Showing posts with label Janice Hardy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Janice Hardy. Show all posts

Monday, September 23

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

I don't want terrible, gut-wrenching, things to happen to my characters. I've spent many hours crafting them and I know them inside and out. They're my friends, my creations. My babies.

Nice Writer Syndrome

Janice Hardy has an apt name for this reluctance to bring one's characters low: Nice Writer Syndrome. In her article, Do You Suffer From NWS?, she writes:
"Stories are fun when readers get to watch the struggle. They want to see someone overcome a terrible problem and win. To do that, you have to put your characters in terrible situations. You have to be mean, be evil, be cruel. If it breaks your heart to do it to them, then you're on the right track."
If you think you suffer from NWS head over to Janice Hardy's blog (the link is above) and take her quirky quiz.

A Recipe for Creating Characters Readers Care About

1. Be merciless.

I've just mentioned Janice Hardy's advice, but I want to say one more thing. As Robert Wiersema says, don't flinch. Fiction writing is finding the truth within the lie. And truth hurts, so writers must be courageous and not flinch in the telling of it.

2. Make your character interesting.

This comes from David Farland's article, A Recipe for Great Characters.

How can we make our characters more interesting? David has a few suggestions:

a. Use mystery/concealment

Everyone loves a mystery. We want to figure people out, why they do what they do, 'how they tick'. Give your character

- a secret from his/her past
- a hidden agenda, or even
- "a secret about himself/herself that even the character doesn’t know"

The last suggestion is my favorite! I love writing stories that employ this as well as reading them (changelings, etc.).

b. Make your character conflicted.

Incorporate opposing traits in your character. For instance, Indiana Jones was brave, extraordinarily so, but he was also deathly scared of snakes.

David Farland's advice is right on target, so much so I feel like highlighting it with red and making it blink. He writes:
"Give your character a major internal conflict. By that I mean, pick a word that describes your character. For example: He’s compassionate. Then find another word that can also describe your character, but make it a polar opposite—terrorist. Now, look for ways to reveal both sides of your character. For example, your protagonist might be at a French Restaurant. He sees a mother and a baby, and tries desperately to drag them away from the restaurant—just before it blows up. He saves them! But how did he know that the restaurant would explode? Because he set the bomb. Giving a character a dual nature creates an instability, a lack of balance, that probably can’t stay forever."
Let's try this out.

I'm starting on a new story today (Yes! I'm very excited) and I haven't completely nailed down the main character, but I do know she loves her (somewhat obnoxious) best friend--the one who, more often than not, gets her to do something she's not comfortable with and then toddles off leaving my main character to deal with the consequences.

Here's a word that describes my character: Caring.

The opposite of caring: Neglectful.

(Tip: can help you find antonyms.)

The problem: How could a caring person be neglectful?

My protagonist could have an important, time-consuming, job. She could be a doctor, nurse, judge, lawyer, etc. In general, I could give her a career which forces her to choose between being a person who cares for her friends and family and a person who, despite what she wants to do, must neglect those she cares for the most.

Yes! I like that.

c. Give your character a special ability or skill.

I've heard a number of successful writers give this same advice. Give your protagonist (and perhaps each of your characters) a special skill, something that only he/she can do.

This doesn't always have to be a useful skill--it could be something trivial like being able to tie cherry stems in a bow with one's tongue or making one's eyes roll backward in one's head. The point is they can do something, and do it well, that no other character can.

That's it for today. This is my second post about the nuts and bolts of characterization, the first is here: How To Create Extreme Characters.

Photo credit: "Say hello to Spike (aka "Butch" and "Killer") from the Tom & Jerry cartoon series" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Monday, August 5

4 Ways To Create A Strong Antagonist

4 Ways To Create A Strong Antagonist

Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is wonderful and I recommend it to anyone who asks: Which writing blogs should I follow?

Her recent post, 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist, is one that helped me make the antagonist of my work-in-progress more three-dimensional, more real. Today I'm going to talk about four points that helped make my story stronger.

Remember: a strong villain/antagonist will help you create a strong protagonist.

(See also: How To Build A Villain, by Jim Butcher)

4 Tips on how to create a strong antagonist:

1. Give the Antagonist a goal

Just like protagonists, antagonists have goals. They want things. They have ambitions and desires. These are the sorts of traits that make your characters jump off the page.

As Donald Maass has said a number of times: Antagonists are heroes of their own journey.

2. Make the antagonist similar to the protagonist

Antagonists and protagonists are often a lot alike except for one vital aspect.

For instance, in the BBC's take on Sherlock Holmes both Holmes and Moriarty are brilliant anti-social types but the key difference is that Sherlock is on the side of the angels. He has formed relationships with people, ordinary people like his roommate and best friend Watson and his landlady Mrs. Hudson. He would give his life for them and nearly does.

Which brings us to ...

