Showing posts with label #craftofstory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #craftofstory. Show all posts

Friday, October 28

Writing to Entertain

Writing to Entertain

I’m going to pick up the thread of my last blog post where I talked about two things that drive us to write: First, the desire to communicate. This is the desire to share ourselves, our thoughts, our souls, with others. Second, the desire to entertain.

Today I cash out what exactly I mean by entertainment and look at how, as writers, we can entertain our readers. The answer: To evoke a reader's emotion, the reader needs to identify with the character. Which means she has to have clearly defined goals, obstacles to those goals, she needs to have something to lose and something to gain, and there needs to be some sort of urgency.

In short, eliciting emotion has everything to do with story structure.

Entertainment: The Evoking of Emotion

Most readers want to be entertained. To entertain another person is to evoke their emotions. Even in some of Agatha Christie’s more cerebral whodunits there was the sedate emotion of curiosity.

Stephen King writes for many reasons but one of them is to entertain others, especially his wife. The following passage is from his book, On Writing:

“When I write a scene that strikes me as funny (like the pie-eating contest in “The Body” or the execution rehearsal in The Green Mile), I am also imagining my I.R. finding it funny. I love it when Tabby laughs out of control—she puts her hands up as if to say I surrender and these big tears go rolling down her cheeks. I love it, that’s all, fucking adore it, and when I get hold of something with that potential, I twist it as hard as I can. During the actual writing of such a scene (door closed), the thought of making her laugh—or cry—is in the back of my mind. During the rewrite (door open), the question—is it funny enough yet? scary enough?—is right up front. I try to watch her when she gets to a particular scene, hoping for at least a smile or—jackpot, baby!—that big belly-laugh with the hands up, waving in the air.”

Making someone else feel good—or feel anything for that matter!—is a thrill. Seeing them laugh or even smile. Seeing them tear up, it’s ... well, as King says, I just love it. It’s a high.

That’s entertainment.

And if you give people a story that makes them laugh and cry, love and hate, they will think their time well-wasted.

But how does one do that? How does one manipulate a reader’s emotions?

The Writer’s Quest

The question of how to evoke a reader’s emotions has defined my writer’s quest for most of my adult life. I want to write a story my father would have loved so much he would beg me to tell another.

Being able to make another person laugh is a valuable skill. Being able to make everyone within earshot hang on your every word has always been advantageous. Even before we had currency, travelers who could tell engaging stories bartered their skill for food and lodging. (In fact, this still happens. My friend was nearly killed on her last vacation—she’s fine now—and, in her words, ‘ate out on that story for a month’!)

What entertains us? You might think that the obvious answers are: sex, violence, death, and so on. And that’s probably right as far as it goes but I think it misses the point.

If I showed you the picture of someone who had been brutally murdered, my guess is that you would not be entertained. In fact, you’d likely be vaguely nauseous and not at all happy with me.

But, yes. For obvious reasons death interests us. A few days ago a friend called to tell me his dog, Zeus, had passed away. I had walked Zeus for years and, of course, had become attached. We both cried and reminisced. But then I asked: How did he die? That mattered to me. As it happens, he died peacefully in his sleep at the end of a long life. I took some solace in that. But I would have felt very different if, say, he had been hit by a car.

Yes, we slow down to gawk at the van with the crumpled front end on the side of the road, but what question do we ask: What happened?

I believe that humans aren’t interested in death as much as we are the story behind it. We want to know: Why? When? What? Where? How? We don’t want that horrible thing to happen to us. We think if we know, maybe we can avoid it.

Going back to something I touched on a moment ago, if I showed someone—let’s call her Beth—a picture of a gruesome murder, I doubt she would be happy with me. The picture itself isn’t entertaining. But Beth would be very interested in the answers to the following questions:

  • Who was the victim? Was he a stranger or did I know him? 
  • Where did the victim die? Next door or two states over?
  • When did the victim die? 50 years ago or yesterday?
  • Who killed the victim? Is the killer a stranger or do I know him?
  • How did the victim die? Was it a quick death or was it slow and painful?

Reading this, putting myself in Beth’s place, it isn’t the photograph of the dead man that entertains me, it is that one of my goals is put in jeopardy: keeping myself and those I care about safe. It is that automatic, vicarious, sense of danger that puts all my senses on high alert.

These are also the kinds of questions we ask when we’re writing a story.

Beth’s goal: To protect herself and her family from the killer.
The opposition: The killer.
The Stakes: The lives of her family.
Urgency: If the victim lived next door and was killed a few hours ago, then the situation is urgent.

As I see Beth act I identify with her. I care whether she achieves her goal. I care when she suffers a setback. I care when she reaches the All Hope Is Lost Point and it seems she cannot succeed. And, finally, I have a warm cozy sense of well-being as the hero/protagonist bests the forces of opposition and, against all odds, achieves her goal.

My point is that entertainment isn’t static, it comes from the structure itself, from the arrangement of the many parts.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to one of Dwight V. Swain’s excellent books, “Creating Characters: How to Build Story People.” I bought this years ago and it has helped me enormously. Here’s the blurb:
“The core of character,” he [Swain] says in chapter 1, “lies in each individual story person’s ability to care about something; to feel implicitly or explicitly, that something is important.” Building on that foundation—the capacity to care—Swain takes the would-be writer step-by-step through the fundamentals of finding and developing [characters].

