Objective: objectives

On March 26, 2015, Kenzi Parsons wrote, How do you brainstorm a non-cliche plot when you have the characters and situation already? I find I have a really hard time coming up with a plot if I already have characters–I LOVE my characters but struggle with the story. Any ideas?

These two responses came in:

Erica Eliza: Look at the relationships and the conflicts that will arise between characters. Sort through other story ideas that never took off because they weren’t big enough to carry a whole book by themselves, and see how your characters would handle them.

Tracey Dyck: If you have your characters in place, they can help drive your plot. Look at their individual goals (which might conflict with each other!) and what obstacles, both personal and physical, might stand in their way. The Rafe-Stella situation Mrs. Levine invented in this post kind of touches on that. (March 18, 2015)

Kenzi Parsons answered: These are all great!! Reading these, I think my problem is that my character doesn’t have an objective to motivate the plot. Huh… I’d never thought of that before! How do y’all come up with goals/objectives for your characters if you created them before the plot?

More ideas followed:

carpelibris (Melissa Mead): I almost always come up with character before plot. (I have a dickens of a time with plot!) Usually who the character is helps determine what she wants, whom she hangs out with, what she will or won’t do, etc., and the plot grows out of that. For example, a lot of my characters are loners/misfits, which tends to make them either want to fit in, stand out, or get out of where they are.

Tracey Dyck: What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their desires–what they want more than anything? What do they want almost as badly, something that may run contrary to the primary desire? Could be situational, personal, etc. Maybe one person wants to feel needed, another wants to gain confidence, someone else wants to fix a relationship, and yet another person wants to stop an impending disaster.

These are wonderful.

In case Kenzi Parsons’ concerns weren’t completely resolved, here are some more thoughts:

It’s hard to believe any idea is good if we’re worried about cliches. My entire writing career–my whole body of work– wouldn’t exist if that were much on my mind. A Cinderella story? Fairies? Dragons? Princesses? They’ve been done repeatedly. I’d be sunk!

We all build on old ideas. We have to. Originality comes from what we do with those tired tropes. Yes, sadly, it is possible to write a story that sounds like a dozen other stories, and we don’t want to do that. My strategy for avoiding such a fate is notes, and within notes, lists. It’s a strategy that can help in plot-from-character creation.

Let’s start with what we’ve come up for our character, whom we’ll call Tamara. On the good side, she’s loyal, kind, and funny. On the bad, she has a one-track mind. When something captures her attention, all else sinks in importance. At those times, she’s irritable or even angry with anyone who tries to divert her. She has curly hair, long fingers, a wide smile, and small eyes. Kenzi Parsons may have gone much further than this, but for our purposes we have enough to get started.

We review Tamara’s attributes and think what her objectives might be. Her one-track mind suggests possibilities, so in our notes for this story we list what she might be obsessed about right now, and we keep in mind all the other things we know about her. We pledge to ourselves that we’re going to come up with at least ten possibilities, and, further, that we won’t judge any of them. Nothing is stupid or cliched when we write a list:

∙ She’s raising money for a daycare center in her town.

∙ She’s working on a stand-up comedy routine.

∙ She’s determined to rescue her best friend from a bad romantic relationship.

∙ She’s researching plastic surgery to make a person’s eyes bigger. Once she finds out what she needs, she’s going to devote herself to making it happen.

∙ She’s preparing to join the army (real army or fantasy army).

∙ She’s preparing to rescue the child hostages from their captors in the warring kingdom of Kuth.

∙ She’s developing plans for a flying machine.

∙ She’s trying to save from extinction a species of tiny frogs that still exist only in her rural county.

∙ She’s deep and dark into magic books to cure her brother of the mysterious condition that caused him to stop speaking.

∙ She’s plotting revenge against a relative who sabotaged her frog project.

There. Ten. But if nothing pleases us we can go for fifteen.

Tied up in her obsessions are objectives. She wants to succeed! We can move the plot forward by placing obstacles in her path, some that come from within her, some from circumstances, and some from our other characters, who may want her to fail or may bungle helping her. We can list possible obstacles.

I chose her one-track mind to concentrate on, but I could have picked another of her qualities, although long fingers might be hard, but I bet we could do it. Anyway, her loyalty is suggestive, too. Here’s a prompt: Think about where her loyalties lie. List ten possibilities. Then think about how they might morph into objectives. Create a story around one possibility.

Kenzi Parsons has created more characters. If we have more, we can keep them in mind as we invent our lists, and we can give them the list treatment, too, remembering as we do that their objectives need to relate to Tamara’s in helpful or unhelpful ways.

I love lists. If you read the notes for any of my books, you’d find lists cropping up every few pages (I often have over 200 pages of notes for a novel).

After we we’ve come up with our objectives and have thought of obstacles, we start imagining how they might play out in scenes. And we’re off with a starter plot!

More prompts:

∙ Pick one–or more–of Tamara’s obsessions and use it in a story.

∙ I decided to go with Melissa Mead’s misfit idea and imagined ten ways in which Tamara might be different. Pick one and use it in a story. Melissa Mead already suggested a few objectives, and you may think of more. Here are the ten ways:

  1. She has only one arm (with those long fingers)
  2. She has the same genetic condition that caused Abraham Lincoln to be so tall and ??? At the age of twelve she’s a foot taller than everyone she knows.
  3. Her family have been farmers for centuries. She lives in a farming community. Nobody cares about anything but the size of pigs and pumpkins. She hates all of it. She has a brown thumb, and the livestock hate her.
  4. She has a different fashion sense than everyone else. She looks wrong on every occasion.
  5. She’s way smarter than everyone else around her, off-the-charts smarter.
  6. She’s the stupidest in her family and her school.
  7. She can’t pronounce the long i.
  8. Her brain is oddly wired. Psychologists keep diagnosing her with an alphabet soup of acronyms, but nothing really fits.
  9. She sees other people as numbers. People who appear as long numbers scare her, but she feels close to people who have a 9 in their number. (Look! This is the ninth in my list! What a coincidence!)
  10. She’s an identical twin, but although she and her sister look exactly alike, that’s where the similarities end.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Known quantities

Just curious: Did anyone join in the Woozworld event? I found it strange and didn’t feel as if I met anyone, really. If you were there, what was your experience?

Here’s a link to an interesting article in The New York Times about the cheerful bias in journalism and, by extension I guess, in humanity: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/science/why-we-all-sound-like-pollyannas.html. I think it’s something to keep in mind as we write stories.

