The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Arc

Typically, when writers think Character Arc they think of the main character’s inner transformation. In other words, the lead character starts with a specific point of view, but because of the need to change their beliefs in order to address the conflicts that arise, the main character is a different person by the end of the story. This is a simplified interpretation, but it will due.

The purpose of the Character Arc is to keep the tension on the page high and to keep the story moving forward. Note that characters who do not change are considered fatally flawed and are tragic characters (Think McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), unless the character is already good (Think James Bond, or Braveheart).

There are different kinds of Character Arcs and it is ideal if you choose the kind of Character Arc that works best with your plot type and story structure.

A Change Arc is where the main character changes from an unlikely protagonist to a hero (Think Bilbo Baggins who was a reluctant hobbit hired to be a burglar but ended up the hero of the story in The Hobbit). This kind of transformation is radical and may include all aspects of the character.

A Growth Arc is where the main character overcomes personal failings during the continual conflict and becomes a better person (think Charlie Babbit who was a selfish-money-hungry-car-salesman but who gave up his selfish ways to support his special needs older brother in Rain Man).

A Fall Arc is where the main character believes something that isn’t true and then makes bad choices repeatedly because of that faulty belief, which then leads to corruption, disillusionment, insanity, or death (Think Anikin Skywalker in Star Wars who believed the lie that his wife could be saved from death if he chose the Dark Side).

To work out your Character Arc, you do need to consider what kind of person you want your character to be at both the beginning and the end of your story. You must also know who they are, where they came from, why they are in your story to begin with, and also how you want them to change so you can incorporate the best kind of Character Arc for your character and story. Note that you can have multiple Character Arcs in your story. Your antagonist may have a Character Arc as well as other characters. This will make your story more complex, on the plus side. On the minus side, this will make your story more complex. In other words, you definitely need the story structure in place to do this well.

Ask yourself questions and incorporate them into the Plot Structure to help you create your Character Arc. Work the Character Arc into the story with a Scene and Sequel structure unless you can seamlessly write both internal and external conflict. And remember GMC, too, when working on character creation and arc.

  • What are your character’s traits (Opening Scene)
  • How are the character traits faulty (Other Complications)
  • What happens internally to trigger the character to question their beliefs (The Point of No Return)
  • What does the character think of the faulty beliefs (Other Complications)
  • What is the main belief that the character must discard in order to change (The Main Complication)
  • What new belief is born or how has the belief changed (The Climax)
  • Show how the character has changed (the Ending)

Note that the Character Arc, story structure, and the theme are linked. I expect that much more thought and planning went into your favorite novel than you ever realized. But you can do it too. I have faith in you.

Next time: Scene and Sequel

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Big 5 Publishing Update

http://denverlit.com/blog/ has a great update on Big 5 Publishing.

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A Great Interview over at Deep Thoughts and Junk!

https://deepthoughtsandjunk.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/publisher-spotlight-literary-wanderlust/

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development: GMC

GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) is essential for character development and is a major component of all well-written books that readers love. But what is GMC?

Goal = I want

The Goal is what the character wants, or thinks he/she wants. The goal is so important to the character they can’t let it go, even if the goal isn’t important to other characters. The goal must be relevant for that particular character otherwise it will affect your overall story logic, and if the goal is also urgent, all the better, because the urgency will help move the character forward in the story. The goal should be difficult to achieve and come with challenges and obstacles so that each decision that the character makes will make the goal harder or easier to obtain. You characters’ goals are what drive the novel, and stories without goals for  each character have an incomplete structure. You character should have short-term goals as well. The short-term goals may be steps to the long-term goal, or the short-term goals may just keep your character alive so they can achieve the long-term goal. Regardless, each and every character should have a goal.

Motivation = I want because

Motivation is the “why” part of the goal and expresses why a character wants that specific goal. It is the logical reason the character wants the goal more than anything else in the world. The motivation is what keeps the character from giving up. Strong motivation will create conflict and force the character to move forward. The character must choose the goal in spite of the conflict otherwise there is insufficient motivation.  If the motivation is urgent and/or compelling, this will also help move the character forward in the story. Note that coincidence is NOT the same as motivation. Coincidence happens when the writer has failed to plan a way for the character to get out of the pickle they are in, and it causes the reader to suspend their disbelief. If your character is escaping from evil minions and comes across a car with the keys in it, that is coincidence. Don’t depend on coincidence. Depend on GMC. Your reader will notice all those coincidences, even if you don’t.

Conflict = I can’t get because

Conflict is the “what” which keeps your character from achieving the goal and it is the conflict which is the whole point of the story. If your character reaches the goal immediately, then there is no story and you can just type THE END.  Dealing with each conflict that arises forces the character to decide how to move forward in order to reach the goal. The character may get side-tracked, but they never lose sight of what they want. They push forward. They fight. They will reach the goal or die because it is that important to them.