That’s it! I hope you could make some sense of my ramblings. NaNoWriMo is starting soon! My next post will be on Halloween, Monday, October 31 and then I will post every single day in November, outlining a key scene in a novel. So, if you’re NaNo-ing this year, swing on by!

Wednesday, October 19

2 Rules of Thumb for Character Creation

2 Rules of Thumb for Character Creation

With NaNoWriMo around the corner I thought I'd go over two rules of thumb for character creation that have served me well.

Two Rules of Thumb for Character Creation

Readers need to be able to identify with your characters. You know that.

In order for a reader to identify with your character the reader needs to feel she understands them. In order for that to be the case characters need to make sense. People might not make sense, but characters need to. Even when their desires conflict, they need to make sense. If they don’t, readers will become bored and stop reading.

The First Rule of Character Creation

So, with that in mind, here’s what I think of as the first rule of character creation:

Characters, like people, are led by their emotions, by what they love and hate. 

If you don’t think you are led by your emotions that’s fine. Look at the people around you. Are most people led by their emotions or by their rationality?

Let me give you an example:

A friend offers me a piece of chocolate. I know I shouldn’t have that piece of chocolate because it will ruin my diet, but I still greedily devour every scrumptious calorie! Why? Because I love chocolate! I know how good it will taste. Even though it will mean I can’t fit into my new dress on my birthday I still eat the chocolate, and I really really want to fit into that dress. So why do I eat the chocolate? Because, despite what I tell myself and my friends, at that moment I love chocolate more than fitting into the dress. It’s all about emotion.

The Second Rule of Character Creation

Here’s the second rule of character creation:

Thought doesn’t rule emotion, it picks up after it. 

After I eat the chocolate I rationalize that even though I ate the chocolate I’ll be okay, I’ll still be able to achieve my goal of fitting into my new dress. All I have to do is exercise more. And then of course I don’t and it isn’t!

Cashing This Out

How can we cash this insight out in our story?

What do people care about? We care about our significant others and our friends, we care about food and comfort, we care about having fun new experiences, we care about the work we do. We care about beauty. We crave novelty.

My friend, Sue, wants to be rich. Why? Because then she can afford to go travelling and have a beautiful apartment. When I was a teenager my friend, I’ll call him Brian, wanted to own a Chevrolet Camaro with leather seats and a top notch sound system. Why? Because he loved driving fast, thought the car looked beautiful and liked girls.

Having a character who wants to rob a bank because then he’ll be rich is fine, but that needs to be grounded in the messy particularities of the character, what they love, what they hate.

If someone is going to risk it all, you’ve got to show why that character passionately loves that thing and the only way to do this is to break it down and show what they love and what the hate.

Get intimate with the character. Have them whisper their deepest, darkest, secrets to you and then, at the appropriate moment, splay them across the page.

You might be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but I’ve written stories that I liked and I didn’t do that.”

This kind of deep character development isn’t for the writer. These characters live inside us and so we know their intimate details. When I ask a writer, Would your character do X? They answer me right away, no hesitation. No, we make these things explicit for the reader. Because they don’t (yet) have the character living inside them.

Here’s another article I’ve written on character creation: Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real.

Writing Exercise

What do you care about? You’ve got goals, perhaps you want to buy a home or earn a certain amount of money a year or spend next summer in Spain or lose ten pounds, but why?

Dive into the particular emotions behind your goals. Do you want to own a home because it would make you feel secure? Do you want to lose weight because you want to find someone to love, someone who will love you back?

After you’ve done this, take those emotions and give them to the main character of your current work in progress. You don’t have to incorporate them into the story, you can just do this as an exercise. Take your main character and give him a mini-adventure, write a piece of flash fiction, where you give him or her your own goals. Then show the reader the messy loves and hates these goals emerge from.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try, every post, to pick a book or audiobook I personally have loved and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes, I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar, at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored that you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

Today I would like to share a link to a book I have in my own digital library, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Ackerman writes, "One of the biggest problem areas for writers is conveying a character's emotions to the reader in a unique, compelling way. This book comes to the rescue by highlighting 75 emotions and listing the possible body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for each." An excellent reference!

That’s it! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve said. I will admit to drawing a wee bit from Saint Augustine and his idea that we can only have one true great love and that this love will order everything else in our lives—or something like that, it’s been a long time since I took philosophy. (grin)

I'll talk to you again on Friday. Till then, good writing!

Wednesday, October 12

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist

How To Write Characters Your Readers Will Love: Character Checklist

I read one of my old short stories yesterday. It’s one of my favorites but it’s far from my best. At the time I wrote it I knew a little about story structure, but I didn’t apply the knowledge I had. Why?!

I can tell you from experience that knowing what to do is a long way from doing what you know. Implementing what you know, weaving that knowledge into the warp and woof of your story, that’s a tricky thing. And, for me, it has been the number one source of massive rewriting.

