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Archive for characterization

Give your characters agency to drive a story

Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach authors on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader, I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. When it’s done well, building scenes is hard work,  Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

When a character shows agency, they make choices or decisions, good or bad, and those can lead to action. If they choose not to act, we can be shown their decision to stand by that, too.

Finding power for change

In Orson Scott Card’s draft book  Characters and Viewpoint he says, “If a character is relatively powerful — powerful enough to make choices that change other characters’ lives — the reader will remember her better and expect her to amount to something more in the story.”

A compelling story makes it clear to us what’s at stake for the main character, and those stakes need to be high. Then the character takes risks to achieve what they yearn for — and they succeed or do not. And there are consequences for every risk taken, regardless of the outcome.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heroes and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that the character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice. Trouble drives great stories, and you can get into trouble by going somewhere.

Open your wheelhouse: submit your requests

You might have been fortunate enough to have an agent request pages for your book. You may have taken a lot of time to make them better first. For example, if you’re writing crime fiction (a mystery) you may say

1. My book is too long today
2. I don’t want my mystery to be obvious.

Also

3. My plot is intricate, so I’m wary of severing the links throughout.

Those are all related. Your book is probably running as long as it does so it will contain everything to keep the plot bolted together. The complexity of the plot makes a mystery deeper, for example. If it’s longer for any other reason, it becomes a bit easier to cut. If it was a piece of seasoned beef, it might be overseasoned with characterization or scenes that run long.

That effect of “goes on too long” is a matter of taste and talent. Even when you’re writing well, you don’t get as many extra pages as you think. You get more pages, but you have to keep readers turning those pages.

If you want to be double sure that your plot is durable, you will need a second check. That’s a set of outside eyes. I’m talking development editing, not copy editing or line editing.

Letting your story loose into the world is the solution to these problems.

“I want a book that holds together and keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen.” That’s noble. It can be a road sign toward complexity, of course, depending on how many subjects are in play. Your book should have a primary story mission, and that mission had better fulfill the protagonist’s desire.

Just because a book’s structure has come together over years of work, like it does for most of us, doesn’t mean it can’t get streamlined. I think here about the rivets in the planes that Howard Hughes built for competition. Always streamlining. He set records, his accomplishments you can see in The Aviator.

I once edited a book from 140,000 words to 75,000. The author went too deep in many passages and her protagonist was inside internal monologue at great length.

I edited my novel Viral Times down from 144,000 to 98,000 words. To do this, I discovered Scrivener and used it to identify what was in the book and what could go. It helped that I’d already worked 30 years as a copyeditor. Cutting isn’t easy, but it feels good after you face it down. At some point every creator has to have some compassion for readers who, frankly, would like to get to the next book, either in the series or from another author. Savoring a big novel is a delicious thing, of course.

It also helped that I performed in and watched many hours of theatre — where the dramatic arc includes nothing but scenes, and they each must have good work to do to serve the narrative.
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Emotions, feelings, and the differences

Dramatic writing always begs for feelings. Or is it emotions? It’s actually both things, that begging. The differences tell us when to rely on each one as we create our scenes and stories.

Simple enough

Rage = Emotion

Contempt = Feeling

Feelings are emotions refined. Emotions are raw, unconsidered, sudden and unbidden.

The rage boiled up in me.

There was an air of contempt in his speech.

Use the power of premise to pump your stories up

Most of us start a story with an idea. You develop it into a concept. Then you build a character to turn that concept into a premise.

  • Secrets of church history hide in plain sight.
  • What if the DaVinci art held the secrets?
  • What if a professor of Renaissance art found secrets of church history that put his life in danger while they threaten leaders of the church?

Two elements work to create good stories together. That’s making a concept and then taking it to a premise. It’s all in service of making characters who can populate that premise.

“A big city cop moves to a small coastal town” is a premise. Your next step is to make a what-if, like “What if a big city cop moves to a small coastal town in South Carolina, then discovers a marijuana ring that’s illegal. The locals look the other way — can he?”

A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple thesis statement defining the theme or argument of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.

A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact, the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of skiing the black diamond trail. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat and tears is worth the agony.

That’s from a fine article by Jeff Lyons in The Writer magazine, a great craft publication.

There’s a five-step process in there to master. The essential component is a character to care about. Plot is just the plaything we use to enjoy our characters and their fates.

There’s more on using premise — and this is all character work that builds great plots — in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. The book includes exercises. We all love those, just to know we’re learning. When you work with a coach on your writing, you have an expert who looks at your exercises to help see what’s working. Get the book and do some exercises. Let premise power your book.

Backstory: A rich vein to mine when plot fails you


Plot is a means to show the journey of characters, their desires, and motivations. Backstory drives your characters. If your plot is failing you, it’s probably time to write out some backstory, even it’s only a few paragraphs on each major character. Focus on seminal experiences for each person.

Backstory is the motherload of ore that gives you answers to The Why. Whenever a character takes an action — and that should be often for essential characters, so we see them demonstrate agency — we always ask why they acted that way. Events make up at the heart of plot. But character journeys are the heart of story. We read books for story.

Once you uncover the characters’ desires, your plot will become a servant to your story’s people. For example, discovering and recounting the ground zero of a protagonist’s abilities — the genesis of a detective’s curiosity manifested in journalism, then the way it brushed up against police work, and how that became a new career finding the answers to questions — gives such a story meat on the bone.

Backstory is the way to learn the why about the protagonist’s failures, as well as the path to leap across the chasms to demonstrate new abilities. Story determines the choice of plot events, not the other way around.

Work done on characters, especially a hero and a villain, will give an author insights for good judgments. The villain really drives the story’s conflicts, so setting them out on paper or on the keyboard can help.

While you may not need to compose complete backstory stretches to appear in your book, you might be moved to do so in selected flashbacks. The flash describes the length of the passage as well as the sudden return to the past. It’s 2018. Keep it tight.

Composing backstory is genuine story development. Taking deeper dives into key characters will drive good judgments — from you as the author, as well as the judgments of the characters in the story.

Characters can gain power from their settings

Donald Maass offers a lot of advice on writing a book that breaks out a career in Writing the Breakout Novel. In his first chapter he gives scenarios of writers with ongoing careers, already published, but sliding downward. He calls himself the agent who gets the 911 career call when the author’s latest novel doesn’t get picked up.

The problems which Haass offers up also have solutions in the book. Settings have a psychological weight that characters can use.

You can deepen the psychology of place in your story by returning to a previously established setting and showing how your character’s perception of it has changed. A useful principle for making place an active character [in your story] is to give your characters an active relationship to place—which in turn means marking your characters’ growth or decline through their relationships to their various surroundings.

Haass has a good handle on how to do this, since he says it’s not as easy as it sounds. “Go inside your characters and allow them a moment to discover their feelings about the place into which you’ve delivered them.”

You can also find a nice workshop exercise on this technique in Now Write! It’s a collection of fiction exercises created by authors. The Character of Setting is all about creating atmosphere and tone to affect how a reader sees a character.

WLT program director Michael Noll talks about this in his new book The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. He uses a passage of Donna M. Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl to illustrate how a character finds meaning in the things that surround her. “As real people,” he says, “we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves.”

Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing at the same time you remove barrier words from your writing. Barrier words are ones that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed
  • imagined

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue still has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict. Reflection, as with these barrier words, is not a great mission for dialogue. At the hardest end of the barrier word-cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. (There are other sentences to let us know it’s Randolph doing the watching.)

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After a while, you won’t write even first drafts using these barrier words.

Writing to get into someone else’s head

brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. Getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ-EFIP combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.