Tag Archives: character

Basic Plot for the Beginning Writers

If, like many people, you labor under the idea that for “real” writers, plot comes effortlessly, dismiss that illusion now. While some writers were born with a sense of how to tell a story effectively, more of them do study the elements of plot and pay serious attention to how other writers successfully construct a narrative.​

Playwrights have this stuff drilled into them, but fiction writers often get away without basic instruction in what makes something dramatic.

It’s not magic. The elements of a good story can be studied and learned.

In fact, you’ve probably already studied them in your high school literature classes. It doesn’t hurt to review them now, from the perspective of a writer and not a student. They may seem simple, but without them, your other skills as a writer — your ability to imagine believable characters, your talent with dialogue, your exquisite use of language — will come to naught.

Start, of course, with a protagonist, your main character. The protagonist must encounter a conflict — with another character, society, nature, himself, or some combination of these things — and undergo some kind of change as a result.

“Conflict” is also known as the “major dramatic question.” Gotham Writers’ Workshop puts it this way in their guide Writing Fiction: The major dramatic question “is generally a straightforward yes/no question, one that can be answered by the end of the story.” What will happen to King Lear when he divides up his empire and estranges himself from his one faithful daughter?

Will Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice get to marry for love, and will she or one of her sisters marry well enough to save the family from financial humiliation?

What sorts of changes do these conflicts bring about? Elizabeth Bennet learns the dangers of letting prejudice interfere with judgment.

King Lear acquires humility and learns to recognize superficiality and sincerity. Both are wiser at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, even if this wisdom, in Lear’s case, comes at a dear cost.

Elements of Plot

A story will hit various landmarks on its way from the story’s beginning to the fulfillment of the dramatic question. The introduction presents the characters, the setting, and the central conflict. Involve your protagonist in that conflict as early as possible. Today’s readers will generally not wade through pages of exposition to get to the point. Don’t make them wonder why they’re reading your story or novel. Hook them in the first page or pages.

From there, the character will face various impediments to the achievement of his or her goal. Known as rising action or development, this is part of the story’s satisfaction. Readers like to see a struggle, like to feel as though the payoff at the end is deserved.

Again, Pride and Prejudice provide an excellent example. If Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy liked each other immediately, and their friends and family immediately approved, their marriage would be much less satisfying, and nothing much would have been learned along the way, except that it’s great to fall in love.

Note how other writers build dramatic tension during this part of their narrative. How do they keep us interested in the outcome of the story? How many impediments are necessary to make the reader feel satisfied at the end? None of these decisions are necessarily easy. Part of your growth as a writer entails developing a feel for a successful story arc.

The rising action leads to the climax, the turning point in the story, which in turn leads to the resolution. The central dramatic question is solved one way or another. Peter Selgin provides a good example in his book By Cunning & Craft:

Climax is the resolution of conflict, the point of no return beyond which the protagonist’s fate — good or bad — is secured. Romeo’s suicide is the climax…not because it’s the most dramatic moment, but because it seals his fate and determines the resolution by preventing him and Juliet from ever living happily ever after.

In the denouement, the author ties up all the loose ends. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet get to live close to each other. Lydia stays far away in the North, where she can’t bother them much, and Kitty’s better qualities are drawn out by frequent visits to her sisters. Everyone we like lives happily ever after, and in a matter-of-fact three pages or so, we get all the necessary details. Likewise, the denouement for Lear takes only part of one scene: all the players of the main plot die, but under Edgar, England is reunited.

Two Disclaimers

First, much successful fiction does not follow these rules exactly. But even works like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which seem focused more on language than action, introduce dramatic questions to keep us reading. (Will her party come off? What’s up with her and Peter Walsh?) A lot of fiction that doesn’t necessarily seem plot-driven turns out, on closer scrutiny, to depend on tried and true strategies we can trace back (in Western literature, at least) to Aristotle’s Poetics.

Second, these basic elements may not occur in the order listed above. Try to identify them in your reading. Question why the writer decided to tell the story the way he or she did. Note the dramatic decisions. And, of course, think about all of this as you craft your own stories. At the end of the day, something has to happen. It seems elementary, but it can be quite complicated. By all means, experiment, but spend some time on the basics, too.

By
Source: thebalancecareers.com

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Dependent Personality Disorder: Psychological Disorders for Writers

Personality disorders are fascinating–many are comparatively rare and they all lead to some pretty unreasonable and difficult to understand behaviours…which kind of makes them ideal for writers! Personality disorders capture the extremeness that our complex mix of nature and nurture can create—encapsulating that on a page is a challenge, but also exciting. If you’re looking for an extreme character, they can be your antagonist, your protagonist’s parent (and the source of their wound) or if you’re feeling really game—your hero, personality disorders are a goldmine! No matter which character, they will lend a layer of difference and interest to your story.

It’s doing it authentically that’s the key.