One of the reasons I’ve gotten better at dreaming up stories, stories that are easier to structure, is that I have a checklist! Never doubt the power and usefulness of checklists. Here's mine:

Character Checklist

I’ve written quite a bit about story structure but character development is just as, if not more, important. In order to get readers excited about what happens in your story you need to get them excited about who it happens to.

(By the way, these points are drawn largely from Jim Butcher’s article on character development.)

Our Goal: We want the reader to identify with the character. We want the reader to cry when the character’s heart is broken and rejoice when it mends.

Here are various traits or techniques that can help nudge the reader toward identifying with your characters.

1. Exaggeration

Sherlock Holmes isn’t just smart, he’s brilliant. He’s possibly the second smartest person in the world—behind his brother Mycroft, of course. In other words, his intelligence is exaggerated.

Exaggerating a trait makes it memorable. Generally speaking, a trait won’t make much of an impression on a reader if they don’t remember it.

2. Exotic Position

Make the setting exotic. Fun. Different.

Jim Butcher mentions four kinds of environments your characters can be in: social, geographic, intellectual, moral. Make sure each of these types of situations is interesting. Memorable.


- Social: Your team is training to win an important tournament this fall. Or perhaps you are part of a team preparing to climb Devil’s Mountain.
-  Geographic: A far flung region of the globe. That is, far flung for your readers!
- Intellectual: I think of Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft's club. What does the smartest person in the world do for companionship? He creates a club and then makes sure there’s a strict no talking policy!
- Moral: A couple goes on what they think is a retreat to discover they’ve joined a cult!

3. Active Introduction

Communicate the essence of your character, through action, in a memorable way.

Jim Butcher calls a "characteristic entry action" an action that can communicate the essence of your character. For instance, take Mr. Monk from the TV Series of the same name. The beginning of every episode reestablishes the essence of the character.

Recall that Mr. Monk mourns the loss of his late wife, Trudy, and that he is a bundle of phobias and neuroses which all stem from his acute observational abilities combined with his fear of germs. He even has a saying: It’s a gift ... and a curse. One of his characteristic entry actions is straightening something—a pillow for instance—that is just a wee bit tilted. Once he had a cold and put his used kleenex in plastic baggies before he threw them out. Why? So that they wouldn't contaminate anything else.

The TV Show, Archer, is especially good at communicating the essence of the characters through action. At the beginning of every episode their tags and traits (for an explanation of tags and traits, see below) are reintroduced. Also, often, there is a humorous ending where the tags and traits are reinforced again. And it works beautifully!

4. Verisimilitude: Make your characters believable.

In order for a character to be interesting they must act believably. A big part of acting believably is acting consistently.

Butcher writes that:

“The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character's: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor [verisimilitude] will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believable, appropriate course of action in response.”

Butcher notes that most of this work, making your character act believably, is going to take place in sequels.

Tags and traits ... so much could, and has, been written about them. Briefly, a tag is a very short description of one concrete aspect of a character. Blue eyes, uses a whip, wears a cool hat. Jim Butcher advises having about one to three tags per character. For example, when I think of Indiana Jones I think of his whip, his hat and his leather jacket. When I think of Neo I think of his leather jacket and his sunglasses. A tag or trait can also be a mental attitude, for instance if someone is always glum or always chipper. Basically, anything that will make your character stand out from the rest, anything that will make them memorable.

A terrific book on tags and traits is “Techniques of the Selling Writer”. I’ve written about it here: Dwight V Swain On How To Write A Novel.

5. Empathy. Get readers to identify with your characters.

Jim Butcher writes, “if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.”

Sure, but how? One way is through shared experience. Chances are, what makes you angry (or sad or happy or ...) makes your readers angry (or sad or happy or ...). Give those kinds of experiences to your characters and they will become real to your readers.

Dramatic experiences

- What angers you? Think of a time when you were angry.

- What saddens you? Think of a time of deep loss.

- What irritates or frustrates you? Think of a specific instance. What happened? What did you react to?

- What makes you joyful? Giddy? What has made you grin from ear to ear? What sort of things have made your day?

When we see other people behave in ways we can relate to—when we watch them experience deep loss, transcendence, happiness, and so on—we identify with them. We begin to care about them. This is true for characters as well.

But it doesn’t have to be BIG things. Even the little, small, events in life will do as long as they’re more-or-less universal. For example ...

- You’re driving to work on a day when you ABSOLUTELY can’t be late and, of course, you’re a stuck behind a slow driver.

- It’s late, you’ve had a grueling day, you walk to where you parked your car in the parking lot but it’s not there. You stand in the middle of the vacant parking spot and look around like maybe it’s still there and you’re just not seeing it.

A couple more ways to make your character more interesting:

A) Persecution. Have the protagonist be unfairly treated and lose something achingly important to him.

B) Big Challenge. Have the protagonist take on something that takes him so far out of his comfort zone that he's on a different planet. Most folks won’t be able to keep from wanting the guy or gal to succeed. Also, humans being the curious types we are, we won’t be able to help wanting to know if the character will succeed or whether he will be a spectacular failure.

For example:

- A character trying to protect something of great value puts herself in jeopardy by fleeing down a dark, dangerous, alley.

- A character on a mission to find a great treasure ignores grievous bodily peril while using his experience and intellect to defeat the traps between himself and his prize.