On September 18th or later, writeforfun wrote, I’ve been meaning to start writing the third book in my trilogy for months now, but I’m stuck, and a big part of it, I think, is that I can’t seem to keep my characters interesting enough for a third book. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense. You see, in book one, my MC, Ben gets kidnapped by the five others, grows to accept them, and then gets rescued by them – and he ends up marrying one of them. In book two, all six of them are the MC’s, and they all go on a top-secret mission with a couple of CIA agents to save the world, and learn how awesome they can be. In book three, all six of the MC’s have to track down a mysterious criminal who is trying to capture Ben and his wife’s daughter. This’s where I run into trouble. Half of the book is about Ben’s daughter (that half comes with its own set of problems). The other half is about the six of them trying to catch the stalker, but the whole thing just doesn’t seem new and interesting enough. I mean, we’ve already learned about these characters and seen them reacting in regular life, and we’ve seen them in action and being awesome. What now? I know my characters and I love them like they’re my family, and it’s not that I’m really bored with them; but I can’t think of anything that will really keep me, or the reader, motivated to keep watching them. Is there any way to keep well-known, previously established characters interesting and surprising?

Michelle Dyck responded: First idea off the top of my head is: if you’re getting bored with the characters, maybe they’re getting bored with each other. It sounds as if they’ve been together for a long time. Even if they’re close, so much time together can give rise to conflicts (petty or otherwise). Just think of sibling rivalry.

And Deborah O’Carroll sympathized: I’m having a similar problem with a trilogy of mine… I’m trying to write the second book, but in the first one I already had monsters and trying-to-save-the-world, so going down a step to minor mysteries seems like an anticlimax, and I’m worried about the third as well… PLUS all the characters know each other now, and them not being sure about one of the characters the first time around was the other main source of tension… I’m trying to add some excitement, and keep a little leftover tension between the characters, plus I have some pretty big surprises the character has been keeping from the others, one for this book and another for the third.

And Elisa suggested: Maybe you could add a new member to the group, one that not everyone knows or completely trusts. Perhaps a former criminal who worked with the “mysterious criminal” in your book. S/he could end up being either good or bad, but it would help up the tension whichever way you go.

I’ve said this before: We tend to be a little over-critical of our work, and I wonder if this is the problem now, because when I love a series I don’t mind that the characters are known quantities. In fact, their familiarity is part of what I enjoy, spending more time in their delightful company. For example, I adore the characters in the Discworld series: all the witches, Sam Vines and the others on the City Watch, DEATH. How can I love DEATH? But I do, and I wouldn’t change a bone in his skull!

Or take Sherlock Holmes, who is reliably brilliant, enigmatic, and difficult. If I knew him in real life, I might tire of his unexplained pronouncements, his certainty that what he’s involved with is more important than anything in my life, and his reliance on unhealthy substances. But in fiction? Never!

I’ve now written two, albeit short, series: the three Disney Fairies books and the two books about Elodie and the dragon Meenore, A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. I don’t count The Princess Tales because only Ethelinda appears in two books or Fairest, because Areida is just a minor character. Part of the fun of reading a series is seeing how beloved characters will be themselves in new situations. Same goes for writing a series. In Stolen Magic, I use Elodie’s mansioning skill to actually save lives; Meenore practices ITs reasoning powers in a different setting, and I discover IT likes to sing limericks; and the ogre, Count Jonty Um, behaves nobly as usual but is appreciated as never before. Returning to them was part of the fun of the writing.

Assuming, though, that Elisa isn’t just being over self-critical, let’s explore some possibilities to create freshness.

• I like Michelle Dyck’s idea of sowing dissension in the ranks of our heroes. Think of rock bands and how often they break up once they’ve achieved success. Think of anybody’s family cooped up together on a long car trip. Charming traits start to irritate, and annoying ones become character flaws as deep as the Grand Canyon. People try to behave and be their best selves, but sometimes– sometimes often–someone erupts. Regrettable words are spoken, and rifts form that take a while to heal.

• We can disable one or two or all of them or make some of them unavailable. Can be simple things. Zeke might have broken his leg. Yolanda may be babysitting her niece while her sister and brother-in-law are on vacation. Wayne is studying for exams in particle physics. Vera is in a running argument with her cousin and can think of nothing else. Uli is on an expedition to Antarctica. Tess is in a long-running chess competition. Whatever. Their attention is divided; they can’t always be there for each other. The problem needs their complete concentration, but they can’t give it.

• Our characters don’t have to stay the same forever. They can develop and change in good ways and bad, and they can do it in the course of the new book. We can watch in horrified fascination as Yolanda loses herself to the world of video games, where she can save universes without ever leaving her chair. Uli can achieve a higher state of consciousness through meditation, which changes his perspective on threats. In the end this higher state may contribute to the stalker’s defeat, but in the meanwhile he may seem lost to his friends. Tess can fall in love.

• Are our MCs, individually or as a group, invincible? If they’ve already saved the world, is a stalker enough of a challenge? Can we introduce some new Achilles’ heels for each of them so that the threat intensifies?

• We make the stalker the perfect villain for our MCs. He knows how to turn their goodness against them. He uses their own strengths to their disadvantage. This may call for more scenes for him and possibly more character development. We show how he thinks; we lay out the resources he has at his disposal; we reveal his despicable plan for Ben’s wife’s daughter. We demonstrate how he spies on our heroes, and the reader squirms as he gathers his data. In both my Fairies books and the mysteries, the excitement comes from the fresh danger, and maybe this is what we need to do here.

• As Elisa suggests, we can introduce another new character, or more than one. The stalker can have allies, and there can be other characters who are trying to bring him to justice. We can have fun developing all of the newbies. The reader will be interested in how we bring them into our plot.

Here are three prompts:

• Remember the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz and how she watches Dorothy and her friends in her crystal ball? The stalker has this actual ball, which he got on a trip to Oz. Write a scene in which he’s observing one or more of our heroes. You can use any of them, from Zeke to Tess, in any of the scenarios I laid out, or make up some of your own. Include his thoughts and his plans as he spies.

• There have been a bunch of TV and movie spinoffs based on Sherlock Holmes. Why shouldn’t we join the fun? Holmes is presented with the problem of a missing heiress and a threat against the life of the chief of chief constable in the English town of Chipping Norton. Write the story and be sure to include Dr. Watson and arch-villain Moriarty. At least at the beginning of your story, keep them as their old selves. If you change them, make sure the reader sees the transformation take place.

• The stalker is after Yolanda, who is addicted to video games. Her friends, our heroes, try one way after another to try to get her back. Following Michelle Dyck’s idea, they start to argue over their friend. Write a scene in which words are spoken that aren’t easy to take back. The band of six is disbanding. Make it happen. You decide whether or not to reunite them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Defined by decisions

Before the post, this is a call for questions. My long list is running down. I know I don’t add every question that comes in to my list. Some I don’t have a lot to say about, or I may have answered something similar recently. But if there’s anything about writing that plagues or confuses you or that you’ve always wondered about, this is a good time to ask. Poetry questions also welcome.