Today we’re delving into Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). DPD is characterised by a  pervasive  and excessive  need  to be  taken  care of  by others. This  leads to  submissive  and clinging behaviour  and  fears of  separation, beginning by  early  adulthood and  present  in a  variety  of contexts (imagine the anxious toddler who fears separation and you’re getting the idea). The following characteristics are what you’ll see in a person with DPD:

  1. Has difficulty  making  everyday decisions

These characters struggle to make everyday decisions without an excessive amount  of advice  and reassurance  from others (e.g.,  what  colour shirt  to  wear to  work  or whether  to  carry an  umbrella). They will tend to be submissive and let others (often a single person—generally a parent or a spouse) assume responsibility for most major areas of their lives. Adults with this disorder typically need others to decide where they  should live, what  kind of job they should have, and which neighbours to befriend. With all these challenges, it’s not surprising that individuals with DPD struggle to function in the workplace, particularly if independent initiative is required. They may avoid positions of responsibility and become anxious when faced with decisions. Adolescents  with this  disorder may allow their  parent/s to decide what they  should wear, with  whom they should associate, how they should spend their free time, and what school or college they should attend.

This need for others to assume responsibility goes beyond age-appropriate and  situation-appropriate requests for assistance from others (e.g., the specific  needs  of children, elderly persons, and persons with a disability). DPD can occur in an individual who  has a  serious  medical condition or disability (in fact, chronic physical illness can predispose a person to DPD),  but in such cases the  difficulty  in taking  responsibility  must go beyond what would normally be associated with that condition or disability.

  1. Has difficulty disagreeing with others

Because a person with DPD has a powerful need for support and care (even overprotection and dominance), they will fear the loss of supporter approval. They will often have difficulty expressing disagreement  with other individuals, particularly those  on  whom they are dependent. These individuals feel so unable to function alone that they  will  agree with  things that they feel are wrong rather than risk  alienating their carer. They don’t get appropriately angry at others whose support and nurturance they need for fear of alienating them.

This means your character will be willing to submit to what others want, even if the  demands are unreasonable. This places them at risk of abuse, as their need to maintain an important bond often results in an imbalanced relationship.  They may make  extraordinary self-sacrifices or tolerate verbal,  physical, or sexual  abuse. It’s important to note that if  the  individual’s concerns regarding expressing disagreement need to be  realistic (e.g., realistic  fears of  retribution  from an abusive  spouse – this behaviour would not be considered evidence of DPD).

  1. Has difficulty doing things on  his  or her  own

A character presenting with DPD is unlikely to do anything independently because of a deep-seated lack of self-confidence in their judgment or abilities (as opposed to  a lack  of  motivation or  energy). Individuals  with this  disorder feel uncomfortable or  helpless when  alone  because of this  exaggerated fear of  being unable to care for themselves. Your character will  wait for  others to start things because they believe  others can  ‘do  it better.’  Only if you give them the assurance that someone else is supervising or approving, are they likely to function adequately.

  1. Goes to  excessive  lengths to  obtain  nurturance and  support  from others

These characters will proactively foster their dependence and elicit caregiving due to their self-perception that they are  unable  to function  adequately  without the  help  of others  (as opposed to being unable due to age or disability). Many of us have done this one some level—pretended we were incompetent so someone else did something for us (that’s how I got my husband to make mashed potato every time we had it). People with DPD dial this up, and perceive that they are genuinely incapable. They may fear  appearing more competent, because they may believe that this will lead to abandonment. To add another layer of complexity, because they rely on others to handle  their problems, they often don’t learn the skills of independent living (thankfully, I already knew how to make mashed potato), thus  perpetuating dependency.

  1. The prospect of being alone is frightening

Individuals  with  this disorder are often preoccupied with fears of  being left to care for themselves. They  see themselves as so totally dependent on the advice and help of  someone else that they worry about being  abandoned by that person when there are no  grounds to justify such fears.

If a close relationship ends (e.g., a  breakup  with a  lover or  the death  of  a caregiver),  your character may urgently seek another relationship to  provide the care and support  they need. Their belief that they are unable to function in the  absence of a close  relationship motivates these  individuals to become quickly and indiscriminately  attached to another  individual (and yes, that is risky and yes, it does leave them vulnerable).

  1. Negative Self-Talk

Individuals with DPD are often characterized by pessimism and self-doubt; they tend  to  belittle their abilities and assets, and  may constantly refer to them­selves as ‘stupid.’ Your character will  take  criticism and  disapproval as  proof  of their worthlessness. If they are involved in an abusive or unequal relationship, then their partner is likely to reinforce these beliefs.

Told you it was interesting! Weaving a character with DPD will be a challenge, particularly if you’re looking for a reader to empathise with them (their neediness makes them highly egocentric), but also a fascinating opportunity to capture how disordered our thinking can become.

By Tamar Sloan
Source: psychwriter.com.au

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The Joys of Writing Tragedy

Tragedy is one of the oldest and most fundamental forms of story-telling. It’s a mode that focuses on suffering, that connects its central character to the wider world, and that is deliberately designed to make audiences consider the fragility of their own lives. It can be a powerful tool for writers in any genre.

In this article, we’ll be looking at what tragedy is, what defines its protagonist, and how to make use of it in your writing.

Defining Tragedy

Tragedy as we now know it emerged from Greek plays around 2500 years ago. It reached its classical golden age in 5th century Athens, but our understanding of its form is most shaped by a book from a century later. In his Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle explained the origins of the form, as he understood it, and its defining features. The points he singled out shaped tragedy from then on, as it was kept alive by the Romans, revived in the Renaissance, and used and adapted by authors, poets, and playwrights ever since.

Tragedy is built around a downward arc. The protagonist experiences an unhappy transformation, ending in death or at the very least disaster. This is how many people identify a tragedy.

