Quick Connection

Before the post: Ogre Enchanted will be out on October 16th–in six days! Hooray! I’m not touring this time, but I will be doing several events close to home. If you’re in the southern New York-Connecticut area, check them out here on the website by clicking on In Person. I would love to see you!

And this: Since the Myers-Briggs Personality Test has come up here more than once as a character-development tool, I was interested to hear a report on it on the radio. Here’s a link to the episode for anyone who’s interested: https://www.npr.org/2018/09/22/650019038/how-the-myers-briggs-personality-test-began-in-a-mothers-living-room-lab.

On August 9, 2018, Sunny Days wrote, I have a question about my novel. Most of the plot involves my MC trying to save a city from destruction. Because it’s so important to the plot, I’m trying to find a way to make the readers feel connected to the city, but I don’t have a lot of time to introduce it. Also, I can’t find a realistic way for the MC to care about the city. She’s lived there for two years, but she has no family members living there and her closest friend comes on the quest with her. However, the city symbolizes a safe haven for her. Does anyone have advice for making the readers feel for something they have only just been introduced to?

A back-and-forth followed:

Melissa Mead: Where did she live before she came to this city? You could contrast the old place with the new one: warm terracotta roofs versus gray slate, cheerful chatter versus shrieking trains, the smell of bakeries and stables versus a tannery…

Sunny Days: The city is themed around a medieval castle, but it’s placed in the Rocky Mountains. My MC grew up in a small town in Colorado.

Carley Ann: Maybe readers would fall in love with your city quickly if the people who live in that city were good people. You know, flawed, imperfect, but the kind of clever humans a reader would want to be with. The city could be like a haven of sorts?

Song4myKing: Being and symbolizing a safe haven is a pretty strong reason for the MC to care, and it could be for the reader as well. Details are important, I think, especially the pleasant, homey details that give a sense of connection. And don’t forget the people. Even if she has no family or super close friends in the city, there are sure to be other people she’s interacted with in the last two years. Even if she hasn’t thought about liking them until now, she’s sure to hate the very thought of the city being destroyed with them inside. If the reader can get just a few glimpses of ordinary life in the city, and meet a few of the people – ordinary, working people, that you’d see every day, but with little quirks that drive home that fact that these are individuals – they’ll care.

I know I’ve seen it done well, but I can’t think of a good example right now. I think it also helps to establish this setting before bringing in the threat. You probably can threaten it first if it works best that way, but when I’m introduced to something in a story that I know is possibly gonna end, I’m tempted to hold it at arm’s length and not get attached to it.

Samantha: Flash backs! Try writing a few scenes from the MC’s point of view that are laced with memories of her time in the city. They don’t have to express her love for the city, but they could instead express her viewing other people’s love for the city. For example she could have a memory of seeing a mother outside her house with her daughter and the daughter is running around skipping pebbles across the street and the mother is doing wash or some such everyday task. She could reflect on how much this city means to other people and how their lives are completely tied up in the city, even if it has no sentimental value to herself. Make the reader feel for the people of the city and fear their home being in danger. The people that live inside a house make it a home – the same thing goes for this city. When the reader realizes that there are actual characters inside the city they feel for them.

These are terrific!

A friend who has lived in New York City all his life is very uneasy in the subway, while the subway is one of the places I feel most at home, although some unpleasant things have happened to me down there, one of them completely gross. But the subway, despite delays, is usually the fastest way to get from x to y. When I was a kid it gave me independence. At ten, I was allowed to ride by myself. It took me and my friends to museums, to ice skating in the winter, to the beach in the summer. Because of the subway, the world was my oyster!

And I have a couple of powerfully good memories. One is of falling asleep on my ride home from work. I lived at the last stop, and when I woke up, the car I was in was empty, and my purse was no longer on my lap. There it lay, on the floor, five feet away, with everything inside: wallet, money, ID. If I had a credit card, it was there, too. Cell phones and the Internet were far in the future. Obviously, this was a long time ago. My husband and I were just starting out. Losing twenty dollars would have hurt! And the knowledge that I deserved the loss would have hurt, too.