On April 5, 2014, Farina wrote, If you have a character’s, well, characteristics down in a description of him, can you give some advice for then writing that person in their own character, showing off their characteristics and personal traits? So often I feel like my characters are all blandly similar in my writing even though in my own ‘Character Bible’ I have varying personalities and flaws for them all! 

In response, Bibliophile wrote, Putting them in situations where their values are challenged would be a good idea. That way, you can see how true they are to what they say they believe, and everyone is going to react differently. Use the (it doesn’t have to be in your story) ‘A house is burning down and you can only save one of these two things: a priceless painting or a murderer.’ Then have a conversation with your characters and ask them why they chose what they did. Keep in mind, there is no true right and wrong answer to this question, it’s just a great way see where your characters’ priorities are. (The question is borrowed from Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.)

Interesting suggestion. We can move the idea behind Bibliophile’s suggestion into our story, that is, we can look at the moments in our plot when our character faces a choice.

Let’s go with the choice Bibliophile and Shannon Hale suggest. Let’s imagine a strange combination of events that might present our MC, Tania, with this exact dilemma. A civil war is raging in her country, where she works as a prison guard. Because a high-security prison was bombed, the provisional government has moved the surviving prisoners into the only structure still standing that’s big enough to house them, the fine arts museum, which holds the cultural legacy of the land. Unfortunately, one of its new inmates is an arsonist. The museum is burning. Tania guards the wing where both the murderers are penned and the masterpieces of the golden age of portraiture are displayed. She can save a murderer’s life or a cultural legacy. She may even be able to rescue more than one painting but only one person. What does she do?

We can consult our character bible to see what she cares about, how she reacts in a crisis, what her life has been up to this point. With that, we may be able to decide what this particular character will choose.

Suppose we know, for example, that she’s judgmental. Right and wrong are clearly defined in her mind, which is one reason she became a guard. Even so, this particular choice may move her into unknown territory. She believes in preserving life although she thinks murderers are the lowest of the low. She’s not much of an art lover, but she’s a patriot and she regards the museum’s holdings as a national treasure. Her values are in conflict.

Cool.

The choice will be brought into sharper relief if we write the scene as it unfolds. The writing itself is likely to reveal Tania to us and will help us help her choose.

Which particular murderer is in danger of incineration? Does Tania know the details of his crime? Did he poison his own mother? Or did he kill the man who killed his sister, who got off on a technicality? What’s he like? What’s he saying to Tania while the flames lick the walls? How frightened is she? How clearly is she thinking?

Her choice will give the reader an idea of her. She can take the painting or the murderer, or she can be a ditherer and try to take both: advance five yards with the murderer, run back for the painting, and so on, possibly too slowly to get out alive with either. A tragedy. But whatever action she takes, her character will be much clearer if we write her thoughts as well, and if there’s an opportunity for dialogue, too, so much the better.

Thoughts first. We can make a list of possibilities, like this:

• I wish they’d given us fire training. Am I supposed to close the door or leave it open? Do I take the stairs or the elevator? Which is worse, first degree burns or third? I don’t want those puckery scars on my face.

• He looks a lot like Mr. Pollack. If I leave him, I’ll have to live with killing Mr. Pollack. He’s whimpering. Mr. Pollack would probably whimper, too, if he were here. This painting looks like Maria when we were in the third grade.

• Aaa! It’s so hot! We’re both going to die. I can hardly see. I’ll take whatever I touch first, the prisoner or a painting. We’ll die together.

Our characters’ thoughts help define them. We find out something about each version of Tania from what’s going through her mind. The first Tania may be a tad vain. The second Tania is more sympathetic, if no more competent. The third tends to panic, although she has a good reason in this case. Your turn. Write three more stream of consciousness moments for Tania.

On to dialogue. She can have a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. There may be other guards in the building, and she may be shouting to them. She may be talking to the murderer. In her frightened state, she can also be talking to the painting. Here are some possibilities:

• To her best friend on the cell phone: “Tell me you’ll take Susie if I don’t come out of here. I don’t want to die worrying about her. Tell her every day that I loved her, and remember to mix wet food in with the dry. She won’t eat otherwise.”

• To the murderer: “One move I don’t like and I will leave you and take the picture. Hands in the air. High. Keep them up.”

• Another possibility to the murderer: “Don’t kill the lady who’s saving your life. Don’t be like the scorpion in that story. We’re in this together.”

Your turn again. Write three more bits of dialogue for Tania. See how they define her.

I find character bibles most helpful once I start writing, and I don’t use them for every character. It’s only when my character has to do or think or say something and I can’t figure out what that should be that I create a character bible. And usually I leave it unfinished the minute I know what to put in my story. I may go back to it, though, if I get stuck again.

Using the choice between the murderer and the art is useful if our story includes that very decision. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise. When we get back to our story we may find that whatever we came up with in our hypothetical situation doesn’t fit.

One more thought: The more detail we include in our scenes, the easier it will be to make Tania come to life as a lively personality.

Naturally the prompt is to write the scene in the burning museum/prison. When you’re finished, if you’ve gotten fascinated by Tania, continue with the rest of the story, which may start with the lead-up to the burning building and go on to include her role in the civil war. If the murderer interests you, too, keep him in. Tania may not save him, but he may manage to survive anyway.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Different peas in a pod

Great news! My forthcoming writing book, Writer to Writer, has a subtitle, and it comes from you wonderful blog writers, who galloped in with your excellent ideas when I appealed for help. The powers that be at HarperCollins loved (and I love it too) one of Eliza’s suggestions. The subtitle will be–imagine a drum roll–From Think to Ink. Thank you, everyone, and special thanks to Eliza!

Eliza, if you’d like the acknowledgment in the book to include your last name, please write to the guestbook on my website with that information. Your email address would also be helpful. I won’t display anything you send. Unlike the blog, I see comments on the website and approve them before they’re posted.

On December 4, 2013, Bug wrote, I am worried that all my characters are too similar, and I have tried adding quirks, but I still feel like they are still really really close to each other. Does anyone have any way to help? Maybe my quirks aren’t quirky enough…

An assessment of the traits we usually give our characters may help. We can make a list. For example, suppose our characters’ virtues tend to be friendliness, an easy-going nature, and a sense of humor. We put these on our list. Their flaws seem always to include difficulty trusting, sarcasm, and laziness. We list these too. As soon as we look at our list we see possibilities for variation.

We can make add other personality traits, like this: shyness, too much energy, seriousness, a trusting nature, quick anger, hesitancy, impulsiveness, nervousness, sweetness, optimism, pessimism. That’s eleven. Go for eleven more. Return to this list and add to it when you think of additions, and keep the list handy as you develop your characters.