Does My POV Character Have to be Nice? 

Before I end this post, let me address one often asked question about characterization:

Does a character have to be nice for a reader to empathize with them?

I don’t think so. There are many characters who, though while not at all nice, are easy to identify with, empathize with.

I love Sherlock, the TV Series. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Sherlock as brilliant, egotistical and definitely not nice. But we can relate to both Sherlock and to his ‘everyman’ Watson. We can understand Sherlock’s occasional bouts of boredom as well as John’s impatience with them.

 That's it! I apologize for the long post. And for skipping Monday. Truth is, I'm working on a non-fiction ebook and I'm hoping (* cross fingers *) to get it out this weekend.

I'm sponsoring this post with an affiliate link to Stephen King's marvelous exploration of good writing: On Writing. If you click that link my blog will get a tiny percentage of anything you buy on Amazon for the next 24 hours.

Cheers! Talk to you Friday. :-)

Wednesday, December 17

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Tailoring Your Cast of Characters To Your Protagonist

Yesterday we saw that character traits don’t come singly but in pairs. If a character is, say, one angry SOB then, all things being equal, this should be balanced out by tenderness. 

This balancing can happen in one of three ways. First, the character can go from anger to tenderness over time. Second, the character can appear angry but it’s really all bluff and bluster, they’re a softie on the inside. Third, the character can be a barely contained raging storm of emotion and this quality is contrasted by tenderness in another character. (For more on this see my last post: The Power of Paradox. To read this series from the beginning, here is a link to the first post: Story Openings: Five Choices.)

In what follows, I’ll examine this third way of expressing opposing pairs of character traits, paying special attention to how this can be used to tailor our cast of characters to the protagonist.

4. How to fit the protagonist to the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.

Both Dwight V. Swain and Robert McKee agree that one’s cast of characters should be created with the goal of using them to tease out all the various dimensions of our protagonist. In “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” Swain writes:

“Each person [character] should make a different dominant impression. If three characters all pulse dignity at every turn, each will detract from the impact of the others. What you want is variety, not sameness.”

McKee, in “Story,” goes on to extend this notion by telling us how to make each of our characters dramatize—hook into—the various dimensions of the protagonist. McKee writes:

“In essence, the protagonist creates the rest of the cast. All other characters are in a story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike to the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature. Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets—all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ natures.”

That’s the analogy, the idea. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. (What follows is from McKee’s example in “Story.” The only things I’ve added are the names and situations.)

Let’s say our protagonist, Donald McTaggert, has the following dimensions:

i. Amusing -- Morose
ii. Optimistic -- Cynical
iii. Compassionate -- Cruel
iv. Fearless -- Fearful 

Since we’ve given Donald four pairs of opposing traits we say that he’s four dimensional. Now, what sort of characters should we build to flesh out, to dramatize, each of Donald’s dimensions? 

Creating characters to connect with each of the protagonist’s dimensions.

Following the pairs of characteristics McKee gives us in “Story” let’s fashion a cast of characters that ‘hooks onto’ our Protagonist.

Character A: Angie Wilkes, Donald’s ex-wife. 

Donald’s interactions with his ex-wife show us his morose (i) and cynical (ii) sides. Angie, on the other hand, is amusing (i), optimistic (ii), and completely out of contact with reality. She’s convinced that she and Donald have merely hit a speed-bump and that, any day now, he’ll forgive her for having an affair with his best friend. 

Character B: Henry McTaggert, Donald’s son. 

Henry is Donald and Angie’s only child. Even though Donald is often cruel (iii) and fearful (iv) when he is with others, when he is with his son he is both compassionate (iii) and fearless (iv)—or at least that’s the front Donald tries to put on for Henry’s sake.

Character C: Greta Kettles, Donald’s co-worker. 

Donald is secretly in love with Greta. Whenever he’s around her his stomach rumbles and he feels light headed. In those moments he is optimistic (ii) and even amusing (i).

Character D: Fred Danger, lurker.

One day Fred, a man of indeterminate age who has been hanging around Henry’s high school, comes into the boy’s classroom wielding a gun. Henry manages to use his cell phone to text his dad. After reading the text Donald is terrified (iv). His son could be killed, other children could be killed. Donald’s fear is quickly transformed into anger (--> fearlessness (iv)). His lip curled, Donald jumps into his SUV muttering, “How dare you threaten my son. I’ll show you what it is to be afraid.”

I put that example together in a couple of minutes, but hopefully you get the gist. All things being equal, the best way to dramatize one characteristic is by pairing it with its opposite. 

Which isn’t to say that a single character can’t be both, for example, fearful and fearless if we show them at different points in time or we contrast appearance and reality (they only appear terrified, they’re really not) but, since we’ve been interested in creating a cast of characters that teases out our protagonist’s dimensions, we’ve been focusing on pairing his characteristics with those of other characters.

As McKee writes, this is how to not only make characters multidimensional, but to show those dimensions to the reader.

Next week we’ll go into more depth about how to create a cast of characters that teases out the inherent complexities we’ve been at such pains to give our protagonist.