Even earlier, when I was thirteen, I took an art class a subway ride away from home, and I always returned during rush hour, when the subway cars were so crowded you couldn’t raise your hand from your side to scratch your nose. In such a car, I managed to drop my carton of forty-eight crayons, the maximum back then–

–and strangers contorted themselves to get down to the floor to help me pick them up. In my memory, which may be flawed, not a crayon was missing at the end.

I treasure these memories of “the kindness of strangers,” and they overshadow the bad ones, which are inconsequential in comparison. They connect me, not to all of New York City, but to the subway.

We can use these sort of events to create our MC’s love for a place, and we can do it in a hurry. The two main criteria are:

∙ my MC’s character–what she needs and what’s important to her;

∙ that the event has an emotional impact.

We can ask ourselves what our character needs most, what she’s desperate for. We can make a list! Here are a few ideas that might go on it:

∙ friendship;

∙ someone who listens;

∙ money;

∙ a doctor;

∙ a snake;

∙ a can of tuna fish;

∙ to catch a break.

A reminder: we let our minds go free when we make lists. Nothing is stupid.

Now we can list occurrences that might, at least temporarily, meet her need. Suppose she needs to catch a break, here are three things that might go on the list:

∙ She runs for a bus, which she really has no hope of getting to in time, and the driver waits for her.

∙ She finds a twenty dollar bill in a park, and no one is around to claim it.

∙ Without her knowledge, her backpack has come more than half unzipped. Her prized letter of recommendation is about to fall out when a stranger warns her. Minus the letter of recommendation, this has happened to me more than once in one of my favorite cities, New York City.

I recommend continuing until we have, say, ten bullet points to choose among. In my opinion, we can expand two of them in our story. More, and the reader will feel we’re stacking the deck.

Last, we have to connect the events with the place, to make it feel good for her, and this, too, goes to her character and the way she frames the world. If, for instance, she understands her life as being controlled by fate, she may think that the bus driver who waited for her would have waited in any city, because he was destined to, or that he waited because today is her lucky day. In that case, we have to direct her attention to the fact that this good thing and one other did happen here, and her fate may be bound up with the city. We can make a list about how to do that, using her fatalistic world view. Just saying, sky writing would be on my list.

To summarize, to create an attachment to a place quickly and economically, we should know–or make up–the needs of our MC and then create events that satisfy those needs. Naturally, the satisfaction takes place in a small way–we don’t want to solve our story’s main conflict. After that, we have to make sure the events are linked in her mind with the location, in this case a city, where they occurred.

The key is emotion. Events that trigger feeling rise to a level of importance beyond the ordinary. Of course, this works for ill as well as good. We’re not likely to think fondly of the place where something bad happened. And it works for people as well as places. We’re inclined to like the bus driver who waited for us without knowing anything else about him. First impressions are powerful and fast.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Think of a memory, or more than one, in your life that ties you in a good way to a place: a house, a park, a street, a store, a whole city. Imagine a character for whom the occurrence would be meaningful, but in a different way and for a different reason from the way if affected you. Write the scene when it happens.

∙ Go back, using the above, and write a scene from your character’s earlier life that demonstrates why the occurrence means so much to her.

∙ Pick a need from my list or yours of needs and write a scene in which that need is gratified. Include the way your MC understands what happened. Extra credit if a medieval castle is involved!

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Awesome news for Ogre Enchanted! Hopefully when that comes to my public library, I’ll check it out. And awesome post, too! I’ve never thought about connecting a character to a place in this way.

  2. Superb♥Girl says:

    Thanks so much for this post, it really makes me think about all the things, no matter what they could be, a character could be connected to.
    And by the way, I am _soo_ excited for Ogre Enchanted! It sounds adorable, and I hope my little library gets it soon!