Types of Conflict

Ideally GMC is both internal and external for each character. The two types of conflict create depth and believability. For even more depth put the two types of conflict in opposition to each other. And for even more depth make the GMCs f one character oppose the GMCs of another character. This use of conflict will ensure that the story contains a natural tension which will keep your reader turning pages. Note that natural tension does not necessarily mean realistic tension. Fictional conflicts must be larger than life just like fictional characters.

Internal Conflict deals with the character’s emotional issues which complicate the character’s ability to reach the goal. The inner anxiety of the character creates tension. Internal conflicts (such as tropes listed here) can be nearly infinite with creative options and opportunities for the writer.

External Conflict consists of problems developed from events or other people which keep the character from reaching the goal, and it is the external conflict that is crucial for plot development. Think Man vs Nature, Man vs Man, etc…and how this relates to plot types.

Generally, writing a strong, well-rounded character, as well as developing a great plot will come down to GMC. A story’s tension is created by good motivations and a story’s momentum is created by good conflicts. You characters must have well thought out goals to make both possible.

Next time: Character Arc

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development (continued)

There are thousands of character creation tools available in books and on the internet. If you need a worksheet or other tool to help you create your characters, just Google the topic. You will find bazillions of listings for how-to’s, spreadsheets, charts, videos, documents to print out and fill in, name generators, character wheels, and also software like Character Writer, Writer’s Block, Character Pro, and Scrivener (I haven’t used any of these software programs other than Scrivener which is inexpensive, easy to learn via video tutorials on YouTube, is both visual and logical, and makes all aspects of novel writing easier to manage. I also don’t make any money by endorsing it FYI. But I like it enough to recommend it).

Not every writer makes character profiles, just like not every writer plots out their novel in advance, but there are some good reasons to do the preparation work. Character profiles help you weave a back story in without information dumping, and also allows you to fully understand your character so you can show him/her without resorting to clichés. The more complex the story the easier it is to forget details of each character as you get deeper into the actual writing part. Profiles help you to remember things. Profiles also help you ensure that your character is well-rounded. Profiles help you problem solve. Your character profile will also help you keep your character acting at maximum capacity.

Consider what kind and how many characters you need for your story. If you are writing a romance you need at least two characters who can fall in love with each other. If you are writing a thriller you need at least a protagonist and an antagonist to pit against each other. Each character should have their own profile, including the antagonist and the sidekick so that they each have their own goals, motivations, conflicts, fears, characteristics, weaknesses, and strengths.

Your characters need a past. The past dictates his/her present to some degree. If your character grew up in poverty living in a one-bedroom trailer with seven other people and a dog and is now a billionaire, things had to happen to them to make them who they are now. Your readers may never learn all of those details, but if you have those already built into your character profile you can serve up tantalizing hints to intrigue your reader along the way. The back story helps to flesh out your character and helps them to seem real.

Your characters need a physical body of some kind. What does that look like? If your character has a scar across their ankle from falling down the stairs when they were seven, and this plays into your story in chapter two, you probably need to remember they have a scar on their ankle in chapter nineteen, or if you are writing a series, in book five.  Trust me on this. You may think that it is no big deal if your character is left-handed in book one but is right-handed in book seven, but your readers will and they will tell you all about it.

Find a photograph that resembles what you are envisioning your character to look like. Keep that handy because it will help you to remember these kinds of details when you are in the trenches of writing.

Your character profile is where you clarify what the goals are, what the internal conflicts are, what the specific mannerisms, and ticks, and fears, and driving forces, and emotional triggers are. Your character profile will also allow you to consistently associate any symbols, colors, moods, sounds, smells, wise sayings, themes, allegories etc…that you want associated with that character so he/she will be unique to your story.

Don’t be surprised if your characters then come to life on the page. Don’t be surprised if your characters then require you to revise your plot. Don’t be surprised if you get more excited about your story than you’ve ever been before and you can’t wait to write it. Creating character profiles is a LOT of work. But it is worth it.

 

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development (Continued)

So I have been pondering about how best to breach this elusive concept of creating a fictional character. There are tons of charts and questionnaires on the internet. Some of these questionnaires are quite detailed and ask you to create a full bio for each of your characters. These things are important for your character’s back story; you need to know each of your characters with great depth so you can write them well and keep them true to themselves. But is the backstory the first thing to consider? Maybe. Maybe. But perhaps we should consider something else.

Why do readers relate to fictional characters? You know you’ve read that book and that character was so real for you, so impactful, that they somehow affected you on some level. You know the character is not a real person, and yet your mind allowed you to suspend your disbelief so you interpreted the character as a real human being.

What was it about that character that so intrigues us?

Fictional characters are portrayed as masters of their own destinies. They take risks we are too afraid to take, they do the impossible, and they make crazy decisions that somehow work out for the best in the end. Fictional characters are the authors of their own lives. None of these things is realistic on the surface. We know this! And yet we believe in the character’s self-consciousness because we believe in the character’s convictions. We want to be the authors of our own lives, so we accept the above scenario as a kind of reality. We suspend our disbelief.

