Making It Personal

On September 21, 2017, Carley Anne wrote, All right, so I have a fabulously difficult journey that my main characters are going on, full of life-threatening natural obstacles, with time slipping quickly through their fingers, and an ever-looming bad guy (not to mention, getting chased by castle guards, who don’t realize that the mc’s are trying to do good!). My problem is, I feel like (although the bad guy wants to GET mc’s personally), the difficulties aren’t personal enough. I wish there was more of a Hattie versus Ella sort of thing going on, and I was hoping for some advice on getting that vibe, without changing the entire course of my plot-line.

A little lecture is in order. Sorry!

Everything is up for grabs when we write and when we revise. If a character isn’t working, we have to fix her, even if she has to change gender, go from hero to villain, get older, get younger, lose a finger or two–whatever! If our plot needs a complete overhaul, which it may not, we have to give it one.

If we don’t, as I know from sad experience, our story will bog down. We’ll feel like we’re typing with mittens on, afraid to touch this or that. When this happens to me, I get bored and sleepy. My forehead hits the keyboard. My snores resound.

Sometimes we (I) have to rewrite hundreds of pages, change tense or POV, add characters, cut characters. We have to serve our story, no matter what.

End of lecture.

I love the guards’ confusion!

I’m understanding Carley Anne’s question as being about emotional connection, and when our characters connect emotionally, in a positive or negative way, our readers will connect, too.

In the case of Ella and Hattie, the negative connection works two ways. *SPOILER ALERT!* Skip this paragraph if you haven’t read Ella Enchanted and plan to. When Hattie takes Ella’s necklace, Ella’s dislike of her is sealed and hardens to rock as Hattie continues to order her around, playing on Ella’s obedience. Hattie may not be naturally villainous, but she’s profoundly jealous of Ella, who has more charm in a fingernail than Hattie has in her entire body. Also, to Hattie’s dismay, Ella doesn’t have an embarrassing mother and sister, either. Then, at finishing school, Ella makes a real friend, a comfort and pleasure Hattie has never experienced. In persecuting Ella, she keeps trying to even the scales, which infuriatingly continue to go the other way. Ella remains appealing, and Hattie worsens because of her own cruelty.

The reader sides with Ella, and so did I while I wrote the book, although I also pitied her.

In Peter Pan, the original by James M. Barrie, Hook is always striving for and failing to reach something called “good form,” which Peter possesses effortlessly, and it’s this quality that stokes Hook’s hatred. In an interesting twist, Hook goes to his end pleased in one regard: he thinks Peter has violated good form at the final moment. Barrie himself doesn’t take a position on this and suggests that the good-form standard is just Hook’s fixation. Barrie is such an original writer, and this is one example.

So how can we get an emotional connection working for us between our villain and our MC?

Jealousy stokes both Hattie’s and Hook’s enmity. We can come up with a reason for our villain to envy our MC in an overwhelming and obsessive way. Any quality in our MC can do it: beauty, brains, charm, wealth.

Other emotions can motivate our villain as well. Let’s try fear. Our MC, Carole, is the first Martian to be elected to head a planetary council. Our villain, Griffith, fears, baselessly, that this election is just the beginning, and Martians will take over and enslave the earthlings. Griffith and Carole meet at a public event. Carole, unsuspecting, says something that’s interpreted by Griffith as a put-down of earthlings. Now it’s personal for him. He starts to take steps.

The fear can work both ways, and we get more tension if it does. Carole can–realistically–pick up something off, something fanatical, about Griffith. She’s seen it before and recognizes it and becomes afraid, too. She starts to take steps to protect herself and other Martians, not always wisely.

For our villain, we can use any negative emotion or state of mind: rage; prejudice; despair, thwarted love; even obsessive love, which is creepy. And we can use negative and positive emotions and states of mind to fuel our MC, too–such as protectiveness, determination, stubbornness, a commitment to justice.