Photo credit: "Dark lemur on the branch" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Monday, December 15

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: The Power of Paradox

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: The Power of Paradox

This post is part of a longer discussion on tags and traits and how we can use them to craft unique and interesting characters. Here is the first post in the series (it contains links to subsequent articles): Story Openings: Five Choices.

3. Use tags and traits to modify the picture: The core of character.

The adjective of description that we looked at previously is all about the surface. All about appearances and first impressions. 

For example, let’s take a look at Agatha Christie’s sleuth, Miss Marple. Miss Marple comes across as being nothing more than a slightly doddering sweet little old lady. In a word she is harmless. But, really, she’s not. She’s Nemesis with white hair and knitting needles.

In the case of Miss Marple, we can say that two of her defining tags are “harmless” and “dangerous.” Notice how they seem to directly contradict each other?

Dwight V. Swain writes:

“Consider the dignified person. Is he really dignified—or is the appearance of dignity merely a mask he’s adopted to hide stupidity? Is the cruel man totally cruel ... cruel to certain people only ... or [is he] using the appearance of cruelty to hide the fact that he’s really so sentimental as to be a pushover for any appeal? [...] Is the boy’s rowdiness a mask for shyness?

“All of us are, in truth, a maze of inconsistencies and contradictions. That’s what makes man interesting. Capture the paradox in print, and your characters will be interesting also.”

Paradox. As we have seen with Miss Marple, there is a clash between appearance and reality, between the surface and the soul. This is appropriate. Each of us is a living, breathing, mass of conditions, a web of paradox. Like it or not, it’s part of what makes us human, and it’s a big part of what makes a character feel real.

I’m going to leave Swain’s discussion of character building for a moment to look at how Robert McKee develops this idea of contrasting characteristics (/tags). Then we’ll examine their role in creating unique and interesting characters.

Robert McKee on Dimensionality and Paradox

The contrast between inner and outer qualities is what McKee talks about when he speaks of the difference between characterization (the “sum of all observable qualities of a human being”) and true character. McKee writes:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

This leads us into McKee’s discussion of dimensionality.

I’ve written about this elsewhere (see the links below) but, briefly, McKee holds that the key to rounded, realistic, engaging characters is exactly the quality Swain mentioned (see above): Paradox. Contradiction.

McKee: There is no such thing as ONE dominant trait.

McKee takes issue with the idea that “fine character’s are marked by one dominant trait.” He sees traits not as solo qualities but as pairs of opposing qualities. The more pairs (/dimensions) one has the deeper and more well-rounded—the more interesting—one’s character will be. He writes:

Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guild-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief).”

So, according to McKee, rather than looking for adjectives of description we should be seeking, instead, pairs of contrasting adjectives.

It’s not enough to say that a character is tidy, we must see how that trait is opposed either within the person (appearance versus reality), over time (then vs now), or person vs person.

The last way traits can be contrasted with each other—person vs person—is something I’ll pick up next post where I’ll argue that contrasting traits between people is the key to creating a cast of characters that not only ensures the uniqueness of your protagonist but that fits the supporting characters of a story to the protagonist like a key fits a lock.

In other words, we can use contrasting traits to create the rest of the cast from the protagonist. Which, incidentally, is Dwight V. Swain’s fourth way to make a character unique: 

4. Match the protagonist to the the cast of characters and the cast of characters to the protagonist.

More about that next time. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Mother and daugher : a love story!" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Friday, December 12

Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes

Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes

Yesterday I began a discussion of Tags and Traits and talked about how they can help bring a character to life. Today I’d like to extend that discussion by talking about ... 

2. How tags and traits can help us fit a character to their role in a story.

In this section we’re going to talk about the various roles a character can play, so let’s confront the elephant in the room: stereotypes.

Stereotypes are boring, but certain kinds of stereotypes—tropes—have gotten a bad rap. (If you think this is an outrageous view, please hear me out.)

Stereotypes vs Tropes

The way I’m using the word here, a trope is “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.”

A stereotype, on the other hand, is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

For example, what’s the detective stereotype? When I say ‘detective’ what comes to mind?

Is the image of a man or woman? What are they wearing? How old are they? Are they a professional detective or do they moonlight? Do they have a Watson? On Saturday night, are they more likely to frequent a lady’s tea circle or a run-down bar? Do they have an arch-enemy?

My guess is that each of you has a radically different image of a detective. Why? Because there really isn’t any one stereotype of a detective, there are many, one for each sub-genre of detective story.

For instance, if you thought of a man who is a private detective, one who has a helper/sidekick and an arch-enemy then according to (a truly wonderful site) you’re thinking about the trope of the Great Detective (e.g., Sherlock Holmes). 

Or perhaps you thought of the Defective Detective (e.g., Monk) or of a Detective Drama (e.g., Death in Paradise).

Or perhaps, like me, you thought of a fluffy old lady who knits and seems scattered but has a brain like a scythe (the Little Old Lady Investigates trope). But, then, you could be more the Hardboiled Detective type.

My point in mentioning all these tropes is to show that ‘the stereotypical detective’ doesn’t exist. We—I—talk about ‘the mystery genre’ but there’s really no such thing, not if what we mean by that is something concrete enough to actually produce a trope. No, there are a plethora of tropes, each unique to its sub-genre—or so I would argue.

