Posted in Fiction Writing

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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Posted in Fiction Writing

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.

Posted in Fiction Writing

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

Posted in Fiction Writing

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