But there’s more to a traditional tragedy than this.

For the reader, a tragedy should be an unsettling experience. The story highlights the uncertainties of the world by showing that even the most powerful can fall due to events outside their control. In classical theatre, those events were usually driven by supernatural forces. In modern writing, they are more likely to be about the structures and injustices built into our society.

At its best, tragedy draws a mixture of emotions from the reader. There’s pity for the character experiencing the downfall, but there’s also fear. This fear is partly for the protagonist, but it’s often also fear of them. The rage of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge creates a mixture of emotions, as the audience is torn between empathising with the character and worrying for the people they harm. It’s a deliberately unsettling experience.

The arc of the story should also evoke mixed emotions. It should feel both unavoidable and unacceptable. This undermines the audience’s sense of the world as a just place.

The character’s fall connects in with a wider sense of destruction. Hamlet’s tragedy is also that of the Kingdom of Denmark, as the royal house and by extension the nation goes into decline.

The face of tragedy has changed in recent centuries. Some of the features that Aristotle considered essential are no longer evoked, and the focus has moved away from supernatural interventions in human lives. But the core of tragedy remains the same – evoking emotions through injustice and the suffering of a central character.

The Tragic Character

If you want to write a tragedy then, as with so much of fiction, you need to start with the central character.

The tragic protagonist is normally a noble figure, one who clearly has good intentions, at least at the start. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great modern example. He just wants to look after his family and his own medical bills. It’s the path he follows to do this that leads to somewhere far less virtuous.

Even if they aren’t noble, the central character needs to be sympathetic. For the tragedy to work, the audience has to care about your character and want them to avoid their approaching doom. They have to keep caring about them, on some level keep liking them, even as they do terrible things. If we didn’t like Hamlet, then we would stop caring for him as he kills Polonius and drives Ophelia mad.

This draws attention to another important feature of a tragic character – the fatal flaw.

All characters should have some flaws and failings to make them relatable. But for the protagonist of a tragedy, a powerful, fundamental flaw is vital. This is the characteristic that motivates much of their actions and that eventually leads them to disaster.

For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, this flaw is unchecked ambition. He is willing to do anything to achieve power. This leads him to destroy his support base by betraying those closest to him, to offend people more powerful than himself, and to behave so badly that he loses all hope of redemption. The fatal flaw drives his downfall.

It’s the fatal flaw that binds together character and plot in a tragedy, preventing the story from being something that just happens to the character.

The character arc that emerges from a fatal flaw can’t just be that the character ends up dying. In the right circumstances, a character’s death can be noble and heroic, which would rob a tragedy of its unsettling negative emotions. Most tragic characters die, but this isn’t the sum total of their downfall.

In a tragic arc, the character suffers, both physically and emotionally, through the course of their downfall. They lose the things that are important to them, most critically their sense of identity. Hamlet loses his mind, his family, even his reputation. Macbeth descends from national hero to hounded villain. Michael Henchard loses his hard-won position as mayor of Casterbridge and the respect of family and friends. Only when you’ve robbed the tragic protagonist of everything that made them who they were, when you’ve flattened all their achievements and left them in despair, does the time come to kill them off.

To give your character’s arc real tragedy, it should feel inevitable. The way that their fatal flaw interacts with the world means that they cannot avoid disaster. Hamlet’s inaction prevents him from fixing the problems at court but won’t let him step away. Henchard’s pride drives him to success but also to disaster, as he cannot compromise to the needs of others in his life.

But while the character’s downfall should feel inevitable, it should also feel unacceptable. However much we might hate Macbeth, we have followed him for so long, come to feel his fears so much, that we still feel a pang of remorse at his death. When Hamlet falls, we aren’t left feeling that justice is served, but that a greater injustice has been done.

Writing Tragedy

When preparing to write a tragedy, much of your attention should be on the tragic protagonist. But what else can you do to evoke the tropes and tone of tragedy?

Strange as it might sound in a story where defeat is inevitable, uncertainty should also be a feature. Tragedy whips the rug out from under the feet of both the protagonist and the reader. If the world worked the way the protagonist believed then they would be able to thrive despite their tragic flaw. If it was as just and reasonable as readers expect, then tragedy would not unfold.

Uncertainty can also be achieved through varying the outcome of individual situations. Small, unexpected successes create hope rather than a slow grind towards disaster. They help to keep the outcome uncertain, and so increase the impact as disaster looms. A character’s occasional wins make their losses more distressing by contrast.

It’s in the tension between uncertainty and inevitability that tragedies achieve their unsettling effect.

Try to tie the character’s downfall into a broader sense of destruction and despair. If your setting is the modern world, you might set their story against a backdrop of inequality or government failings. In an epic fantasy, it might be the collapse of an empire.

It’s vital to engage readers’ emotions. They need to feel the loss and despair of the character on their way down, as well as the sense of injustice overwhelming them. Think about how you can show this through he protagonist’s actions, through the view from inside their head, and through the way you describe the world around them. At the start, you need to engage the audience’s sympathy. After that, it’s their sense of despair.

This can lead to some unfortunate clichés and toxic tropes. It’s particularly important to avoid falling into these traps. Killing of the female love interest of a male protagonist can increase the sense of disaster around him, but it also perpetuates a world view in which women are robbed of agency and our stories are all about men. Could you find a way to ruin that relationship that is still heart breaking but shows the woman making her own choices? Can you make the people around the protagonist more than just props in his disaster? Showing their lives, feelings, and decisions will make it all he more tragic when the world falls down for them as well.