We’re almost ready to explore the question of whether tropes can be a writer’s friend. But, first, let’s look at ...

The role of the trope

Let me approach this by example. Let’s say we want to write a tea cozy mystery, or “cozy” for short. (This is from the Little Old Lady Investigates trope.)

- The sleuth is usually female.

- The sleuth is older, usually in the second half of her life.

- The sleuth doesn’t get paid for solving the murder. Perhaps she is retired or perhaps, like Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), she writes murder mysteries and sleuths on the side.

- The sleuth is a Cool Old Lady. She is clever; witty. She stands up for what she thinks is right. She is practically always polite and takes the high road. (Most people completely discount the ability of the Little Old Lady to solve a crime because, well, she’s a little old lady!) 

Okay, that about does it. Those traits won’t hold true for every case but—since this is the trope—they should capture the more important qualities of most of the sleuths in this sub-genre.

The big question: Should you cast to type or against type?

If you write a cozy would you cast to type and embrace the trope or would you cast against type and create something new, fresh, surprising? 

If I wanted to cast against type then perhaps I’d create a young male police officer, a rookie, who is a bit of a dweeb and couldn’t knit a scarf if his life depended on it.

This could work. My character would be fresh, new, unexpected. On the other hand, I would be throwing away one of the biggest assets a genre writer has: all those folks who love reading traditional cozy mysteries. Even worse, if a reader of traditional cozy mysteries were to pick up my book they’d likely be expecting a sleuth cast to type so, chances are, they’d be disappointed. Disappointed readers often give one star reviews and return books. 

I’m not saying this is a reason not to write against type, but it’s something to keep in mind when making your decision. 

My point here is simply that it’s the authors choice. Just as there’s nothing in the least wrong with writing against type (though there are consequences) there’s nothing wrong with embracing a trope. Doing so will give you a character cozy readers will immediately recognize and, hopefully, love. But you can’t use the type as-is, it needs a twist.

Tweaking A Trope

The danger with writing to type is, as you know, that your character will be exactly what the reader expects and so she’ll be bored silly. We need to tweak the trope so that our character stands out from the crowd.

For example we could keep practically everything the same but make our protagonist male rather than female. Or we could make the protagonist young rather than middle-aged. Or perhaps our granny has been uprooted from her life in the village and must brave the mean streets of the big city. Or instead of being sweet and kind she’s grumpy and selfish (the Agatha Raisin mysteries). Or perhaps the sleuth is a teenager visiting his grandmother. He solves the crimes but, because the police won’t listen to a kid, his gran takes the credit.

So, in short, if you choose to write to type (a) know the trope of the sub-genre you’ve chosen and (b) give it a twist. Above all, make sure your character is unique.

A Digression: Write What You Know

I think this is one reason folks say “Write what you know.” Even if you’ve never been a detective, even if you’ve never even met a detective, put parts of yourself—as well as folks you know well, folks you have strong feelings about for good or ill—into your character. 

Writers are a bit like Dr. Frankenstein. We take bits from our souls, bits from the souls of others, stitch them together and hope to make our creatures’ hearts beat, to make them live and breathe. I think once you reach that level of intimacy and specificity you can’t help but create something unique.

Putting it all together: Tags, Traits and Tropes

It’s taken us a while to get here, but we’ve done it. Now we’re ready to start using Tags and Traits to hook our character up to the role they’ll play in the story.

Once again, let’s do this by example. Let’s say we’ve decided to write a cozy mystery and we’re going to write to type. Yesterday we discussed the importance of tags and traits in breathing life into a character, to make them memorable, to make them the kind of artificial person readers will empathize with, the kind they will either love or loathe.

As we’ll see in a later post, Dwight V. Swain holds that there are four kinds of tags:

i. Tags of appearance
ii. Tags of speech
iii. Tags of manner
iv. Tags of attitude

I’m only going to use tags of appearance in this article but I will go into each of these categories in some detail in a later post. 

Let’s say that our sleuth has moved from a quaint English village into the hustle and bustle of London. She’s gotten to the stage where she needs a bit of help and her wealthy nephew invites her to stay with him in his spacious penthouse.  

Given the trope for this sub-genre, what tags and traits might we give our character? 

Tags of Appearance

What we want to do is choose characteristics which will make our little old lady sleuth memorable AND which will connect her to the trope.

Ball of yarn

Glinda Ellison, my sleuth, is going to crochet rather than knit but, like Miss Marple, a crochet hook and ball of yarn will be her near constant companions. 

How this hooks into the trope: Crochet reinforces her ‘harmless old lady’ feel and balls of yarn can roll all sorts of interesting places—behind couches, doors, into private bathrooms and all manner of restricted areas—thus providing our sleuth with a credible excuse to snoop.

Something fluffy 

She will always wear at least one thing she has crocheted and it will be something pastel colored and fluffy. 

How this hooks into the trope: The puffy frilliness reinforces her ‘harmless old lady’ feel.

