Perpetual-motion characters

Before I talk about this week’s question, I want you to know that you can now pre-order A Tale of Two Castles through the website (and other places, too). And – thank you, April, for this question on the blog! – for me it’s best if you buy from the website because I get a tad more money when you do.

Also, on the appearances page of the website are the places I’ll be on my book tour in May – no details yet, just the cities.

And there was an article in yesterday’s Health and Science Section of the New York Times about self-compassion and diet, which reminded me of last week’s post. If you substitute writing for diet and eating, everything applies. You can read the article by following the link:,%20tara%20parker%20pope&st=cse
On December 10, 2010, Ruthie wrote …I tend to get overly obsessive about my stories–or, more accurately, my characters. For example, I have been vomiting up increasingly esoteric facts about the same fictitious people for over a year. I can tell you everything from their childhood hobbies right down to the shoe size for even my most minor characters. Whenever I write (whenever I think, really), it ends up being superfluous conversations between them or them just doing everyday tasks. And nothing happens. They all have their own flaws and friends and jobs and niches in their world; they could all continue the way they are right now, like a literary perpetual motion machine that never goes anywhere. If this isn’t to vague a request… help?

You may have heard this before: When we fall in love with our characters it can be hard to make bad things happen to them, which of course is what we have to do. I fall victim to this sometimes. But an in-depth understanding is a fabulous asset. When our characters’ situation does worsen, we know exactly what will work best to make them unravel.

We don’t have to start big with the misery. Often we want to begin with a little crisis and work gradually into tougher trouble. You know your characters’ flaws, so that’s a great place to start. Put two of them together. They’re outside the principal’s office, say, for talking during an assembly when a visiting children’s book author was speaking. Nan is self-centered, and she goes on about how her dad will combust if the principal calls him. Fran listens sympathetically, then starts to recount her own worry, which could be about the Algebra test she’s now missing. Nan listens for a minute, then says, “Yeah, I failed my French test last week,” and starts in on how mad her dad was. Fran feels rising anger and says, “You always do that.” Nan, although self-involved, is good about recognizing her faults, and she apologizes unstintingly. Then the principal comes out and calls the two girls in. Whatever happens there happens. Back to the argument. Fran’s flaw is to hold  a grudge. Even though her friend apologized, she doesn’t forgive or forget. Later in the day, she texts, “I’m still mad at you.” Nan now adds Fran to her list of troubles, even ahead of her dad, and she confides what Fran did to their mutual friend Dan. Dan, alas, likes to separate people. And the story is launched. Your intimate knowledge of these characters fuels the conflict until this tempest in a teapot threatens to go nuclear.

An important plot question, much discussed in books about writing, is to ask yourself what a character wants and erect barriers to her achieving her goal. This is a cinch for us if we have an exhaustive knowledge of our characters. What obstacles will most drive Nan nuts? If, for example, she has to really pay attention to somebody else, someone important to her, she will be very challenged. She can fail and fail again, starting in small ways and moving up, until the reader is biting his nails up to his elbows.

We can also throw our character in at the deep end. Instead of asking what Nan most wants, ask what she most fears and make it happen right at the start of the story. I’d guess that Nan is needy, probably insecure, but one person makes her feel safe, her Aunt Jacqueline. So give Aunt J cancer. How does Nan deal with this? We know her inside out, so we know. Up until the diagnosis she’s terrific, calling her aunt every day, visiting her every other day. But aside from that, she isn’t sleeping or keeping up with her schoolwork, and she has to visit the principal’s office again. Then the diagnosis is bad. Nan gets the news from her mother and doesn’t call Aunt J. In fact, she won’t pick up when Aunt J calls. Nan becomes self-destructive in the ways that we who get her completely can most easily imagine.

The problem doesn’t have to be close to home, either. Aliens can invade. Centaurs can take over Nan’s village. If she has an inflated idea of herself as well as being self-centered, she can think the incursion has to do with her, and she can act accordingly with hilarious or tragic results. Only you will know what she’ll wear for her first meeting with the alien captain. Only you can guess how she’ll react to a ceremonial dinner of rattlesnake-eyeball stew.

If you love your characters so much that you freeze when you try to make trouble for them, think about their inner resources. Maybe this is the only area you haven’t developed. Nan is insecure, but maybe she’s got a stubborn core that keeps her from being overwhelmed. Or she can laugh at herself, which rescues her in her worst moments. If you figure out how your characters can rise above whatever befalls them, you may be more willing to unleash the worst.

There’s conflict in your question, Ruthie. Your characters may not be in the middle of a problem, but you are, so you can write about yourself as a fictional character. How does the character Ruthie learn how to put her marvelous creations into a story? Maybe she takes a creative writing class from a teacher who humiliates her in front of everybody (remember, this is the fictional Ruthie) and the pain gets her writing, but the characters she knows so well refuse to do what she expects them to. She discusses the problem with one of her classmates, Nan, who seems a lot like one of her characters, which is not good. The reader may not care much about the characters who continue to chat and shop and eat their favorite foods, but he does care about Ruthie.

