My Character Took a Turn

While it isn’t my main character, a major character in the book revealed that he had something to do with one of the Bad Events. He seemed neutral at the beginning, a necessary bridge between protagonist and antagonist and someone who worked with both.

I suppose it all started when a different character – who was supposed to remain in the backstory – left traces of herself from the first page and arrived front and center when my protagonist needed an ally.

So much for my outline- except I’m still following the outline. I don’t believe in cornering myself with the details. I discover it as I write it, with the outline more like a street map. And just like my GPS system, every now and then it tells me to take a u-turn at 70 mph through a four-foot concrete barrier. I always choose not to follow that advice. I’m nearly at the destination now, and I know if I keep writing I’ll find my way.

I’m always amazed by well-meaning other writers who don’t know me well. They say “save it for later.” I’m not going to fix this guy. Except to make this reveal seem planned after the rewrite, of course.

Then, I thought, Man, your wife is way too cool for you. But maybe she also knew. I guess I’d better check in with her and see.

I hear it’s good for characters to get lives of their own, but they definitely make my book interesting. I also can’t wait to see how it turns out – even though I am following an outline. I’m not sure I could write this book without some kind of guide. I think I’m 125k words in, and I’m not sure where it will end.

Character Introductions

How do you introduce characters? What is the important part about the introduction of a character, and what do you decide to say when to bring them in?

It’s always difficult to know. You want to introduce your protagonist among the very first, many times the very first character to show to your reader. Readers like to know what’s going on and care about someone who comes up. [Yes, there are several people who get away with doing it another way, but we’re going to stick with the mainstream for the moment. Pretend I’m not George R.R. Martin, ok?]

So if you have your protagonist firmly in mind, you want to introduce her to your reader. You choose something that shows who this is and why she is different and important and worthy of the reader’s time and attention.

Then you start the trouble and change things up for the poor protagonist until she can’t help but follow along with the plot.

But what about the others? How do you decide to put the other characters in? What about people who walk in and out for a little bit? It’s always good to think about that a while. Sometimes there’s an organic way to do it. A way to sprinkle the other characters in while the protagonist goes along with her story.

I have two characters that are giving me a little trouble. I introduce them early because they’re important. However, one of my critiquers thought I shouldn’t introduce one so early, and then another thought I should introduce the other earlier to show her importance.

I end up chewing over that kind of advance planning for the beginning. It seemed to make sense how I introduced them, but it’s possible it’s not quite in order. So I’m curious how other writers do it – do you decide to introduce them in a certain order or just when they come up? How do you decide in the rewrite if you’ve done it well enough? And does it matter if it’s a thousand words here or there to keep them flowing through?

Next time I might look closer at how they come through the story. This one is set in a fairly good order except for the two I mentioned. The two characters are important, though neither is the most important throughout the plot. It can all be put together in good time and I’ll have it figured out within the week.

It does give me a great deal to think about. There might be a million ways to introduce a few characters and I’m not sure I always give it as much thought as i could to make sure it’s done the right way and for the right reasons in the plot.

This kind of thought process has slowed my editing progress. I need to jump into a different chapter and stop worrying about those introductions for a little bit. How do you deal with it?

Plots and Characters

I’ve always taken a middle road on the plotting versus pantsing spectrum. I would argue for both sides as I have friends who manage both ways to varying degrees of success. That is not to say that there is any correlation between the success of those who write with full plots versus those who write off the cuff, but that each writer has a different degree of success with the method s/he chooses.

Lately I think I’m shifting more into a plotter. Okay, there’s no doubt about it. And the more I figure out the difference between figuring out a plot, the more I like it. Yes, the only part I loved about those little outlines with roman numerals was how nicely they lined up – the nerd in me has a sick fascination with overly ordered things like lined up books (alphabetized by genre, author, and title) in a bookshelf.

I know there is more than one way to plot. I wonder if many of the writers who say they don’t plot (yet there are inklings that their instinctual way of feeling through a story might be started off with organizing thoughts in a writer’s head) actually work through some of those issues but don’t formally write them down. For the rest, sometimes it’s about asking the right questions.

These questions are not just about plot. They’re also about characters and settings and anything else that makes it into the novel. One of the character templates a friend of mine loaned me always had a couple gaps though the questions themselves were exhausting. I’d pick and choose, but often I skipped things like “what would be in X’s wallet?” What does it matter? I’m in a fantasy universe and they don’t have wallets.