Of course it’s not enough to have a list. We have to show the traits in action, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings. Suppose our MC Jenna is waiting at a bus stop along with three strangers. It’s winter; snow is falling lightly; the bus is late. One stranger is so wrapped up against the weather that Jenna can see only his or her amber-colored eyes. Let’s call him or her WU, for wrapped up. The other stranger, whose name will turn out to be Ivan, is approximately Jenna’s age (fifteen), and, like Jenna, he’s wearing just a light jacket over a hoodie sweatshirt, no gloves, and sneakers rather than boots. Ignoring the swathed person, he starts a conversation with her. What does he say?

We cast an eye over our list of characteristics. Since Ivan started the conversation, let’s imagine that he’s not shy. And let’s pick impulsive and too trusting from our list. What might such a person say to Jenna? We write three possible lines for him. If all of them look like the sort of dialogue we always write, we write three more. When we get something that feels unfamiliar, we give it to him. Once he speaks, we know him a little.

Now we have to decide what Jenna does or says. Again we go to our list, then write down possible responses. Since she’s our POV character, we can tell the reader what she’s thinking and feeling, too, so our possible response list may be longer.

It will help if we have an idea of the kind of story we’re writing, so we can stop now to decide. If this is going to be a romance, we’ll go in one direction, probably, and WU may even turn out to be one of Ivan’s parents. If we’re writing an adventure story, we may have the dialogue go another way, and the missing bus and WU may take on more significance. If we’re writing horror, we may start to suspect Ivan as well as WU. Science fiction or fantasy may lead us in another direction.

The roles our characters are going to play in our story will help us make each unique. Let’s take one of my favorite novels when I was little, the classic Bambi by Felix Salten as an example. We’ll probably be writing a more complex story than this one, but its simplicity helps to show what I mean, because the characters aren’t much more than their roles. If you read the book when you were much younger, or never read it at all, you can go to Wikipedia for a plot summary, as I just did to refresh my memory. If you go to Wikipedia, make sure the page you’re on is for the book and not the movie.

Let’s look at just a few of the characters:

Bambi is our MC, brave, intelligent, inexperienced but promising at the beginning, thoughtful.

His mother is motherly, solicitous, expert in the ways of raising a fawn.

Faline, the love interest, is alluring and charming.

The old Prince is solemn, wise.

Gobo is weak and gullible.

The tale spans the life of a deer in a forest where hunters hunt. Man is the main villain, but carnivores in general don’t come off very well. Gobo, for example, is the way he is so that a point can be made about the danger of trusting humans. There are other turns in the story, but his undoing affects everything that follows. When Salten wrote Gobo, he must have known the role he would play in his plot.

Of course, we want major characters with more depth than a couple of salient characteristics. If our character is weak and gullible, we need to ask ourselves, Weak how? Physically? Is he ill or out of shape or exhausted? Emotionally weak? Is he unable to resist the slightest temptation? Gullible how? What else can we give him? Maybe he’s physically weak and also embarrassed to ask for help. As a result he often gets along without. Maybe he’s gullible because he always believes the best of people.

So we differentiate our characters by first thinking about their parts in our story and then by dreaming up ways to complicate their personalities without derailing our plot.

We can also see if we can eliminate characters we don’t need. For instance, if I had been around when “Cinderella” was first concocted, I would have argued against two stepsisters. We don’t need two! In the fairy tale they’re indistinguishable. And why seven dwarfs? They clump together into a formless mass of short characters. At least Disney had the good sense to name each one after a distinguishing characteristic. I couldn’t remember all the names, so I looked them up in Wikipedia, where the dwarfs’ monikers in various “Snow White” productions are listed. Here’s the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_names_of_the_Seven_Dwarfs. The strange names they’re given from production to production are funny.

In our story, if we have a group of friends who all seem to be running together, we can practice character economy and drop a few.

But we may need them all. My novel The Wish is about popularity, and I had to have a bunch of teenagers. It was hard work to make each one stand out! In a mystery we need enough suspects to confuse the poor reader, and we must differentiate between them so the reader can follow the plot.

Here are four prompts:

• Write the romantic version of the Jenna and Ivan story.

• Write a version of the story in which WU is the villain. Ivan knows him or her and is terrified.

• Have the bus come. Inside are five passengers and the driver. Jenna, Ivan, and WU get on. Turns out WU has been waiting for this particular driver to come along. You make up the reason. Write the bus ride and make the driver, each of the passengers, WU, Jenna, and Ivan distinct. Give each a role to play in the plot.

• Rewrite “Cinderella,” changing the plot so that the second stepsister has a real part to play for good or for ill. You can bring the story to its usual conclusion or change it entirely.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Robin’s Merry Band of Secondary Characters

I recently met an intellectual property attorney (patents and copyright) at a fund raiser for a book festival. We started talking – she’s writing for kids, too – and I told her about the blog and the questions that sometimes arise about copyright, and she offered to write a guest post, so that’s coming up in the next few weeks.

Now for today’s post. On January 26, 2013, Anna Marie wrote, I let a very close friend of mine read a story I wrote and she has recently gotten back to me. One of the things she mentioned was character development, she says I could go a little deeper. I totally agree, but I’m not sure how to effectively and smoothly go about adding deeper details about my characters. The story is in first person present tense, and it switches between two different characters. I’ve tried to tell the story in easier ways (3rd person, 1st person past only one character, etc.) but I keep coming back to the way I’ve got it. Very much like your story EVER which I hadn’t read when I first started but have read since (I must say, it’s pretty awesome). Can you give me any help? It’d be much appreciated.


The problem is with my other characters, my friend said that my MCs came to life very well, but that the others were still just words on a page. My story is a flip off Robin Hood, my MCs a female Robin and a boy who joins the band. The story jumps between their points of view. My trouble is in working character descriptions into the story through them. If that makes any sense whatsoever…

One of my favorite moments in Ella Enchanted, which is told in first-person, past tense, comes when Ella, Hattie, and Olive are in a carriage chased by ogres, and Hattie shrieks, “Eat me last!” If she were in the book for only that moment (she’s not), the reader would still know her: selfish, self-centered, self-involved, self-important, self, self, self.

One trick is to give your minor characters the opportunity to express themselves. Ella could be so frozen with terror in the carriage that she’s oblivious to what’s around her. Instead, she’s scared but she’s thinking about a way to save herself, and the one she comes up with requires the help of her stepsisters. Thus she gives both Hattie and Olive the chance to be their horrible selves.

Another trick, which I think is critical, is to make your MCs observant. If you’ve got an MC who isn’t (that’s fine), you may need to write in the third person – or your reader is going to miss a lot.

