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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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Seven)

Basic Plot Structure Continued: All the Other Complications

The purpose of complications as a part of plot structure in fiction is to make life harder for your characters. It is as simple as that. Complications add surprises, twists, problems, impossible situations, tension, and conflicts. The story complications make your story more dynamic and your characters more lifelike. Ultimately, all stories are about solving problems. Force your characters to overcome even greater odds. Make it hard for them to get to the end. Add tension. Add conflict. Complicate their lives. Nothing should be easy.

But how do you complicate your plot? Chuck Wendig describes complication well in three C’s of storytelling. Whatever it is your character is after, they can’t have it. Where ever your character is going, they can’t get there. If they are running away, they fall into a pit. If they are sleeping, the monster bursts through the door. You character will get what they are after only later in the story. Some complications will be resolved more quickly, and some won’t be resolved until the last possible moment. Your complications should be unpredictable but still fit within your overall plot, plot type, and theme.

All of your complications should be resolved by the time you get to the end of your story. You’ve heard the phrase “loose ends?” That means you left some complication unresolved. If you plot out your novel you will know every complication and you will be able to resolve each of them by the time you type “the end.”

Let’s look at Other Complications for Star Wars. Luke and the crew find themselves on the Death Star. Luke discovers Leia is scheduled for termination in the detention block. He tempts a reluctant Hans Solo with reward money, and together they break into the detention control room. They rescue Leia from her cell only to be overwhelmed by Storm Troopers. Their escape is cut off. Leia blasts a whole in a ventilation shaft, but they end up in a garbage compactor. See how things go from bad to worse for the characters? It is these kinds of complications that makes Star Wars a dynamic and endearing story.

There should be several Other Complications throughout your story. Get your characters into trouble. Get them into more trouble. Then be the hero by writing their escape!

Plot Structure Recap:

  • Plot Type selection
  • The Opening Scene
  • Other Complication
  • Other Complication
  • The Point of No Return
  • Other Complication
  • Other Complication
  • Other Complication
  • The Main Complication
  • The Climax
  • The ending

Next time: Reader’s Choice: email me with topic suggestions  at:  oosuzieq @ gmail dot com.

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Six)

Basic Plot Structure Continued: The Climax

It’s now time to discuss our favorite part of the story: The Climax. The Climax in storytelling is exactly the same as it is in other areas of your life. The Climax is that highest or most intense point in the development or resolution of the story. It is that moment of greatest intensity. It is that scene that brings all the previous events in the story to that critical moment where the main character is about to win or lose everything. The Climax is where the outcome of the Major Complication is revealed to the reader. Note that you must know the problems that the Major Complication created for your character in order to bring that complication to a head in your climax. If the two scenes, the Major Complication and the Climax, are not tied effectively together, then you will leave your reader unsatisfied.

The Climax is Victory or Death. For Overcoming the Monster, this is the final battle scene. Your reader is not sure which side is going to win. The reader is worried that your character is going to fail. In all probability, your character will die. The reader is chewing on their fingernails as they read and they can’t possibly put the book down (If they can put the book down during the climax then you haven’t done your job). Either your character will die or they will win. If they win, then they create a new world for themselves. If they die, your story is a tragedy (think Shakespeare). Your Climax changes everything.

In Star Wars Episode IV the climactic scene is where the Rebels assault the Death Star. Luke and his friends must fly along the heavily defended trenches with the nearly impossible task of shooting a warhead into the very tiny thermal exhaust port. This exhaust port is the Death Star’s only vulnerability. Failure to get a warhead into the exhaust port means certain death for Luke, and all of his friends. Many of the fighters die trying to accomplish the impossible. The initial attempt to get the warhead into the exhaust port fails. All is lost. Finally, Luke, the only fighter left, releases his warhead and hits his target. The Death Star is destroyed. (The Rebels don’t know that Darth Vader has escaped which sets up the possibility of the next movie). The Rebels believe they can now create a new world for themselves. They won!

In the Major Complication, the Death Star destroyed Alderaan and the Rebel base that was located there. Leia is Darth Vader’s prisoner and scheduled for death. In the Climax, the Death Star is destroyed. The Rebel forces are saved. Luke has saved Leia’s life. See how the two scenes tie together? If you work out the ten scenes of your plot, then regardless of what happens in between these ten scenes, your plot will be solid. Your story will make sense. You  will have a strong beginning, middle, and end, and you will have very satisfied readers who can’t wait for your next book.

Plot Structure Recap:

  • Plot Type selection
  • The Opening Scene
  • The Point of No Return
  • The Main Complication
  • The Climax

Next time: All the Other Complications

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Five)

Basic Plot Structure Continued: The Major Complication

The Major Complication is a scene in your plot that raises the stakes for your character. The Main or Major Complication forces the character to change course because there is no other option. The path they were on failed. The plan they were following has been opposed by another character or an event, and now the protagonist can’t continue on as they intended. If the protagonist wishes to defeat the monster they must make a new plan.

The Main Complication is sometimes called the Mid-Point and it is that “Now what?” moment in your story. The Main Complication is a new and urgent situation that must be dealt with. Note that this complication is less about the thing that happens and more about how things change for your characters from this point forward. There is more danger. Conflict is intensified. The stakes are higher.