Tragedy is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. It can be used in any genre or setting. Its structures help you to create a compelling character and a story that will hit readers hard. If you can start from a fatally flawed character, build a wider disaster around them, and avoid tired old clichés, then it can be your path to something compelling.

Just ask Aristotle.

By Andrew Knighton
Source: refiction.com

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How Do I Create Believable Characters?

Creating complex, ​well-rounded characters requires time thinking about how your characters look, where they’re from, and what motivates them, among many other things. A good way to help bring your characters to life and to establish a back story for them is to develop answers to a set of questions about them.

While much of the information you develop for your characters during the process will never be shared directly with readers, it will help you to understand the character better and more realistically portray how they will react to situations and other characters in your story. The more you know about your characters, the more realistic your story will be.

 

  • 01
         Where Does Your Character Live?

 

  • Novelist and writing professor Michael Adams (“Anniversaries in the Blood”) has said he believes the setting is the most important element of any story. It’s definitely true that character, if not story, in many ways grows out of a sense of place. What country does your character live in? What region? Does he live alone or with a family? In a trailer park or an estate? How did he end up living there? How does he feel about it?

    Knowing where your character lives can help you to understand how he might respond to certain people or situations.

 

 

  • 02
           Where Is Your Character From?

     

    In a similar vein, where did your character’s life begin? Did she grow up running around the woods in a small southern town, or did she learn to conjugate Latin verbs in a London boarding school? Obviously, this influences things like the kinds of people your character knows, the words she uses to communicate, and the way she feels about a host of things in her external world.

 

 

  • 03

    How Old Is Your Character?

    Though this might seem like an obvious question, it’s important to make a clear decision about this before you begin writing. Otherwise, it’s impossible to get the details right. For instance, would your character have a cell phone, a ​landline, or both? Does your character drink martinis or cheap beer? Does he still get money from his parents, or worry about what will happen to his parents as they get old?

 

 

  • 04

    What Is Your Character Called?

    Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? According to novelist Elinor Lipman, absolutely not: “Names have subtext and identity. If your main characters are Kaplans, you’ve got yourself a Jewish novel, and if your hero is Smedley Winthrop III, you’ve given him a trust fund. Nomenclature done right contributes to characterization.” Your character’s name provides a lot of information about ethnicity, age, background, and social class.

     

  • 05

    What Does Your Character Look Like?

    Is your character tall enough to see over the heads of a crowd at a bar or to notice the dust on the top of a refrigerator? Does she deal with weight issues and avoid looking at herself in the mirror? Though you need not have a crystal clear picture of your character in mind, physical details help you imagine how your character moves through the world, and this, in turn, helps your readers believe in the character.​

     

  • 06

    What Kind of Childhood Did Your Character Have?

    As with real people, many things about your character’s personality will be determined by his background. Did his parents have a good marriage? Was he raised by a single mom? How your character interacts with other people—whether he’s defensive or confident, stable or rootless—may be influenced by his past.

     

  • 07

    What Does Your Character Do for a Living?

    As with all of these questions, how much information you need depends in some part on the plot, but you’ll need some idea of how your character makes money. A dancer will look at the world very differently from an accountant, for instance, and a construction worker will use very different language from either one. How they feel about a host of issues, from money to family, will be in some part dependent on their career choices.

     

  • 08

    How Does Your Character Deal with Conflict and Change?

    Fiction involves some element of conflict and change. They’re part of what makes a story a story. Is your character passive or active? If someone confronts her, does she change the subject, head for the minibar, stalk off, or do a deep-breathing exercise? When someone insults her, is she more likely to take it, come up with a retort, or excuse herself to find someone else to talk to?

     

  • 09

    Who Else Is in Your Character’s Life?

    Relationships and how people interact with others reveals character. They’re also excuses for dialogue, which break up exposition, offering another way of providing necessary information. Think about who will best help you convey this information and what kinds of people would realistically be in your character’s world in the first place.

  • 10

    What Is Your Character’s Goal or Motivation in This Story or Scene?

    In longer stories or novels, you will have to ask this question repeatedly. Many of your character’s actions will result from the intersection of what he’s trying to achieve and his personality, which is composed of everything you’ve invented in answering questions about him. When in doubt about how your character should behave, ask yourself what your character wants from the situation and think about the answers you’ve given to all of the questions.

    By
    Source:thebalancecareers.com

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CHARACTER MOTIVATION THESAURUS

A compelling goal is one of the cornerstones of strong fiction, but conveying why the character is driven to achieve it is what draws readers in and makes them care. Explore all angles of character arc by digging deep into what is motivating your protagonist, the obstacles that could stand in their way, and how sacrifices may play a role if the character is to succeed.