Elodie in A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic has to be observant for her job as assistant to a detective dragon. Plus, she’s an actor, and acting calls for observational skills. Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre is fearful, and fear calls for heightened alertness. When she goes off to save her sister, her survival depends on her observations.

Power relationships affect the observations of people, and this works for characters, too. We watch those who have power over us the most closely. Teachers and bosses are the victims of this hyper-vigilance. If a teacher, for example, habitually adjusts her bra strap, or if he rubs his nose, or she pulls her ear, pupils notice. They notice everything. If they don’t like the teacher, oy!, these mannerisms become the butt of jokes.

In the Robin Hood story, the boy who joins the band, let’s call him Thomas, may be low in the hierarchy. Say he wants to  be accepted, so he pays sharp attention to everybody. If a chapter is told from his POV, he’s going to think about who says what, how it’s said, how the others behave, how they relate to Robin, and his thoughts are going to show up on the page.

The first three out of these five tools of character development – dialogue, action, appearance, feelings, and thoughts – are available for non-POV characters. Suppose the band is walking through Sherwood Forest and we’re in Robin’s POV. She notices that Simon is stepping carelessly as usual and Jack is falling behind. She wonders if Jack’s fever is back. She sees that Melanie’s lips are pursed, which means she’s whistling in her head. These are actions that reveal character, filtered through Robin’s perspective.

Dialogue next. Let’s take careless Simon. The band reaches the safety of their hideout. Robin says, “Simon, if the sheriff had been within a mile of us, he’d have heard us and we’d be trussed up and on our way to the dungeons.”

What Simon says is an opportunity to reveal him. Here are some possibilities, but there are a million more:

“You’re dreaming. I was as quiet as a clam.”
“Your whipping boy at your service. Who would you pick on if you didn’t have me?”
“Sorry, chief! I didn’t mean to.”
“I’ll get it. You’ll be proud of me next time.”
“I can’t keep my mind on my feet. I try. You know I try, don’t you?”

If I were Robin, I’d probably find the last one the most annoying.

More action: Is Simon meeting Robin’s eyes? Is he blushing? Folding his arms across his chest? Tapping one foot? Each is an opening into his character.

Onto appearance. Let’s move into Thomas’s POV, because a character who’s new will have the freshest perspective on everybody else. He’s in the hide-out for the first time and seeing the band at their leisure. Maybe he’s thinking, What am I getting into? This is the legendary band that gives the sheriff apoplexy if even its name is mentioned? Simon is so knock-kneed it’s a wonder he can walk at all. Jack looks like the first strong breeze will blow him away. And I don’t like how caved-in his cheeks are. The band may be short one merry man by next week. I don’t see what the sheriff doesn’t like about Melanie. A smile permanently glimmers in the corner of her mouth. Nothing menacing about such a round, jolly face.

The POV characters can speculate about the thoughts and feelings of the secondary characters, too. If Robin knows that Simon is sensitive, she can think about his easily hurt feelings and couch her criticism in a way that doesn’t distress him – or that does. And characters can say how they feel and what they think. Not as direct a source as actually being in the head and heart of a POV character, but useful.

If you think about these tools, you’ll find yourself building them in, and your secondary characters will put on depth and weight.

Three prompts:

• Maid Marian is being held in the sheriff’s jail. The band that I’ve described needs to get a message to her without being discovered. Write the scene from Thomas’s POV. You can make them succeed or fail.

• Write the christening scene in “Sleeping Beauty” from the POV of one of the fairies. Use her narration to reveal the characters of the king and queen and at least two other fairies. Everyone is trying to keep the evil fairy from doing her worst.

• The next time you go to the supermarket or any big store, watch everyone you see. Notice how they reveal themselves and think what you would do with them if you put them in a story. When you get home, imagine some crisis in the store, whatever you like. Maybe there’s a large rat or a thief, or the power suddenly goes out. It’s night, and it’s suddenly dark outside and in and the power doors won’t open. Or somebody has a heart attack. You pick. Write a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Off with his head… nicely

First off, thanks to all of you who turned out in Pittsburgh! I was delighted to see you!

Now for the post. On July 19, 2012, capng wrote, …my WIP is told from the view of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. She’s pretty evil at the beginning of the book (and conceited, too!), but gets better as the book continues. How do I make readers dislike her but still worry for her? Or is that even possible?

Sure, it’s possible. End of post.

Just kidding. I’m giddy from muddling through Hurricane Sandy. Our little backwater didn’t get the worst of it, only a few hours of no power (and we have a generator). No trees on the house. Reggie (the dog) survived confinement without eating the couch or us. Hope all of you are okay, too.

Yes, it’s possible, and fun; it’s delightful to fool with the emotions of the poor reader.

If the Queen of Hearts is going to improve, then the seeds of her better self already exist. One way to make the reader care is to reveal the tender shoot in her that will grow slowly into a more likable character. For example, suppose Queenie pets her flamingo before using it as a mallet in the croquet game, and she clenches her jaw and looked pained when she hits a hedgehog. The reader glimpses a kind person locked up in there, even as she’s being cruel. Since this is told from her POV, she might wish for a gentler way to play croquet. If only, she can think, the mallet and ball don’t have to be alive. Then, because she isn’t good yet, she can add, But I must have my game. And the fresh air is excellent for my complexion.

When the reader learns that the flamingos and the hedgehogs are plotting against her, he doesn’t entirely want her destroyed. He’s rooting for her to have a chance to reform.

If she’s fun on the page, glorying in her evil, the reader will enjoy being in her company and won’t want anything to remove her from the story. Queenie in the example above is fun, and I hope Bombina, the fairy in my favorite Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake, is too, regardless of her fondness for turning people into toads. She’s not precisely evil, since she adores Parsley, my main character, but before Parsley comes along, she’s a fairy criminal. Here’s a sample:

Once, when her footman Stanley failed to open the carriage door quickly enough, Bombina turned his bushy red beard into a purple Fury-Faced Trudy toad. It looked funny, hanging upside down from Stanley’s chin. Bombina laughed, and Parsley would have too if Stanley hadn’t looked so shocked.

Admittedly, the book is lighthearted, which may make my task easier.

However, there’s little humor in Vollys, the dragon in The Two Princesses of Bamarre. She’s evil, but she’s good company, and the reader sympathizes with her. She also loves my main, Aza. So loving someone can help make even an evil character likable.

