Sunday, May 24, 2015

It's all About the Characters III

To conclude my series on creating characters I want to offer some advice on how to think through the process. To get at the essence of character I suggest that as the writer, you must think like an actor.  You, however, get to play every part!  So remember these basics that an acting coach would tell yous:

#1 - what’s my motivation?  You need to know why every character does everything he or she does.  Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation.  Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations. “To help move the plot along” is not a motivation.

#2 - no one is a villain!  In life, we are each the star of our little drama.  No one thinks they’re the bad guy.  Even Hitler had a very good reason for everything he did – in HIS mind.

#3 – There are no small parts, just small actors.  Make sure nobody in your story behaves as if he’s just a walk on.  Every move that character makes is vitally important – to him.

All that having been said, how do we then distinguish between the heroes and villains?  Well, that’s the job of point of view.  You will decide whose eyes the reader sees the world through.  That character is the person your reader will most identify with.  That character then becomes sympathetic for the reader.  He, or she, is now the hero, the protagonist.  And whoever opposes that person’s goals and objectives becomes de facto the villain.

Heroes and villains need to have one thing in common – strong character.  We admire people with character, and people with character are the ones who make things happen in our world. 

Let me be clear here that character as I’m defining it is not good or bad. Character as I’m using it here is the person’s dedication to making his actions match his beliefs. It takes a certain strength to do what you believe is the thing to do, whether you’re a hero or a villain.  

But how can we hate the villain and love the hero if they have so much in common?  That takes us back to point of view, and what i call the yin-yang of personality.  For example:

Heroes are determined – villains are obsessed
Good girls are observant – bad girls are nosey
Good guys keep you in the loop – bad guys gossip
Heroines are leaders – villainesses are manipulative
Good people are thrifty – bad people are cheap

The only real societal standard that separates your good folks from bad folk is a single motivation – if they work to help others, no matter what else we know about them, they’re heroes.  If they work only to help themselves, no matter what else we know about them, they’re villains.

There is a lot more to creating good characters but this should give you a start. If any of you have great ides, please post them in a comment to this blog.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

It's All About the Characters II

Last week I mentioned the importance of character names. Superficial as we are, we draw a lot of meaning out of names. And consider who your character is named after?  Who named him, mom or dad?  Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations?  Chastity?  Felicity?  And has your character grown into her name, or taken a stance in opposition to it, like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise? 

Last names, of course, often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring.  If you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor and he isn’t Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him.  And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a story there that will tell us a good deal about him. 

Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the nick himself or if someone stuck him with it.  If you introduce me to Tiny I expect a giant. If her pals call her brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, or she might be an idiot.  Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image.
It’s best to show character thru actions, and not just in thrillers. Explore the character’s hobbies, unusual talents and pet peeves.  Readers love to read about people who like the movies they like, read the books they read, or love the same foods they love.  We all have little quirks, bad habits and odd compulsions.  If your character always salts his food, twists a lock of her hair when she’s nervous or checks his e-mail six times a day, people will both relate to that and remember that. 

Consider post war detective Nero Wolfe spoke little and kept his feelings to himself. He wasn’t even the point of view character. Yet he seemed like an old friend to some readers for two reasons.  His author, Rex Stout, meticulously detailed his loving care of the orchids he cultivated, and he showed you, in great detail, Wolfe’s gourmet eating habits AND love of a good beer.
Wolfe exemplifies the concept that good characters must have both common traits and some unusual ones. Remember this: ordinary things (like wanting a beer with lunch) make a character believable. Unique traits (like cultivating orchids in Manhattan) make a character memorable.

Next week I’ll share how good acting advice can help writers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's All About the Characters

Today I continue my exploration of the elements of fiction by looking at the imaginary people we create. Plots are important, setting is valuable, and it’s nice to have something to say, but fiction is ultimately about the characters.

What makes for good characters? Well, first and foremost, every character has a personality all his or her own.  The final indication of how good a character you’ve created is simply, how fully the reader feels he knows that personality, and how strongly the reader reacts to the character emotionally.  Speaking generally, good characters have four important markers.

1. They are people we recognize.  You know if it’s a good character when you say, “Hey, I know a guy just like that.  You might not be personally acquainted with any 19th century business owners, but we all know an Ebineezer Scrooge, don’t we? Is he a stereotype?  Yes… now. Are stereotypes bad?  Only if that’s as far as you take the character.