Maybe the point I should have been chasing was something broader. A wallet is often one of the things we won’t leave home without. We put things in it like identification and money and sometimes photos of our kids. We also grab keys, cell phones, and other items and stow them in our pockets or purses. [Or voluminous diaper bags – but that’s a different character.]

I’ve been checking into these and backing up. It might be the easiest thing to set down what the character physically looks like. An appearance trait that might even be changed down the road if I decide something else fits better. But the internal parts are not so easy to lay out on paper, and they’re also not as easy to change in a book. “Oh, Lucy isn’t recovering from an overdose of her mother’s guilt trips anymore because I decided her mother needed to not be in this book and I killed the character off.” So every reference to the mother needs to be removed, but also every time Lucy reacted to that guilt trip by doing something without her mother entering the scene. That rewrite would take significant effort to realize the changes in Lucy.

Also, I need to remember to put things in context for cultures if I make them up. It’s simply part of the world building that sometimes doesn’t make it to the character level. It’s one of the fun things about writing nonhuman characters, but also one of the challenges. What is fashion like for a race that doesn’t have a strong sense of vision? They rely heavily on sense of smell, so it makes me wonder if there are trends in scents, rather than colors. “Dogbreath is in this year. I think I’ll hibernate for the winter.” It just opens so many possibilities that hadn’t existed before.

I love world building. I worry sometimes that my races are too much to add into the fabric of the story, but it’s just too much fun for me. There are authors who have done it well, and I’m sure many more who have not that I simply haven’t read yet. As long as I don’t stop the action for info dumps, I suppose I’m not doing too bad.

The world building leads me back to the plot and the characters and the setting and all the rest. And as I’m looking at my worlds, I’m trying to stretch myself so I can ask the right questions and get the right answers in the beginning stages when changes are easy. Like if the character had to leave his residence in the middle of the night for some catastrophe (something on the order of a house fire), what would be the thing he couldn’t leave without? And not forgetting to find the unique voice of that character as we go. Because it’s different if he says “my firstborn” versus “I couldn’t leave without my beloved daughter.” And it’s knowing the difference that will make the novel great.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Yes, I’m serious. We all have our characters we come to love when we write. We have to in order to make it through an entire novel with them. Do you ever make it too easy on your main character?

In my writer’s group, one of the contributors is working on her first fiction project. She’s got a wonderful flair for description and the short bits she reads us are vivid. I’m sure it helps that she’s got a long history in nonfiction. One of the veterans asked her the question: “What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Do that and you’ll find your plot.”

It’s not always how I think of it, but it’s very good advice. Sometimes people try to go easy on their characters if they like them, though the best thing is to torture the poor protagonist until he wants to give up – except you never, ever let that happen. Even giving up is a choice and bad things can happen from it. Just like a juggler who throws all the balls in the air and then doesn’t try to catch them – one of them will turn into the brick to land on his head.

When was the last time you read a book where the worst thing didn’t happen? Did you get bored with reading it? The other extreme might be where believability hits. Did you put the book down because the events just couldn’t happen that way? Within each story world there are possibilities and consequences for every choice made.

Pretend you’re writing a young adult novel and Mom forbids the main character from talking on the phone for a week. The main character has two choices, to follow the restriction or to break it. Either choice has consequences. It seems very cut and dried, but what happens when you add the love interest who’s expecting a call that evening? What happens when you add the mother’s incessant checking of the phone logs? Then a father who allows it because he doesn’t know about the restriction? Does your character choose to follow the restriction even if it means the love interest will be upset? Does the character come clean to Dad about not being able to use the phone (and maybe even why)? Or is it just a one time thing that the character hopes won’t be noticed? Suddenly there’s a plot!

Might not be an epic plot right now, but the more consequences and reactions the writer adds to make the choices more tortured adds to the reader’s pleasure. Somehow George R. R. Martin gets named in protagonist-torturing crowd. Readers might get mad at him for killing off their beloved characters, but as far as I know they’re still reading. And making movies and a game out of the story line. I suppose we can’t all do it that way, but kudos to him for making it work well!

Next time you take a look at your plot, whether you’ve finished writing or if you outline beforehand, really dig in to see if you’ve made your protagonist’s life as troubled as you can. That’s when you know you’re writing a good story.

Note: This is not to say that writers love to torture people. We’re pretty much just aiming to get readers, and we can’t overdose on all the sugary fluffiness that it would require to make an entire novel out of things happening that aren’t bad. 

