Many thanks to the many who sent in questions! My list is stocked full of thorny topics for months to come. And, of course, more thorns are always welcome.

On September 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, I’m having a lot of trouble with one of my MC’s. In one of the character development posts, I don’t remember which, there’s a bit that describes him perfectly. “He develops strategies to distract from himself, becomes charming, a great talker, a reliable friend, but he never feels truly seen–because he doesn’t let anyone truly see him. Our plot needs to get him out of his isolation.”Problem is, I have no idea how to pull it off. How does he turn from a social chameleon to someone willing to stand up for an unpopular opinion? I have him doing it, but the transition seems too sudden, because he’s doing it for the sake of the plot and because I want him to, not because it fits with who he is. Although I have very little idea of who he is, as well, which might be part of the problem. Any suggestions?

Melissa Mead asked, Is there someone he cares about enough to want to earn their respect?

Katie W. answered, Not nearby. I really don’t like writing romance, so he doesn’t have a love interest, and until about two thirds of the way through the story, his family members are all at least a hundred miles away. He can talk with them, but they’re not physically there, plus he’s 27, so I don’t think he’d be in super close contact with them, anyway.

I’m noticing two threads in Katie W.’s question: How do we make our characters follow our plots? And how do we reveal the inner lives of our characters so that the reader (and the writer) understands why they do what they do?

I may not say often enough that the ideas I share here come out of experience and mistakes. The first thread make me think of my only novel in a drawer–deep in the recesses of my laptop, a book so problematic that I hate even to think about it, in which I made my character behave in a way that made even me loathe her.

It probably would fall into the young end of YA today. The title was My Future Biography, which, as you’ll see, says it all. I’ve buried the book so far in my subconscious that I don’t remember my MC’s name, so let’s call her X. X is a fifteen-year-old aspiring actor who believes she has more talent than anyone else in the universe. She lands a spot, through no accomplishment of her own, as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra, for people who don’t know, is on the lowest rung of the theatrical world–goes for coffee, paints sets, puts props away–whatever’s needed.) The first play of the season is Inge’s Playboy of the Western World.

As early as the first rehearsal, X begins to criticize the leading lady to anyone who will listen (no one). She also offers suggestions to said leading lady, truly meaning to be helpful.

My plot idea was that X would be taken down a peg or ten and wind up a humbler person. On the way there, frustrated that none of her ideas are taken seriously, she writes an anonymous bad review of the production for the local paper, which hurts the theater and the whole cast. This inconsiderate act makes her entirely unlikable. When the leading lady is injured, X gives a dreadful performance as her understudy, which even she recognizes. She finally gets her comeuppance, but it’s too late to save the book. (This is sad, because I still love the secondary characters I came up with. Also, at X’s age I was an extra in summer stock and I wanted to put some of the fun I had in a book. I was already humble–the theater did only musicals, and I’m not much of a singer.)

I think the problem here is my plot. The strategy for all of us would be to examine our plot as early as possible and think about what it will require of our MC. Can a consistent person do this? We usually want character growth, but it’s hard to make a character change completely and still be believable. I can’t imagine how I could have crafted a likable character who would do what I made X do, because if she was likable, she wouldn’t have written that review, but if she didn’t write the review, her comedown wouldn’t work.

What might I have done to the plot? Well, I might have introduced a villain, who, because he has it in for the leading lady or for some other nefarious reason, encourages X’s opinions and behavior, which are tentative at the beginning. It’s his influence that leads her to behave badly. She realizes her limitations as an actor at the same time she discovers that she’s been a pawn. Whew! thinks the reader. Now I can like her again. (But without trying it, I don’t know if that would fix the story, either.)

If we’re outliners, we can work this out as we’re planning our plot. If we’re pantsers, as I am (mostly), we should be considering character consistency as we write and adjusting as we go along.

If our plot is okay, then we think, again as early as possible, about what sort of character can carry it. The example I always use from my own work is my Princess Tale, The Princess Test, which is based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Who would have a terrible night’s sleep in the most luxurious bed in all of fairy tale land?

Let’s also consider Hamlet. What sort of character would be as indecisive as Hamlet is? Just saying, many characters, confronted by a ghost whose reality can’t be doubted, would decide in pretty short order whether or not vengeance is called for or what else should be done. Laertes would. But Hamlet waffles. Shakespeare figured out who would do that and what the result would be. That’s the character he wrote.

Onto how we reveal our characters, because if we know them, we can engineer their change, as in Katie W’s case from a chameleon to someone with permanent stripes or spots. We have available what our MC thinks, feels, and does. Plus the other stuff we can invent about him: what his hobbies are; where he lives (whether his home is furnished early-American style or modern, whether its neat or messy, like that); what his friends are like and how he behaves with them.

