The Vastness of Us

On February 7, 2017, Mikayla wrote, I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC.

The Florid Sword wrote back, I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”

So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.

I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.

Clever ideas, Florid Sword!

In a way, all our characters come from aspects of ourselves, or we couldn’t dream them up. Sure, some are based on people we know and characters we’ve read, but inevitably, unavoidably, they’re reinterpreted through our experiences and our innards. Most of you know how much I adore Pride and Prejudice. I’ve gone to Austen more than once for character inspiration, even for my MC. However, I doubt that the real Austen, while spinning in her grave, would recognize my creations as having any connection with hers. We may not be aware of how we’re spinning our characters, but we are.

We’re vast. We who write fantasy, and even we who don’t, have entire universes whirling between our ears–because even the world in a contemporary, realistic story differs from writer to writer. And the world we create in one story varies from the world in another. And we manage to people all those worlds! Though I may usually live by routine, I can, with effort, dredge up occasions when I acted spontaneously. Though I think I don’t have a hair-trigger temper, I remember occasions when something has set me off like a match to kindling. Within me exist spontaneity and routine, calm and fury.

Suppose we decide, to write an MC entirely based on ourselves, exactly like us, down to whether we sleep on our back or our side or eat our favorite foods first or leave the best for last, I doubt that others would agree with our representations. If we’re self-critical, we’re likely to paint a darker picture of ourselves than friends and family experience. And vice versa, if we fail to see our faults. Virtues and faults, however, are only part of it. We don’t know how our faces look when we feel this or that. We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, the occasion is special, not the ordinary. We may not be aware of how much we change in the company of this person or that, or we may think of ourselves as chameleons and exaggerate our reinventions.

The Florid Sword mentions giving her MC a different hobby from her own, cooking rather than drawing, which I think is a fine idea. However, there is an underlying assumption that this MC, like Florid Sword, has a hobby. Not everyone does. And, if Florid Sword knows nothing about cooking, she’ll have to learn a little or research cooking, which she’ll have to do in her own characteristic way. We can’t escape ourselves!

Coincidentally, in my historical novel Dave at Night, I gave Dave a talent: drawing, because, before I started writing, I drew and painted as my hobby. I picked drawing deliberately so that I could use something I already knew. We don’t always want to cut ourselves off from material that will make our task a smidgen easier.

One more thing. Our readers who don’t know us will read the character we believe to be exactly like us through the prisms of their own personalities. This is particularly true of our MCs, whom our readers will enter. Our identities will merge with theirs.

I think I often do this here–urge you not to worry. Above are all the reasons I think you needn’t. Now for my method of building characters. I do it to a large degree unconsciously, but this is how I believe I do it.

My stories arise out of ideas rather than characters. My new book, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, begins Rapunzel-ish, with an abduction. (I’m not giving away anything that you won’t learn in the first few pages.) Lady Klausine takes my MC Perry to raise as a member of the Lakti nobility and to learn the ways of their Spartan, warrior culture. When I developed Lady Klausine I considered what Lakti mothering might be like and modeled her on what I came up with. Then I thought about how her very-tough-very-little-love method might form her daughter. Both characters grew to a large degree out of these ruminations–which have nothing to do with my own past or my own personality.

You can do the same. Think about your story. What’s the world like? What challenges will your MC face, according to your plot as you’ve imagined it so far? Who will the other major characters be? How will they affect her? In an MC, we’re looking for traits that will allow her to survive but that will also force her to struggle and suffer. We can list possible traits and virtues and flaws, like greed, intelligence, friendliness, jealousy. How will this one or that one help or hinder her as the story moves along?

We can see how this works in reverse and how our MCs can naturally be unlike us. Try this: cast yourself as the MC in a fairy tale or a book or movie you know really well. For example, how would you behave if you were Snow White and the evil queen’s hunter left you alone in a forest? Further along, how would you co-exist with the dwarves? Would you stay with them?

Let’s say the answer to the last question is, No way. Their cottage would make you claustrophobic. You might like them or hate them, but remaining there would drive you crazy. You like to take control of your fate. Sadly, you would make an impossible Snow White. So, if not you, what sort of character would be able to do what the story requires of her?

Let’s turn this into the first prompt. Write the scene in the forest with the hunter with you as Snow White. You may need to check out the original Grimm version for this. If you can’t get with the program, figure out who would be able to. Put that new character in and revise the scene. In Grimm, Snow White is no more than a pawn, but make your MC more three-dimensional.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Keep yourself as Snow White. You can’t act as she would, so change the story in sync with your nature. Keep going. See what happens.

∙ Use the characteristic that Florid Sword gave her MC. This Snow White exaggerates everything. Write a scene from her sojourn with the dwarves.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek!

First off, thanks to all of you who came to an event on my tour, some of you traveling impressive distances! You asked the best questions, and it was a joy to meet you!

And, since I’m just getting the hang of social media, I’ll say now what I should have said a few months ago: If you like, you can follow me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. Not much there about writing, though. At the moment it’s mostly spring flowers, and you can see some of the beautiful places I happened across on my tour, like a prairie river walk in Naperville, Illinois, or a bird sanctuary-nature preserve in Petaluma, California. And a silly selfie of my condition when I returned after a redeye from California–as a dead tree!

Now for the post!

On December 23, 2016, Poppie wrote: I have a fairy MC whose idea of excitement is a pile of books. But life in the modern “people” world is often unpredictable and full of dangerous machines and creatures… the things he avoids as much as possible. He’s forced to confront his fears when he is recruited with other young fairies to form a society, where the main object is to rescue fairies from danger.

The problem is, how do I make him cowardly, without him coming off as whiny or annoying?

Two of you weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Give him a reason: Is he afraid because he once witnessed something tragic or scary? Or does he have a big goal or dream that he wants to stay alive and well for? Was he betrayed by someone? If he has a reason, I think his fear would be more relatable.

Another idea: When have you felt afraid? Pull from that experience. I sometimes avoid conversations because I dislike conflict. If I were writing a cowardly character, I could use those experiences, probably by showing some thoughts (‘I could say something friendly, but what if she misjudges it and thinks I’m being forward or condescending? Best say nothing.”).

Song4myKing: If he knows he’s cowardly, I think it can help. Whiny and annoying characters are the ones who think the world owes them something, or think they are somehow great, or somehow exempt from doing the grunt work everyone else should be doing. Your fairy may whine and be annoying to the fairies as a front, but if the readers know that he sees his own shortcomings, they’ll be less likely to want to slap him.

And acknowledging his timidity (especially if he’s telling the story) can sprout opportunities for humor – which helps make just about any character likable.

I’m with both of you. And humor is great for likability.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for sharing your fear. Here’s one from my life, which you can use however you like. During the year when Ella Enchanted, my first published book, was going through the publishing process, I became convinced I would die before it came out. When I had to fly during that year, I was paralyzed with terror. I know there are scientific reasons that explain why planes, loaded with people and luggage, get off the ground–but I don’t understand them. Intuition says, Impossible!

A friend whispered a Jewish superstition to me that’s supposed to keep you safe, which, while not believing in it any more than I believed that planes really could fly, I adopted. I can’t tell it here or it will stop working for me, but if you know a Jew who has a great-grandmother or if you are a Jew with such a great-grandmother, ask her to whisper it in your ear. That superstition has kept me calm on flights ever since. I haven’t used it in any additional circumstances, though there are others that scare me too, but the practice is a little uncomfortable and inconvenient and I don’t want it to take me over. If you find it out, don’t publish it! It’s secret!

I don’t think I’m being whiny to make the confession above. People’s fears are often interesting. Readers are likely to be drawn in rather than put off. Imperfection humanizes characters–even if they’re elves!