It helps if we can bring our villain and MC together at least once when we’re building their animosity. They may become enemies at that point, or the animosity may already have been festering The air can sizzle with their antagonism. What was theoretical before becomes intensely personal.

Even the natural obstacles mentioned by Carley Anne may sometimes be made to be challenging in a personal way. When we can do it, we’ll ratchet up the tension. Our MC has to scale a sheer cliff wall, but she’s terrified of heights. Or she’s trekking to save her family when a hurricane blows in. She takes it personally, believing the universe is against her and the people she loves. A forest fire breaks out, and she loses focus, overwhelmed by memories of her brother’s death in a burning building.

Here are three prompts:

∙ When the mirror tells the evil queen that Snow White is the fairest, the queen doesn’t decide immediately that Snow White has to die. The queen hasn’t killed anyone before. She loves her husband and knows he’s fond of his daughter. She invites Snow White to the throne room for a chat. During that meeting something happens that seals future events. Write the scene.

∙ Write a campaign speech for Carole and write the scene in which she delivers it, with Griffith in the audience, misunderstanding, drawing wrong conclusions.

∙ Your MC and her antagonist have never heard of each other. They meet as a result of an online dating site. They arrange to meet for coffee. Write their meeting and their rapid progression from neutrality to dislike to loathing. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

      • Well, it’s those books I’ve mentioned about Malak, who’s half serpent-demon and half “angel,” basically. The first book’s mostly about his culture shock, and I think it works. But as the story goes on, it really ought to be less in Malak’s head and more about the larger ramifications of a half-demon living in the house of a Ward Minister (kind of like a senator), when the Ward Ministers are the ones who hire demon-hunters to protect humans from the serpent-demons.

        I love getting deep into characters’ heads and writing from there, but I really should have more stuff happening out there in the wide world, too.More “fabulously difficult journey,” as Carley Anne said.

          • Sure! I’m mostly thinking out loud, but if anybody had ideas on how to work through consequences of having “the enemy” in your house, and how to balance Big Picture and Little Picture thinking, I’d appreciate it. I’m used to writing short-shorts, with a small cast + small scale.Thanks!

          • I’m usually more on Carley Ann’s side: big picture stuff is easier for me than little picture. It might help to look at plot types: I like to refer to Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots when I need help with the big picture plot. Overcoming the Monster (defeating a villain) and Quest (seeking and earning a goal) are most focused on big picture. The others are Rags to Riches (small person overcomes obstacles), Voyage and Return (wandering into a strange new world and seeking to get home), Comedy (relationships become tangled until one bit of clarity rights all wrongs), Tragedy (Overcoming the Monster from the monster’s point of view), and Rebirth (the Monster descends into darkness, but turns and is able to become light).

            My WIP right now is being tricky because it’s got three POVs, so technically the big picture is the plot and all three of my main characters are actually subplots.Their families are seeking refuge from persecution, which is the overall story, and their character struggles are second.

          • If the first one is rebirth, it seems like now he’s already become good and he needs a new plot. What conflict is he up against? Prejudice/bigotry (and if so, which character represents it)? Is he turning against his former snake-demon allies and stopping their schemes? Or coming to the rescue of other former friends who might be able to change?

          • Great questions! Yes on the first two, There;s an overall arc that I don’t know how to explain without spoilers, except to say that I recently realized that all my books have been about outcasts finding home.

          • If the first book was a rebirth tale and the MC has been established as a “good guy” but there is still a lot of personal conflict and mistrusting characters “overshadowing” the MC then it seems to me that you’re set up for a “rags-to-riches” plot next. How can the MC prove his worth to the larger society? Usually it happens in two stages: first with help (e.g. Aladdin gets the princess with the help of the Djinn), and then with the help removed (e.g. The lamp is stolen and Aladdin has to outsmart the magician on his own to get his princess back).