At first, we just have to make up stuff out nothing. All we have to go on is our plot idea and the kind of person who will conform to it.

Let’s suppose that our MC Charles works for a tech company, and the CEO, Jason, operates like a dictator. Jason has favorites who advance whether or not they’re competent. He also thinks ill of some of his employees. He doesn’t hold back from ridiculing them, and their stars do not rise. Flattery is the bitcoin of this realm.

Charles, as we write him in the beginning, is adept at the game, maybe more than anyone else. He flatters without fawning, and everyone likes him. His skillfulness wins him the job of director of HR (human resources), but in that position he has to enforce and even create policies that are in line with Jason’s practices. For example, he reassigns the talented technical writer Sarah, who has been a tad too outspoken, to an offsite location two hours from her home because Jason has said he can’t stand the sight of her.

How do we change him, grow him a spine?

Well, since we don’t know him well yet, what can we make up about him? We can make a list!

∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason.

∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it.

∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting.

∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back.

∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them.

As an early prompt, add five more bullets to my list.

What can we pick to start him toward standing up to Jason? We can add some notes to our list.

∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason. As head of HR he sets up the pay scale for all the employees, which makes him uncomfortable.

∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it. An employee who has been reassigned to a very unpleasant boss breaks down in his office, or, say, threatens him. He’s shaken.

∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting. Someone he’s buying a stamp from emails him, and they start a correspondence.

∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back. His stuttering starts to be a problem at unexpected times, once in front of Jason, who isn’t nice about it.

∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them. One of his plants starts drooping. He takes it to a plant nursery, where one of the workers treats him the way he treats people at work, in a false friendly way.

Not all of these will be useful, but one or two may be. The point is to create an imperative for him to change, which he will do through thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and actions.

Here are three more prompts:

∙ Using my list or your own, bring about Charles’s change. Write the scene in which he stands up to Jason. If you like, keep going. Charles will retaliate!

∙ Make Jason your MC and bring about change in him.

∙ Rewrite Hamlet. Your Hamlet can decide that his dad, the dead king, was a despot, a terrible husband and father, and the kingdom is better off without him, even though murder is an extreme way to achieve regime change. Or he can elope with Ophelia and head for Mantua. Or he can hire an assassin and ascend to the throne. Or something else that you decide. Write the story. If you’re ambitious, write it as a play in blank verse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Enough to go on?

Two short answers today. Both questions come from Lark on December 10, 2012. First: Gail (and anyone else), do you ever spend a lot of time writing something or pursuing an idea then just trashing it? I wrote 20,000 words for my NaNo novel but most of it was junk; I just kept saying to myself, “At least it’s words. And at least it counts.” However, probably only about 20% of it is acceptable writing, and the other 80% would need LOTS AND LOTS of revisions to even make it make sense. Do you ever stick it out if you’re in that situation?

I’m a revise-as-I-go writer, which is one reason I haven’t attempted NaNoWriMo. And I’m a revising-after-I-have-a-first-draft writer, too, plus plenty of revising after that. This is why I haven’t found myself in the situation Lark describes. BUT I’m a big admirer of NaNoWriMo, which is great for spilling all your ideas, for creating marvelous scenes and dreadful scenes. At the end, you have something to work with if you want to.

I’ve discussed this before here. There’s a time cost either way. If you abandon what you have, then the time you spent on it is lost. If you work on it, revising may take longer than an entire new project would, if the new project goes smoothly. But that’s writing for you. Efficiency experts would tear out their hair.

There is no shame either way. You can move on to something else, knowing in your skull bones that you learned from this unresolved effort. Or you can start shaping and tweaking and deleting and adding, sticking essentially with what you have.

There’s a third way, too. You can use your old effort to create something entirely new, or several new somethings. Start by rereading what you have, no matter how painful that is. Underline what you like. Take notes. Think about where you could go with this or that. Admire your interesting ideas, your bits of scintillating dialogue, the moments when you nailed a character. Ask yourself if see a way to sew it all together or if you see a bunch of new spinoff stories.

On to another question from Lark: Is it okay to start a story if you have wonderful, realistic, well-rounded characters, but no plot or idea of where your story will go? Or on the flip side, starting a story with a great idea and thought-out plot but hastily pieced together and un-thought-out characters? Or do you wait until you have everything thought out? I’m having quite a problem with that…

It’s okay to start if that’s your process. I often start with less than either of those two. But if you need an outline in order to feel secure, then I’d say, Create that first.