Butterfly necklace

I want something that ties my sleuth to her nephew (Richard Fox), and I want this something to indicate how well off he is. At first I thought of having Richard give Glinda an emerald broach. I did a search on “emerald broach” and ended up at Tiffany & Co. looking at this lovely butterfly pendant. Butterflies are critters of air, which I associate with intellect. Sharp wit, though, can be like a two-edged sword, injuring both the prey and the huntsman, bringing them both to ruin. Perfect!

The other day I wrote about how the tarot can be used to help develop characters, so let’s see if it can help us fill in Glinda’s character information. Keeping with the butterfly motif, I’m going to say that Glinda was born in an air sign. Gemini, ruled by Mercury (quick intelligence), seems perfect. 

Richard is wealthy, so he’s going to be an earth sign, Virgo. I chose Virgo because I want him to be bright like his favorite aunt (Virgo, too, is ruled by Mercury) but I need to give him a weakness. The fall of Virgo is Venus, which is perfect! He’s going to be too smart for his own good and unlucky in love.

I’m going to stop there. Hopefully that gives you an idea how a character’s tags and traits can tie them to their story role and, in so doing, both make them unique and give them a simulacrum of life.

My apologies for the long post. I’ll continue this discussion on Monday when we chat about how tags and traits can help us build a character’s arc. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "Roaring lion" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, December 11

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

Story Openings: Tags And Traits: Bringing Characters To Life

I know I said I would write about how to create a great story opening by introducing a minor mystery. I’m still going to write about that, but not today! Instead, I want to go back to the topic of my last post—creating, and introducing, characters. There are a few things I want to mention.

The Goal of Writing

Let’s go back to basics. What is our goal in creating characters? And, beyond that, why do we write? What is our objective? Here’s Jim Butcher’s answer: To make characters interesting and, in so doing, to get readers to empathize with the characters. He writes:

“If you can manage to create a vivid character in a reader's mind, then establish him as someone believable, you have a real shot at the Holy Grail of character design. If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It's what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

“[...] empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader's emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

“Or put another way, if you can make people love who you want them to love and hate who you want them to hate, you're going to have readers coming back to you over and over again.” (Characters)

How do we make characters interesting? Jim Butcher mentions a few ways in his post (and I urge you, if you’ve never read it—or if you haven’t read it recently—to do so) but I think these all, more or less, fall under the heading of tags and traits, two of the most important tools in character creation.

Tags and Traits

As we’ve seen, we want our characters to be interesting. We want them to catch and hold the reader’s attention. How do we do this?

Using tags and traits to bring a character to life

Dwight V. Swain in “Techniques of a Selling Writer” asks: How is a character brought to life? His answer: You make them (a) vivid and (b) credible.

How does one do this? One word: uniqueness

The first step in making vivid, credible, characters lies in distinguishing each character from every other character. It is through the very process of rendering your characters unique that they begin to live and breathe. 

Why is uniqueness important?

In order to have a story with range and depth it needs to, at various times, provoke a wide range of emotions in the reader. How do we do that? Through creating characters that span the emotional spectrum.

Swain writes:

“Liking characters is vital to your reader. So is disliking, and feeling pity and contempt and respect and tenderness and sexual excitement.


“Because without such variations of emotional reaction, the reader can’t care what happens to your people.

“If he doesn’t care, he can achieve no sense of inner tension when they’re endangered.”

Swain goes on to list five things that can make a character unique. I'm going to go through each of these points in the next few days. Today, let's begin with a discussion of the dominant impression.

1. Determine the dominant impression (also called an adjective of description)

When you meet someone new, they make a certain impression on you. One fellow I met, I’ll call him John, went on to become one of my best friends, but when I first met him I thought he was dangerous. Specifically, I thought he was a perpetually scowling, six-foot-four-inch mountain of very intimidating muscle. I couldn’t ever see myself getting into a car alone with him and, say, driving along a lonely stretch of highway. 

As so often happens, my first impression was WAY off, but, then, first impressions often are.

Dwight V. Swain urges us to ask ourselves what image we want our readers to receive. What’s the first impression you want your character to make on the reader? Do you want the reader to think a character is tidy, dignified, cruel, sweet, old, beautiful, slim, smart, angry, touchy, tranquil, shy or something else entirely. (Here’s a page with a great many adjectives of description.)

Keep in mind that the first impression is just that, a first impression. First impressions are often misleading and we go on to revise them. (In murder mysteries first impressions are almost always false, though rarely completely so. I’ll talk more about this in a later post on writing a cozy mystery.) But that’s good! The first impression is merely the beginning of that character’s arc.

When you’re devising a character’s first impression keep in mind that characters don’t have to be likable, just memorable

For example, recall Sherlock’s introduction in the series of the same name. He whipped a corpse! NOT a likable character—not initially—but very interesting. Also, recall Jim Moriarty (played by Andrew Scott). Moriarty was one of my favorite characters but I didn’t think he was likable.

That’s it for today! I’ll pick up this series on Friday when we’ll examine the pros and cons of sculpting a character that plays to type.

Question: What is your protagonist’s dominant impression?

Photo credit: "Oskar running in the snow II" by Tambako The Jaguar under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0.

Monday, December 8

Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist

Story Openings: Throwing Trouble at the Protagonist

As you’ve likely heard again and again, to be commercially competitive in today’s market your story’s opening has to shine.