Or Ruthie can go to a party and find the entire cast of her fictional world there, in the flesh. How did this happen? What does it mean? How is her friend Nan, who came with her, doing with all these people? Has Nan figured it out? Is Nan even experiencing these people the way Ruthie is?

Here’s another thought: Throw your characters together without Ruthie and write their dialogue. Don’t force anything. Just let it happen. Write at least ten pages without worrying about plot. When you’re ready to go through it, look for places where there’s the slightest hint of trouble, or more than a hint. Exploit these moments. Make them worse. Make someone cry. Keep going.

Here’s an off-the-wall idea: Invite some friends over, or try this with family. Give each friend one of your character descriptions. Suggest a situation with inherent trouble. In character, your pals are trapped together in the bottom of a mine. Or they have a school assignment to write together about mining, and half their final grade will depend on it. Or they’re going against one another in some kind of competition. Don’t you be one of the characters. You’re the observer, writing notes. When you see something promising for a story, write it down. You can stop the action whenever you want and ask a character to repeat a line that went by too fast. You can tell them to take their improvisation in a direction that looks promising to you. Or you can just let them rip. The advantage of this is that you’re bringing in people who will be perfectly willing to create drama, who won’t love the characters as much as you do, and you’ll be able to see what can happen to them. Of course, it also may not work, but everyone may still enjoy trying.

A bunch of prompts are embedded in this post:

∙    Use my argument starter and make up your own situation to put it in, or use mine, the two main characters outside the principal’s office. The argument starter is, “You always do that.”

∙    Pick a character you don’t know what to do with and ask what he fears most. Or use a secondary character from one of your other stories. Bring his worst fear down on him. Write about how he responds. Does he overcome? Or are you writing a tragedy, and he succumbs?

∙    Stage an alien invasion or village takeover by non-human creatures. Invent or use as an existing character as your main character, someone who will respond to this trouble in a surprising way.

∙    Write about a writer who can’t figure out what to do with her characters. Have her take a writing class from a sadistic teacher and meet a classmate who could be straight out of one of her failed stories.

∙    Send your writer to a party attended by her characters. Make them get mad at her. Write what happens.

∙    Write dialogue for your purposeless characters. After ten pages, go back and look for hints of conflict and blow them up. Keep writing.

∙    Turn your characters into an improvisation for friends or family. Take notes while they perform. If trouble erupts, write it down. Push the plot they’re creating with suggestions. You can even videotape them in action.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Too bad you're visiting Chicago this year instead of last year! I would have loved to meet you.

    Also, great prompts! These sound so fun and interesting.

  2. I love writing but I have this habit of jumping right into the plot. In the story I have been writing, the characters are introduced with a small amount of background and then suddenly the main plot line is introduced. I have tried to stretch it out but I haven't been able to work it out properly. Please help me. You can read my story on one of my blogs:
    Thanks 😀

  3. These prompts look fun…especially the last one…I think we did something like that in Theatre class once, except we didn't use characters from a book, we just pulled character traits out of a hat. I will also have to check out that article, seems pretty nifty. 🙂
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine.

  4. At some point would you be able to adress the question of "Why do we read" and the (very hard) issue of balancing your reading with both fiction and non-fiction?

  5. Elizabeth–I don't understand your questions. Do you mean why children learn to read or why adults read books? And why do we need to balance fiction and nonfiction? Sorry for not getting it!

  6. I'm not sure if it is bad, but I just get the feeling that I'm getting into the story too quickly and there isn't much for readers to really get acquainted with the characters.

  7. @maricafajaffa– sometimes I find you need to write a bunch before even you can get acquainted with the characters. I know I've found that it really doesn't matter how much I figure out about my characters before I start writing (I'm a total fan of the age/gender/height/weight/likes/dislikes/etc forms), because once I'm in the story, they often end up going off and doing their own thing anyway. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's always time to add more about who your characters are in the beginnging AFTER you've written enough to know that yourself. There's a huge difference between the first draft and the final product. You don't have to get it perfect on the first try. Heaven knows I never have. 🙂
    Hope this has been helpful…

  8. @Elizabeth: I'm guessing you mean the difficulty for writers to balance reading with finding time for writing. I identify! If I pick up a book, then I know all the writing I need to get done will NOT get done until I have finished the book. Or the series. I'm in the middle of this problem now with reading the Inkheart series! So I think a post on that would be quite interesting.

    @Gail: A couple of posts back you mentioned how often you restart your book. Does that ever make it hard to meet deadlines? I'm having a problem somewhat like this. I'm a "planner" and have to know my plot outline, characters and setting before I start the first draft. And right now I'm taking a course on novel writing from the Institute of Children's Literature. I'm on my fourth assignment, where I'm supposed to write the first third of my novel. The problem is, when I started to do the edits the my instructor noted on my chapter outline–my entire plot changed. Completely. My main character moved out of the real world into the fantasy world and her quest changed etc. So I had to rewrite that and redo my characters…and I'm still not done. My deadline is in mid April, and I'm afraid I won't be able to meet it. I guess what I'm asking is: how can I work on this "pre-planning" (characters, setting, research) while also writing? Sorry, I know its confusing. Maybe I just need some organizational tips!