  1. I had a weird, neat writer-experience as I was waking up today. When I “hear” a character’s voice in my head, it’s not so much hearing a recognizable voice as a sense of words, cadence, and general tone. Just before I woke up, I “heard” one of Malak’s lines as he would actually speak it. Just one sentence, but it was neat. (Despite looking a bit like David Tennant from the waist up, he didn’t have a British accent. I was kind of surprised about that.)

    I wasn’t really dreaming about Malak or the book, either. It was like my subconscious just said “Oh, BTW, here’s what your main character actually sounds like.” So now I know what a “serpent-demon accent” sounds like! 🙂

      • It’s a book. I haven’t started reading it yet, because my oldest nephew accidentally unwrapped the copy of Terry Pratchett’s Dragons at Crumbling Castle that my sister got for me, and was really disappointed that it wasn’t for him. So I’m reading that first so he can borrow it. This family needs another Pratchett fan. 🙂

  2. I’m in a quandary about my current story, an adult fantasy. The first chapter is told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy, and works in the setting, villain, main character, MC’s stepsister (source of conflict, plus the second MC’s romantic interest), and the overall story conflict. The rest of the story is told from three points of view, none of which are this boy. Right now I have it labeled as a first chapter, but the point of view shift means it’s really more of a prologue. It’s not strictly necessary, as the next chapter will also show the setting, overall story conflict, and all three MCs (the boy and stepsister come up again in chapter 4).
    So, should the first chapter be a prologue, a first chapter, or (gulp) cut entirely?

    If you need more detail, I have the first chapter as a sneak peek on my website:

      • He’s more of a minor character, but he appears throughout. It makes more sense as a prologue (especially since there’s an epilogue that mirrors it), but I worry that there’s a stigma against prologues in the publishing world/with readers.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I have written a post on prologues, which may be helpful.

          You can defer the decision about cutting or not cutting until you finish your first draft. I often find that a story element I just threw in becomes important later on. For example, you may discover that you need to drop something in to set up a later event, and–aha!–that child’s POV is the perfect place for it.

  3. How long until a prologue is too long? I’m working on a story that has a pivotal point in the past. The young queen and king are attacked on a ship at sea and killed, but just before the queen dies, she gives her child to a maid to raise in her place. Originally, I intended for the maid to reign as the queen (physical similarities and some kind of royal jewel that would “confirm” her identity). That has since changed a little bit and the maid is raising the child as a commoner. However, my delima is that when I sat down to write the now-grown-up child’s story…I actually wrote the queen and maid’s childhood instead. It’s a good problem to have, I suppose, and it has lent to the significance of the story in many ways, but it was completely unplanned and I’m struggling to find it’s place in the story. I have a series of scenes from the girls’ childhood starting at five and moving rapidly through to around late teens and early twenties. They’re brief scenes and each has become a necessary part of the now relevant backstory. The book revolves more around their friendship and the affect it has than I ever intended, which I like, but I’m afraid the childhood spurts may be too long to be a prologue, even if it is prologue material. Does that make sense? I have the childhood scenes, then a twentyish year gap and the prince-raised-by-maid’s story plays out after that.

    • Maybe you could turn some of those scenes as things the maid reveals to the prince in the present time? Like, not as info dump, but as something that helps his story progress (if that makes sense). If the story revolves a bunch around things you revealed in the prologue then you could probably also make more of that a mystery so the reader is told something the same time as your main character. Hopefully you like these suggestions!

      And, honestly, most books have pretty long chapters and you could probably get away with a prologue around that length, so it might not really be a problem.

        • That’s a great idea too! I wonder if that would be awkward as just two parts though, especially when the pacing of the story changes from brief scenes to normal timing. But…it does seem to fit what I need very well. Thank you for the suggestion!

      • I hadn’t thought of that yet! Thank you!! I’ll have to toy around with that idea. I’m not sure how it would work off the top of my head, but I’ll definitely think about it. My maid is pretty secretive and a little traumatized by the loss of her best friend, but at some point she’s going to have to open up. I love the mystery and slow reveal idea!!

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