ACHIEVING SPIRITUAL ENLIGHTENMENT

AVOIDING CERTAIN DEATH

AVOIDING FINANCIAL RUIN

BEATING A DIAGNOSIS OR CONDITION

BECOMING A LEADER OF OTHERS

BEING ACKNOWLEDGED OR APPRECIATED BY FAMILY

BEING THE BEST AT SOMETHING

CARING FOR AN AGING PARENT

CARRYING ON A LEGACY

CATCHING THE BAD GUY OR GIRL

COMING TO GRIPS WITH A MENTAL DISORDER

COPING WITH A LEARNING DISABILITY OR ILLNESS (KIDLIT)

DEALING WITH BULLIES (KIDLIT)

DISCOVERING ONE’S TRUE SELF

DOING THE RIGHT THING (KIDLIT)

EMBRACING A PERSONAL IDENTITY (KIDLIT)

ESCAPING A DANGEROUS LIFE ONE NO LONGER WANTS TO LIVE

ESCAPING A KILLER

ESCAPING CONFINEMENT

ESCAPING DANGER (KIDLIT)

ESCAPING HOMELESSNESS

ESCAPING INVADERS

ESCAPING WIDESPREAD DISASTER

EXPLORING ONE’S BIOLOGICAL ROOTS

FINDING A LIFELONG PARTNER

FINDING FRIENDSHIP OR COMPANIONSHIP

FITTING IN (KIDLIT)

GIVING A CHILD UP

HAVING A CHILD

HELPING A LOVED ONE RECOGNIZE THEY ARE HURTING THEMSELVES AND OTHERS

NAVIGATING A CHANGING FAMILY SITUATION (KIDLIT)

OBTAINING SHELTER FROM THE ELEMENTS

OVERCOMING ABUSE AND LEARNING TO TRUST

OVERCOMING ADDICTION

OVERCOMING A FEAR (KIDLIT)

PROTECTING ONE’S HOME OR PROPERTY

PURSUING JUSTICE FOR ONESELF OR OTHERS

PURSUING MASTERY OF A SKILL OR TALENT

REALIZING A DREAM

RECONCILING WITH AN ESTRANGED FAMILY MEMBER

RESCUING A LOVED ONE FROM A CAPTOR

RESISTING PEER PRESSURE (KIDLIT)

RESTORING ONE’S NAME OR REPUTATION

RIGHTING A DEEP WRONG

STOPPING AN EVENT FROM HAPPENING

SURVIVING THE DEATH OF A LOVED ONE

TRYING SOMETHING NEW (KIDLIT)

TRYING TO SUCCEED WHERE ONE HAS PREVIOUSLY FAILED

WINNING A COMPETITION

Source: onestopforwriters.com

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Word Choice for Character Strength

Elizabeth Essex

My favorite things about any book is always the CHARACTERS—I like Pride & Prejudice more than Northanger Abbey, because I like forthright Lizzie Bennet more than I like silly but well-meaning Catherine Moreland. But I love Persuasion best of all because I LOVE sweet, kind, thoughtful, long-suffering Anne Elliot.

That is why I believe every word in your novel should serve two purposes:

— to move the plot forward,

— and give greater insight into the characters

so our readers have an authentic and immersive experience—that is, a unique experience that they witness through eyes, ears, sensory experiences and emotions of our characters.

We can achieve this by using “power words,” “scene-themed words,” but more especially “character-themed” words.

Power Words give strong images & associations and drive up tension

Scene-themed words give us the vital information to tell us where and when we are in the story and what’s going on.

Character-themed words give us insight into the mind and thoughts of our characters

But the MOST POWERFUL WORD is one that does double or triple duty in combining all three of these concepts together.

In my first drafts, I give myself permission to write lazily—to give an easy, generic  description, or fall back into cliché—just to get the action of the story down on paper. But once I can see the through-line of the plot, then I like to go back and find opportunities to inject as much POWER, SETTING and CHARACTER into my work as possible.

Let’s look at six specific examples from my latest Highland Brides novel, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Marry.

 Ewan Cameron, 5th Duke of Crieff’s joy was a rare and pleasantly exhilarating thing, like the hot tot of strong Scots whisky he tossed back to celebrate the good news—he was going to be married.

In this passage the character-themed phrase is “hot tot of strong Scots Whisky.” I could have said “he took a strong drink,” or “tossed back a bolt of brandy.” But I chose power words that would also place us strongly in the setting—the highlands of Scotland—and tell us more about the hero’s character—he’s a strong Scotsman through and through.

Note also: I’ve made this phrase punch over its weight by adding rhyme (hot tot) and alliteration (strong Scots) for cadence.

He slitted one eye open to see an auld fellow wearing a weather-beaten face leaning over him, inspecting him like a gralloched deer on a game larder hook.

Our character-themed phrase is Our character-themed phrase is like a gralloched deer on a game larder hook. I could have said (and probably did in my first draft), “like meat on a butcher’s counter,” which was a good, vivid description, but did little to punch up the setting and make the circumstances unique to the hero’s world. You don’t even have to know the Scots colloquial power word “gralloched” (gutted) to get a very visceral, vivid picture that is specific to this hero’s life in the Scottish countryside.

Greer knew she was no conventional beauty—she was too ordinary, too sharp-jawed, too flame-haired to be considered bonnie anywhere but Scotland—but she knew she was loved. Which gave one a different sort of beauty—a beauty that came from confidence in one’s merits instead of solely one’s looks.

In my first draft, I had used the rather ordinary phrase “considered pretty anywhere but Scotland.” But I made the phrase work a little bit harder with the simple use of a setting and character-specific colloquial word, ‘bonnie’ instead. It was a small change, but one that deepened both character and setting.