In the first instance, the thought-out characters, you can jumpstart the plot by giving one of them a desire that’s not easy to realize. For example, suppose Henry – kind at heart but with a temper and a need for things to go his way – argues with his sister Marigold and says something awful to her. They separate for their ordinary days. Soon after, he realizes he was horrible and hurt her where she was most vulnerable. He makes her a present that he knows she’ll love to make it up to her. But meanwhile something terrible happens to her: she’s in a coma or she’s been shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for Mars or her personality has been taken over by an evil elf or anything else. Henry has to save her so he can give her her present and apologize.

Now we have the beginnings of a plot. So we look around at our other well-developed characters. Tricia is Henry’s closest friend although she’s unreliable in a pinch and she’s very self-centered. Henry tells her what happened and she responds however she would, and we’re off.

Or you can give two of them desires that are at odds. Say Marigold has died. Henry’s life mission has become to be helpful, to insult no one ever again, never to leave anyone with hurt feelings. Tricia wants Henry to side with her in her argument with another of their friends. He doesn’t want to get in the middle but he doesn’t want Tricia mad at him. And the third friend has yet another agenda.

Or we can look at our fascinating cast and ask what fiction we can create by rubbing them against each other. Let’s say we have Henry and Tricia as I’ve described them. And Marigold is a dreamer, kind of other-worldly, easily hurt. And there’s Ray, adventuresome, a little scattered, who tends to talk and not listen. We can send them off together, camping or to a city they don’t know well. They argue about what to do or where to go. The others don’t get with Ray’s program, and he stomps off. They let him go but his absence ruins their good time, and they get a strange text message from him. And the story is off and running.

The second instance, when you have a plot but no developed characters, is most familiar to me. It’s where I am when I start adapting a fairy tale, so let’s pick one and see how it works. I’ve never tried my hand at “Rapunzel,” so we’ll try that one. Well, I’d think about the damsel. What’s she doing in the tower? She could be passive and helpless. The witch decides to keep her there, and she goes. Or, maybe she’s been imprisoned because she’s the opposite of passive and helpless. The witch has tried other ways to control her, say reason and kindness, which haven’t worked. Rapunzel could even be the villain! She needs to be in that tower in order for the rest of the kingdom to be safe. But she starts preparing her hair as bait to get her out of there.

Next we think about the witch or the prince. If Rapunzel is bad, that changes our perspective on everybody else. Take the prince. Why does he get involved with her? Maybe he thinks the best of everyone. Or maybe he likes to reform people, and he thinks if only he can spend some time with Rap, he can turn her around. He may be putty in her hands. Maybe the witch is the heroine, and the story is a tragedy because Rapunzel does get free.

I love having a bare-bones plot to ornament with interesting characters!

The prompts today are in the post:

• Henry insulted his sister Marigold, and something dreadful has befallen her. Pick one of my possibilities or create your own. Write the story of his quest to save her and redeem himself. Include Tricia as his sometime helper and sometime obstacle.

• Marigold is dead, and Henry is a damaged person. Tricia wants him on her side in an argument, but Henry never wants to offend anyone ever again. Put what happens in a story.

• Henry, Tricia, Ray, and Marigold are with their youth group on a trip to New York City, where they’ve never been before. They wander off to have their own adventure, but then argue over what it should be. Ray goes off on his own. He gets into trouble, and so do they. Write what happens. Your version of New York City can include zombies, talking buildings, whatever you like.

• Take the approach that I suggest with “Rapunzel” or any other fairy tale. Develop characters who will go interestingly in the direction of the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!


We’re continuing with last week’s questions, so here they are again:

On February 29, 2012, Maddi wrote, I’m having some trouble getting “inspired.” I have my plot worked out, I’m just having problems with the in-between stuff like character development and other small events. I’m not even sure if I can make it into a good quality piece of writing. I’ve been turning to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. It works, but I want to produce something that is my own idea. Lately my spelling has been really off, even though I’m a pretty good speller. Any ideas?

Then last week TsuneEmbers wrote, I’ve been having way too much trouble w/ my own writing lately, as in it won’t come out and actually get anywhere. This makes me sad since I love writing stuff. I think I kinda lost my drive there, when I realized that one of my ideas was way too complicated, and not working at all. =/ I tried simplifying it out to a more workable form, but it still doesn’t actually feel like it can work yet.

I am toying with another idea of mine though, but of course, my usual plotting problems bit that one, so I’m currently stuck with not writing anything. I have a few major characters in my head already, and a vague idea of what I want to happen to them, but that’s about it. The vague idea could be considered a plot in a sense, I guess, but it doesn’t give me any idea over where to actually start the story. Not to mention that the word plot tends to make me scared every time someone mentions it, because I’m really more of a character person, and I don’t get this plotting thing as well.