In this case (unlike mine), the elf has a real reason to be afraid. The mission of this society is to rescue elves from danger–so the danger isn’t imaginary. Not being afraid would be odd. His fellow elves are likely to be afraid, too. How do they handle their fear? This is a great opportunity for character development, because we all process, manage, and give in to fear differently. We, the writers, can experiment with lots of ways on our characters and decide which will best suit our MC. We can try to write a minor character whiny elf (probably not easy) and give the whining to him or her.

Is fear whiny if it’s just in thoughts? To me, a whine involves an annoying sound, and it needs repetition. If he rarely speaks of his fear, he’s unlikely to be whiny. But I think he can talk about it often and still not be whiny. As Song4myKing suggests, he can be funny. Comedians often turn their foibles into humor. This elf can do that, too.

His nattering on about his fears may even set his companions at ease. He’s far more frightened than they are. And they may also feel less alone.

In characters and people, there’s nothing wrong with fear. A person or character entirely without fear is exceptional if not troubling. What one does with fear is what counts. If, out of fear, our elf lets a friend go into danger alone, the reader may not like him, and his talk of fear may then sound unpleasant.

Of course, he can let the friend go into danger alone the first time–and redeem himself later, and I believe the reader will forgive him.

I’m charmed by this MC’s love of books and wonder if that might be another tool to address the whiny factor. He can remember his favorite fictional characters and bring their strengths in to help him, with varying results. Humor may be discovered there, too.

Also, as is always true, we can fix whining–and see more clearly whether it is or isn’t whining–in revision. When we gain some distance from our story, its flaws become evident–and fixable–and so do its virtues, like the perfectly nuanced fear of the MC we thought was whiny.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your technophobic elves discover a high-tech bomb ticking away in their home, the basement of an office building. If the bomb goes off, they and hundreds of people will die. Each is struck with terror. Describe their behavior. Write the scene.

∙ Your (human) MC discovers, at the riding camp she begged her parents to send her to, that she’s afraid of horses. She knows no one at the camp. Going home is not an option. Write a scene. If you like, write the story.

∙ If we’re discussing fear, we can’t skip a haunted house. This one appears on an island in the middle of a lake where the day before there were only trees. Light burns in an attic window, and black smoke issues from three chimneys. The smoke wafts to our MC’s town. People choke. Babies can barely breathe. Someone has to enter the house, get to the source of the smoke, and stop it. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

What do you want already, you character, you?

I don’t have anything in our little series of contemplating the wonders of language, but if you have any ideas, please post them, and I’ll keep thinking. I’ve loved reading your favorites, least favorites, and needed synonyms.

On June 29, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, How do you figure out what your characters want? I mean everyone says to “make your character want something” etc., etc. But how do you give them something to want that isn’t overly vague (world peace) or overly trivial (sparkly shoelaces)? Does anyone have any suggestions? How do you give each character a separate agenda while still fighting for the same cause as the other characters?

Christie V Powell contributed this: Usually when I think of this kind of motivation, it’s something internal, like acceptance or to be appreciated or to feel loved or to feel safe. Then for a major character those internal needs often turn into a goal: to find my missing brother or get so-and-so’s attention or be popular.

In my book, I have two pairs of characters who have the same motivation. The second two both want safety. One seeks it by searching for her brother, who always protected her (in the second book she seeks it by becoming more independent and learning to protect herself), while the other tries to defend people and face the villain to make the world safer for everyone. The second two both crave acceptance, but in opposite ways: one wants to fit in socially, one wants to be accepted for who she is.

These are great examples!

Let’s mix it up a little, because complex characters can have complex and sometimes conflicting desires, and let’s start with a book most of us know: Pride and Prejudice. I can think of more than one pretty big thing that Elizabeth Bennett wants: love–but she’s self-respecting and wants a partner she can also respect; financial security; respectability for herself and her family; and–which is why she’s so beloved, I think–humor/fun.

In her early nineteenth century world, she doesn’t have nearly as much agency as women do today. She can’t get a job in London and find love prospects online. She can only stay put, like a spider stuck in its own web and travel when her aunt and uncle take her or when her friend Charlotte invites her, and even then, presumably, she can’t travel alone. We see her two goals in conflict after her friend Charlotte Lucas warns her not to offend rich Mr. Darcy when he seems interested. We see her use her limited agency when she refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal and Mr. Darcy’s first proposal. We see her wringing her hands helplessly when her sister Lydia seems lost to that era’s proper society, when Lydia’s actions threaten the prospects of the entire Bennett family. So Austen has to do some of the work for Elizabeth, has to shlep the action to her, by making Mr. Bingley take up residence near Longbourn, by having Charlotte marry the curate of Mr. Darcy’s aunt, by giving Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle a yen for travel. Elizabeth winds up speaking more than doing. It’s the charm of her personality that draws people in, especially Mr. Darcy.

The subordinate characters have simpler wants. We don’t have to go to town with all our characters. Mrs. Bennett wants her daughters well married or, if not well married, married. Mr. Bennett wants to endure his life with his silly wife as pleasantly as possible. Jane wants to love and be loved. Lydia and Kitty want to flirt and be admired. Mary wants to be taken seriously. Mr. Collins wants to cozy up to important people. Wickham wants money.

Of course, you can disagree with me about any or all of these (except Lydia!). Readers have different takes, often different from what the author has in mind–and we’re entitled!

This wanting business is a dance between character and situation. Many writers start with a character who wants something, which can be something internal or something external. Once they’ve decided what it is, they bring in situation to frustrate success. Other writers (like me) start with situation then jig over to the MC to discover what she wants in light of the situation.

If we create an awful situation, what our MC wants will usually pop out at us. He’s in a burning building. What does he want? We list possibilities and remember that nothing is stupid on a list. He wants to save himself, to save his new kitten, to make sure some top-secret papers catch fire, to toast marshmallows, to get a tan, to ensure that the arsonist who set the fire is revealed. We pick one and pile on the obstacles.

To start with character, let’s suppose our MC does want world peace. When we move on to situation, there can’t already be world peace. So we have war. Do we want her to succeed? If yes, world peace has to be attainable. Maybe in this world there are only two or three warring nations. How can we position her to be able to bring peace about? Maybe she works in this world’s equivalent of the UN. Maybe she’s the coffee shop barrista and meets everyone. How can we make attainment hard? What’s she like? What qualities does she have that help her reach her goal? Which qualities get in her way? Who opposes her? What goal can we give this opponent? What qualities?

Back to Elizabeth Bennett. Let’s focus on her desire for love and marriage. What stands in her way? The backwater she lives in. The family’s relative poverty because of the entailment of Mr. Bennett’s estate. The foolishness of her mothers and her three youngest sisters. Maybe her own sardonic eye and overnice tastes. Maybe her impolitic way of talking.

Suppose our MC wants sparkly shoes. No judgment. She’s entitled to want what she wants. Why does she want them? We can have fun with that! She saw the same shoes in a magazine on the feet of someone who, in her eyes, has everything. They symbolize success for her. Or, maybe the shoes are a one-off and no one else has them, and they’re worth a jillion dollars. Maybe they’re guarded when they’re not on their owner’s feet. There are lots of possibilities. Lists will be helpful. How does she generally go about getting or failing to get what she wants? What is her situation in life? Does someone always give her whatever she wants, except this one thing? Or does she live a life of deprivation, never getting what she wants?

To put this all together, like so many things in writing, it’s all in the execution. Our characters can want anything. If it’s a big, abstract goal, we have to make it concrete. If it seems tiny, we have to create its significance, in reality or in the psyche of our MC.

Here are four prompts:

∙ An earthquake strikes, a big one. List possibilities for what your MC wants. Pick one. Write the earthquake scene and the scene that follows.

∙ Pick a different desire from your list in the earthquake situation. Write the scenes again.

∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants world peace. She–or he–doesn’t have to be a barrista. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants the sparkly shoes. If you like, keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Entering the Opposite

Before I start the post, I’ll share this odd discovery I made today about Ella Enchanted and Fairest. I’ve started work, as I think I mentioned, on another book in Ella’s world, and ogres come into it in a major way, so I’ve looked back at the other books, in which there are ogres, albeit less prominently. Ella spends two chapters with the creatures but with no description except that they’re hairy, and females are a little shorter than males. What are they wearing? Are they… er… wearing nothing? In Fairest, in which the ogre encounter is briefer, a female has a scrap of red ribbon in her hair. That’s it. In Ella at least there should have been something. No one has ever complained, but tomorrow someone will. Or I already have.

Further proof for all of us that a piece of writing is always flawed. We do the best we can. We strive for perfection while knowing that the effort is doomed–in a good way, because the best we can do is worthy.

And something else. Please read or listen to this poem by John Updike, which is about getting through a novel and which reminds me of you guys who participate in NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160507/?htm_campaign=TWA%20Newsletter%20for%20May%207%2c%202016&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua&utm_content=The%20Writer%27s%20Almanac%20for%20May%207%2c%202016&elqTrackId=b9e915bc82274beeb6edb771fa8b7d44&elq=ab58705a1d474dfcbe7e1bc4faf06736&elqaid=22020&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=19143.

Now for the post. On March 23, 2016, Bookworm wrote, Does anyone have any advice for writing a story in first person with a character with a different personality than the writer? I’m having a lot of trouble with that. It’s okay in third person, but first person is what I’m aiming for. Any help with this is welcome and appreciated.

Christie V Powell said she has a similar problem and suggested an approach to solving it: I’m trying that too, but I am having so much trouble that I might have to start out in third and then maybe switch over after a few chapters and edit in the POV change. My character is very talkative, and she won’t stop chatting and start telling the story!

Bookworm answered: In one of my WIPs (I have at least two), my MC isn’t much like me, as I mentioned in my last post. She’s really shy, and she doesn’t often say what’s on her mind. I have trouble sticking to what her personality is supposed to be, since I’m definitely not shy. Please help!

Next, Emma wrote, I am struggling with this a little bit too. In my WIP that I’ve mentioned several times on here that has four MCs, one of the sisters is very much like me, and one is very much not. I find myself subconsciously making the one that is most like me talk the most and ask the most questions (because I tend to be inquisitive, and talkative depending on the situation), while the character who is least like me says very little. I could use some help as well on this subject, so pretty much what Bookworm said.

And Christie V Powell opined, You’re not usually shy, but I bet you have felt that way sometimes–first day of school? Giving a speech in class? You could try keeping those experiences in mind. I’m doing the opposite for mine–I am not very talkative, but every once and a while I’ll be in just the right situation, with just the right people, and one of my favorite topics has come up, and then I have no trouble being talkative!

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but when I’m feeling shy it’s usually because I’m not sure how to act in a given situation. I have to have it figured out in my head how I’m supposed to act, what rules I need to follow, and how to respond to possible situations. Also, a lot of times there’s a fear of being judged– once when I was a teen, I was talking about writing to a trusted adult, and she said, “you must have mistaken me for someone who cares.” It took me years to be able to talk about my writing with others. I still often freeze up and think, “They aren’t interested in me. I’d better not say too much because I don’t want to torture them with something they don’t care about.”

Gee, Christie V Powell, what a terrible thing for that person to say! You earned that bit of shyness! Too bad!

I like Christie V Powell’s suggestion about changing POV to delve more deeply into a character, or to make her be the personality we’re going for. We can switch back and forth from first-person to third and create consistency when we revise. If we’re stuck, we can even shift into second person and see what happens, as in, You want to speak, but you’re afraid of sounding foolish. In your mind, you phrase and rephrase. The moment passes. The conversation moves on. You nod, hoping to seem part of the conversation.

Here’s another idea. If we’re not shy but our character is, we can turn his speech into thoughts. He’d like to express his opinion of, say, another character when she’s being discussed. He has an opinion, but he can’t bring himself to put it out there for whatever reason: he’s afraid no one will agree with him; his mouth is suddenly dry; he thinks he can’t say it well enough. If we put his dialogue into his thoughts–made him a talkative thinker–we may satisfy our own not-shy impulses.

If we ourselves are shy, we can reverse the process and turn thoughts into speech.

My guess is that most of us often write characters who are unlike us. Presumably, our villains aren’t much like us. Our other secondary characters probably aren’t, either. The differences don’t give us trouble, but when the different personality is our MC, the process gets difficult. We may not be sure about what’s going on in her heart and mind.

Christie V Powell did us a service by revealing what’s behind her shyness. When we write our own shy characters we can build on what she wrote. Our character may be careful and deliberate. She may think ahead and prepare as Christie V Powell does.

I’m shy sometimes, but usually not. For those of you who are shy, here are insights into the inner workings of a non-shy person. It seems a little like boasting, but in most social situations I feel confident. I’m interested in other people and hardly think of myself, which gives me a leg up. My motives for speaking up are varied. Sometimes I want to connect with others. Sometimes–shame on me!–I want to show off how thoughtful I am. Sometimes, lately, as I age (this is probably crazy), I want to demonstrate that I’m not senile. The reward for being not-shy is that often I do connect with people. The downside is that sometimes I rush in where sensible people won’t tread, and I goof. We not-shy, impulsive people have to take the consequences. Sometimes I kick myself afterwards. Sometimes I wind up with a funny story to tell on myself. We can do both with our characters.

Poetry school is almost over for me. On Friday the graduating graduate students will read from our theses (collections of at least twenty-five poems) at NYU’s Writers’ House, and then I’m done. I’m very sad. These three years have been marvelous, and I’m a better writer for it. I’m mentioning this, though, because in my final poetry workshop our entire class seemed to fall under a spell of shyness. Our teacher is soft-spoken and, I think, shy. A few of my classmates seem shy, too, and I’ve fallen under the spell as well. We email our poems to each other before class. Each student reads his or her poem and then we discuss, praising and criticizing. Our teacher weighs in, usually with comments and suggestions about particular lines or words, which are usually helpful, astute, and surprising. He seems to prefer spareness, my preference, too. The poet isn’t allowed to speak until the end, when he or she can ask questions. The spell kicks in. We speak softly. There are long pauses. Animated discussion never breaks out. The class always ends early. I’m almost as shy as everyone else, and I have an ulterior motive, because I have a long train ride home. I feel disappointed and glad.

Poetry is kind of an invitation to shyness. Poems are slippery. Good ones are often subtle. Meaning is elusive. Even graduate poetry students fear they’ve misunderstood the work of their fellows. I know this from looking inward. I don’t want to be revealed as a blockhead. So here’s a crazy suggestion: If you want to shy up your ebullient MC, stick her in a poetry class and see what she does.

Or, to make this a tad more ordinary, put her in a situation in which she feels less than competent. Before you start, think about what’s she’s good at and what she’s not. Then stick her in a setting where she feels like the least accomplished person in the room. If she’s tone deaf, put her in a music appreciation class. If she can’t tell her left from her right, make her participate in a conference on high-seas navigation.

Of course, our MC can be different from us in ways that have nothing to do with being shy or outgoing. He can be generous although we’re a little tight with money. His background and manners can be upper crust while we’re solidly middle class. He can be nervous while we never worry, even when we should. And so on.

To help us craft alien personalities, we can research these dissimilar traits. We can interview people we know who exhibit the characteristics we want in our MC. We can discuss our plot with these people. If we share our work with other writers we can ask them if we seem to have gotten it right. We can think about characters in books and movies who align with our MC. If we worry about imitation, we can also change our characters in important ways from our models so readers won’t pick up the source.

