Perpetual-motion characters

Before I talk about this week’s question, I want you to know that you can now pre-order A Tale of Two Castles through the website (and other places, too). And – thank you, April, for this question on the blog! – for me it’s best if you buy from the website because I get a tad more money when you do.

Also, on the appearances page of the website are the places I’ll be on my book tour in May – no details yet, just the cities.

And there was an article in yesterday’s Health and Science Section of the New York Times about self-compassion and diet, which reminded me of last week’s post. If you substitute writing for diet and eating, everything applies. You can read the article by following the link:,%20tara%20parker%20pope&st=cse
On December 10, 2010, Ruthie wrote …I tend to get overly obsessive about my stories–or, more accurately, my characters. For example, I have been vomiting up increasingly esoteric facts about the same fictitious people for over a year. I can tell you everything from their childhood hobbies right down to the shoe size for even my most minor characters. Whenever I write (whenever I think, really), it ends up being superfluous conversations between them or them just doing everyday tasks. And nothing happens. They all have their own flaws and friends and jobs and niches in their world; they could all continue the way they are right now, like a literary perpetual motion machine that never goes anywhere. If this isn’t to vague a request… help?

You may have heard this before: When we fall in love with our characters it can be hard to make bad things happen to them, which of course is what we have to do. I fall victim to this sometimes. But an in-depth understanding is a fabulous asset. When our characters’ situation does worsen, we know exactly what will work best to make them unravel.

We don’t have to start big with the misery. Often we want to begin with a little crisis and work gradually into tougher trouble. You know your characters’ flaws, so that’s a great place to start. Put two of them together. They’re outside the principal’s office, say, for talking during an assembly when a visiting children’s book author was speaking. Nan is self-centered, and she goes on about how her dad will combust if the principal calls him. Fran listens sympathetically, then starts to recount her own worry, which could be about the Algebra test she’s now missing. Nan listens for a minute, then says, “Yeah, I failed my French test last week,” and starts in on how mad her dad was. Fran feels rising anger and says, “You always do that.” Nan, although self-involved, is good about recognizing her faults, and she apologizes unstintingly. Then the principal comes out and calls the two girls in. Whatever happens there happens. Back to the argument. Fran’s flaw is to hold  a grudge. Even though her friend apologized, she doesn’t forgive or forget. Later in the day, she texts, “I’m still mad at you.” Nan now adds Fran to her list of troubles, even ahead of her dad, and she confides what Fran did to their mutual friend Dan. Dan, alas, likes to separate people. And the story is launched. Your intimate knowledge of these characters fuels the conflict until this tempest in a teapot threatens to go nuclear.

An important plot question, much discussed in books about writing, is to ask yourself what a character wants and erect barriers to her achieving her goal. This is a cinch for us if we have an exhaustive knowledge of our characters. What obstacles will most drive Nan nuts? If, for example, she has to really pay attention to somebody else, someone important to her, she will be very challenged. She can fail and fail again, starting in small ways and moving up, until the reader is biting his nails up to his elbows.

We can also throw our character in at the deep end. Instead of asking what Nan most wants, ask what she most fears and make it happen right at the start of the story. I’d guess that Nan is needy, probably insecure, but one person makes her feel safe, her Aunt Jacqueline. So give Aunt J cancer. How does Nan deal with this? We know her inside out, so we know. Up until the diagnosis she’s terrific, calling her aunt every day, visiting her every other day. But aside from that, she isn’t sleeping or keeping up with her schoolwork, and she has to visit the principal’s office again. Then the diagnosis is bad. Nan gets the news from her mother and doesn’t call Aunt J. In fact, she won’t pick up when Aunt J calls. Nan becomes self-destructive in the ways that we who get her completely can most easily imagine.

The problem doesn’t have to be close to home, either. Aliens can invade. Centaurs can take over Nan’s village. If she has an inflated idea of herself as well as being self-centered, she can think the incursion has to do with her, and she can act accordingly with hilarious or tragic results. Only you will know what she’ll wear for her first meeting with the alien captain. Only you can guess how she’ll react to a ceremonial dinner of rattlesnake-eyeball stew.

If you love your characters so much that you freeze when you try to make trouble for them, think about their inner resources. Maybe this is the only area you haven’t developed. Nan is insecure, but maybe she’s got a stubborn core that keeps her from being overwhelmed. Or she can laugh at herself, which rescues her in her worst moments. If you figure out how your characters can rise above whatever befalls them, you may be more willing to unleash the worst.

There’s conflict in your question, Ruthie. Your characters may not be in the middle of a problem, but you are, so you can write about yourself as a fictional character. How does the character Ruthie learn how to put her marvelous creations into a story? Maybe she takes a creative writing class from a teacher who humiliates her in front of everybody (remember, this is the fictional Ruthie) and the pain gets her writing, but the characters she knows so well refuse to do what she expects them to. She discusses the problem with one of her classmates, Nan, who seems a lot like one of her characters, which is not good. The reader may not care much about the characters who continue to chat and shop and eat their favorite foods, but he does care about Ruthie.

Or Ruthie can go to a party and find the entire cast of her fictional world there, in the flesh. How did this happen? What does it mean? How is her friend Nan, who came with her, doing with all these people? Has Nan figured it out? Is Nan even experiencing these people the way Ruthie is?

Here’s another thought: Throw your characters together without Ruthie and write their dialogue. Don’t force anything. Just let it happen. Write at least ten pages without worrying about plot. When you’re ready to go through it, look for places where there’s the slightest hint of trouble, or more than a hint. Exploit these moments. Make them worse. Make someone cry. Keep going.

Here’s an off-the-wall idea: Invite some friends over, or try this with family. Give each friend one of your character descriptions. Suggest a situation with inherent trouble. In character, your pals are trapped together in the bottom of a mine. Or they have a school assignment to write together about mining, and half their final grade will depend on it. Or they’re going against one another in some kind of competition. Don’t you be one of the characters. You’re the observer, writing notes. When you see something promising for a story, write it down. You can stop the action whenever you want and ask a character to repeat a line that went by too fast. You can tell them to take their improvisation in a direction that looks promising to you. Or you can just let them rip. The advantage of this is that you’re bringing in people who will be perfectly willing to create drama, who won’t love the characters as much as you do, and you’ll be able to see what can happen to them. Of course, it also may not work, but everyone may still enjoy trying.

A bunch of prompts are embedded in this post:

∙    Use my argument starter and make up your own situation to put it in, or use mine, the two main characters outside the principal’s office. The argument starter is, “You always do that.”

∙    Pick a character you don’t know what to do with and ask what he fears most. Or use a secondary character from one of your other stories. Bring his worst fear down on him. Write about how he responds. Does he overcome? Or are you writing a tragedy, and he succumbs?

∙    Stage an alien invasion or village takeover by non-human creatures. Invent or use as an existing character as your main character, someone who will respond to this trouble in a surprising way.

∙    Write about a writer who can’t figure out what to do with her characters. Have her take a writing class from a sadistic teacher and meet a classmate who could be straight out of one of her failed stories.

∙    Send your writer to a party attended by her characters. Make them get mad at her. Write what happens.

∙    Write dialogue for your purposeless characters. After ten pages, go back and look for hints of conflict and blow them up. Keep writing.

∙    Turn your characters into an improvisation for friends or family. Take notes while they perform. If trouble erupts, write it down. Push the plot they’re creating with suggestions. You can even videotape them in action.

Have fun, and save what you write!