Character Interview

An interview is sometimes a good way to get involved with a new character. It might not start ideas for new characters (at least, I don’t use it that way), but it can really solidify an idea of the person in your head and on paper.

There are sheets out there to use to generate ideas for characters; some of them include everything under the sun from where she was born to why she went to eighth grade wearing pink shoes. While it’s awesome to know all this information, not all of it should be included in the story.

Another useful part about an interview versus character sheets that become one long list, is you can hear the character’s voice. Is he someone who stutters when he’s put on the spot? Are answers avoided? Does your character lie?

Or, even worse, does she sound exactly like the last protagonist from the novel in the drawer? Are only the physical qualities different? Is his vocabulary off from his supposed education and upbringing?

One of my writer friends from my critique group caught a little disparity in the voice of a minor character when he used a little higher word than expected for the ‘child’ that I portrayed him as. Whoops – I’ll be fixing that this week, and I’m hoping with this interview I’ll be able to keep a few more of those errors out of my story.

And I will admit taking time to interview my characters is fun. I have an annoying newscaster who always plays the part of interviewer. Luckily for me, it’s Inter-Dimensional News and she has some sort of truth-box she sets her victims in to get the real dirt on them.

Now if I could just get this current victim character to sign the waiver so she can appear on the show…

A Question of Character

A writer friend of mine attended a weekend conference in Iowa City about character. He wrote to me about some of the activities, and suddenly one of the ideas I’d been working flared into something I had to work on right away.

So one of the plots I’ve been toying with now has a character. I may not be exactly sure what she looks like or what her name is, but I did see part of her world. It also brought me into her mind for awhile, which was more of what I needed to get connected to her.

Because, really, does her eye color, hair color, or even skin color matter just yet? It might not end up mattering at all, unless she becomes green-skinned for some reason. (Or any other outlandish color.)

Sometimes I’m still waffling between how close my third person narration is to my character. Am I going to tell you about that black-haired blue-eyed midget, or will I show you that everyone towers over him?

It’s just interesting to see how the character expresses him- or herself when you get out of the way. I might not think about my natural light brown hair, especially if I get another color – like red – out of a bottle to amuse myself. Some characters might feel that way, and others might feel a sense of loss for their old color. Some may never glance in a mirror at all.

That’s the beauty of characters. They’re unique, with their own stories to tell, and with different personalities to uncover through the story process.

It feels so good to start connections to them again. Getting a lead character might just get that novel project going. Not that I need another novel to work on right now, but maybe it’ll scare Don’t Tell Your Mother into some necessary revisions…

What If – Then What?

Speculative fiction is based on what if. All it takes is one small question to begin the process. What if?

It’s after that – the process of building the then what‘s that really builds the world from the writer’s mind. The then what‘s nail down the particulars. After that, a story shines through.

But don’t think I’m advocating a story about a thing- stories are about people. The character must change; that is the beauty of story.

Characterization

I started looking for a profile for my characters, because it’s an easy thing to do to fill in questions, when I realized it depends on the questions asked.

If I have a ‘critter’ from another world, she may not carry a purse or wallet. He may not wear clothing. It might not have the proper gender at all.

Which reminds me that I need to figure out questions more suited to the people I’m characterizing. Of course, it also brings to light other aspects – like if you’re working within a intergalactic community – what do they use for ID?

Family Relationships, Pt 2

Unexpected changes in relationships can put stresses on all of them. Characters must be examined from each facet of the unique family dynamic to see how they’re put together.

Deaths, births, marriages and divorces are all stressful events that change a character’s family. They’re not to be used lightly, and they show a character to his limits. Home and family are always things that define a person.

Add in a holiday or two, and things might be comedic, strained, or just plain ordinary. All angles can be shown to put the characters to light.

Superstition

There are several superstitions floating around our culture. They’re not always believed: “Step on a crack; break your mother’s back.” Others are more pervasive, like “knock on wood.”

How many people remember where that one comes from? A long time ago, when the more common belief held spirits were everywhere, people wanted to be thankful when good luck hit them and remember the tree spirits so they wouldn’t take their luck away.

Is there a good way to work in irrational beliefs into a character? Sometimes it’s difficult to see where they work into our own personalities, and making them work into fictional characters is just as dicey. Be careful, be consistent, and be sure you find the right motivation.

« Older entries