Slicing Life

I posted this as a comment a few days ago, about a poetry-writing contest for high-school-age people: Here’s the link to Narrative High High School Writing Contest: You’ll read there about the rules and awards. I wrote to the contest to see if home-schooled kids can participate, and the answer is yes. The contest folks wrote back with these criteria for home-schoolers:
1. Be within our age bracket stipulation (grades 9-12 in the U.S. or internationally)
2. List as their school the name of the accredited home-schooling curriculum they follow
3. Have a “teacher” representative—whether that’s a parent or other tutor

Please say if you enter, and definitely if you win.
Good luck!

On December 17, 2020, Lysander Grey wrote, Does anyone have advice on writing “slice of life” stories? One of my current WIPs is a long-term story following the growth of the MC. That’s fine, and I do have it fairly planned, but I’m running into trouble with showing her changing and not bogging down the plot too much. I suppose it’s the doldrums in a sense, but rather necessary doldrums because the reader needs proof that she’s changing before she becomes someone different.

Right now I’m stuck in an area that needs multiple (mostly) happy scenes in a row before more Drama (TM) can get introduced, and… the only time I’m very good at happy scenes, unfortunately, is as setup for something to go Terribly Wrong. Happy scenes with no immediately linked tragic payoff are proving to be troublesome.                  

Erica wrote back, Could you try writing comedy? Not necessarily comedic scenes in your WIP, but a story whose entire purpose is to be funny. That way, you can experiment with having tension without drama, if that makes sense. And letting your characters play off each other can help show how your MC is changing, especially if she responds in an unexpected way.

I’m with Erica about small, unexpected changes in an MC that form a dotted line that the reader follows and thus understands her transformation.

It’s hard to write back-to-back happy scenes. Readers need something to worry about, although the worry can be mild, like an itch in the middle of your back. It’s not going to kill you, but it’s there, out of reach, and you have to keep reading to discover when and how it gets scratched.

(Clinically, there is such an itch, notalgia paresthetica, benign, long lasting, going away eventually, between your shoulder blades, perpetually an inch beyond your finger, invented by a minor demon in a mean universe. Mine did finally vanish.)

Lysander Grey’s question called to mind the novels of Kevin Henkes, especially The Birthday Room, which I remember as gentle and tender and full of slice-of-life. At the heart of the story is family conflict, but the conflict plays out among people who love each other. No one is tossed out or runs away. There’s no violence. I don’t think there’s even much anger. Yet my eyes were glued to the page. Kevin Henkes, in my opinion, is a master of slice-of-life and always worth reading.

I’m also thinking about Anne of Green Gables, which is a coming-of-age story, not dark, also full of slice-of-life moments (like dying her hair green, falling off a roof, breaking a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head) that nudge Anne toward character change. Author L. M. Montgomery sets up Anne’s personality in technicolor detail: she has a temper and an imagination. She’s over-the-top dramatic, emotional, loving and lovable, and given to getting into funny and disastrous scrapes. Also, she’s capable of learning from the messes she gets into.

We can adapt Montgomery’s method. We think first about the transformation our plot calls for. Then we plan our MC. How can we make her different from what she needs to become? What traits will have to change? What will remain? She has to start out as someone we can imagine turning into the personality we need.

Next step takes us to the slice-of-life scenes. What can we cause to happen as a result of the person she is? For example, Anne hates her red hair, and she’s impulsive, which leads to an attempt to dye her hair the color she wants, resulting in green hair. This disaster plants a seed of a lesson that she shouldn’t instantly act on her impulses in the future. Erica’s idea comes in here; there’s a lot of humor in Anne’s scrapes.

For Anne, growth comes slowly and therefore believably. Montgomery sticks mostly to showing, but late in the book she does this little bit of showing: There were other changes in Anne no less real than the physical change. For one thing, she became much quieter. Perhaps she thought all the more and dreamed as much as ever, but she certainly talked less. We too can drop in a tiny bit of this, though most of the change should be shown in action, thoughts, and dialogue.

