences and how we interpret and respond to them, affect our personality. An easy way to think of this is that each personality trait we have, whether it’s agreeableness, adaptability, or domineering, is a ruler. Our genetics set the ends of that ruler, while our environment gives us an exact position on that ruler.

For instance, let’s look at trustfulness of others. Zero centimeters equals one-hundred percent trustful. Twenty centimeters equals one-hundred percent distrustful. You may have been born at zero (completely trusting of others), but your life experiences (and your interpretation of those experiences) have shifted you to fifteen centimeters. You are now pretty distrustful of others.

But your maternal twin sibling, who has the same genetics as you hasn’t had the same life experiences. Therefore, your sibling, though starting at zero is now at an eight. Your sibling is a lot more trustful of others than you are.

The same applies to characters. They begin at one point and as they continue on in life (during the course of the story) they change. The best way to have them change? Let bad things happen to them.

There’s nothing stronger than good characters being forced to take action against bad things. Just as people make mistakes and don’t have the perfect responses to every situation, so do characters. Each action has a consequence, and with each decision a character makes, and each ramification that character must then face, you get to know that character a little bit more.

When you begin a story, there are certain things you must know about your characters.shutterstock_101695738-Medium-491x300

You don’t have to know their souls right off the bat. The essence of a character gets revealed through the difficult decisions they have to make, and you probably won’t be able to figure out what decision they’ll make until they’re faced with it. However, some things to know from the start are:

  • What does your character look like? Age?
  • What’s the first impression they give off? (If a stranger was walking down the street and spotted your character, what impression would that stranger get of your character?)
  • What does your character care most about in the world?
  • What’s their personality at the beginning of the story?

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What your character does and says is a direct result of who they are. If your image of your character is fuzzy, it will be fuzzy for readers.

Like a photograph, make sure your characters are fully developed before you show them off to the world. After all, your characters hold the story together.

How do you get to know your characters?

(Photos courtesy of WallPaperStock, Selling ASAP, and CareerDirections, LLC)

Books Galore: Writing a Series

Writing a book series takes time and effort. It requires commitment and consistency. A book series is more than keeping the same main characters. It’s introducing new obstacles, pushing character development forward, and bringing innovation to the table.

3089196_1354260677808.78res_400_176A few examples of book series are Harry PotterThe Southern Vampire Mysteries (Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, etc.), and Alex Cross (Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, etc.). From those examples you can see that book series are very wide-ranging. Harry Potter is young adult fantasy (the first book actually counts as middle grade, while the rest are YA). The Southern Vampire Mysteries is a paranormal romance/mystery series, while Alex Cross is mystery/crime fiction.

Despite book series varying so greatly from one another, there are commonalities that make them successful.

Premise/Concept

One of the first things to do is to spend a little more time on the premise, the idea making up the story. It’s harder to maintain a series than it is a standalone, and for some series – those that build off of each previous book – it requires more forethought than series that aren’t so tied together. By spending some time on planning out the series, it’ll make it easier to sustain the series.

This forethought can be as simple as a paragraph or single page synopsis for each book.

Regardless of whether you’re in the middle of book five or just starting book one, the overarching premise is carried throughout each book.

A different way to think of this is as the premise being the core of each book, like the inner core of Earth. Just as this planet has layers covering its inner core, so does a book series. But, no matter what, there is always that inner core, that center that remains despite how much the tectonic plates shift.

Characters

A series typically follows one to three characters.These characters will evolve over the course of the novels, but they ultimately know who they are and what they have to gain with each goal/action they make.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games in order to protect her sister. This need to protect her family is a key part of her personality. It fuels her actions throughout the trilogy.

Also, make sure your main characters encounter enough conflict and a variety of conflicts to hold readers’ interest. I was reading the second book in a YA series not too long ago and was disappointed to find that about the first half of the novel was the same conversation taking place over and over again in different locations (the second half of the novel was great though).

Readers will only keep reading if they’re interested in the characters and what is going on in the characters’ world.

The World

The world the book series takes place in must be consistent. If in book one people can’t fly, then they still shouldn’t be flying in book three, unless something happens that gives them the ability to fly.

Know the rules, government, history, environment, etc. of the world. The world can change over the course of a series. Karen Marie Moning drastically changes Dublin, and the entire world, in her Fever Series. However, certain elements do remain the same. Those common elements help ground readers in the world you create. They also help prevent confusion and frustration on both the author and readers’ parts.

A well-developed world also lends more to the story. If three hundred years ago an ancient, magical medallion that belonged to an evil sorceress vanished, and there’s a legend that the medallion could open a portal to the underworld, well that’s interesting. Perhaps this medallion is only causally mentioned in book one, but then it comes back with a vengeance in book two.

If you’re only going to take one thing away from this post, take this:

Keep track of all information pertaining to your series. Whether it’s writing it all down in a notebook or typing it up onto a word document, write out descriptions of your world, characters, etc. Include the main plot and any minor plots woven throughout your books.

While writing book two, you might remember that your town has a deep-water lake to the north of it, but by book five, you may remember it as being west of town, or you may have forgotten about it completely.

Having a document to serve as a reference for all your story information will make your life easier, a lot less stressful, and will decrease the number of plot holes you have to fix.

Are you planning a series or in the process of writing one?

(photo courtesy of fanpop: http://bit.ly/1wQ5gml)

 

What’s in a Scene? Part 1.

When readers open a book, they expect to be enthralled by our writing. They want to become absorbed by the scenes, so that they find themselves in the middle of the fictional world you’ve created. However, sometimes writers miss the mark and readers are left standing on the outside, looking in.