It’s an advantage to be telling the story from Queenie’s POV, because the reader sees everything through her eyes. Her narrative might go something like this:

I pronounced judgment, “Off with his head.” Diamond Jack’s eyes darted to my dear husband, Kingie. Two guards grabbed Jack’s arms, but didn’t pull him away. We waited for the pardon that would surely come.
Kingie, who liked everything just so, was pulling a loose thread on his doublet. He may not have heard my sentence.
I repeated, louder, “Off with his head.”
“Darling,” Kingie said, holding out the thread and issuing no pardon, “the silk is unraveling. Help me.”
What to do? I felt the blood drain from my face. I didn’t want this, but if I pardoned Jack – I couldn’t! My reputation would be destroyed. “Take him away.” I gestured to the guards, whose faces had paled too. Jack’s lower lip trembled. I looked away and heard them march him off. “Sweetie…” I fumbled in my purse. A shudder ran through me, and I could hardly control my hands. “I have a scissors.”

She’s behaving terribly but she’s suffering, and I think the reader has to empathize. If the story were told from Jack’s POV, she would probably be a lot less sympathetic.

Character worry is a great goad to reader worry. If Queenie is anxious, the reader will likely be too. Suppose Diamond Jack has powerful friends… Queenie is terrified of the consequences of his death, whether he actually dies or not. She’s bewildered about her husband’s failure to come through with a pardon, and she’s unable to break free of her bad queen persona. In every possible thought direction, there’s trouble. The reader paces mentally while she paces physically.

The key is making Queenie someone the reader can inhabit comfortably, can see himself in, even when she behaves badly. If she’s stuck in a position she doesn’t like but can’t figure out how to get free of, the reader thinks, Oh, yeah. I’ve been stubborn about something I didn’t really mean, too.

I just googled “making difficult characters sympathetic.” A link suggests three conditions that will guarantee sympathy: a noble goal; obstacles to its achievement; a great love or passion, which will humanize the character. This is a tad formulaic but interesting. It might work if our character isn’t annoying. Let’s take the sentences above. If Queenie doesn’t seem to like Kingie, we’re going to have a hard time liking her. If Kingie is just her husband, not her dear, if she thinks, Kingie, whose pitiful brain was often distracted by nonsense… instead of Kingie, who liked everything just so, the reader may prefer a cockroach’s company to hers. With thoughts like this, she’d be unsympathetic even while curing cancer against all odds and being sweet to her poodle.

Here are three prompts:

• Queenie inherits a kingdom that’s impoverished by defeat in war. Her glorious goal is to raise her people out of poverty. The obstacle is that the peace treaty calls for costly tribute. Her passion is for music, and she’s an accomplished violinist. Her flaw is that she will not tolerate dissent. Write a scene and make her likable.

• Turn her around in the next scene and make her impossible to like.

• Write “Sleeping Beauty” from the POV of the fairy who wants Sleeping Beauty to prick her finger and die. Make the fairy likable. You can use the three conditions I found online. As you write, you may discover that you have a new story on your hands. Keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Character block

On December 30, 2011, Tisserande d’encre wrote, I’ve been having a problem with my MC. Some time ago I discovered I didn’t know my character at all. We have tried reactions to problems, thoughts and things she likes, but I still can’t discover her personality! Because of this, I’m unable to say how  she will react to the situation or how she relates with other people. Nothing comes up to my mind. The first pages were easy to write because I knew her feelings, and ten pages ago I still did. But now she has closed to me. How can you get free from character’s block? I still have a plot, but it feels like I’m having the script in my hands and an uncooperative cast! I thought I knew her, but now it seems I don’t. And that doesn’t thicken the plot, it thickens my worries… Any advice, word, help on this?

Character block! A wonderful expression!

These two terrific responses came in to the blog at the time. This one was from Julia:

Sometimes when I don’t really know a character’s personality very well, I take this personality test (http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp) and answer the questions the way I imagine my character would answer them. At the end of the test, it links you to a detailed description of the character’s personality. I’ve found the results to be amazingly accurate. I hope this helps!
And this from writeforfun:

I have two suggestions that worked pretty well for me when I’ve had that problem before. In one version, I knew the personality at first, but it sort of slipped away as I wrote. So, I read from the beginning to the point that I thought I knew her best, and I tried to get a fuller picture of her at that point, and then I did a little writing exercise with her that was completely different from my story, so that I could see what she was like in a different environment. The other time, I didn’t know my character in the first place, so I decided to pick a stereotype and use that as the personality. The stereotype can be whatever you’re familiar with; I chose a dog. You may laugh, but I made the particular character friendly, optimistic, easily distracted, energetic and forgetful. It worked great, because I love dogs, so whenever I thought “what would he do?” I could think, “What would my dog do if he were human and in this position?”

You can also ask your character directly, in writing, of course, what’s going on. You can say, Bonnie, speak to me. Why are you holding back? What do you think of the story I’ve set out? What are your feelings? And give her time and space to answer.

Another possibility may be to bring in a secondary character to move things along. *SPOILER ALERT* In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, the high-handed Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth, and one consequences of this visit is that Darcy declares himself. In an ancient movie version that I despise, she’s a deus ex machina, but in the book, her effect is believable, subtle, and character-driven.

What pushes a character or anyone to action? Often an intolerable condition, which can be serious or not. We write letters to the editor usually when we’re annoyed. Your secondary character, rather than offering pep talks, can so offend your MC that she flies into high gear.

Or, dropping the secondary character, the intolerable condition can be the driving force of the story. Tisserande d’encre, you may not have hit on the problem that will energize your MC, and you may want to think about what that might be. In my The Two Princesses of Bamarre the intolerable condition is the illness of Addie’s sister Meryl, which so motivates Addie that she sets off to find a cure despite her near crippling timidity and shyness. The intolerable condition doesn’t have to be as big as an alien invasion or a kidnaping. It can be a little thing. Bonnie’s Uncle Steve can call her younger brother Lenny “unpromising,” which can set her off on a campaign to prove him wrong.

In Ella Enchanted, the intolerable condition is internal: Ella’s curse of obedience. When Ella tries to persuade Lucinda to rescind the curse she’s treating it as external, which doesn’t work because the problem is inside her.  In Fairest, it’s Aza’s appearance and her own self-consciousness, which is borderline inside/outside. In your story it could be a character trait. Bonnie may be a perfectionist; anything below her standards is a goad to action. Or she may have a super-hero complex; if there’s a wrong, she has to set it right.

As a plot-driven writer, I look for characters who by nature will go in the direction of my story. For example, in The Princess Test, my take on “The Princess on the Pea,” I had to come up with a character who had a shot at a lousy night’s sleep in the lap of luxury, so Lorelei is hyper-allergic and super-finicky. This isn’t very restrictive. She can be overly sensitive and mean or overly sensitive and kind, and smart or stupid and humorless or funny and anything else. She can be as complex as anyone else who has allergies.