Although an opening can be good—even great—without each of the five characteristics we began discussing on Friday, it’s not a bad idea to know what they are and to try and include as many as your story will allow (more on that in a later post).

On Friday we looked at one of these characteristics: immediate action. (If you would like to take a look at that article, here’s the link: Story Openings: Five Choices.) Which is to say that something interesting and memorable should happen right off the bat.

Today let’s look at the second characteristic of a great opening: meeting the protagonist as soon as possible and throwing some trouble at them.

2. Seeing the protagonist in a pinch

If you read the first article in this series you’ll know that these five points are from Chris Winkle’s wonderful must-read article: The Keys to a Great Opening Scene.

Chris Winkle writes:

“Think of it this way: you get +2 to audience attachment if you open the story from the viewpoint of your protagonist. Don’t give that up easily.”

I agree! In principle.

As a reader I’m going to be sticking with the protagonist through the lion’s share of the story, after all, the story is an account of how this person overcomes obstacles to achieve their goal. I don’t want to read about a minor character who dies after a few pages only to discover that I don’t much care for the protagonist and that I’m completely unsympathetic with her goal.

That’s NOT time well wasted!

As a writer I want to hook readers early. I want them to care about the protagonist and whether she can overcome the obstacles in her way and achieve her goal. If they become attached to a minor character who dies I’ve lost all the momentum I’ve built up. Also, often Chapter One, in addition to having all new characters, will take place in a different setting. It’s like beginning over from scratch. Not optimal.

We’ve seen that there are substantial drawbacks associated with not opening a story with the protagonist. You might wonder why, given this, it’s such a common way of beginning a story! CW answers this question when he writes:

“What I don’t recommend is the common practice of highlighting the villain in the opening instead of the protagonist, through the eyes of a redshirt. This is done to allow action and set tension, while keeping the main character in a state of blissful ignorance about the big problem at hand. It does that effectively, but it keeps writers from [introducing the protagonist at the earliest possible moment].

Exactly. Opening scenes—I think of them as trailers but they’re often called prologues—are used when we need action at the beginning but we’re not going to introduce the Big Bad until later on in the story. For example, George R.R. Martin uses the prologue of “A Game of Thrones” to introduce the threat that lies beyond the Wall, the white walkers.

Also, occasionally we want to show our readers what the antagonist is capable of without informing the protagonist of the antagonist’s abilities. When we show what atrocities the antagonist is capable of, we acquaint the reader with the stakes of the contest. We’ve shown the reader what will happen to the protagonist if he/she fails. (Of course, when the protagonist meets the antagonist the stakes will have escalated.)

For example, recall the first few scenes of The Matrix where Trinity runs from the Agents. I’d bet that no one, after watching that incredible, impossible, opening sequence, went: “Meh. I don’t know; same old, same old.” 

I read an article about the psychology of flow a couple of days ago, “that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger.” Yes. That. When I watched the opening of The Matrix I think I forgot to breathe. 

From a story perspective, I thought the trailer worked because it allowed us to meet the antagonist (even though the Matrix itself was the ultimate antagonist, its agents were the embodiment of that force) and still watch Neo’s journey from ignorance to knowledge, something that wouldn’t have been possible if he was forced to confront the antagonistic force himself.

But Chris Winkle has an excellent point. When I realized Neo rather than Trinity was the main character I was a wee bit disappointed, but in that case it didn’t matter. After the first half hour the story had swallowed me whole; there was no way I was leaving the theater until the credits started rolling.

And, yes, The Matrix was a movie but the same principle applies to stories told in novel form. If you present the average reader with a captivating story they’ll stick around. If the author pens a fabulous trailer/prologue they’ve demonstrated what they’re capable of, what the gist of the story will be, and, based on that, readers can decide whether they want to stick around.

When a prologue/trailer can lose readers.

Now, I’ll admit, that strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’ll stop reading. But I’ve found that when I put the book down three things are usually true of the story:

a. There’s been a radical change of setting. 

If I’m introduced to a uniquely interesting setting, if that’s a part of what interested me, then if the setting changes and changes in such a way that I think the change is permanent, my disappointment might be enough for me to set the book aside.

b. There’s a complete change of characters. 

By this I mean that the character one reads about in the introduction seems to be in no way related to the characters that come after. The characters in Chapter One aren’t connected to the person in the trailer by family or profession or ... well, anything!

As we’ll see later when we discuss specific story openings, “Relic” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child avoids this by making the connection between the redshirt of the trailer and the main characters obvious from the beginning. They are all anthropologists and we know the redshirt has found and sent back something mysterious and dangerous that will form the core of the novel. As a result, the trailer feels like an integral part of the story.

c. The goal of the main character in the trailer/prologue is not related to the goal of the main character in Chapter One.

I think it’s a good idea to show the connection between the redshirt and the protagonist as soon as possible. That is, within the first few pages of Chapter One. The connection doesn’t have to be spelled out in minute detail, but there has to be some connection, no matter how tenuous. But, well, maybe that’s just me!

I’ll take this topic up again on Wednesday when we look at point number three: being introduced to a mystery. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: "The Court of Disney Captains" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.