3. Make the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist personal

Have the rivalry between the antagonist and protagonist hinge on something personal. As says:
The Protagonist catches bad guys for a living (usually at a rate of about one a week), but this time, the bad guy has decided that he doesn't like the protagonist. Instead of doing what any sensible psychopath would do and simply toss a grenade in the character's window, the psychopath takes creepy photos of the character's kids, abducts the character's wife, kicks the character's dog, and above all, leaves calling cards and clues to ensure that eventually he'll get caught. The bad guy (often a Big Bad) knows about the protagonist's Fatal Flaw and is more than willing to exploit it. (It's Personal)

4. Make the antagonist at least as complex as your protagonist

Janice Hardy writes:
To keep her from being a two-dimensional cliché, give your antagonist good traits as well as bad. Things that make her interesting and even give her a little redemption. This will help make her unpredictable if once in a while she acts not like a villain, but as a complex and understandable person. She doesn’t always do the bad thing.
These are only a few of the many wonderful points Janice covers in her article 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist.

Photo credit: "Untitled" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, April 16

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 2 of 2

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I started writing about Janice Hardy's excellent article, "What Downtown Abby Can Teach us About Tension," and her absurdly useful dissection of that shows structure.

Today I'll pick up where I left off yesterday (How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 1 of 2) and take a look at the structure of the third and fourth episode.

Episode Three: Subplots

So far the storyline has concentrated on the main plot or arc. Call this the A plot or story. In the third episode we start focusing on the subplots.

You can have as many subplots as you like, but you'll probably have at least two in a book-length story, or an extended serial. I'll call these the B and C plots.


Janice Hardy reminds us that every character is going to be in conflict, in some way, with every other character. Even her allies! That is, the characters' goals will be exclusive, in some way, of every other character's goal: if one character gets what he/she wants then the other characters won't be able to.


Each character--not just the main ones--wants something desperately, and has both strengths and weaknesses, quirks and contradictions, motivations and plans for action.


Something is not only going to oppose each character's plans for action, but also oppose their will to act.

I made up a long example to illustrate what I mean here, but, briefly, if John's plan is to kill Mark then two kinds of things are going to oppose his plan: internal drives and external obstacles.

For instance, one thing that is preventing John from walking over and burying a mallet in Mark's head is that he'd go to jail (external obstacle). Of course, if John is very careful he might not get caught, but there's always a chance. After all, no one thinks they're going to get caught.

Another thing that is preventing John from killing Mark is the inner certainty that it would be wrong and John wants to be a good person--or, failing that, at least not a very bad one (internal drive).

The purpose and utility of subplots

In terms of the overall story these subplots add to the building tension. At every moment something is on the verge of going horribly wrong.

Subplots inject variety and keep the main plot from going stale by creating other goals, other problems, other solutions, for the A plot to pick up on.

Episode Four: The Unexpected and Out-Of-Control

Just as your characters are settling down into a routine--the first episode introduced the Central Problem, the second episode intensified the problem, the third episode explored the B and C stories, the subplots, and deepened our understanding of the Central Problem--now it's time to throw something new and unexpected, something different and out of control, into the mix.

This new element will change things on a fundamental level. Just as we feel we have a good handle on the Central Problem, the Core Conflict, something happens to shake up the playing field. I think this works best when the change is something your characters couldn't possibly see coming.

Perhaps this change involves a much bigger threat of a different kind.

Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to change direction? 

Janice writes:
Plots in the Abbey had played themselves out as far as they could, and forcing the issues would start feeling contrived. Add a war that changes everything, and sudden the petty problems become less vital, and the important problems become more so.

When should we throw something big at our characters and change the nature of the Central Conflict?

Janice writes:
Sometimes things going wrong for the protagonist every single time starts to feel forced. You'd have to make your protagonist act like a total idiot for them to make a mistake or cause a problem. There's nothing you can do to make things worse or muck up the works, but you still need things to go wrong. An outside event could be the right answer to that.

Even on a smaller level, things can happen in the world or character's life that are outside their control and have serious effects. It doesn't have to be WWI-level drama to make it work. Something a character couldn't possibly see coming works just as well.

Tips (based on Janice Hardy's analysis of Downtown Abby)

- Have the subplots connect back to the Core Conflict

For example, have the main character need something from a secondary character, something that will create a problem for that secondary character since it opposes one or more of her goals.

Also, we could do this the other way. What a secondary character needs from a main character could conflict with the main character's goal.

- The unexpected is interesting

Mistakes are unexpected. After all, who is going to intentionally interpret something incorrectly or purposely employ defective judgement? (And, no, examples of your ex's behavior don't count! ;)

Janice writes that mistakes and creative complications keep things unpredictable and reminds us that this is something we can take advantage of when we're escalating the stakes.

- Just plain mean

Try having a couple of secondary characters who are selfish and mean-spirited. A couple of people who "don't care who they hurt to get what they want."

Janice Hardy reminds us: People often don't want to do what's best for others, they want to do what's best for themselves.

- "Don't have things happen without it mattering to someone."

Excellent advice! Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy) also writes a column called Real Life Diagnostics where she pinpoints the problems in user submitted manuscripts. Great reading and valuable advice.