Let’s start with a prompt similar to one in Writing Magic. Let’s take two classics I hope you know well, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and switch heroines. If you haven’t read them, now may be the time. Then come back and try the prompt, which is to rewrite the scenes in each book where heroine and hero first encounter each other. In Jane Eyre this is when Rochester’s horse throws him, and in Pride and Prejudice it’s at a dance, but a scene at Bingley’s house when Jane is ill might be even better. If you like, after you finish the scene, keep going.

What you’ll find, I hope, is that plot changes when character changes. The two can’t be teased apart. If you continue with the prompt you’ll have an enormously changed story on your hands. Maddi and TsuneEmbers, your separate problems may be just as entwined.

Maddi, you have your plot, but you may not have figured out what sort of character will go in the direction of your story. Let’s imagine that a heroine, Iola, lives with her parents and her brother Osiah in the village of Ewark. She’s out gathering firewood, and when she returns, she finds her village destroyed by the savage Rindik clan. Her parents have been killed, but one of the few survivors tells her that her four-year-old brother has been taken. In the plot plan, Iola, after many trials, saves her brother and becomes leader of her clan. You (obviously this you isn’t you anymore, Maddi, just an anonymous writer trying to find her way) know what the trials are and how the triumph comes about, but Iola seems to be sleepwalking through it all. Characters come and go, saying their lines woodenly. You are having a harder and harder time sitting down to write.

What to do?

Well, there are lots of questions to ask yourself. Here are a few: What’s Iola like? Is she naturally brave? If not, how does she persuade herself to take on the task ahead? If she is brave, brave how? Is she foolhardy? Does she overestimate her abilities? Why was she fetching firewood at the fateful moment? (Maybe she stamped off after an argument with her father. Maybe she offered to get the firewood to avoid being stuck with watching her brother. Either of these could make her feel pretty guilty.)

Here’s another prompt: Write down at least five more questions about Iola. Notice that I’ve been choosing questions that may increase conflict, that may give her a harder time achieving her goals. But some questions (and answers) may help her.

Now consider a secondary character. Suppose Iola needs an ally. Let’s imagine that she has to win supporters to her cause, but, although she’s a sterling person, good to the core, she puts her foot in her mouth whenever she opens it. She needs honey-tongued Ennio to be her ambassador. Now you need to ask questions about him. Why is he willing to endanger himself? Why would he throw his lot in with Iola, of all the other leader possibilities? Why is he willing to be subordinate to her? (You may need to think more about Iola to answer some of these.) A third prompt: more questions about him.

And a fourth: Based on your questions and your answers, write the first scene in your story between Iola and Ennio.

And a fifth: If you’re Maddi or are having a problem like hers, return to your own story now and ask questions. Rewrite a scene, then come back to the blog.

Now that you’re back if you went away, another way to make a story less mechanical is to ensure the reader cares about the stakes, which in this case may involve making the reader love Iola and her little brother Osiah and possibly her parents. Which suggests more questions. What is Osiah like? What was his relationship with his big sister? Same for the parents.

Again, a prompt. Write this scene: Iola is making her way across rough terrain. She may be tracking the Rendik or hurrying to the nearest village, but she has time to contemplate. As she’s figuring out what to do next, include her feelings and a few thoughts that will illuminate her relationship with her family. You can go to a full-blown flashback, but you can also just drop in tidbits. For example, maybe she’s thinking about how her mother taught her outdoor survival techniques and her father used to joke about her mom’s methods and Osiah would laugh along without understanding the meaning of any of it.

This contemplation while traveling is just one example, but including thoughts and feelings regularly (almost constantly) helps bring a character to life and engages the reader too.

TsuneEmbers, you think you know your characters. But maybe you know them in a static way and you don’t know what they’ll do. You might review your main character’s profile and, based on it, list ten things that could happen to him that would give him trouble, funny trouble or serious misery. Let your mind go. See if one or more of your ideas begins to suggest a story. See if you can incorporate a few of the problems into the story. Ask yourself what your main wants and also what he definitely, absolutely under any circumstance does not want, which, naturally, you can give him.

Let’s take Iola again. Suppose she’s been sheltered, a little over-protected, by her family, which she’s resented since she turned twelve, but there’s been an effect. She’s not sure of herself, because she hasn’t been tested. Deep down she wonders if her parents protected her because they feared she wasn’t capable. Let’s say, along the lines I already suggested, she speaks her mind forthrightly and often offends. Then, when she offends someone and realization hits, she feels doubly bad, embarrassed about the way she expressed herself and awful for the person she criticized, whom she believes must be mortified. Let’s make her generous and stubborn and give her an impish sense of humor. And anything else you want to throw in. Or, of course, you can make her entirely different from what I’ve laid out.

Final prompt: Knowing what you’ve invented about Iola, write the scene when she returns to the village and discovers the massacre. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!