Let’s look again at Star Wars Episode IV. The Major Complication or mid-point is where Luke and friends discover that Alderaan, the location of the rebel base they were attempting to reach, has been blown up. How are they going to help the rebels now? Oh, look, it’s a small moon. No, it’s a giant ship! They try to escape but the Millennium Falcon is captured by a tractor beam and they end up inside the one place they don’t want to be, the Death Star. Luke discovers that Leia is imprisoned and sentenced to death. They can’t just leave her! Luke still wants to help the rebels but he also wants to save Leia, and so comes up with a new plan: rescue Leia and escape the Death Star.

Your plot now has a new direction that will still lead your character, somehow, to the end result of overcoming the monster. It is just much harder for everyone, and your character has no idea how to get to the end. You might not know either if you don’t work out your plot’s structure in advance. But if you work through your plot points, you will have the map that will get your character from point A, to point B, to the end. Your character may not know how to get there, and your reader probably won’t know either. You will know, though. Exciting, isn’t it?

Let’s recap basic plot structure so far:

  • Plot Type selection
  • The Opening Scene
  • The Point of No Return
  • The Main Complication

Next time: The Climax

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Four)

Basic Plot Structure Continued: The Point of No Return

The purpose of the Point of No Return scene in your plot is to force your character to move toward the final goal according to the plot type you have chosen. For Overcoming the Monster, the Point of No Return scene forces the main character to pursue the only course of action available to them that will allow them to engage and defeat (or be defeated by) the monster.

The Point of No Return is the result of the inciting incident, which is that singular event which so disrupts the character’s reality that there is no going back to daily life. This incident creates the domino effect that creates the flow and arc of the novel. It is this scene that will define your whole story concept and where the reader will know exactly that the story is about Overcoming the Monster, or The Quest (Lord of the Rings), or The Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland), or Rags to Riches (Cinderella), etc.

It is also the Point of No Return scene that concludes all the story set-up. All foreshadowing, clues, introduction of your main character, introduction or hints of your antagonist, etc…should be written into all the set-up chapters prior to the Point of No Return Scene. Remember that these 10 Scenes are not the first 10 chapters of your novel. These are scenes which ensure your storyline works from beginning to end.

Note also that whatever your main character’s central and overwhelming problem is in this scene is the same problem that will only get worse until it seems incapable of being solved. Your character must face the enemy and defeat it or die. It’s always victory or death, in the end. Always.

Let’s look at Star Wars Episode IV again. We left off with Luke rushing off to warn his family after meeting with Obi-Wan. Luke learned of the impending danger from Imperial Forces because they tracked the droids carrying important information to Tatooine, which is Luke’s home. Now in the Point of No Return scene, Luke returns to the farm and finds his aunt and uncle dead (inciting incident). Luke then decides go with Obi-Wan to fight the imperial forces (Point of No Return). There is no way back for Luke. He can only move forward.

You plot and characters hang on the Point of No Return Scene.  It is one of the most important scenes in your novel and is that single scene which can make or break your plot.

Recap:

Next time: The Main Complication.

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The Writer’s Bag of Tricks (Part Three)

Basic Plot Structure Continued

So let’s choose a plot type that we want for our novel. I chose Overcoming the Monster, but you can choose any plot type that you want, and apply the plot structure to that plot type. The Overcoming the Monster plot type is where the protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (physical, spiritual, social, etc…) which threatens the protagonist and / or the protagonist’s homeland.

We need to break our novel down to the basic elements of our plot so that we can consider what needs to happen for our story to work well. I find that the easiest way to start is to use The 10 Scene Tool (See The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith Jr.), and the first step of The 10 Scene Tool is to set up the first five scenes. Note that the first five scenes are not the first five chapters of the novel. These are the five basic scenes that will ensure that the plot is consistent from beginning to end. We will go through these scenes one at a time.

The Opening Scene

The first scene to work out is the opening scene. The purpose of the opening scene is to create a compelling hook so that your reader is immediately invested in the story. The hook begins in a clear moment of action (or interaction) but reveals enough information to entice the reader while maintaining intrigue. Don’t hide things from the reader, or make it too difficult for the reader to understand what is happening. If the reader is clueless about the events occurring on the page they will put the book down, and that is not a good thing. You want your reader turning pages.

The opening scene puts the reader in the protagonist’s point of view. This could be first person or third person etc… (I will discuss POV later in this series) but the reader will see the events of this scene through your main character’s eyes. We learn the protagonist’s motivation(s) and we also learn what is at stake for the character. There should also be a hint of foreshadowing of what will happen at the end of the novel. Creating some foreshadowing will help your story to arc successfully.

If we apply this opening scene to our plot type of Overcoming the Monster, our opening scene will show our main character living daily life when they learn of some great threat. Some complication of events will move the character forward. This will relate to the inciting incident which is the event that sets your character on the road toward defeating the monster.

In the movie Star Wars, Episode IV we see Luke Skywalker (point of view character) with Uncle Owen purchasing droids to work on the farm (daily life). Luke accidently sees the hologram of Princess Leia (hook) and her desperate plea for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi. The droids escape and Luke goes to look for the droids (the complication that gets the character moving forward). He meets Obi-Wan and learns more information about the battle between the rebel army and imperial forces (stakes). He learns that the imperial army is now close and immediately leaves to warn and protect his family (motivation).

Next time: The Point of No Return Complication

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