2. They are people with whom we can identify. They do the things you or I might do if we were ever in their extraordinary circumstances. If you were that smart wouldn’t you solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes? Or have Sam Spade’s smart mouth and personal convictions?

3. They are people we can predict.  That comes from creating consistent characters.  And that comes from thinking your people through.  How do you get to know your characters that well?  One good exercise is to write your character into a number of different situations, just to see what he or she will do.  If you’ve developed them well, they may surprise you.  But then you’ll know how they’ll behave in your book or story.

4. And they are people who surprise us.  That may at first seem contradictory, but people surprise us in life all the time.  One reason is that none of us lives in a vacuum.  Our relationships and our environment shape us. My detective, Hannibal Jones, is of mixed heritage. I’ve added depth to the character by showing my readers how differently he behaves and speaks among his friends than he does in the mostly white business world of Washington. His behavior may surprise you in some circumstances, yet it’s completely consistent. As long as you can explain your character’s motivations, it’s okay for them to occasionally surprise your readers.  Consider: if the story had been told in a different order, Scrooge’s actions on Christmas day could have been as surprising to the reader as they were to the other characters.

Authors should know everything about their characters.  In fact, they should know far more than they tell the reader. You should know their history, their motives, their loves and hates, what they’re proud of and what they’re ashamed of.  That’s how they get to be consistent.

Next week I’ll talk about the importance of character names and appearances. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

It's All About The Plot III

I ended my previous blog on my approach to plotting with a mention of the secondary plot. When I write there’s always something else going on to distract our hero. Our hero has to save the world from nuclear destruction, while at the same time keeping his wife from running off or keeping his kid from using drugs or studying for that test so he can finish his degree. This is the human drama that goes on in the shadow of the larger mission. This makes it easier for the reader to relate to our hero because whatever it is, the secondary plot is something they’ve had to deal with too. It helps to complicate our hero’s life while making him a bit more human.

With all the major plot objectives in place I begin to flesh out the outline by creating a number of events I call beats. Beats, because like music and comedy, novels have a rhythm to them. Our hero faces a barrier, climbs it, rests, faces another barrier, breaks thru, rests, etc. This is how you control the pace. Moments of high tension alternate with moments of taking a breath.

Each beat is a scene, like in a play or movie, with a definite when and where the event takes place. They are the challenges our hero must face to attain his goal. They must appear in a logical progression, each leading logically to the next. They must each offer a real challenge to our hero, and they must get harder as he goes. Each time he is less sure, or at least the reader is less sure that he will succeed. 

Remember, the central conflict runs through your whole story, but it can’t be in every beat. Still, there should be conflict in every scene. So in addition to the central conflict, it’s good to have a chronic conflict. This underlying conflict can provide the opportunity for beats that don’t grow from the central conflict, offering a rest from the big picture. Chronic or underlying conflicts don’t necessarily have to be resolved at the end of the story.

You’ll also want to add internal conflicts. These scenes can really help characterization. Other beats can grow from transient conflicts. Even in scenes that require boring background exposition, transient conflicts keep the scenes from being boring.

So that’s it. I plan the order of the actual events that will take place during my hero’s journey toward success. It doesn’t need to be as obvious as The Odyssey, but that is the basic pattern. When I have enough beats to take up about 80,000 words, I’ve got a plot and it’s time to start writing. I start with a good strong hook that gets readers’ attention and tells them what kind of book it is. At the end I wrap-up of all the loose ends.

It’s as simple (and maddeningly difficult) as that.

Monday, April 27, 2015

It’s All About the Plot – II

Last week I said I’d explain how I go about plotting a story. Let me remind you that this is MY approach, and it may or may not fit your writing style.

My plots usually start with a “what if” idea. For example, the big idea for Blood and Bone came from a news story I was working on about a bone marrow donation program. I thought, “what if” someone needed a transplant and the only possible donor was missing?  My detective Hannibal would have to find the missing person.

So I have an idea of where the plot starts.  Hannibal needs to find a missing person. And I know where it ends.  Hannibal will find the missing person in time and save the day.

Now you may not have noticed, but I just gave you the outline of a story. 

Hannibal is asked to find a missing person =è Hannibal finds him and saves the day.

If I was writing something simpler, say, a fairy tale, the outline might be:

Hansel and Gretel get lost=è Hansel and Gretel get home.

This is the basic outline and from here I just add more and more detail until I’m ready to write. Notice that the story starts when the normal state of things is disturbed, and ends when the normal state is restored.   

