Real reacting

Before I start, just a word to the NaNoWriMo writers: You are heroes! Sleep, eating, family, TV, normal life are all overrated. Go for it! Have fun!

On July 10, 2011, Lexi wrote, My MC in the real world is kidnapped by some strange-looking people. They kidnap him to protect him, but my MC doesn’t understand that at first so he should be freaked-out by them. The problem is, the characters who kidnapped him are good so I have a hard time making my MC dislike them. How do you make the main react realistically?

I’m thinking a lot about realistic reacting as I’m writing Beloved Elodie, not only for Elodie and the other POV characters (I’m writing from several points of view), but also for the secondary characters.

Of course I haven’t seen your story, Lexi, so I can’t be sure, but you might approach this by sticking close to events. For some reason or no reason, I’m thinking of these kidnappers as aliens, so I’ll give them alien names: Fllep and Yunk. Suppose Fllep and Yunk enter Keith’s house in the middle of the night and tie him to his bedstead. They leave him, and a minute or two later he hears bumps and crashes from his younger sister’s room. The situation seems clear, at least to him. They’re baddies, and, depending on his personality, he’s terrified or angry, or, I suppose, if he’s evil too, amused. Or amused if he happens to have some secret weapon or if he knows his sister can handle an alien duo. The possibilities multiply fast even in the simplest situation.

Now, suppose before leaving Keith alone, Fllep and Yunk bring his stuffed elephant over from the bureau for him to cuddle with. What’s Keith’s realistic reaction to this? Could be confusion. The reader is likely to be unsure how to understand this surprising development. Keith can have other responses here too, depending on his nature. For instance, he could be annoyed that these aliens think he’s so babyish that he needs his elephant – even while he clutches it to his chest.

So, realism depends on action and personality and probably a few hundred other factors, like, for example, what else has been going on in the story. Obviously, if we’re in the middle of the tale, Keith is likely to have some ideas about the aliens.

I often interview my characters to learn their take on events. In this method I might do this:

Me: What do you think of the beings who just broke into your home and strapped you to the headboard of your bed?

Keith: I’m terrified. They weren’t wearing masks so I can identify them. What are they going to do to me? I’m freezing even though it’s warm in here, and I can’t seem to put two thoughts together. I wish I could untie knots with my toes.


Keith: Some costumes on those dudes! Wait till Sis sees them. She’ll laugh her head off while she’s decapitating them. I hope she remembers to check on her big brother afterward.

If it’s early days for your story and you don’t know Keith well yet, interviewing can flesh him out. He may answer your questions in surprising ways that will help. So you can ask him how he’d feel and what he’d do in a Fllep-Yunk situation.

Interviewing characters doesn’t always work. Nothing works every time, but usually this is a good technique for me. Characters who lie in my story don’t lie in the interview; they know we’re having a behind-the-scenes conversation.

When interviewing a character fails, I can ask myself how I would respond in Keith’s place, knowing what he knows and doesn’t know. If he’s anything like me, I can be a reasonably reliable guide. And I can ask other real people. When I was writing The Two Princesses of Bamarre the character of Addie, who’s very shy, sometimes eluded me, so I would ask my writing buddy, Joan, who’s also shy, and she’d tell me how a particular situation would affect her.

Character responses take three forms, or I can’t come up with more than three: emotional, thinking, and physical. In Keith’s first reaction, he says he’s scared, his emotion. He’s cold in a warm room, a physical reaction brought on by emotion. He says he can’t think, which is thinking, likewise wishing for more flexible toes is thinking. You don’t have include all three each time, but remember the possibilities.

You’ve set up the situation that creates the reaction. A question you may want to ask yourself is whether you’ve given Keith enough information to go on. Maybe the aliens have deposited him somewhere. He’s gagged, blindfolded, and tied up. He’s frightened, yes, and you can write about that, but it can’t go very far without external input. What clues are you giving him (like the stuffed elephant, also possible sounds and smells) to build a response on? It’s these clues, the objective data, combined with Keith’s personality that will get you a realistic response.

And realistic doesn’t necessarily mean predictable. Keith may be happy when one would expect him to be scared. He may be thinking more about something surprising a classmate said that day than about the aliens.

Beloved Elodie, many of you know, is a mystery, and my secondary characters have hidden motives and backstories that are unknown to the reader and to Elodie, and these motives and backstories come into play. What’s more, I’m not entirely certain who my villain is, although one particular character is looking more and more likely. In any given situation I’m asking my characters how they would respond if they’re innocent and how if they’re guilty. I’ve been suspecting that the solution to the whole story hinges on realistic reactions.

Masteress Meenore, the dragon detective, presents a special challenge when it comes to realistic response, not only because IT’s a dragon but also because IT’s brilliant. Can I think of everything IT would? Am I drawing all the conclusions IT would? This is another case of the character’s nature shaping a response.