If you’ve ever gotten feedback that sounds something like this, “Nothing really happened in this chapter,” or, “I felt like I could put the book down at this point,” or, “There’s something off here, but I can’t put my finger on it,” or, sometimes, “I don’t remember what happened in the scene I just read,” then you’ve missed the mark and readers aren’t getting sucked in.

How do we, as writers, go about remedying this?

We need to make sure each scene has a reason to be there. If there’s no point to the scene, or the chapter, then it can be cut. (I know that’s a bit harsh sounding. We dedicate so much time to writing each scene that it can be a challenge to discard some of them, but doing so can make your novel better.)

The best scenes are those that impact readers and characters in diverse ways.

Here are some ways to create good scenes:

  1. Throw in a twist…as long as it makes sense. No random loopholes, please.
  2. Have a hope or a goal revealed, faced, challenged, turn into a failure, etc. This applies to fears as well.
  3. Increase the anticipation and/or up the stakes.
  4. Foreshadow. This is a great way to keep readers interested, just don’t go overboard. Too much foreshadowing can overwhelm readers or make them roll their eyes because the answers to the story’s main questions become obvious before they’re meant to.
  5. Incorporate events that move the story along. Have a big battle looming in the near future? What kind of things do you have to do to prepare for that battle? What obstacles do you face?
  6. Answer a few of the story’s questions…or raise a few more questions. You can always do both. By answering one question, three more may be brought to light. And those three may be tougher to answer than the original question.
  7. Bring in new, important information about the story or characters. However, if you’re going to do this make sure this information comes about in a natural way. The new information should feel organic to the story.
  8. Look at your characters. How do your characters change throughout the scene? Are these changes physical, emotional, both? How do the events within the story alter the characters’ perceptions of themselves and the world around them? At what moment(s) do these changes occur?

Creating good scenes is more than just having a goal dashed or learning to swordfight or getting your first kiss, it’s about flow. Without a natural flow, scenes can feel stilted and artificial.

Have you ever read a book where you just can’t put it down? You put off doing other things, or you forget about them altogether because you’re absorbed with the novel you’re reading?

If the answer’s yes, then that novel flowed well. The transitions between sentences, paragraphs, and chapters were so smooth you didn’t notice them. (When transitions aren’t smooth, readers get pulled out of the story because they stumble over those transitions. They lose their focus and have to find it again in order to get back into the story.)

In a way, scenes are a balancing act. You have to focus on various elements to pull off an engaging scene. If one of those elements is lacking, readers will feel something is wrong, even if they can’t tell you what they feel is off about that scene.

Next week, I’ll post about how to create smooth transitions.

What things do you do to create enticing scenes?

10 Things You Should Do Before Writing Your Novel

You get that novel idea and you can’t wait to start writing. Your fingers are itching to pick up that pen or start typing away at your computer.

Stop. Hold up. Here’s a checklist of things to do before you sit down to write. You don’t have to do everything. Read the list and choose what works for you.

  1. Why are you writing? Why are you writing this novel? What is it about this story? The story should engage you. It should excite you and scare you. Writing a novel isn’t easy. Writing one well is even more difficult. You need to care about the characters, the story, etc. If you don’t, you’ll lose focus.
  2. Check your expectations. Writing a novel is a long process. It’s not going to be all sunshine and butterflies. There are going to be days where you want to trash everything and give up, go do something else. Remember that this is your first draft. Some parts may be fantastic the first time through. Most won’t. Make time to clarify. Make time to revise.
  3. Know your characters. You need to know your characters inside and out. They have to be real to you. If they aren’t, they’ll seem fake to readers.
  4. Plan it out. You don’t have to do an outline, though they can be very helpful. And you should at least know how to write an outline. One day you may be asked to do so. At the very least, you should know what’s going to happen over the course of your novel. Hundreds of pages, tens of thousands of words, major and minor plots, multiple characters, settings, etc. all add up. If you go in blind, you’ll end up with plot holes.
  5. Create the rules. If you’re creating a world, your setting’s in the future, or you’ve got fictional characters, you need to have rules for your story. Vampires? They drink human blood. They can survive off animal blood for short periods of time, but it’s human blood that sustains them. They can’t go out in the sunlight, unless they’re Originals, those of the first bloodline. They turn others into vampires by drinking their blood until the point of death, feeding them their blood, and then killing them. You get the point. Make the rules and stick to them.
  6. Know your ending. Know your ending before you begin writing. Why? Because it matters. Your entire story is tailored to how the novel ends. Know the ending and plan for it. This doesn’t mean you have to stick to the original ending. Most likely you’ll think of a better ending as you’re writing, but you don’t want to be left scratching your head during the last thirty pages.
  7. Research. Get some of the research out of the way before you start writing. Even if you’re writing fiction, you’ll still find you need to do research, whether it’s creating hybrid creatures or figuring out what’s most likely to happen if a hurricane and earthquake occur simultaneously. What’s the emergency plan? How will the power grid be impacted? Flooding? How will people react? You don’t have to do all your research ahead of time. You can do it as you go, but it’s good to do some early, so you’ll know what you’re talking about. Nothing’s more irritating than having someone talk about something they know nothing about.
  8. Write the query. A query letter will give you a clear image of what’s going on in your story. Aim for two to three paragraphs that explain the hook, the story, etc. Make sure to include the critical pieces.
  9. Forget about it. Forget about writing for a moment. Instead, think about your idea. Go to bed thinking about it. Ask questions. Envision problems with the story or with what the protagonist will face. Research. Let your brain absorb all you read and think about.
  10. Commit. Commit mentally and physically. Willpower has a lot to do with writing. You are going to finish this novel. It’s not a question. You’re not wishy-washy. You will complete this. No more waiting. Sit down and write. Get it all out on paper. The time is now.

What are some things you do before writing?