The next step is to fill in a slightly more complex diagram:

                          Now what?                                             What now?                       
Problem presented==è much bigger problem appears --à  high speed finish=è hero saves the day.

The “problem presented” section is about a quarter of the book.  It only looks like our hero has a big problem until the second bit.  This is what I call the “now what?” point, at which our protagonist is temporarily at a loss for what to do next. (Goldfinger’s not just smuggling – he plans to rob Fort Knox.) That second bit is around half the book. At the end of that point it what I call the “what now?” point, or better yet, the “we’re doomed!” point, when all appears lost. (The Death Star is moving in and powering up!) Then the hero figures out the solution and it’s a race to the finish.  If you watch Hollywood movies with a stopwatch you’ll see they almost always use this three-act framework. For our familiar example it would look like this:
Hansel & Gretel are lost=è  h & g are captured by a witch ===è  h & g escape & kill witch =è 
h & g get home.

Once I get this far I start looking for the secondary plot. Why? Well, that’s the topic for next week.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

It's All About the Plot

Last week I discussed some of the elements of writing fiction, and today I'll start sharing what I've learned about one of them.

For some writers the most fun part of writing is creating the plot, the actual series of events that take place in the story. The basics seem so simple. A good plot starts with conflict and ends with resolution.  So the first thing you need to know is, what is the central conflict?  What is it that my protagonist wants? And what are the obstacles to him or her getting that thing. For example, in the film Rocky, the title character wants to be a successful boxer. The current champion wants to stop him. That’s where the plot begins.

The plot starts with someone who wants something important, and follows them as they strive to get it. They need to do that striving themselves, and they need to learn something from the effort.  What matters in plot, unlike football, is not whether you win or lose but how your hero plays the game.

In a really good plot, each of the lead character’s successes leads to another failure, and each of the character’s failures is somehow caused by his own flaws. You can see these points in every bible story, every fairy tale, and most classic long poems like, say, the odyssey.

The protagonist is the lead character whose plot we’re following.  The antagonist is the person or force trying to stop our protagonist from getting what he so dearly wants.  it could be Goliath or Goldfinger or Mt Everest if your hero feels the need to climb it. The antagonist – the bad guy – has to offer serious competition, maybe appear from the beginning to be too much for our hero.  And the barriers our hero faces have to be logical and believable.

How does a writer make sure his novel captures all those elements? For me, the only way is to outline the plot before I being writing.

But my outlines are not like the ones they taught me to make in junior high school. I’ll walk you through my style of outlining next week.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What's It All About?

I’ve been contemplating some of the questions I am often asked at writers’ conferences and clubs. It seems to me, contrary to obvious assumptions, that the simplest questions draw the most complex answers.

For example, there’s “What should I write?” If the person asking is seeing me as a fellow writer, they might really want to know what books are selling right now. If they see me as a publisher, they may really be trying to find out what my company is looking for. Either way I tend to take the questions literally. Therefore I answer the question with a question: “What do you read?” When I get a quick, strong response the rest is easy. If you’re an avid reader of romance or legal thrillers or horror tales, that’s what you should write. Write that book you really want to read. Occasionally someone is honest enough to admit they don’t read much. In which case my answer is: “Don’t write.”

Almost as often I’ll be asked something like, “What’s the most important part of a story?” Among fiction writers, this is sometimes a confusing issue. The person I’m talking with may want my take on whether fiction writing is an art or a craft (of course, it is both, and they are equally important.) Or they may be focused on the so-called elements of fiction. Perhaps they’ve written a character driven novel and are being told that a story is all about the plot. Or they have something to say, a strong theme but their first readers say it’s the dialog that pulls the reader into the story. Or they’ve created a wonderfully complex universe in their speculative fiction story, and a good friend has tried to help them by explaining that world-building isn’t what people want. They need to have a unique voice.

I get it. We all want to assemble the parts and build a sturdy novel or short story, and we want to know what part to focus most on. Sadly, the true answer is to the “most important part” question is: “All of them.” A great story with weak characters is as big a fail as wonderfully developed characters who spout weak dialog. Every one of those elements is vital to a great story. And the worst part is, you can’t even develop them separately. Those elements grow organically, like crystals, and rely on each other to grow strong. The setting helps shape the characters whose actions drive the plot that expresses the theme revealed in the dialog IF the story is being told from the right point of view.

That said, the elements of fiction can be discussed separately, and I’ll try to do some of that in the next few blogs.