My novel that most features character transformation is The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. My MC Perry is born into the underclass Bamarre but is raised as an overlord Lakti, and she’s ignorant of her birth. Lakti tend to be rigid, not highly emotional, restrained, direct, not literary. Bamarre are polite, accommodating, emotional, poets, and admirers of poetry.

Except for her love for poetry, Perry exemplifies the Lakti personality. When her origins are discovered, she has to live with her Bamarre family. A fairy tasks her with lifting her people out of servitude, but first she has to become more like them.

Though this is a fantasy, Perry doesn’t drink a potion. She has to work at changing herself, and she blunders in several slice-of-life scenes. The reader sees Bamarre life at the ground level, how they behave among themselves, how they act with Lakti, what their customs and habits are.

So what do we have?

  • A plot reason for a transformation.
  • A character designed to have difficulty making the change.
  • A character for whom success will be hard but believable when achieved.
  • Slice-of-life scenes through which we show our MC mess up on her way to change, whether she wants the change or not.

Here are three prompts:

  • The tortoise and the hare are about to race. Neither knows that the other is a shapeshifter. Both think they’re certain to win. Write the race.
  • The chicken’s wings have been clipped, yet she has to cross the road, a busy interstate, to save her chicks. Traffic is constant. She will have to become Super Chicken to do it. Don’t let her fail. Write the story.
  • The evil fairy has managed, fifty years ahead of time, to end the slumber of Sleeping Beauty and everyone in the castle. Her prince won’t be born for another thirty or so years. More important, though, the hedge is still intact and still impregnable. SB and everyone else will starve if they can’t get to the outside world. And if they do get out, chaos reigns in the kingdom after decades of misrule. Write the story of the transformation of SB from pampered royal to capable leader.

Have fun, and save what you write!


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!

Character flip-flop

First off, I hope to see some of you at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, this weekend. Check the website for details.

This is part of an appeal for help that came into the website late in January from Alyssa: I might say something about a character, and then say something completely opposite that on the next page. For example, I might say that someone does charity work all the time, and that she is an awesome person to be around, but then later say that she would never do a thing for anybody else and nobody likes her. I can just revise that away, right? Or is that one of those things that is harder to fix?

One of my friends was reading what I had written, and she said that at the beginning she had loved one of my major characters, Eric, and only liked him more as I went on, but then around page eighty he started changing completely and she told me something along the lines of, “Well, sheesh. If I knew Eric was like this, I would never have fallen in love with him!” Is it normal for a character to change that much in such a short span of time? Because this is happening with a lot of my characters.

Michelle Dyck responded, As far as character inconsistency goes, I’ve found that something called ‘Character Bibles’ help a whole lot! You can keep them in a document or by hand in a notebook, whichever works for you. It’s quite simple. You just list each character’s name and jot down their personality, physical description, and any other miscellaneous bits of info you have. Then as you’re writing or editing, you can go back to make sure you’re keeping your characters consistent. For MCs, I give them each a separate file a couple pages long each. (And some of the info I make up for them never goes into a book — it just helps them become real in my mind.) All the other characters have to share a file, and most of them only need a couple of lines. Anyway, if you’re an outliner/planner, you’ll probably want to put together these Character Bibles before you start writing. But if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, then you can just add to them as your characters enter your story. It takes a bit of effort, but it’s so helpful in the long run. Because who wants to wade through pages and pages to verify what so-and-so’s eye color was or where she worked?

I’m with Michelle Dyck about the usefulness of a character “bible.” There’s a questionnaire in Writing Magic that may help you write one for each of your major characters.

In the first instance Alyssa asks about, I agree that the fix is easy and we can just revise for character consistency, but sometimes characters undergo a troubling transformation because of a plot problem. For example, let’s imagine that Mina, who’s the best friend of our MC Ron, has been loyal and supportive. Then, suddenly, she rats him  out to, say, the chief of police. The reader shouts, “Mina wouldn’t do that!” and throws the book across the room. (Let’s further imagine that Ron’s crime is very minor, not deserving of harsh treatment.) We’ve made Mina act against all expectation and against her true nature because our plot demanded that the police chief become aware of Ron.