The lass came over the lip of the ridge like the sunrise—sweeping the glen with light and warmth. Not that he had been watching for her, but the peregrine falcons high on the cliff tops had nothing on him for sharpness of eye.

I could have said ‘the girl’ came over the ridge, but I chose the more colloquial, scene and character-specific word ‘lass.’ And then to describe the way the hero had been watching for her, I visualized his world in the highlands of Scotland, and decided that the sharpest eyes in his world would be peregrine falcons, which are native to the highlands. If this book had been set in the slums of London, I might have said the “cutty-eyed kid men of Covent Garden had nothing on him for sharpness of eye.”

[He was] afraid he would startle her into flight like a deer at the sound of a gunshot.

This character-themed phrase is specific to this hero’s life and surroundings. If this were a contemporary-set thriller, I might convey someone’s startlement differently: “the backfire made her hit the deck faster than a combat medic,” or something that would convey an instantly vivid picture of the character’s world and experiences. And this image from the hero’s background—he has stalked deer in these mountains—gives the strong, power word “gunshot” at the end of the sentence foreshadows that very soon in the book, someone is going to take a shot at this lass. 

 Her heart leapt like a highland dancer.

I could have just said her heart leapt—that would have given me a good visceral reaction. But I wanted to go deeper, and convey that this was a joyous reaction, not a fearful one. So I chose “highland dancer’ to create an uplifting image—all that colorful, pointed elegance—that is specific to the characters and the setting of the novel.

Lesson learned: We use a great many words over the course of a full-length novel—but we want to make them do more heavy hitting, but doubling, and tripling their power by adding scene-themed or setting specific words along with character-themed words that are specific to the hero and heroine’s experiences in their world.

Think about your own work in progress—what unique experiences does your character have that you can use in your story to give your readers an authentic experience? Please use the comments to share an example of before and after from your own work!

If you have questions or comments, I’ll be around to answer them, or you can write me at elizabeth@elizabethessex.com, or find me on Facebook, or Twitter and Instagram as @essexromance.

Wishing you all happy, powerful writing!

Source: writersinthestormblog.com

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Should Your Main Character Be Likable?

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gotten the note: “Make your character less difficult. She’s not likable enough.” I didn’t do it on purpose; it’s just that my female characters tend to be complex, like the women I know. It happened when the female leads were opinionated. They had standards and held fast to them. They want. They railed against those who got in their way.

Should Your Main Character Be Likable 2

They were not compliant.

There aren’t that many female characters in literature or TV that can be considered difficult. Check out this list of unlikable characters from literature. There are female characters on there, yes, but the only female on it is Bella Swan of Twilight (a box I’d rather not open on this particular post).

Male characters with those difficult attributes are generally embraced by the public. Think Sherlock Holmes. A Man Called Ove. House. Sheldon Cooper. Nobody would ever call them compliant, yet they are beloved. Even those who may not be beloved (Dexter, Don Draper, Walter White) are still pretty darn popular.

What’s the Explanation?

Unlikable female main characters only seem to inhabit a limited number of genres. If you’re writing women’s fiction and not a thriller or literary fiction, you’re likely to find resistance with an unlikable female lead. Why is that? An editor might tell you that an unlikable female character won’t engage the average reader, and therefore not sell books. Upmarket fiction is a blend of literary and commercial: think generally the type of novel with a theme meaty enough for book clubs and enough plot to keep the average reader engaged. In this genre, I would bet that most female characters are likable.

Non-compliant women threaten to overturn our social norms. My guess is because although American society has made great inroads since women got the vote, it still hasn’t been all that long since women were considered property. Even those who consider themselves feminists are not always completely able to shake free of sexism. We don’t like it when women defy social norms. Celeste Ng’s terrific Little Fires Everywhere explores in part how the bourgeoise take down those women who defy unwritten cultural rules, fearing that their own lives will be called into question.

Also think of Elizabeth Strout’s character Olive Kitteridge. Nobody could call Olive likable. She’s thorny, with standards that others find it impossible to live up to. She messes up her relationships. And she doesn’t care what others think. Essays have been written about her unlikability. Same with Claire Messud’s Nora in The Woman Upstairs. Messud told Publisher’s Weekly, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

Should Your Main Character Be Likable?

That’s up to you. Perhaps an unlikable narrator is just not right for your story. Or perhaps you’ve written a deliciously non-compliant difficult woman for a thriller, and you want to keep her that way. Whether or not your character is likable in the traditional sense, their actions must be borne out of a grounded place. And of course, even if your character’s unlikable, they must still be interesting.

But if it’s important to your story that the reader identify with your character and it’s bothering you that your main character is labeled difficult, then there are a few ways you could amend that.

What Makes a Difficult Character Likable?

Here are two TV examples of difficult women. Sophia in The Golden Girls is pretty crotchety, but hey, we can excuse her because she’s super old. And she loves her daughter, and her daughter’s devoted to her.

April Ludgate from Parks and Rec is also difficult. But she loves the resident doofus, Andy. And she secretly loves everyone. And by the end of the series, April has softened considerably.

Perhaps that’s the key—audiences like to see those difficult females actually do love certain people and transform. We know that Sophia’s not going to change because she’s too old, and her blunt snarkiness is key. But someone like April could change.

And this could be true with some of the male main characters I cited. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really love anyone deeply, except maybe Watson—and he still abuses the poor guy quite a bit. But we forgive him because he’s a GENIUS! And in the newer BBC series, we do see a little character development with him.