Enough about me. Prompts time. When you do these, think about including all three kinds of reaction, physical, emotional, and thought.
∙    Let’s start with Keith, tied to his bedstead, elephant on his lap, bangs and crashes reverberating through the house. Write three different reactions for him and make each one believable.

∙    Fllep and Yunk enter Keith’s sister’s room and find her wielding a sword, waiting for them. How does each alien react? Remember, they’re good guys.

∙    Erisette arrives for the second week of her training as a scout for King Aldric and is told that she’s been dropped from the cadre. Write three realistic responses from her. If you like, choose your favorite and keep going.

∙    Victor’s best friend, Caylie, texts him that he’s never there for her, that he’s selfish, and thoughtless, and everyone agrees with her, and she doesn’t want anything to do with him anymore, and he shouldn’t even text her back. Write three responses. Again, if you like, pick one and finish the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. That third prompt just might be going into my NaNovel!
    Which same NaNovel has plot trouble. I need motivations for my villains, you see. If anyone has any good motivations for villains…? Not an official question, just fishing.

  2. Beautiful post, Gail, as always! You just cleared up one of the problems I'm having in my story right now! I always have a hard time making my characters act realistically, but I already interviewed two of my characters, and it't already helped! Thanks!

    @Rina – one of my favorite villain motives is a grudge – a grudge from a long time ago, that the reader may or may not find out about. You know, like a grumpy old villain seeking revenge on his brother's children because his brother had always gotten everybody's attention when they were kids. Only a villain could take revenge for something so trivial and so long-gone! Of course, his motive could also be jealousy, especially of romantic type! Or a thousand other things.

  3. Good luck, NaNo-ers!

    I have a weird way of getting to know my characters better. I sit them all down in an imaginary room, and have them order a pizza. With, at most, 2 toppings. Which everyone, heroes and villains alike, has to agree upon. They have to explain the reasons for their choices, and then convince the others to agree.

    (This is especially fun if their world doesn't have pizza to begin with.)

  4. From the website:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! Two weeks in a row of sheer inspiration. You are a hero, and this post is so helpful! You answered my question exactly. Thank you!

    P.S. Actually, you're pretty close – the strange people do look like aliens. Good guess! And I love the names:-)

  5. melissajm–What fun!

    Rina–Greed, jealousy, power hunger, and just plain born mean, to name a few. Also I did write a post on villains, which you can click on on the right. And I'm adding your question to my list for a new one.

  6. Hey, I've got a problem right now that I wondered if anyone could help me with. In the story I’m writing, my Average Joe MC goes on a government mission for either the CIA or the FBI with two experienced secret agents. The trouble is, I have no idea how a government mission would work, and even less of an idea how to make it seem realistic. How should I research the idea? Should I try to find books on the subject or read fiction spy books and see how they deal with it? What books would you and the bloggers suggest?

  7. I've used the character interviewing technique before, and it was a lot of fun – the answers were surprising! I heard some things I never expected to hear.

    @melissajm – I love that idea! I might have to try it . . . haha, it would take forever, because my characters never agree on anything. 🙂

    @Rina – I agree with Gail and writeforfun about the whole villain thing. I personally like looking back at my character's histories, especially their relationships with other people, to see what events might have influenced a certain fear, loathing, desire, or something else. I know I can trace back things that people have said or done as influences in my own life, and it's cool to do it with my characters, too.

    Actually, I recently wrote a scene with my villainess where she's trying to convince my MC to do something, and she explains her motives. I'd had some picture of how she'd turned into the evil mess she was, but I never really hear her side of the story, and my MC hadn't, either. He'd gone to see her in the first place with the plan of defeating her (potentially killin her) and ending all the unrest going on. But now I can't bring him to do it. My villainess has suffered so much, more than any of the people she's hurt, and she doesn't have the desire to go on fighting. It would almost seem better if she died and ended it all, except that my MC can't do it.

    I didn't mean to make it this complicated, but I don't see how I can take it out. Does anybody have any advice?

    By the way, good luck to all you NaNo-ers out there!

  8. Gail- Especially if someone starts a food fight. 😉

    @JennaRoyal- Thanks! It's more fun if they don't agree, because you learn what everyone thinks of each other, how they handle conflict, who has the most influence over the others, etc.
    (And if the world doesn't have pizza, you learn how they react to a totally alien concept.)

    The other thing I do is pretend they're choosing music to listen to and see what they pick and why.

  9. From the website:

    @Rina-It can be hard to write villains, yes, and I find myself leaning towards the stereotypical ones sometimes. What I've decided to do in my NaNoNovel is have you gradually through the book discover how the villain turned evil. It won't be showing you that the villain isn't bad now-it will be showing that he wasn't always bad. What I'm trying to say is that you should give your villains depth if you can. Good luck!

  10. More from the website:

    Oh whoops Rina I misread your question :-[] I thought you said you needed ideas for villains not motivations. You don't have to post either of these posts on the blog of course Gail.