Tisserande d’encre, you started with an MC who was defined in your mind. She and the plot meshed at the beginning but then it all blew up. So take a look at your plot. Did it develop in a way that moved away from her inclinations? Maybe you need to redefine her so she can continue to act in your story. Or maybe you should redirect the plot to satisfy her needs that you’ve already established. You may have a character-plot logjam rather than a single character block, and you may have to shift back and forth between the two to bust it open.

You may question if your plot is unified. Is there an intolerable condition that runs through the whole? If it bumps from incident to incident, Bonnie may react to one and be indifferent to another.

Writing isn’t efficient, at least for me it isn’t. You can try a scene one way and then another. Bring in a new character, Charlie, and see what happens. Have Charlie provoke Bonnie. Or make him so appealing that she wants him to think well of her.

Try changing the setting. She may be activated by unfamiliarity, or you may be.

Here are three prompts:

•    Bonnie is depressed. Action seems hopeless. Nothing will do any good. Her alarmed parents start making her wishes come true in order to cheer her up, with results that are temporary at best. Give her an intolerable condition that activates her. Write the story. At the end she can be depressed again, or not.

•    Allie’s father is arrested for shoddy building practices. People have died at his construction sites. Angry citizens are picketing the house. No one can leave without being hounded by the press. Bonnie wants to live her life, go to the local swimming pool, take in a movie, walk the dog, visit her dad in jail. She has a mother, Mrs. Miscreant, and her brother Lenny. Give her an objective and write her story.

•    Bonnie wins the lottery and the prize is in the millions. She is a do-gooder. Get her in trouble with her new life as a helper of others.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Pop!

On November 14, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …I’ve already read your extremely helpful section in Writing Magic about developing characters and I’ve filled out a character questionnaire for each of my characters, but they still seem sort of flat and Mary-Sue like, especially compared to the ones in my last book. I think part of my problem may be that they don’t have lots of quirks and faults, despite my efforts to think up some and apply them. Any ideas on how to make these characters pop?
  
Despite the troubles I’ve been having with Beloved Elodie, which I’ve written a little about here, a bright spot has been the secondary characters. The key has been getting inside their heads, and each head is different. Let’s take Mistress Sirka, for example. She’s a barber who’s secretly in love with Brunka Dror. Brunkas are people who pledge themselves to helping others and to never marrying and who drink a magic potion that sharpens all their senses. Sirka has done something extreme in pursuit of her love, and that’s the key to her: she’s impulsive, feels everything very strongly, takes risks, and doesn’t care what people think of her. She’s not one of the POV characters, so we get to know her through her dialogue and through Elodie, the POV character in the scenes Sirka is in. Whenever it’s time for Sirka to talk I mentally run through her qualities and decide what such a person would say. I think about what gestures she’d make. She has this amazing smile, the kind of smile you might wear when you’re merrily riding a roller coaster.

So that’s one approach. When you’re writing dialogue, consider who the speaker is. Keep his personality in mind. When would he chime in? When would he keep mum? If he’s silent, have your narrator notice and speculate why. Sometimes you may need your dialogue to carry exposition. Certain things must be said and it doesn’t matter who says them, so there may be patches where the speaker can be identified only by attribution, by Nadia said or Ondine said. But mostly your dialogue should reflect the nature of the speaker.

I haven’t given Sirka any speech mannerisms, but I have given them to other characters. Master Tuomo often ends his sentences with, “I tell you.” He makes pronouncements. He’s just a tad angry, and he’s sure he’s right on every subject. Master Albin, a theatrical personality, often speaks as if he were the narrator of the play of his life. So there’s another suggestion: dream up speech mannerisms for some of your characters, not all. All is too many. And don’t use them every time the character opens his mouth. Now and then is enough.

Most chapters in Beloved Elodie are from Elodie’s POV, but a big minority are in the voice either of the dragon Masteress Meenore or of the ogre Count Jonty Um. And when they’re from Jonty Um’s POV, well, he’s a shape-shifter, so when he’s shifted his chapter would be in the POV of whatever animal he is. Meenore, Jonty Um and his shape-shifts, and Elodie all have quite different voices. This question came up in the comments on last week’s post, about identifying the narrator of a chapter without having to refer to the chapter heading. I hope the reader will be able to figure out to whom the chapter belongs from the voice. I hope reading a single paragraph will reveal all, although I do identify the narrator under the chapter heading. Meenore uses the biggest words I can think of, and I rely a lot on my thesaurus when I write in ITs voice. Jonty Um uses short sentences and simple vocabulary with the expressions “Fee fi” or “Fo fum” sprinkled here and there. The thoughts of the animals are as simple as I can get. Elodie is the least distinctive voice, she’s the Everyman of the story. Each narrator focuses on what he or she or IT would most naturally notice.

Which leads to another suggestion, an early prompt: If a character is refusing to emerge, write a chapter from his POV. Afterwards, consider what you learned. What caught his eye, his ear, his nose? What was different from the way the chapter would have unfolded from your chosen POV character? Then write it again in the POV you’ve been using but incorporating the insights you’ve gained.

Here’s another early prompt to make characters “pop.” Think of a few of the most complicated people you know. Start a new story and put one of them in, under an assumed name, in a different body and changed circumstances, the circumstances of your story, but herself nonetheless. See if someone else you know can go in as well. These characters are likely to “pop.” Their complexity, which you know well, will influence their actions, decisions, speech.

Or you can mix and match, a quality from this person, a fault from that one, a virtue from another.

Or choose a fictional character you feel you know well. In my mind, although I never told my editor, the ogre Jonty Um in A Tale of Two Castles is sort of Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. He’s eleven feet tall and inarticulate, but he seems stern and haughty while he’s really kind and decent. The secret Darcy helped me get Jonty Um.

Think of how real people make an impression on us, through their clothing, their hair style, their mannerisms, the choices they make when they present themselves to the world. Many physical attributes are given to us – height, beauty or plainness, eye color, hair (curly, straight, thick, thin) – but we adapt them uniquely to ourselves. I took the train to New York City this morning. A woman sat next to me and went to sleep, but she didn’t relax into sleep, didn’t slump, didn’t lose her grip on her magazine. Her feet were planted neatly side by side. When I woke her because I had to get by her to exit, she didn’t jump. She segued smoothly from sleep to wakefulness. In fact she might be anything but, but my impression was of a gentle, conforming, pleasant, somewhat predictable person. Her clothing added to the impression. She was dressed for business, nothing flashy, muted colors, small earrings, low-heeled shoes. She was a miracle of ordinariness.

You’re writers. You probably already watch people. If you don’t already, take notes. If you’re among strangers, draw conclusions from the superficial (not a good character trait in life, but fine for fiction). If you’re with family, friends, or schoolmates, imagine what a stranger would make of them – and of you! Keep your discoveries in mind when you write.