    Okay, so I have an idea for a story that has multiple themes: story-within-a-story; fish out of water; contemporary magic, etc. Something that is extremely important to the story is the sort of swashbuckling element I want to give it. But the thing is, I’ve never really attempted to write anything action/adventure-y before, and I’m worried about it feeling blank. I don’t want to write action/adventure for action/adventure’s sake, but I want it to be important to the emotional aspect and the overall plot. I also want to give it sort of an old-timey feel, like romanticizing it with kindheartedness and chivalry. So, long story short (writing pun), does anyone have any tips for action type of themes?

    • I think that one way you can add the swashbuckling/action element without it feeling like it’s there “just because” is to link it to some fundamental aspect of your MC’s personality or past. (Perhaps her(?) father passed down a fencing foil and your MC learns about a secret life of danger that her father led, and this affects her own path and choices.)
      For example, in The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya brought the swashbuckle to the story, and it was inextricably linked to his heart and character, as he needed it to avenge his father – his life goal. In The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnon was determined to prove himself, and that manifested in daredevil, swashbuckling antics.
      In my own WIP, my MC feels that she doesn’t have any particular talent or outstanding cleverness, but she finds her place in protecting her friends because she is strong and quickly learns various defensive fighting skills.
      If you can find the way that the swashbuckling, chivalry, and action is a part of your MC, I think you have every reason to include it!

  3. I’m really excited for Ogre Enchanted as well! I’m sure it will be just as good as Ella Enchanted.

    Superb-Girl: I think you could have a lot of fun with that swashbuckling, action-adventure type of story! To help answer your question, let’s take a look at this quote from the film The Princess Bride: “Does it have sports in it?”
    “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” That movie is very swashbuckling, and when in doubt, you can look at the quote and see what elements you could apply to your story. As an example, you would have to have some close-combat dueling in this type of story. Perhaps your hero gets into a fight it a criminal gang or his arch nemesis. He could use a sword, or martial arts, or magic (there’s the “fencing, fighting” element to it.) It could also apply to your hero’s character. You mentioned a fish-out-of-water theme? Perhaps he comes from a city that promotes deeds of daring, and the city he currently lives in values quiet meditation above all else (there’s a little world building in that as well.)
    Something else that I highly recommend is reading books and watching movies in that genre to give you an extra feel to the world.
    Hope I was able to help!

  4. In the last post I asked if my MC hearing something through a door was cliche. Gail asked Why wasn’t there another way? and What’s going on in your story? I wanted to answer those here and see if anyone can give me more feedback.
    My MC Rora, in a spin-off of Sleeping Beauty, is hearing one of the fairies talking to another about her, although she doesn’t realize it until later. It’s a bit of foreshadowing, leading up to the big reveal. Here is a snippet:

    Ruby cocked her head, and after a moment I heard what she did. Voices were coming from the room farthest down the hall, Ariana’s study. The door was closed, and I was about to knock when I heard my name. “…call her Rora?” It was an unfamiliar voice, and I listened closer. “Yes, I changed… from Rosi. She might have heard… own story and figured… all out.” That voice was Ariana’s. What did she change from Rosi? Why did that name sound like an old memory, and leave a fluttering in my stomach? The unfamiliar voice, filled with sadness, continued. “I wish… had never cursed… feel so bad.” I shook my head to try and clear it. Curse? Was somebody cursed? I pulled back, and they seemed to hear me through the door, because they quieted and I heard footsteps. I scurried back down the hall and then, thinking better about running away, started walking back. Ariana opened the door and I saw me coming up.
    “Rora! You’re home early!” She smiled wide, both her dimples showing, and I smiled back. She opened her door wider and said “Come in, come in! Are you hungry?” My stomach growled, and I nodded vigorously. I had been hungry all morning, but didn’t want to complain, so I kept my mouth shut.

    Any thoughts?