Here are three real prompts and a possible one:

∙ Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t easily reveal their meaning, if they ever do. Here’s an example:

Except the smaller size, no Lives are round,
These hurry to a sphere, and show, and end.
The larger, slower grow, and later hang—
The Summers of Hesperides are long.

Emily, I have no idea what’s going on. Put two MC’s in a poetry craft class (where published poems are discussed). The students are considering this poem. One MC is outgoing, the other shy. The outgoing one offers her opinions, so you need to give her dialogue. The shy one thinks what he’d like to say. Write the scene and make both of them suffer.

The possible prompt is to comment on the blog about your interpretation of the poem. Comment whether you’re shy or not. Since this poem’s meaning is so opaque, it won’t be possible to be foolish.

∙ Your two poetry MC’s happen to run into each other later at a café. Write their conversation, which may or may not go well.

∙ Your MC is out of work, impoverished and hungry. She will do anything to change her circumstances, so she sees an online opening in an occupation of your choosing. To give herself a chance, she invents a resume that includes education, expertise, and experience she entirely lacks. She’s hired. Write her first day on the job.

Have fun, and save what you write.

Lemme out!–convincingly

I am proud and relieved to announce that the Two Princesses prequel has a title. Alas, the dragons in sales and marketing nixed all other suggestions, including excellent choices from the blog, and I had to cudgel my head again. But finally, I came up with this one, which they like, my editor likes, and I like, and I hope you will like, and which I don’t think I gave you enough information to come up with. Here it is: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Hooray!

So, there’s a lesson in this for all of us: We needn’t seek the perfect title until we have a publisher, because publishers have final say anyway. We can go eponymous and just call our book by the name of our MC and then dig deeper when the time comes.

And, if not a lesson, an idea: To loosen myself up and get out of the title groove I was mired in, I googled “popular fantasy novels for children” and clicked on a selection from Goodreads, which helped me realize that almost anything can be a fine title. Thus freed, my mind started wandering and got me where I needed to go.

Thanks again, many thanks, to all of you who posted title possibilities! I’ll probably ask for your help again.

Now for this week’s post:

On November 20, 2015, Kitty wrote, I need some ideas for a way for my MC to escape a prison cell. However, I would like to avoid anything involving the following:
1. Cliches (air vents and the ol’ fake escape gambit are out).
2. Mary Sue-like abilities (so no “Oh, I just happen to know some obscure physics/chemistry fact that I can totally apply to the situation, plus I can pick locks and dangle from walls). The MC is twelve, so anything that would be obviously beyond the ability/knowledge of a 7th grader is a no-go.
3. Outside help. She has to do it alone. Her friends are in different cells, so she’s not going to get any help from them, or anyone else. And
4. Excessive violence. PG 13 is probably okay. R is probably not. I’ll let you use your best judgement on that one.
5. Deus ex machinas. No “Oh, look, somebody left the door unlocked! Lucky me!”, or “Look, I happen to have a magical door unlocking device with me! I grabbed it when I got kidnapped, but I guess they didn’t notice!”

The cell is modern day with fairly heavy security (though I’m willing to make adjustments on the exact nature of the cell/security system), something that perhaps the CIA or FBI might have at their offices. There probably will be security cameras, though I’m flexible about that one. I don’t need her to escape the whole compound (I already have that planned out), just to get out of the cell she’s stuck in.

NPennyworth suggested: It sounds like the only way she’s getting out is if someone lets her out. Maybe she can use her age to her advantage and trick a guard into taking her out, maybe something like she says she has a stomach bug and pretends to throw up, or insists she needs to go to the bathroom. Once the guard opens the door maybe she could stomp on his foot and incapacitate him, and take it from there.

And Poppie said, I agree with NPennyworth about your escape scene: being let out is the only logical way to get away. I have never written about breakouts, so the only other thing I can recommend, is reading and watching some appropriate books and movies about the subject.

I’m with Poppie, in that research may be useful. We can google “famous prison escapes,” and even try “escapes from juvenile facilities,” since Kitty’s MC is twelve. Then we can mix and match what we come up with to suit our circumstances.

Kitty seems to be after originality in solving her incarceration problem, and the key, in my opinion, to original solutions is character.

Who is our MC? What characteristics that we’ve already established can she use to get herself out? NPennyworth suggests she pretends to throw up to get out of her cell. This becomes more plausible if she has a history of feigning illness to evade going to school, and the reader knows she’s really good at it. She’s discovered ingenious ways to make herself look pale and clammy or turn green or pink with fever. We have her decide which illness will  most likely get her out, possibly make the guards uneasy and unlikely to scrutinize her closely. This can be a lot of fun to write–and to read.

But we can give her other useful qualities. She can be artistic or persuasive or over-the-top charming. Let’s go with artistic. There isn’t much to work with in her cell, but she pulls a few strands of horsehair out of her ratty mattress and fashions a convincing tarantula in the corner. It won’t bear close examination, but from across the cell, it’s a stunner. The reader already knows that the prison is in the desert, so tarantulas aren’t an impossibility. Then she starts screaming. Guard rushes in, stands in the doorway, annoyed, says, “What?” She points. He runs in or runs out, leaves the door open.

This escape, or any escape, will be most believable if our MC has tried once or twice before and failed.

When we use character, the qualities we exploit have to be revealed earlier, when our MC is established. If she becomes artistic in her cell half an hour before she makes the fake spider, the reader is likely to be unconvinced and may shout “Mary Sue!”

In fact, Kitty’s Mary Sue example typifies the problem of the solution that pops out of nowhere. We may be able to pull off a knowledge of obscure physics or chemistry principles if the reader knows she’s a genius in those subjects, and this is established very early in the story. But scientific brilliance plus the ability to dangle from walls, even if set up early, will probably be too much for a reader to buy and may move our MC from a real  girl to a young super-heroine.

Our MC isn’t the only character we can use. If she’s observant (a really handy quality that we can give to almost any MC, along with whatever else we give her), she’ll pay attention to prison routine, the personality of this guard and that and of her fellow prisoners (which Kitty suggests she already knows). She can plan to use the nice guard in one way, the one who does everything by the book in another. Any other characters in her prison life can also be brought in to serve her purpose.

We don’t want to make the escape too easy. In the same way we use our MC’s character to let her escape, we can use her character to cause her to fail in an early attempt or to almost fail in her final successful one. Suppose she’s the spider artist, but she needs her creations to be admired, she may give herself away the first time. The reader will be terrified for her. An added benefit of an MC’s flaw is that it will counteract any Mary Sue’ishness the reader may have detected in her.

In the same way we use character we can also use the prison setting to develop the escape–although character will usually be part of it. Here again research may help. We can google prisons: maps, routines, personnel. It may be useful to search on well-run prisons and badly run prisons. Think about how your MC can use what you discover. Again, we need to set this up as early as possible so that whatever she turns to her advantage doesn’t seem too convenient to the reader. If there happens to be an abandoned aqueduct, for example, just outside the prison walls, our MC and the reader need to know about it before escape planning begins.

A lovely aspect of writing is that time inside our story doesn’t behave for us as it does for our characters. We can realize as we’re writing her escape that she doesn’t realize a crucial fact she needs to realize. Zip! We jump back three days and twenty pages and sew the fact in seamlessly so it’s there when she has to have it.

Obviously, these strategies apply not only to prison breaks, but also to any pickle our MC may find herself in.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Design an escape for a character using another quality other than artistic ability. Make one up or pick one or use one of these: persuasiveness, charm, taciturnity, short attention span, high energy. Write the escape.

∙ Rewrite the scene, but this time make it fail because of a character flaw. Keep her alive, though, and have her try again. If you haven’t before, bring in secondary characters and use their personalities in the scheme.