There are prompts sprinkled in above, but here are a few more:

∙    Take my miracle of ordinariness and make something happen on the train that reveals her. It can be something big, like a terrorist attack, or little, like a loud cell phone talker. Is her mild persona camouflage and she’s really extraordinarily brave or angry? Or is she just as she appears?

∙    Keep going with the train event. Develop the other characters. A delay in public transportation is a catalyst for people to get to know each other and to rub against one another.

∙    So is a jury. If you’ve never been a juror, draw on movies and books. A bunch of strangers are thrown together to evaluate a situation and make ethical choices. Your courtroom drama can be contemporary or fantastic or historical, a murder trial or a trial about the treatment of unicorns. Write it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Character in the round

Early in July, M.K.B. wrote, ….Sometimes I feel some of my characters don’t have enough volume and they don’t feel as real to me as some of my other characters. I was trying to formulate a system to create characters. Do you have any suggestions?

And Lexi asked a related question: I know everything about my characters; there are reasons for the jobs I chose for them and backstories that explain their personalities. I just don’t know how much or how to tell my reader. How do you pack in as much information as possible without sounding stilted, and how much is too much?

In Writing Magic I offer a character questionnaire that is a kind of character-development system. (I just looked at it and was embarrassed to discover that, although I asked about appearance, I didn’t specifically mention apparel, a sad omission.) If you answer most of the questions, your character will be quite rounded – in the questionnaire. How to get all that information into your story, and whether you need to, are other matters.

There are real-life people, people I’ll bet you’ve known almost always who still surprise you. An elderly friend of mine, let’s call her Betty, pampered from childhood on, who doesn’t cope well with ordinary vicissitudes, has been battling cancer for the last five years, and about the cancer she is uncomplaining. I would never have guessed. If she were a character I would have had to give her cancer to find out.

And yet we size people up in two seconds. Someone – let’s call her Hetty – called in to a talk radio show I was listening to recently, and I disliked her by the time she’d spoken three sentences. Her hearty voice (too hearty, in my opinion) seemed to my warped ears to proclaim, Look how delightful I am. I didn’t even see her! I don’t know if she kicks her cat or volunteers at a nursing home, and even if I learned she does volunteer and is unfailingly kind to animals, I’d have to recite her virtues in my mind over and over to get past that voice.

So let’s make me and Hetty minor characters in a story. Hetty’s overbearing voice and overconfidence establish her, at least partially. My dislike of a boaster sets me up too – let’s change my name to Bonnie for this post. The reader, Lenny, who knows nothing more about these two, feels that he’s encountered two complicated people. He hasn’t read much about them, but the little suggests that more is there.

If they’re minor characters, that’s all we need. In fact, it may be too much. It’s too much if Lenny is distracted, if he wishes the story would veer off and have Hetty and Bonnie meet in person and develop their relationship. Sometimes all you need is a long, trailing scarf or an interesting name. And sometimes characters aren’t important enough even to warrant a name; male or female and old or young may be sufficient. We don’t want to burden Lenny’s brain with characters he doesn’t have to remember.

Or Hetty and Bonnie may be fine with the amount of detail provided. Lenny appreciates how we populate our stories with intriguing oddballs.

What reveals character?

Hetty has an unpleasant voice, so voice helps define a character. Along with voice, there’s dialogue. What does Hetty say and how does she say it? Does she interrupt people? Does she disagree with whatever is said to her, or does she always agree? How’s her enunciation? Her grammar? And many other speech possibilities.

Bonnie’s thoughts show her to be a tad prickly or sound sensitive; thoughts bring character to light. Of course we have access to the thoughts of POV characters only – unless we’re writing in third-person omniscient.

Lenny may be a writer as well as a reader. If he becomes a character, and if his writing enters the narrative, then it will help reveal him. Introducing a character’s writing, a diary, for example, is a way to slip in the thoughts of non-POV characters.

What else?

Those aspects of appearance that a person can control, which covers a lot of territory. Bonnie, for instance, is short (I am). Does she wear three-inch heels or flats? Does her erect bearing suggest a taller person? Lenny sports a goatee and chooses to wear glasses rather than contact lenses.

Clothing. One could write about this forever. Not only clothing itself, but also about clothing in a setting. Does Hetty wear a suit to the company picnic?

The setting that a character controls, Lenny’s house, his room if he’s too young to have a house (forget the goatee in this case). What’s his taste? Is he neat or sloppy?

These seemingly little things, Hetty’s bedroom with the martial arts posters, the free weights in the corner, the biography of Helen Keller on the desk, or Lenny’s goatee or Betty’s weighty painted beads around her neck and the four bracelets on each arm, suggest developed, deep characters.

Actions, which may be more important than anything else, define character. Hetty listens and calls in to a talk show. Bonnie just listens. Betty calls her son and complains, but never about the cancer. Lenny reads.

Everything is subject to interpretation. Does Hetty listen and call in out of loneliness? She lives alone and likes to hear voices on the radio. Then she gets so caught up she has to respond. Or does she call for some other reason? Does Lenny have a goatee and glasses because he wants to appear professorial? Or is the goatee hiding a weak chin, and he wears glasses because contact lenses seem vain to him? Or a thousand other reasons. If Lenny moves from reader to important character, we may learn what his motivations are. We learn motivation from further action, possibly from his explanations in dialogue, from his thoughts if he’s a POV character.

I’m not sure about backstory. If the backstory doesn’t move to the front story, I think it’s more for the writer to know than for the reader. Backstory will influence a character’s actions, but Lenny doesn’t have to know that Hetty’s father locked her in the cellar when he was in a bad mood – unless the father or the cellar or something directly related comes into the story.

Coming into the story is the key to what character development to put in and what to leave out. If you need it for the plot, then include it. If you don’t and the information makes the story drag, leave it out. If you don’t need it but it’s fascinating in its own right and Lenny doesn’t get bored, it’s up to you and the kind of story you’re writing. You can’t please everybody. Lenny may like an embellished story but his brother Lonny may prefer his fiction stripped down to action action action.

Only one prompt today:

Betty, Bonnie, Hetty, and Lenny, strangers to one another, all attend a reading by the famous teenage fantasist Tammy Millhart. At the end she announces that before the event she hid a talisman, an ebony ball, somewhere in the local amusement park. She chooses three teams, one of one of them comprising our characters, to look for the ball. Whichever team finds it will be given a far more serious mission; the entire population of a mid-size city will be at risk. Write our quartet’s search while developing each one as a complex personality. Do all of them want their search to succeed? Tammy can be an important character too if you like. She can attach herself to your team or wander from team to team. Is she helping or getting in the way?

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.