This is completely delusional, but it’s true.

So what is needed for each character to succeed as a character? What will help make the character real?

Each character needs a desire. They need their own unique individual desire. If the character is part of a group and the group has a goal, that goal may be part of the individual character’s desire, but on top of that, or underneath that is their own unique individual desire that drives them forward. Ordinary people are prompted to do extraordinary things because of deep desire. Desire breeds conviction and your character must have it. What are the character’s goals? What motivates the character? How does this desire create conflict both internally and externally? Make the desire so great that your character must be determined to succeed at any cost.

Goals, motivations, and conflicts are the driving force of  your story.

Every character needs fear and weakness. They need to have something to lose, and the loss or the potential loss creates a fear that can overwhelm them. Or perhaps some fear that immobilizes them. What is that fear that your character must overcome to succeed? What will happen if they don’t succeed? What is at Stake? Fear can be a great motivator to make your character more determined to achieve their goal. Your character must also move forward despite their weakness, whatever that weakness is. They press on regardless of how much it hurts, or how incompetent they feel, or impossible the task is for someone like them. Overcoming weakness makes them extraordinary.

Your character should have hope. The only thing that can really overcome overwhelming fear and weakness is hope. You character will despair, but there will be some tiny glimmer of hope to move them forward. They must have hope. Otherwise, what else is there? They believe that they are right, that they are doing the right thing (even your antagonists believe they are doing the right thing) and so they must press on in spite of everything. There is no other choice. And hopefully, maybe, they will succeed.

You character needs one unique strength which no one else has. It could be the ability to stay rational in a crazy situation, or the ability to resist temptation of something, or physical strength, or incredible intellect. It’s not a super power. Your character isn’t a super hero (unless you are writing that kind of story). Your character is just an average person with one special strength thrown into extraordinary circumstances to achieve the impossible. Your character will use that strength in the midst of conflict and it will be that special strength that will get your character through to the next conflict, the next problem, the next trial.

Remember that your characters are the masters of their own lives, and these things help them reach their destinies.

Next time: More on Character Development

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development

I received a question last week about character development. A writer wasn’t sure if they should work out the plot first, or the characters first. My only response can be that every writer is different, and unique, and special, which means every writer’s process is different, unique, and special. Some writers start with the plot. Some writers start with the characters. Neither way is better than the other. You start where you start.

My friend Desiree Holt has written 170+ traditionally published novels in less than 10 years and is a force of nature. She amazes me with her energy, her diligence, and her creativity. She writes very fast, and she always, always, always comes up with her characters first. Desiree probably couldn’t write nearly so quickly if she had to come up with the plot first. So she writes her strengths and comes up with her characters, then she imagines what happens to those characters later as she develops the plot. Coming up with characters is easy for Desiree. It isn’t necessarily easy for anyone else. It is just Desiree’s different, unique, and special way of writing.

It is important to note that some stories are considered character driven, and some stories are considered plot driven. Character driven stories are those who have at least one unforgettable character who is interesting, flawed, and memorable. The story is less about what the character does and more about who the character is. Plot driven stories are those stories whose main focus is on what happens in the story and less on who the events happen to. The very best stories are those with dynamic characters trapped inside a plot with dramatic action. In my humble opinion, of course.

So let’s talk about some character types. This list boils down to the very basic kinds of characters you will see in any book or movie. It is a good place to start.

Protagonist: The central character, or the one whose name comes to mind when you ask the question, “Whose story is this?”

Antagonist: a.k.a. “the bad guy” or the protagonist’s opponent. Usually, the action of a story arises from some conflict between the antagonist and protagonist. Note that sometimes the antagonist is not a person.

Narrator: the fictional storyteller. Note that there are different types of narrators including first person narrators and third person narrators. Also, note that not all narrators are reliable. Sometimes the narrator lies.

Confidante: the character in whom the central character confides. The reader often learns about the central character’s personality through the confidante.

Foil: a minor character whose purpose is to provide contrasts to other characters, thus revealing the qualities of the other characters.

Spear-carriers (or extras): characters who provide some sort of view into the story world. These characters must necessarily be flat since they are rarely named or described in any detail. They tend to run in crowds. These are mostly background characters. In movies, they are the extras.

Stock character: a.k.a. stereotype characters. Actually these are a special kind of flat character who is instantly recognizable to most readers because they show up frequently in literary tradition. Stock characters can be cliché, and are key in many genres. Think absent-minded professor, bad boy, blond girl, cat lady, mad scientist…and the list goes on and on.

If you think of your characters as a type, you may find it easier to create them with more consistency, more depth, more real feeling motives, goals, and conflicts. Movies do this all the time. So do masterful writers.

Next time: more on character development.

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