In A Man Called Ove, Ove’s backstory slowly unspools. We learn of his despair since he lost his wife, and how important she was to him. There’s a warm cast of characters who believe in him despite his gruffness. He changes, too. He also saves and then cares for a stray cat.

So if you want readers to like your difficult character:

• Make someone else see the good in them.
• Give them something to love. A plant, a pet, a sibling she saves from death (Katniss!), a lost love.
• Add humor. A difficult character with biting wit is more fun to read than one who’s not only difficult but humorless.

Has anyone told you to make your female main character more likable? Do you think the “likability factor” holds true for gender non-binary characters as well? Do you think an upmarket women’s fiction book market would support an unlikable female main character? What are your favorite books, films, and TV shows featuring unlikable main characters?

By
Source: writerunboxed.com

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Sneak Peek at Story Drills: Character Arcs

Today’s post offers a sneak peek at my forthcoming book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises for Building Storytelling Skills. This exercise examines character arcs. Enjoy!

Character Arcs

In storytelling, an arc is a path of transformation. A character arc is the journey that a character experiences throughout the course of a story, which leads to a significant change.

Changes can occur internally or externally. Characters can acquire or lose knowledge, skills, or emotional strength—or they can gain or lose relationships, material possessions, or status. Some of the best character arcs are a combination of both internal and external transformations.

A character’s arc can be positive or negative. Most heroes emerge from a story wiser, stronger, or better off in some significant way. However, some characters experience a downward spiral—they are on top of the world when we meet them, and then we watch them fall. A character’s arc can also wind through the story’s events—up and down—only to lead back to where they were at the beginning.

An arc is common—some say essential—for a protagonist, but any character in a story can experience an arc. In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, undergoes significant growth, but supporting character Han Solo also gets a meaningful arc that is critical to the story.

At its core, an arc signifies change and gives the events of the story deeper meaning—after all, stories are about conflict, and what good is conflict if it doesn’t produce meaningful change in our lives?

These changes range from deeply significant to superficial. Some characters will start out as store clerks and end up as store managers. Others will save the world.

Character arcs don’t appear in all stories. Stories with minor or nonexistent character arcs are usually plot driven. For example, police procedural series tend to focus more on showing the detective solving crimes in each installment without undergoing much meaningful personal transformation.

There are some common milestones that characters experience throughout an arc, especially the protagonist. These include establishing goals or realizing that they want or need something; facing conflicts and challenges; making difficult decisions; and experiencing the consequences of their decisions (good and bad). As a result of these experiences, the characters are transformed by the end of the story.

Study:

Choose a character from a story you know well and plot the character’s arc, noting the gains, losses, and transformations that the character experiences as the story progresses. Make sure you note the corresponding story event with the change that it effects in the character.

Practice:

Start with the following premise: A child’s mother dies while the father is overseas on a top-secret mission. The child is put in foster care for almost a year until the father returns. Make a list of five plot points and how each of these events changes the protagonist. Then write a short paragraph describing the protagonist’s arc over the course of the story. Feel free to come up with your own story premise for this exercise.

Questions:

Can you think of any protagonists that don’t change over the course of a story? Can you think of some supporting characters who experienced significant arcs? How does a character arc enrich the reader’s experience?

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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Stock and Cloned Characters in Storytelling

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other instead of a cast of stock characters who are mere clones of one another. 

Stock Characters

We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they immediately know who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other primary character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become fresh and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial, and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges — one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloning Characters

Stock characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip-off. Such characters are problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind. And give your character her own personality and challenges.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is much better.

Nature vs. Nurture: How to Avoid Cloned Characters

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:

  • Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
  • Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
  • Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
  • Create character sketches complete with backstories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
  • To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors, models, and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Once you’ve created your cast, ask whether any of them are stock characters. If any of your primary characters feel like stock characters, make them more unique.

Are You Using Stock Characters? Are Your Characters a Bunch of Clones?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. Together, they shared the same purpose or function within the story. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do in one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? Have you ever noticed stock characters or cloned characters in a story you’ve read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

By Melissa Donovan
Source: writingforward.com

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Dilemma: 4 Powerful Steps to Make Your Characters Choose

The Spring Writing Contest is coming soon!

If you haven’t heard of them, the Write Practice’s seasonal writing contests are a great opportunity to get published and possibly win fame and (a small) fortune.

Perhaps you’ve entered before, but haven’t found the winner’s circle. Rejection is a familiar badge of honor amongst seasoned writers, but for many of us it can be tiring, and even tempt us to stop entering contests or submitting to publications.

But what if there was one thing you could change about your writing that could almost instantly make it better?

There is! There is a storytelling element that I’ve seen as an entrant and judge of multiple fiction contests that makes stories work and win, standing out above the rest.

And that single, difference-making element is a Powerful Choice.

When We Forget “Choice”

Unfortunately, this element isn’t as simple as it sounds. Characters yelling and screaming and fighting and kissing doesn’t necessarily count as a powerful choice. Sometimes it’s just noise, not a dilemma.

Other times writers fill their 1,500-word submission with lyrical prose and vivid imagery, but nothing happens. There are no dilemmas to be found. And though it always saddens me to do, as a judge I had to move on from such pieces.