∙ Write an escape in which the prison itself, its routine or layout, possibly its computer system, is crucial to success.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Establishment

For any of you who can get to Long Island, New York, on Saturday, November 14th, I’ll be speaking and signing at 2:00 at the Longwood Public Library, 800 Middle Country Road in Middle Island. I’d love to meet you!

For those of you who: are eighteen or will be by next fall, are writing for children or young adults, and can get to New Jersey for a one-day conference, I want to mention the one at Rutgers University, where I mentor every year. You have to apply, I think by April. People who are accepted are paired with a mentor who is either an editor, agent, or published kids’ book writer. Most of the mentors are editors and agents. I’m one of the few writers. I met my agent at this conference many years ago. I encourage you to apply. The website is http://ruccl.org/about one-on-one plus.html, and information for next year will be posted soon. If you come, please be sure to introduce yourself to me.

On July 16, 2015, Mikayla wrote, I have a new idea that I want to work on, and I already know that two points of view are required for it. What I’m struggling with is knowing when to switch POVs (or, to begin, when to introduce the second character). How many chapters is a good average to have? And how many to establish the first character before switching?

There are exceptions to everything, and anything goes if it does go, but in general, it is best to start anything major early. For example, if we’re writing contemporary fantasy set in an ordinary place, say Trenton, New Jersey, but there’s going to be a dragon in our story, we should bring it in early or our reader may feel unprepared and may even refuse to accept our creature. In the case of a dragon I’d say the first page isn’t too soon and after the first chapter may be too late. The dragon doesn’t have to appear in person then, necessarily, but it should at least be hinted at.

In the case of a POV switch, I’d say Chapter One for the first POV and Chapter Two for the second. That’s what I did in Ever, and the two POV characters alternate chapters for the whole book although I don’t think we have to be as consistent as that. Once the reader knows that there will be more than one POV, we don’t need to stay regular, but we do have to make sure the reader knows whose head she’s in. In my mystery, Stolen Magic, which is written in limited third person, I shift POV among my three main characters, but the default character is the dragon detective’s assistant, Elodie. She has the POV whenever she’s around. The other characters take over only in her absence. The POV shifts aren’t regular, but I don’t think they shock the reader.

As for establishing an MC, I don’t think that happens quickly, so we don’t have to wait before introducing a second MC. They can even both be introduced at once. For example, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is the narrator. The reader gets to know Holmes through Watson and to know Watson, to a large degree, through how Holmes reacts to him and what he says about his assistant. The two happen simultaneously.

Harking back to our outliner/pantser discussion, you outliners may invent your characters as part of the preparation process. You may work through your outlines and create character descriptions before you start the actual writing. But for this pantser, I discover my characters as I go along.

But regardless of which method we use, the reader develops an understanding of the MCs as the story moves along. Sometimes, most of a story can be over before the reader has a full understanding of an MC. I’m remembering Little Women and my astonishment when Jo falls for Professor Baer. I had no idea she could love such a settled and, to my thinking, unromantic man. And Amy and Laurie! But their preferences were part of their personalities that were revealed late in the story. I don’t think Louisa May Alcott changed them suddenly to make her plot work.

In my historical novel, Dave at Night, I, pantser that I am, didn’t find out that Dave is a budding artist until Dave did, in an art class. And, when I found out, I had no idea how his talent would play out in my story.

Of course our characters have to be distinctive, and of course we establish them from the first moment our reader meets them. How does that happen?

Last weekend when I was mentoring. I saw only five pages of my mentee’s book, but she did a splendid job of beginning her characterization. In the first half of the first page I found out that the MC is very attached to her father, because she’s distressed that he failed to wake her up before leaving on a business trip, which told me as well that she has strong feelings. Just like me, our reader will be eager for clues to each character and will start assembling a complex personality.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I begin with Addie’s fears. In Dave at Night, Dave begins by telling the reader what a trouble-maker he is. So if we start firmly in our MC’s head, he can introduce himself by narrating about what’s most important to him. Oh, the reader thinks, that’s what this character cares about.

That’s just one way. We can start with dialogue to give the reader a taste of our MC’s voice and his relationships. Or action, in which our MC reveals his response to a situation or demonstrates how he creates a situation.

For example, let’s take the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” We’re starting the story at night. A poor, drugged prince sleeps in an adjoining room, and the princesses are about to descend to the enchanted lake and their enchanted princes. Our MC is right in the middle, the fifth eldest princess. I’ll call her Maisie. How can we introduce her to the reader?

Through her thoughts. She can wonder if the prince next door is really out cold. The reader discovers that she’s careful, maybe a bit of a worrier.

Does she act on her worry? Maybe she does. The prince is asleep, but the casement window in his room is wide open. Worried again, she closes it, because April nights get cold. The reader understands that she’s kind. Or, she closes it because she doesn’t want an outside noise to wake him up. Not particularly kind, but very thorough.

Or, though she’s worried she doesn’t check on him because she knows delay will infuriate her oldest sister, and she’s scared of her sister’s rage. Failure to act is acting too. The reader learns something else, which is likely to be developed further.

So we have her think and act. We can have her say something too, to her sisters or to the sleeping prince, so the reader will discover how she expresses herself in dialogue.

The sisters descend the staircase. Maisie puts the prince-sleep worry out of her mind. Or, the sisters descend the staircase, and Maisie can’t get the prince out of her mind. Her enchanted prince will know something is troubling her. Whichever she does, the reader accumulates more data.

At this point, we probably haven’t written more than a page or two, but Maisie is taking shape. If our second POV character is her enchanted prince, we can certainly let him take over in the next chapter.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the scene I’ve described. Decide what Maisie does with the prince in the next room and reveal what she thinks and does.

∙ Write the next scene, narrated by Maisie’s enchanted prince or any other character you’d like to have take over.

∙ Aladdin, in his eponymous fairy tale, has always seemed a nonentity to me. Things are done to him and for him. If you know him just from Disney, reread the original fairy tale, and you will find that the only actions he takes involve telling a genie what to do. Write the beginning of the fairy tale and bring him to life as someone who wants something and acts to get it.

Have fun, and for those of you who are participating, good luck with NaNoWriMo. Save what you write!

You shout tomayto, I’m too shy to whisper tomahto, let’s call the whole story off

Does this title mean anything to anyone but me?

Before I go on to the post, I found out about this through poetry school: If you’re sixteen and older, you’re eligible, and there seems to be no fee to apply and a nice sum if you win. If you do win, be sure to let us know! Here’s the link: http://www.buildyourownblog.net/scholarship/. Good luck!

On May 28, 2015 Bug wrote, One of my main characters is extremely different from me. (For example, with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFP, and he’s an ESFP.) It’s really sort of hard for me to write him sometimes because he’s so…not at all me, I guess. I guess my problem is that I have to write a person who’s very much a people-person, while I’m not (I definitely LIKE being around people, I’m just sort of shy a lot.) Does anyone have any advice for that?

The Myers-Briggs is fun to take for yourself and your characters! I couldn’t resist doing it for myself and for my MC in the prequel I just finished. The test is free, and you find out the names of famous people who share your or your character’s personality type. Also, suggestions are made about careers you may be well suited for, which I would take with a gallon of salt. None of my career options as an ENFJ is writer (Bug’s is, by the way), and none of my famous people is a writer. Actually, I’d take the whole thing with a gallon of salt, in that it isn’t helpful to regard an online personality test as the final word on who we are. Still it’s fun.

Even if you don’t take the test, you may want to read about it, because I’m going to use Myers-Briggs terms in the post, so a little knowledge will be helpful, but I will explain as I go along.