My only unpublished novel, which I won’t allow to see the light of day, has this kind of problem. It’s called My Future Biography, and in it my MC Marita is an aspiring teenage actor who gets a job as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra is like an unpaid intern; a summer stock theater is usually in a rural or suburban place and puts on plays only in the summer.) Marita, who’s obsessed with acting, has an exaggerated idea of her ability, although she is talented. She’s convinced that the leading lady in the first play of the season is botching her role. So–and this is where the story goes off the rails–she writes a negative review of the production for the local newspaper and says mean things about a lot of people. This terrible betrayal changes the reader’s opinion of Marita and makes her totally unlikable. The trouble is that the whole plot turns on it; it was necessary to set up the lesson Marita needs to learn. When I tried to reread the book not too long ago to see if there was anything I could save, I was so annoyed that I couldn’t finish it. I threw my own manuscript across the room!

Sadly, I adore the male lead and one of the other supporting characters.

My Future Biography is one of my early novels. I don’t think I would make this mistake again, and so far I haven’t I haven’t figured out a way to fix the plot. The reason it’s so hard to salvage is because the problem involves my MC. Luckily for Alyssa, her surprising character reversals involve secondary characters.

So, what to do?

One solution is to suggest early on that a particular character, in this case Eric, isn’t all he seems. Alyssa can include a scene in which he disappoints her MC, whom we’ll call Corinne. Eric apologizes and Corinne forgives him, but a seed has been planted in the reader’s mind. We don’t have to do even that much. If Corinne’s sweet dog growls at Eric, the reader will doubt him.

Another approach is to show the reader the moment of transformation. An extreme example would be if Eric’s brain were taken over by an alien or if he were brainwashed. The reader would then totally get his alteration. But we don’t have to go that wild. Suppose Eric comes across something online that shows Corinne in an unfavorable light. The information is false, but Eric doesn’t know. Now he’s the one feeling betrayed, and his behavior to her changes. Or suppose he becomes friends with someone who dislikes Corinne and this person wins him over to her point of view. Again, we understand the change.

Here’s a prompt: Write down three more possible reasons for a change in Eric.

Another tactic is to keep Eric as he always was and give the bad behavior to another character, one who has been iffy all along. This doesn’t mean Eric has to disappear. I like it when my MC has someone she can count on for emotional support–Mandy for Ella, for example. Eric can’t save Corinne, but she can touch in with him occasionally when she and the reader need a break from the misery.

Here’s one more strategy: When we cast characters for a story, it’s helpful to think about the roles they’re likely to play. For example, in the book I started recently, Peregrine, my MC, is adopted by Lady Klausine, a childless noblewoman. Although Klausine is going to love Peri, she’s going to be hard on her, and her manner isn’t going to be loving. I don’t outline, but I do know that feeling unloved will be important in moving Peri through my plot. I’m defining Klausine as cold and demanding so that I won’t have to change her as the story progresses.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a scene that introduces Mina into Ron’s story. Make Ron like her a lot and the reader distrust her.

• Write the scene in which Ron commits the act that Mina later uses against him. Keep going with a story that involves the local authority (a police chief, a queen, a sorceress, or whatever you choose), Ron, Mina, and whatever other characters you need.

• Write a version of the story I’ve started. Your MC Margot has been adopted by a reserved, not very loving noblewoman, Lady Waverly. The loveless home affects your story. In the course of it Margot changes, but Lady Waverly never does.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Character, reform yourself!