    • I think to the reader it will be a little obvious what’s going on, especially if they know it’s a Sleeping Beauty spin-off, but for the question of her overhearing it I think it’s done well. Especially how she’s reacting, and the fact that she does get caught eavesdropping!

  5. Thank you! SHould I just cut it, then? I feel like Rora needs a bit of foreshadowing herself, like it wouldn’t make sense to her if someone just dropped a bomb on her that she was the daughter of the very king she hates?

  6. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    I’ve been thinking of writing a science fiction story that is set in a galaxy where interstellar space travel has already been established for awhile, so seeing alien creatures isn’t unusual, but I’m not sure how to go about designing alien creatures that don’t fit into something someone else has already come up with, without going to far off base, because the aliens are going to be mostly humanoid. And when I have a design, does anyone have any advice on how to describe the alien in writing without distracting from the story, but giving a satisfying description?

    • Orson Scott Card’s book, `How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy’ talks a fair bit about inventing aliens. It might be worth asking if your library has it. (My library is really nice about special ordering books through inter-library lone if they don’t have it on the shelves. I mean the system is nice, and so are the people at the help desk. The first time was a little intimidating, but after that I got so used to asking for anything I couldn’t find on the shelves that the librarians started to recognize me.)

    • Make the alien’s differences important to the story. Ex, if they exhale oxygen, have your hero trapped in what they thought was an airless room with them. If they photosynthesize, make them afraid of the dark. Stuff like that. Hope this helps!

  7. I could use some advice. How do you identify your writing style? I’m thinking of sending “Malak’s Book” to an agent, and one of the things they want in the query letter is examples of authors with a similar style.
    I know who I WISH I wrote like, but how can I tell if I actually DO?

    • CPs are a big help here. Often, they can see things that we can’t, or see things in a different way than we do. You can also make a list of things that you write a lot or write really well; are your books funny? Do you write beautiful descriptions? Thrilling action sequences? Literary or philosophical things? (A CP can also help with this.) After that, just find authors who are a match for some or all of those attributes.

      Also, do they specifically want you to list authors with a similar style, or just comp titles in general? Because with the latter, it doesn’t have to be an exact match, just books/authors whose readers might also like your book. Most people use the same ones, to be honest, which just shows how un-specific they are. For example, in YA Fantasy, Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, and Victoria Aveyard are the big names I see in queries.

      • CP? To me that’s Cerebral Palsy. Which I’ve already got, but it hasn’t helped me figure out my style. 🙂

        …I may have just figured it out. Critique partner? Mine just said “Well, that’s a dumb question.” OK, but I still have to answer it.

  8. Thank you!

    Many years ago I sold a series to a magazine, and the editor encouraged me to submit stories to the later issues anyway, but under a pseudonym. So I did. I also used a different address, phone #, you name it.
    Here’s what happened:

    Editor: “Nice story, Melissa, but I’m afraid we won’t be using it.”
    Me: “How’d you know it was me?”
    Editor: “I recognized your style.”

    I had a style! I’d only been writing for publication for 2 years, and I had a recognizable style! I was giddy.

    MAN, I wish I’d thought to ask him what it was. 🙂

  9. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    (Sorry for another question) In the science fiction story I’m currently plotting out, my main villain in the beginning is the ruler of almost all of the galaxy, and although he issues orders that have consequences for my characters, they don’t find out it’s him until much later. I want him to be a believe able evil character, but I don’t want readers to feel bad for him. Mainly because later, there is going to be another bad guy who was very close to the main character, and becoming evil wasn’t his choice, it was more forced upon him. So how do I create an evil character that’s believe able, but you won’t feel bad for?

    • Give him a quirk. I’m reminded of the villain from Tamora Pierce’s Emperor Mage. He’s a cruel, terrible person, but he has a huge enclosure full of rare birds that he loves and takes really good care of.
      Another thing that helps: give him a reason to be evil. Nobody ever likes Voldemort, but after we start learning his backstory as an unwanted orphan, he’s definitely believable.

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