Bug, it’s great that you know all this about your character (and yourself). Now that I know I’m an ENFJ, although just moderately or slightly on everything, and my MC Perry is definitively an ISTJ, I realize how different we are. In other words, she’s an introvert, and I’m outgoing. Feelings influence my decision-making more than they influence hers, because she’s more of a step-by-step plodder. But I didn’t have much trouble writing her, because I knew, and the reader will, too, how she came to be what she is. So that’s one tip: our character’s history, whether as backstory or as played out in the plot, will reveal clues to his behavior.

For example, let’s imagine Harper, a child who’s adopted. She’s wildly intuitive, but her adoptive parents are cautious and logical. If she wants to get her way about anything, she has to defend her choice in terms they’ll understand. Gradually, necessity moves her into their camp, and her sixth sense goes to sleep. In our story she gets older and has to make a career decision. She lists pros and cons; she researches qualifications; she interviews people who are employed in the kinds of work she’s considering. One of her friends asks, “But which one would you like better?” And she answers, “That’s what I’m trying to figure out?” Her friend presses her: “Which one lifts your heart just to think about.” She frowns. “I don’t know what you mean.” Because we know how she got there, we know how she’ll take action and respond in lots of situations. If she feels attracted to someone, she won’t let that feeling take over. She’ll watch her crush and make judgments. Then, maybe, she’ll move forward.

Or, imagine that Bug’s extrovert, Manny, grows up in a family of extroverts. If he doesn’t push himself forward, he’ll get lost, so he does. Or, let’s imagine a more difficult childhood for him. When he’s a baby, his parents flee their home kingdom because of persecution, but they don’t speak the language. Manny, however, learns both languages. Even as a child, he has to represent his family in the new land. His parents give him responsibilities beyond his years, and he has to be effective with adults. Whether or not he starts with an extrovert bent, that part of him is pushed to develop. This knowledge helps us write him.

Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre is very shy, and there’s nothing in her past to explain it. I did have trouble with her because, although I’m only moderately extroverted, I still am. At the beginning I wrote Addie as so paralyzed by her shyness that she was almost catatonic. I went to my shy critique buddy, Joan, for advice, and she helped me dial back the paralysis. So outside help from someone who is more like your character than you are may be helpful.

And let me offer you shy ones (many writers are) some info about extroverts (moderate ones, anyway), as represented by me, which you are welcome to use in developing your characters. I like gatherings, even if I don’t know many people. I may start off feeling shy and nervous, but I steel myself. I’ll stand at the edge of a group and listen for a little while. I usually get a vibe. If they’re willing to include a newcomer, the circle widens and people smile. If that doesn’t happen, I move on. When I find a receptive group, I listen and chip in if I have something to say, but staying on topic, because I’m the interloper. After five or ten minutes, I may introduce a new idea that particularly interests me. If others are fascinated, too, I feel even more comfortable, and the conversation develops. In big groups, social gatherings where networking is happening, groups fragment, because most people want to touch more than one base. When the group falls apart, I move on and repeat.

At the buffet or bar (where I get seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice, which looks pretty and vaguely alcoholic and tastes good), there’s a chance to meet people one-on-one. If people are waiting in a line, I may have time to get a little acquainted with the person ahead or behind me, which can be nice.

Three things I never do:

∙ Hold forth and deliver monologues about myself or pass myself off as an expert on anything. I’m more likely to be asking questions than asserting anything.

∙ Worry about making a fool out of myself. There’s always that risk, and I’ve swallowed my foot more than once, but I haven’t died, and usually a funny story is the result.

∙ Rehearse what I want to say before saying it or go over it for flaws. That road leads to silence and feeling alone, because even if I finally approve my contribution, the conversation has moved on. I plunge in.

Internally, I’m irrepressible, which fuels my extroversion. If I care about a topic and have ideas, I think I have an obligation to share, to spur conversation and even to create fun.

My extroversion is fueled by enormous curiosity about people, which I bet I share with many shy folk. The difference, I think, is that I’m not restrained from coming out with it. I mean well, but occasionally I cross into nosiness, which may be welcomed–or not!

What about the shy among you? Any tips about how to write shy characters?

If our opposite character type has to act, we can list possibilities, starting with what we would do, what an opposite action might be, what our outgoing cousin Naomi would do, what Anne of Green Gables would do, and the possibilities that just pop to mind. If nothing seems right, we keep going with more possibilities.

It will get easier as the story progresses, I believe. Once our MC performs like an extrovert, we’ll see him at work and come up with more extroverty actions for him the next time. We’ll also discover how he reacts to other characters, whose natures are established. How is he with a shy friend? How with his brother who’s more out there even than he is?

Here are three prompts:

∙ The Match-Made-In-Heaven dating service puts people together by similar Myers-Briggs scores. Your MCs, Michael and Addison, are identical shy ISTJ’s (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Write their first date. Write the journal entry of one of them afterward. Decide if they ever want to see each other afterward. Keep going with the relationship if you like, which can go in any direction. They can fall in love or become opponents in a struggle that has galactic proportions.

∙ The Opposites-Attract dating service takes the opposite approach. This time, Jordan (INFP-Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) is matched with Peyton (ESTJ-Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Write the date and the journal entry. Keep going if you like.

∙ Let’s work with Harper, our MC who’s methodical, careful, and cautious. But, remember, her nature before she blended into her family was intuitive. Put her in a situation where being methodical and careful land her in trouble. Her intuition has to wake up. Write the situation and the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Weepy

On April 16, 2015, this came into the website from Yulia in the old blogspot days:

My main character is VERY moody. She is rather oversensitive and gets easily upset. I reread my manuscript and she’s crying in every other scene. I don’t want a main character who’s making mountains out of, well, let’s say, gnome’s hills, but that’s her character.

I tried making her more unemotional, but then she seems bland. I want her to be passionate and vibrant like she is, but what kind of reader wants to sit through a crybaby heroine?

I suspect that Yulia has finished this story and written a dozen more by now. Here are my thoughts anyway:

I had the same problem in one of my Disney Fairies books. Gwendolyn, one of my few human characters, was forever weeping and my editor was, too–in exasperation.

This was years ago, so I don’t remember what I did, but I remember her frustration whenever one of my characters threatens to become lachrymose. Here are some possibilities that don’t create blandness:

∙ Our MC can sometimes express her sadness physically in ways that don’t involve actual weeping. She can swallow back the tears, blink them away, cram her fists into her eyes. She can be cried out or be too exhausted to cry.

∙ She can recite a few words that she’s memorized to help her through hard times. If we introduce the words as her tear stoppers, the reader will know she’s sad whenever she invokes them.

∙ Likewise, she can visualize something that comforts her: a beloved face, her pet frog, a flower.

∙ She can have developed a defense against crying. Habitually, she converts her tears to laughter or to a joke. In this case, the reader may come to wish she could experience the relief of tears, so that when she finally does weep, the reader is actually happy.

∙ We can change her character in this regard. She can be someone who almost never cries. Maybe she converts her sadness to action, say, to good works that make her feel better.

∙ Or she may deflect sadness by becoming angry, which can be her most serious flaw, or which may give her the energy to keep going in the face of tragedy.

∙ She can encounter so much misery that she becomes hardened and stops weeping. Going back to the physical, she can develop other symptoms instead, sleeplessness, for example.

∙ By nature she may not cry much. A certain kind of trigger may be needed. I’m that way. I hardly ever cry, although I can feel very sad without tears. About a year or so ago, though, I had a health scare (I’m fine), and it seemed like the doctor had turned on a spigot. I wept non-stop from his office to the emergency room.

Taking another tack, we may want to look at our plot and see if we’ve created tragedy overload. Our problem may be a sad sack story rather than a crybaby heroine.

We need bad things to happen to keep our story moving. As you all probably know, I advocate making our characters suffer. But suffering can take many forms and call forth many responses.