On May 15, 2013, Bibliophile wrote, Now, how do you bring about the reformation of a character? Not necessarily from evil to good or vice versa, but one of my characters is very proud, and hates humans, (she’s a mermaid). Unfortunately she has GOT to fall for Prince Coram, or the story is worthless. In fact, the whole story rotates around the fact that she and he got engaged at a ball after her dad transforms her into a human for punishment… long story there. But anyway, in my first draft, she and he just click. All of her hate just melts away for no reason at all. And not because he’s particularly handsome or anything like that; it just fades inexplicably. The reason she hates the humans is that one of them killed her mother long ago on her 6th birthday. Also I am debating about whether or not she can speak on land, or have it so that she can speak, but no one understands her. (The curse of the illustrious Disney!!!!) But she will probably be able to talk, or communicate in writing.

Elisa contributed these thoughts: To reform a character, there has to be the seeds of what the character will be like after the reformation already there. One of my characters is a proud high-born lady, who is, in the beginning, a snob. She’s cold, and sometimes downright ruthless. But she is also lonely. She is afraid of having relationships because her family all died of plague when she was young, and she is afraid to get close to someone for fear of losing them. Her seeds of reformation are her love for children and her appreciation for beauty (she loves flowers) and her random acts of kindness. You see that she’s not really all that bad, just cautious and somewhat insecure. You need to sew the seeds for your character. Maybe make her like the different types of plants up on the earth. Or have her bond with an animal. This is generally a good way to help show a good side in a character. Though, it should probably be a land animal, seeing as she was once a sea creature. Or have her grudgingly help a little girl, and then get fond of her, which will slowly melt down her hatred of other humans as well. Then have something terrible happen to the little girl, (kidnapped, terrible illness?) and your Sea Maiden will have to rescue her. Maybe have her band up with several people, in the case of kidnapping, or, in the case of illness, maybe make the cure be something from the depths of the sea, where she is forbidden to go, but she loves the little girl so much that she will save her no matter what, so, she goes back. Maybe have the prince help her somehow. You have to build up her affection for him someway, so having them work together might be a good idea. Have her save his life maybe, or him save her. Or both.

The prince is Coram. Let’s call the mermaid Ondine, after the play Ondine by the French playwright Jean Giraudoux, which is a marvelous and tragic mermaid fairy tale. Do any of you know it? Giraudoux died before I was born, but his work was popular when I was a teenager. Wikipedia cites a marvelous quote from him: “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” I haven’t read the play in decades, but I just revisited it on Wikipedia, and it sounds appropriate for middle school readers and up. To be sure, show the plot summary to a parent or ask a librarian for an opinion. However, I suggest you read the actual play rather than the summary.

Onto Bibliophile’s question. Reformation is bigger than mere character growth or character change; reformation is fundamental. So my question is, Must Ondine reform? Can she fall for Prince Coram and go merrily on hating humanity?

As for falling for him, I’d suggest connecting him somehow with the sea or with the mer or just with water. Suppose, for example, Ondine, in rebellion against her fate, contrives at the ball to spill a pitcher of festive punch on him, and when she sees his face dripping wet, he becomes familiar in her eyes. His wet skin glistens; his eyelashes are especially compelling, and she stops regarding him as the despised other. Or, suppose he prepares for their meeting by becoming familiar with mer customs. He greets her in the mer way. He disarms her with his understanding. She’s halfway there – and then they go outside, where the fountains send sparkling spray into the moonlight.

But if you’re after real reformation, if Ondine’s hatred of people has been so longstanding that it’s become ingrained and she has to come to feel differently for the story to work, then more has to happen. There has to be a powerful reason and a decision, an act of will.

I hope there’s character change in all my books, but for true reformation, I identified six: Ella Enchanted, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Ever, The Fairy’s Mistake, and For Biddle’s Sake. In Ella Enchanted, Ella has struggled against her curse all her life. The reader endures with her as she makes attempt after attempt to break free. It’s only when she becomes a danger to Prince Char that she can summon up – with great difficulty – the will to disobey.

In Fairest, Aza’s suffering stems more from her own self-hatred than from the scorn of Ayorthaians. After instance upon instance of trouble for trying to change her appearance, by the end of the book she’s beginning to accept herself. She’s on her way to reformation, but it isn’t even complete by then.