    I know this is really long, sorry about that. Any ideas from anyone would be appreciated!

  9. I agree with Kilmeny of the Ozarks–it would be great to see a post about writing with deadlines. Personally, I've been working on the same novel for a little over five years now, and I've changed and changed and changed the entire plot over and over. It gets me worried that I'll never finish–and as I want to write books for a living, this is kind of problematic!
    How long did Ella take to write? Did you do a lot of editing before sending it to publishers? How did you know when you were done?

  10. maricafajaffa–I agree with Charlotte, and I'm adding your question about getting to know your characters to my list.

    Kilmeny of the Ozarks–I don't read as much as I used to now that I'm not taking mass transit to work. I just finished a great young adult novel today, though, and I did stop writing to finish it – WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell, for the upper age range of YA. As for your second question, I'm adding it to my list.

  11. I love knowing random details about my characters–favorite flower, what shoes they wear. I recently noticed that all my main characters wear boots. Different stories, different countries, different centuries, but all boots. Not sure what that means! But anyway, I find sometimes a small detail can end up being a big part of a story. One character's favorite flower ended up becoming symbolic of her, and of her love story. But I haven't found a way to use the boots yet! 🙂

    I don't think knowing endless details is a problem…the trick is figuring out which details matter for the story, and which ones are just nice to know in the back of your mind.

    On the sub-discussion about reading in the comments, for myself I balance reading and writing by reading during the day when I have small periods of time in around my job, and then writing in the evening when I can devote a longer stretch to it.

  12. Ms. Levine,
    I have trouble pacing my stories. I'd enjoy writing action or an important moment for the characters more than writing the necessary slower scenes to give the reader a chance to keep up. Do you have any suggestions? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  13. @marveloustales–I think you nailed the key to character details. It's a lot like the post "Chop-Chop-Choppy" a few weeks ago–plot elements can seem small when you write them and become important later, and character elements can do the same.
    This is crazy–I almost never comment on this blog, and now I've got three comments on the same post! This is fun! 🙂

  14. hey ms. levine! :] i was wondering if you could write a post on how to write beginning's – I always get stuck for 'em! I rewrite mine about a thousand times…

  15. I usually spend a lot of time working on almost my pre-story (but not the prologue). I write about the character before she goes to the new school or long before she meets a dragon. Then, I actually start my story. Also, I was wondering if you had any advice on foreshadowing? I feel like the slight hints that I drop are too obvious or so slight that no one picks up on them, but I'm not sure how to make them less obvious. Are there any posts on this already?

  16. I'm sorry it took me so long to get back here, my internet connection was down. Let me clarify:

    Last semester my husband taught a literature course, and he opened the semester with the question, "Why do we read?"

    There is no one right answer, and it can be summed up that we read to expand our intellect and immagination. Which leads to the next question I asked about: Limiting yourself (the reader) to only one type of material.

    The problem of reading only fantasy books for whatever reason; because you're escaping from trouble at home or school, because you think you're a vampire, or even because you're afraid of learning something new.

    I know that young people do this a lot and I'm finding as I get older that it's not something that's solved just by passing your 21st (and I don't anticipate 30 to be magical either) birthday. I ask, Ms. Levine, because I hope that you can help encourage me (there I said it) and others like me, to be better.

  17. Elizabeth, so in other words, you'd like to know Gail's opinion on reading multiple genres, versus just one kind all the time?

    Also, I've been noticing several new "faces" in the comments lately. Pretty exciting! 🙂

  18. Elizabeth–Your question is outside my expertise, but I'll offer an opinion, so I've added your question to my list.

    April–Yes! It's terrific to read posts from people new to the blog and from lurkers – and also from people old to the blog.

  19. I get so much from reading this blog, and I've discovered that it's an even more complete experience when I read the discussions in the comments as well :)There are some great questions and insights that go into these discussions that impact my writing every week! Not to mention the actual blog post itself, which often feels like it is tailored to whatever I am facing in my writing. Quite serendipitous 🙂 Thanks Ms. Levine and everyone!

  20. Marveloustales: this is a bit late but if you see it, hey, here is a fellow fan of boots. I have what, three, four pairs?
    And if there's something I really want, clothes-wise, but can't get it, I have a habit of giving it to one of my characters. 😉

  21. I love these suggestions so much! The idea of having friends/family act out a situation as your characters is a great potential way of getting ideas for your characters when they're stuck. The prompts are fantastic, too. It's always great to see ideas on how to give characters a kick out the door when they're being troublesome.

    Is it all right if I link to this post on my social networking sites?

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