In a chapter in Ella Enchanted, for example, Ella has to try to kiss a parrot, who keeps flying away from her. It’s absurd, not weep-worthy, though she is suffering, and the reader sees the crazy lengths she has to go to to satisfy her curse. I hope the reader suffers with her–and laughs, too.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre prequel I’m working on, I drop my MC, Peregrine, as a very young child into an environment where she has to earn every shred of affection that comes her way–love seems to be entirely conditional. She works harder than a child should have to and suffers without understanding. Tears bring her only disapproval, so she learns not to cry.

In Anne of Green Gables, Anne breaks a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head. She’s furious and stays furious and has to endure her own anger, another form of suffering.

We can disappoint our MC or frustrate her. We can give her the hiccups at absolutely the wrong moment, which can be funny or serious, because she can be on a first date or performing brain surgery.

Let’s say our MC’s friends turn on her. She can: cry; desperately try to win them back; over-explain herself; beg; look for other friends, and the pickings can be slim; be unhappily alone. The point is that in most situations there are lots of options. Even the death of a loved one can evoke a response other than weeping.

It’s also possible to write a weepy but likeable heroine. In my Disney Fairies books, Rani is a water-talent fairy. She’s forever weeping, because her nature is largely water. No one holds that against her. Our MC can be known for her waterworks. Her father says the family should buy stock in Kleenex. She’s weeping but she carries on. The crying doesn’t stop the action. She does what needs to be done with streaming eyes and a red nose. The people who love her, love her anyway. If they don’t mind her crying and they’re likable, too, the reader will probably go along, too. There are opportunities for humor as well. She can weep before dessert at every meal, because it’s her favorite part, and she won’t have it to look forward to once she eats it. The reader doesn’t need have to be told every time. He’ll understand and imagine a downpour. Then, if we like, when something really sad happens she can be dry-eyed, which will have an impact.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Create a hiccup crisis. Invent a situation and a character, and make him suffer. Write the scene.

∙ Create a hiccup crisis in your WIP. Make the consequences serious.

∙ In a test of her strength of will, your MC is injected with a serum designed to make her weepy. She’s taken to a laboratory. Tragic images are projected on the walls; sounds of misery blast from speakers. If she gives way and weeps, something dreadful will happen, whatever suits the needs of your story. Write the scene. If you like, keep going and write the story.

∙ Write a scene in “Snow White” that includes the eighth dwarf, Weepy.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Objective: objectives

On March 26, 2015, Kenzi Parsons wrote, How do you brainstorm a non-cliche plot when you have the characters and situation already? I find I have a really hard time coming up with a plot if I already have characters–I LOVE my characters but struggle with the story. Any ideas?

These two responses came in:

Erica Eliza: Look at the relationships and the conflicts that will arise between characters. Sort through other story ideas that never took off because they weren’t big enough to carry a whole book by themselves, and see how your characters would handle them.

Tracey Dyck: If you have your characters in place, they can help drive your plot. Look at their individual goals (which might conflict with each other!) and what obstacles, both personal and physical, might stand in their way. The Rafe-Stella situation Mrs. Levine invented in this post kind of touches on that. (March 18, 2015)

Kenzi Parsons answered: These are all great!! Reading these, I think my problem is that my character doesn’t have an objective to motivate the plot. Huh… I’d never thought of that before! How do y’all come up with goals/objectives for your characters if you created them before the plot?

More ideas followed:

carpelibris (Melissa Mead): I almost always come up with character before plot. (I have a dickens of a time with plot!) Usually who the character is helps determine what she wants, whom she hangs out with, what she will or won’t do, etc., and the plot grows out of that. For example, a lot of my characters are loners/misfits, which tends to make them either want to fit in, stand out, or get out of where they are.

Tracey Dyck: What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their desires–what they want more than anything? What do they want almost as badly, something that may run contrary to the primary desire? Could be situational, personal, etc. Maybe one person wants to feel needed, another wants to gain confidence, someone else wants to fix a relationship, and yet another person wants to stop an impending disaster.

These are wonderful.

In case Kenzi Parsons’ concerns weren’t completely resolved, here are some more thoughts:

It’s hard to believe any idea is good if we’re worried about cliches. My entire writing career–my whole body of work– wouldn’t exist if that were much on my mind. A Cinderella story? Fairies? Dragons? Princesses? They’ve been done repeatedly. I’d be sunk!

We all build on old ideas. We have to. Originality comes from what we do with those tired tropes. Yes, sadly, it is possible to write a story that sounds like a dozen other stories, and we don’t want to do that. My strategy for avoiding such a fate is notes, and within notes, lists. It’s a strategy that can help in plot-from-character creation.

Let’s start with what we’ve come up for our character, whom we’ll call Tamara. On the good side, she’s loyal, kind, and funny. On the bad, she has a one-track mind. When something captures her attention, all else sinks in importance. At those times, she’s irritable or even angry with anyone who tries to divert her. She has curly hair, long fingers, a wide smile, and small eyes. Kenzi Parsons may have gone much further than this, but for our purposes we have enough to get started.

We review Tamara’s attributes and think what her objectives might be. Her one-track mind suggests possibilities, so in our notes for this story we list what she might be obsessed about right now, and we keep in mind all the other things we know about her. We pledge to ourselves that we’re going to come up with at least ten possibilities, and, further, that we won’t judge any of them. Nothing is stupid or cliched when we write a list:

∙ She’s raising money for a daycare center in her town.

∙ She’s working on a stand-up comedy routine.

∙ She’s determined to rescue her best friend from a bad romantic relationship.

∙ She’s researching plastic surgery to make a person’s eyes bigger. Once she finds out what she needs, she’s going to devote herself to making it happen.

∙ She’s preparing to join the army (real army or fantasy army).

∙ She’s preparing to rescue the child hostages from their captors in the warring kingdom of Kuth.

∙ She’s developing plans for a flying machine.

∙ She’s trying to save from extinction a species of tiny frogs that still exist only in her rural county.

∙ She’s deep and dark into magic books to cure her brother of the mysterious condition that caused him to stop speaking.

∙ She’s plotting revenge against a relative who sabotaged her frog project.

There. Ten. But if nothing pleases us we can go for fifteen.

Tied up in her obsessions are objectives. She wants to succeed! We can move the plot forward by placing obstacles in her path, some that come from within her, some from circumstances, and some from our other characters, who may want her to fail or may bungle helping her. We can list possible obstacles.

I chose her one-track mind to concentrate on, but I could have picked another of her qualities, although long fingers might be hard, but I bet we could do it. Anyway, her loyalty is suggestive, too. Here’s a prompt: Think about where her loyalties lie. List ten possibilities. Then think about how they might morph into objectives. Create a story around one possibility.

Kenzi Parsons has created more characters. If we have more, we can keep them in mind as we invent our lists, and we can give them the list treatment, too, remembering as we do that their objectives need to relate to Tamara’s in helpful or unhelpful ways.

I love lists. If you read the notes for any of my books, you’d find lists cropping up every few pages (I often have over 200 pages of notes for a novel).

After we we’ve come up with our objectives and have thought of obstacles, we start imagining how they might play out in scenes. And we’re off with a starter plot!

More prompts:

∙ Pick one–or more–of Tamara’s obsessions and use it in a story.