One more example: In For Biddle’s Sake, which is completely lighthearted, the fairy Bombina’s favorite activity is turning people into toads. However, her heart is touched by the child Parsley, who only eats – you guessed it – parsley. The fairy adopts Parsley, and the girl disapproves of the fairy’s hobby and withholds her smile, which Bombina adores, unless Bombina gives it up. With great difficulty the fairy does, until she has a relapse, with disastrous consequences that teach Bombina her lesson forever. It’s my favorite of my Princess Tales.

In each of these cases, the reformation is hard won. It’s the focus of the book. For the reader to believe it, we need to devote a lot of pages to it. Change has to be preceded by suffering, and generally more than one instance of it. In For Biddle’s Sake, first Bombina is sent to jail by the fairy queen. When she comes out and adopts Parsley and then again turns somebody into a toad, she loses Parsley’s smile. Then, the final misery, she loses Parsley entirely, which does the trick.

The reformation is a decision that Ondine or your MC makes, which is quite different in most cases from falling in love. The word falling suggest that love comes from a loss of will (I don’t know if this is true in real life!). Reformation calls for an act of will or many acts, not so different from overcoming a bad habit, like not studying (or studying only one’s favorite subjects) or overeating or mercilessly teasing a brother or sister.

Surprise can be a factor leading to reformation. I think Elisa’s suggestions are along these lines. Ondine has long-held beliefs about the brutality of humans. On land she’ll see examples of kindness that will surprise her and may make a dent in her prejudice, but for reformation to be profound the change needs to be more than intellectual. Still, that can be a beginning. For example, she can start to believe that harboring hatred violates what she considers the best part of being mer.

Here are three prompts:

• Someone you know has a bad habit, the ones I suggested (not studying or overeating or merciless teasing) or some other. Fictionalize this real person and write a story in which he or she conquers the habit.

• Turn the bad habit into something bigger. Your earlier MC couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes, for example. Transform this into something else, like a deep-seated need to sleep on pillowcases made from butterfly wings, or pick your own. In my example, butterflies are being slaughtered in great numbers and may go extinct. Reform him for a happy ending or make him fail and create a tragedy.

• Take on your own version of our Ondine story, with or without a prince. With every fiber of her being she hates and loathes people. Her reaction to humans is similar to mine to cockroaches: Yuck! Ew! Get away from me! Die! Now bring her around to love and admiration.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Change or stay just as you are

Big news:  My latest novel, the third in the Disney Fairies series, called Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, was released yesterday!!!!  I hope you’ll take a look at it.  The illustrations by David Christiana are gorgeous.  Hope you like the words and the pictures!

On March 18, 2010, Sage-in-Socks wrote, …Sometimes I find myself forcing a change in a character because I feel, to be a round, dynamic character he or she must change in some way by the end of the story. To what extent should a character change? Are subtle changes like a change of opinion also characteristic of dynamic characters? Or should a character by the end of the story be quite different from what he or she is like in the beginning? Are there any limits? I mean I wouldn’t want to /force/ a character to change or change her personality–I rather like their flaws.

From your description, Sage-in-Socks, it doesn’t sound wise to force change on a character.  Whatever growth comes about needs to arise from what the character does in a situation, what she thinks, feels, says.  It shouldn’t be a bitter – or sugary – pill she’s made to swallow.  Your character certainly shouldn’t do a one-eighty.  She still needs to be recognizably herself at the end.  And the changes can be small – yes, a change of opinion, maybe a new appreciation of poetry.

In Chapter 16 of Writing Magic I write about character change.  The chapter, called “Happily Ever After – Or Not,” is about endings, and in there I write that usually a character should change by a story’s finale.  Right at this particular moment, however, I’m not so sure.

Sometimes the reader absolutely does not want a character to change.  As a child, I gobbled up the books in the Cherry Ames series.  I did not want Cherry to switch even the color of her lipstick!  I loved her exactly as she was.