Stories contains many elements that may be fun to write or read. But a story cannot possibly work without a powerful choice. It is central to any successful narrative.

In the same way, a house may be more valuable if it comes with marble countertops or vaulted ceilings. But without a solid foundation, the house is worthless, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it may be.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he defines dramatic tragedy as “the imitation of an action.” And while the stories you write are not all tragic, they are dramatic, in that they seek to create an impression of life.

In other words, they imitate life.

And when we imitate life, we are imitating the most basic act of life: a choice, or an action.

A story without a choice may be beautiful for its language or description. It may be memorable for any number of reasons.

But it won’t be remembered as a contest winner, because it will fail to do the most important storytelling job: To imitate the action of choice.

How to Imitate an Action

Imitating an action may seem like a simple chore. After all, “action” is a lot of fun to write, isn’t it?

But genuine choices aren’t just about the action or motion that takes place. Often most of the energy is potential — it’s in the build-up to the action.

And that is where you need to focus your storytelling energy, at least at first. Then, once your character has made his or her choice, you need to spend time on the fallout from this choice. Consequences are massively important to a well-told story, and your reader will want to know how a character’s choices play out.

So let’s look at the four steps to a powerful choice that will make your story a winner!

1. Desire & Goal

Before any choice is made, the protagonist must have a Desire.

Without desire, a choice doesn’t have any meaning. It is simply an item on a grocery list. And story desires can never be so trite and hope to win over a reader.

Then, the desire must be formed into a Goal, a stated or thought objective in the protagonist’s mind. If it isn’t clear to the protagonist — and therefore the reader — that this goal is the “Why?” behind everything he/she is doing in the story, then the story will be confusing and the reader will struggle to follow it, even if it makes sense to you.

So despite how “deep” we want our stories to be, two things must be abundantly clear: What the protagonist wants (Desire) and how he/she plans to get it (Goal).

2. Resistance & Conflict

The next step in a powerful choice is Resistance and Conflict, two forces that will make your protagonist’s goal interesting and worth reading about.

After all, if the object of desire (money, a lover, a new job, getting home, etc) is easily attainable, then it will fail to produce a story that your reader simply can’t put down.

So there must be a reason, or reasons, why the protagonist cannot achieve the goal and get what he/she wants right now. And those reasons must seem insurmountable.

The resistance and conflict can come from diverse places, too. The setting can push back. Family and society can dissuade and even forbid the protagonist from advancing. And a villainous antagonist (and his/her minions or servants) can make life hell for our hero along the way.

Without brutal resistance and difficult conflict, the protagonist cannot be faced with a tough dilemma and driven to the point of making a powerful choice. Devoid of this pushback, the choice would be easy, predictable, and obvious. That’s the last thing you want!

So make sure that the resistance and conflict push your protagonist as far as he/she can go without completely breaking.

3. Risky Choice

Finally, the moment must come when the protagonist imitates the greatest action in all of humanity: the Choice with unimaginable consequences!

But it requires lots of set-up. It can’t be done without a relatable and clear Desire/Goal, or a highly antagonistic pairing of Resistance/Conflict.

To make the choice work, the hero can’t simply choose between an obvious “Yes” and equally apparent “No.” Choosing to kill the bad guy versus choosing to run away like a wimp isn’t really a dilemma.

No, choosing to kill the bad guy who is the hero’s brother or not kill the bad guy who will probably retaliate anyway is a high-risk choice. It’s powerful because of the implications.

And it will have your reader turning pages like lightning!

Shawne Coyne’s The Story Grid teaches about two types of crises that produce amazing moments of choice: The Best Bad Crisis, and the Irreconcilable Goods Crisis. The “bad guy is your brother” anecdote is an example of the “Best Bad Choice.”

Risky choices are just that because there’s almost always something to lose. There are few moments in life when everything turns out okay, and there are no negative consequences.

Which is why the fourth and final step is so important.

4. Consequences

Readers want to know “What happens after …” your protagonist’s risky choice. And if they don’t get a satisfactory answer, they’ll leave your story feeling cheated and bitter.

This doesn’t mean you have to give them an ending that rivals Return of the King, but you need to make it clear exactly what the Consequences of the risky choice were.

  • What did he/she gain? At what cost?
  • Did he/she commit any sins or grievous offenses in pursuit of his/her goal? How were these paid for, if at all?
  • And what did he/she gain, and how is it affecting life now, after the story journey?

You don’t have to tie up every single loose end the story may have — especially if you intend to pen a sequel! In fact, leaving one plot strand dangling while all the others are snugly knotted can be a great way to keep readers around, ready for your next release.

Make sure you thoroughly address how the action ends up, though. Because this, too, is a part of the imitation of an action. Every action has a reaction, and readers know it. They’ll be expecting it your story, too.

Time for Action!

Whether you’re planning to enter the Spring Writing Contest or not (though you really should!), I hope that the value of a well-written action will be central to your stories.

Not only is it solid storytelling, but it’s exactly what readers want. And the best part is that this isn’t genre-specific. This is precisely the kind of journey that readers crave, whether they’ve picked up your Cowboy Romance novel or your Sci-Fi Horror short story collection.

So plan your next story with these four steps in mind. It’s time for action!

What’s the toughest choice you’ve ever made your characters make? Let us know in the comments.

By David Safford
Source: thewritepractice.com

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