∙ I decided to go with Melissa Mead’s misfit idea and imagined ten ways in which Tamara might be different. Pick one and use it in a story. Melissa Mead already suggested a few objectives, and you may think of more. Here are the ten ways:

  1. She has only one arm (with those long fingers)
  2. She has the same genetic condition that caused Abraham Lincoln to be so tall and ??? At the age of twelve she’s a foot taller than everyone she knows.
  3. Her family have been farmers for centuries. She lives in a farming community. Nobody cares about anything but the size of pigs and pumpkins. She hates all of it. She has a brown thumb, and the livestock hate her.
  4. She has a different fashion sense than everyone else. She looks wrong on every occasion.
  5. She’s way smarter than everyone else around her, off-the-charts smarter.
  6. She’s the stupidest in her family and her school.
  7. She can’t pronounce the long i.
  8. Her brain is oddly wired. Psychologists keep diagnosing her with an alphabet soup of acronyms, but nothing really fits.
  9. She sees other people as numbers. People who appear as long numbers scare her, but she feels close to people who have a 9 in their number. (Look! This is the ninth in my list! What a coincidence!)
  10. She’s an identical twin, but although she and her sister look exactly alike, that’s where the similarities end.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Known quantities

Just curious: Did anyone join in the Woozworld event? I found it strange and didn’t feel as if I met anyone, really. If you were there, what was your experience?

Here’s a link to an interesting article in The New York Times about the cheerful bias in journalism and, by extension I guess, in humanity: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/science/why-we-all-sound-like-pollyannas.html. I think it’s something to keep in mind as we write stories.

On September 18th or later, writeforfun wrote, I’ve been meaning to start writing the third book in my trilogy for months now, but I’m stuck, and a big part of it, I think, is that I can’t seem to keep my characters interesting enough for a third book. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense. You see, in book one, my MC, Ben gets kidnapped by the five others, grows to accept them, and then gets rescued by them – and he ends up marrying one of them. In book two, all six of them are the MC’s, and they all go on a top-secret mission with a couple of CIA agents to save the world, and learn how awesome they can be. In book three, all six of the MC’s have to track down a mysterious criminal who is trying to capture Ben and his wife’s daughter. This’s where I run into trouble. Half of the book is about Ben’s daughter (that half comes with its own set of problems). The other half is about the six of them trying to catch the stalker, but the whole thing just doesn’t seem new and interesting enough. I mean, we’ve already learned about these characters and seen them reacting in regular life, and we’ve seen them in action and being awesome. What now? I know my characters and I love them like they’re my family, and it’s not that I’m really bored with them; but I can’t think of anything that will really keep me, or the reader, motivated to keep watching them. Is there any way to keep well-known, previously established characters interesting and surprising?

Michelle Dyck responded: First idea off the top of my head is: if you’re getting bored with the characters, maybe they’re getting bored with each other. It sounds as if they’ve been together for a long time. Even if they’re close, so much time together can give rise to conflicts (petty or otherwise). Just think of sibling rivalry.

And Deborah O’Carroll sympathized: I’m having a similar problem with a trilogy of mine… I’m trying to write the second book, but in the first one I already had monsters and trying-to-save-the-world, so going down a step to minor mysteries seems like an anticlimax, and I’m worried about the third as well… PLUS all the characters know each other now, and them not being sure about one of the characters the first time around was the other main source of tension… I’m trying to add some excitement, and keep a little leftover tension between the characters, plus I have some pretty big surprises the character has been keeping from the others, one for this book and another for the third.

And Elisa suggested: Maybe you could add a new member to the group, one that not everyone knows or completely trusts. Perhaps a former criminal who worked with the “mysterious criminal” in your book. S/he could end up being either good or bad, but it would help up the tension whichever way you go.

I’ve said this before: We tend to be a little over-critical of our work, and I wonder if this is the problem now, because when I love a series I don’t mind that the characters are known quantities. In fact, their familiarity is part of what I enjoy, spending more time in their delightful company. For example, I adore the characters in the Discworld series: all the witches, Sam Vines and the others on the City Watch, DEATH. How can I love DEATH? But I do, and I wouldn’t change a bone in his skull!

Or take Sherlock Holmes, who is reliably brilliant, enigmatic, and difficult. If I knew him in real life, I might tire of his unexplained pronouncements, his certainty that what he’s involved with is more important than anything in my life, and his reliance on unhealthy substances. But in fiction? Never!

I’ve now written two, albeit short, series: the three Disney Fairies books and the two books about Elodie and the dragon Meenore, A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. I don’t count The Princess Tales because only Ethelinda appears in two books or Fairest, because Areida is just a minor character. Part of the fun of reading a series is seeing how beloved characters will be themselves in new situations. Same goes for writing a series. In Stolen Magic, I use Elodie’s mansioning skill to actually save lives; Meenore practices ITs reasoning powers in a different setting, and I discover IT likes to sing limericks; and the ogre, Count Jonty Um, behaves nobly as usual but is appreciated as never before. Returning to them was part of the fun of the writing.

Assuming, though, that Elisa isn’t just being over self-critical, let’s explore some possibilities to create freshness.

• I like Michelle Dyck’s idea of sowing dissension in the ranks of our heroes. Think of rock bands and how often they break up once they’ve achieved success. Think of anybody’s family cooped up together on a long car trip. Charming traits start to irritate, and annoying ones become character flaws as deep as the Grand Canyon. People try to behave and be their best selves, but sometimes– sometimes often–someone erupts. Regrettable words are spoken, and rifts form that take a while to heal.

• We can disable one or two or all of them or make some of them unavailable. Can be simple things. Zeke might have broken his leg. Yolanda may be babysitting her niece while her sister and brother-in-law are on vacation. Wayne is studying for exams in particle physics. Vera is in a running argument with her cousin and can think of nothing else. Uli is on an expedition to Antarctica. Tess is in a long-running chess competition. Whatever. Their attention is divided; they can’t always be there for each other. The problem needs their complete concentration, but they can’t give it.

• Our characters don’t have to stay the same forever. They can develop and change in good ways and bad, and they can do it in the course of the new book. We can watch in horrified fascination as Yolanda loses herself to the world of video games, where she can save universes without ever leaving her chair. Uli can achieve a higher state of consciousness through meditation, which changes his perspective on threats. In the end this higher state may contribute to the stalker’s defeat, but in the meanwhile he may seem lost to his friends. Tess can fall in love.

• Are our MCs, individually or as a group, invincible? If they’ve already saved the world, is a stalker enough of a challenge? Can we introduce some new Achilles’ heels for each of them so that the threat intensifies?

• We make the stalker the perfect villain for our MCs. He knows how to turn their goodness against them. He uses their own strengths to their disadvantage. This may call for more scenes for him and possibly more character development. We show how he thinks; we lay out the resources he has at his disposal; we reveal his despicable plan for Ben’s wife’s daughter. We demonstrate how he spies on our heroes, and the reader squirms as he gathers his data. In both my Fairies books and the mysteries, the excitement comes from the fresh danger, and maybe this is what we need to do here.

• As Elisa suggests, we can introduce another new character, or more than one. The stalker can have allies, and there can be other characters who are trying to bring him to justice. We can have fun developing all of the newbies. The reader will be interested in how we bring them into our plot.

Here are three prompts:

• Remember the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz and how she watches Dorothy and her friends in her crystal ball? The stalker has this actual ball, which he got on a trip to Oz. Write a scene in which he’s observing one or more of our heroes. You can use any of them, from Zeke to Tess, in any of the scenarios I laid out, or make up some of your own. Include his thoughts and his plans as he spies.

• There have been a bunch of TV and movie spinoffs based on Sherlock Holmes. Why shouldn’t we join the fun? Holmes is presented with the problem of a missing heiress and a threat against the life of the chief of chief constable in the English town of Chipping Norton. Write the story and be sure to include Dr. Watson and arch-villain Moriarty. At least at the beginning of your story, keep them as their old selves. If you change them, make sure the reader sees the transformation take place.

• The stalker is after Yolanda, who is addicted to video games. Her friends, our heroes, try one way after another to try to get her back. Following Michelle Dyck’s idea, they start to argue over their friend. Write a scene in which words are spoken that aren’t easy to take back. The band of six is disbanding. Make it happen. You decide whether or not to reunite them.

Have fun, and save what you write!