This is true of some series today, too, where the characters can be relied on to carry their foibles from book to book.  It’s absolutely true of comic strip characters.  Mysteries often fall into this category as well; the detective is the constant from story to story.  There are new crimes to solve, but the detective remains unaltered.  I hope to write more books following my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles.  My heroine Elodie will probably grow older and change, but I would like to keep the dragon Meenore essentially the same from book to book.

Ella’s character doesn’t vary much in the course of Ella Enchanted.  Because of her actions, her circumstances change, but she has much the same personality at the end of the book as she did when her mother got sick.  On the other hand, Addie, the heroine of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is fundamentally altered as a result of her exploits, but I don’t think I did a better job with one heroine or the other.  Different stories have different effects on their characters.  And the degree of change may vary too.  In some stories a mere change of opinion will be exactly what’s needed.

Like so much else in writing, it depends.

Some rounded, dynamic, actual people – you know them – never change, some for the good, some for the bad.  The aunt you count on to listen and not judge goes on listening and not judging for years.  She is a rock.  The cousin who criticizes everybody continues to criticize, no matter how his harping damages his closest relationships.  He is a rock too, one with a painfully sharp edge.

Secondary characters can change, or not.  Their development may affect your story and your main character, but they’re not quite as important as your main, so I’m going to concentrate on your hero.

Sometimes, failure to adapt will result in tragedy.  In my novel Ever, Kezi’s view of the religion she grew up in evolves.  If she’d stuck to her original beliefs she would have been sacrificed to a god that the reader has come to doubt.  Even if Kezi herself didn’t, the reader would regard her death as a tragedy.

Arthur Miller’s amazing tragedy, Death of a Salesman (high school and above, I’d guess), is about a man who can’t see beyond his world view, who has staked his life on shallow values.  His values are shallow, but the play is very deep, complicated, and worth seeing or reading.

In a different story, one I’m making up this minute, tragedy might be averted by refusal to change.  Suppose a main character Marnie befriends a new boy at school.  Let’s call him Joe.  At first Joe is well liked, but then rumors begin to circulate about him, serious stuff:  he steals; he brought a knife to his former school; he lies about everything.  When Marnie doesn’t believe the rumors and continues the friendship, her other friends desert her, saying they’re afraid of Joe and are becoming afraid of her.  Even Marnie’s parents warn her against the boy, who is spiraling into depression.  Marnie hangs firm, doesn’t change, and her trust keeps Joe afloat against the accusations, which may be true or false.  If they’re true, Marnie may bring about change in Joe and help him become a better person.  Good grief!  This could be a soap opera!

Or it could go another way.  The rumors turn out to be true, and Marnie is hurt, but she still concludes that she did what was right.  Or aaa!  Marnie could be killed, and then her staunchness turns into a fatal flaw.

In some respects, Marnie will change whichever way the story goes.  She’ll learn more about her friends and about herself.  She may have a greater moral sense by the end of the story.  In most stories, your main character will change at least a little.  As the author, you can highlight the changes by having your main character reflect on them or having other characters point them out.  Or you can simply show your main character behaving in a new way.

So I guess my answer for this invented story is ambiguous and may be ambiguous in many stories.  If Marnie, in addition to her faithfulness, interrupts people often or bites her nails or needs to sleep with a nightlight, these aspects of her personality can remain untouched – or you can change them as evidence of her new maturity.  But you probably don’t want to change everything about her.  Let her keep the flaws you like.

Here are four prompts:

•    Your hero wants romance with someone artistic, attractive, and as much in love with baseball as he is.  He finds such a person, whom he likes, but this character falls short in some important ways.  Write the scene in which he assesses himself and his romantic ideas.  Does he change or not?

•    Your main character wants to reform herself, stop being bossy and become more caring.  Write a scene in which she completely fails at this self-improvement.

•    Superman gives up saving people.  Write the turning point that pushes him in this direction.

•    Wickham from Pride and Prejudice decides to no longer be a scoundrel.  Write the scene in which the change takes place or in which the seeds of change are sewn.  If you like, write a summary of how the plot develops after his transformation.