  11. More:

    @Jenna Royal-This may be a little harsh, especially if it's a children's story, but you could have your villainess kill herself. If you don't want to do that, I suggest a dark, deep dungeon, a curse, or a banishment.

  12. @Jenna Royal – is there any way you could allow your hero to befriend the villain and turn her good. Of course, that would turn the villain into the hero of sorts and the only conflict would be the problems she's already created and clearing her name. But it would have a happy ending! Sorry, I love happy endings.

  13. @ Jenna Royal–there could also be another character who ends up killing your villainess besides the MC. It almost seems as though that's where the story's leading anyway–maybe the hero knows too much to kill her now, but not everybody knows all that stuff and if she's done truly terrible stuff, she'll have plenty of other people wanting to do her in. Or she could die in an accident, or even saving the hero from something else, if she turns out to be sort of good in the end.

  14. @Elizabeth, writeforfun and Charlotte – thanks for your suggestions! I actually did consider having her killing herself, but it seems really dark. I was thinking my story would probably be more YA than children's, but it still seems harsh. She can't live, though, either – she's too broken and guilty. But maybe if she dies a hero? I never thought of that before. She's a sorceress, and she overuses her own powers. Perhaps something she does could backfire, and she can save my hero but not herself? Hmm . . . I'll have to think on this.

    @melissajm – that's a really cool idea! And it sounds like a lot of fun, too. 🙂

  15. @Jenna Royal– maybe you could do what Gail does in a Tale of Two Castles. She banishes Princess Renn, even though she killed someone. I think a banishment would be good, but I didn't exactly LOVE the ending, sorry Gail– I'm a happy ending type of gal!! But A Tale of Two Castles is my absolute fav of your books.
    Maybe she (your villainess) could quest to solve the problems she created but dies or contracts a serious illness on the way? Or, if you're feeling partial to the villainess, you could totally turn the plot around and make her a protagonist. I like the idea of a quest, though…
    BTW, my username on the younger NaNoWriMo site is The Writeress. Feel free to make me your buddy!!!

  16. hi! havent commented in a while but still reading!
    @Rina- to find out motives, get to know the villain- what is she doing, why would she even THINK of it… things like that.
    @writeforfun- do ALL of those things! Books, Google, blogs, webistes… whatever you can. Have fun with it too though 🙂
    @Jenna Royal and others- I've enjoyed reading your suggestions to JR. Especially about the MC befriendling the villain. I wouldn't go that far but what if… you somehow make the villain one of the readers favorite characters and she could die by doing something to turn things around or do good? I dont know if that makes sense but I hope it helps…
    @anyone! Im doing NaNoWriMo! My username is SilverSparrow on the adult site and writer_dancer000424 on the young one.

  17. Welliewalks – thanks, that's what I've been trying. It's amazing how hard it is to find books about secret agencies, though. I wonder why;)On the same note, does anyone know any good fiction spy books? The ones I looked up on amazon all had awful reviews. My worst fear is that my books will end up being cheesy, so I want to see how others handle it.

  18. Jenna Royal, Thanks!

    writeforfun, Amazon reviews are notoriously subjective anyway.

    If this makes you feel any better, here are parts of one of my best reviews, and one of my worst:

    "A top notch little piece, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s underrated adult work."
    "The weakest entries in the anthology…can be found from…Melissa Mead…"

    Guess what? They were both for the same story. 😉

  19. @Melissajm – wow, from those segments, I never would have guessed it was for the same story! I guess they are a bit subjective, huh? Just the same, I would appreciate spy book recommendations from anyone.

  20. Thanks, Gail and Writeforfun!

    Re: The reviews: And those weren't even Amazon ones! Those were "official" reviews. Reviews are odd things.

    I don't know any good spy books, but are you on LiveJournal? There's a group called Little Details where people can ask each other writing research questions.

  21. From the website:

    I'm considering self-publishing the novella I wrote this October on a free self-publishing site called Lulu. I'm only 11 and I don't have the money to buy their advertising bundles or any other bells and whistles, and I was wondering, does anybody have any ideas for cheap advertising for books?

  22. Elizabeth–I just visited the Lulu site, and it doesn't look free to me, not free to get a book published. I suggest you approach this with caution – and the advice of a trusted adult. Congratulations on finishing your novella!

  23. Be careful- there are a lot of outfits out there that claim to be publishers and are just out for $.

    The famous "Yog's Law" says "Money flows TO the writer." Generally, respectable publishers don't charge authors to publish their books. (Lulu is pretty honest, but understand that they're a print-on-demand service, not a major publishing house.)

    I check here before dealing with a publisher:

  24. Melissa- I know authors who write thousands of words some days and few or none on others. The most I ever did in a day was 6,000, but generally… well, there's a reason I don't make a living from my writing. 😉

  25. melissajm – I've never heard of livejournal. I'll have to look it up.

    Melissa – On a good day, I usually can expect to write two pages (that's after homework and all that). On some days, four or five, on others, none.

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