I think it's worth noting that what I've presented here is just one way of structuring a serial and I offer it only as a potential starting point, perhaps like a grain of sand provides the starting point for a pearl.

For instance Chris Fox, in his fabulously popular series Star Sailor, starts with a smaller Central Conflict and keeps building on that same conflict, making it bigger and escalating the stakes, until the end.

... or at least that's what I gleaned from his helpful, yet brief, comment on my Google+ feed! (Sorry, Chris, if I mangled it. :-)

Chris Fox's stories are well worth checking out, as is his YouTube channel which is populated with short, original, marvelously creative, videos analysing various aspects of writing and the writing life. Here's an example:

Question: Have you ever written a serial? What structure did your stories have?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction
- Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories
- How To Get Honest Book Reviews

Photo credit: "Misty winter adfternoon" by Bert Kaufmann under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, April 15

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction

How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction
I wrote about the structure of short stories yesterday so I normally wouldn't do another post on story structure but today Janice Hardy published one of the best articles on episodic story structure I've ever read: What Downton Abbey Can Teach us About Tension.

By the way, I think the information contained in Janice's post is about much more than episodic structure. Whatever story you're writing, whether it's a novel, novella or even a short story, I'm confident that something in her article will apply.

I've broken this discussion into two posts; I'll publish the second one tomorrow.

Episode One: Introduce The Problem

Introduce the Core Conflict

Everything starts with a problem. The first episode will start by setting up the Core Conflict, but every episode should start by introducing a problem, either a new problem or a complication to an existing problem.

By the way, here's what I mean by a problem: something that needs to be solved that directly impacts the main character's life such that if she fails her life will be changed for the worse.

There should also be a solution to the problem, but one that conflicts with the main character's other goals/desires.

The story question then becomes: Will the problem be solved and the main character achieve her goal? Will the main character be rewarded for her sacrifice or will she fail and have her life--and the lives of those around her--changed for the worse?

What needs to be done:

a. State/show the problem clearly.

b. State/show the plan the hero has come up with to solve the problem.

c. State/show how the plan is going to be implemented.

d. State/show the stakes. What will happen if the plan fails? What will happen if the plan succeeds? The price of failure should be something that will change not only the main character's life for the worse, but the lives of everyone she cares about.

Showing the stakes--spelling them out for the audience--helps build tension because it lets the audience see how very bad failure would be for the main character, who (hopefully) we've come to care about.

Episode Two: Complications

The hero's solution to the problem fails.

In Episode One the main character hoped her plan would work and the problem would be solved but the plan doesn't work.

It could be that the main character's plan works in part, but a major complication is introduced, or it could be that the plan was a complete and total failure and not only does the thing she feared would happen, happen, something much worse than that occurs. Ideally this would be something completely unexpected that the main character couldn't have foreseen or prevented.

What needs to be done in this episode:

a. The problem becomes harder to solve.

The problem was tricky before, but now it seems unsolvable. People were nervous before, but now they're downright terrified.

b. The stakes get larger.

Part of the reason our characters are downright terrified is that the stakes have gone up. Way up. While the payoff remains the same (or possibly has been diminished) the consequences of failure have become much more stark.

For example, if the problem was that a single mother and her newborn baby were going to lose their rent controlled apartment in two months the problem becomes that they are going to lose the apartment tomorrow. And a blizzard is raging outside. Or something like that, you get the gist.

#  #  #

I have two more points to go over but I'll leave those for tomorrow.

Happy writing!
Question: Have you ever written serialized fiction? If so, have you tried out Wattpad? I've been thinking of opening an account over there and was curious what you folks thought of it.

Other articles you might like:

- Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories
- How To Get Honest Book Reviews
- What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

Photo credit: "spectacular view of sunset" by Kamoteus (A New Beginning) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, March 28

Janice Hardy Teaches Writers How To Be Their Own Book Doctor

Janice Hardy Teaches Writers How To Be Their Own Book Doctor
Book doctors are wonderful!

I can tell you from personal experience that writers often--in fact, nearly always--lack the ability to see flaws, even major structural flaws, in their own stories. Myself included.

That's where a good book doctor can be worth his or her weight in gold. Janice Hardy writes:
One of the reasons a good book doctor is so successful, is that they look at a story without all the emotional baggage us authors bring to our own work, and can analyze the critical elements of good storytelling. (Be Your Own Book Doctor)
The key is that a knowledgeable stranger has the objectivity we almost always lack when it comes to our own work.

But what if a writer can't afford that kind of a second opinion?

Janice Hardy comes to the rescue, allowing us all to be--or at least try to be--our own book doctor.

Be Your Own Book Doctor

My advice is, if you can, put your newly completed manuscript away in a drawer and forget about it for as long as you can stand, six weeks or so if you can do it, then bring it out and give it a quick read-through. Now, answer the following questions (these questions are all from Janice Hardy's article):

1. Is the tone consistent?
2. Is the theme clear?
3. Is your plot structure solid?
4. Are your stakes high enough?
5. Is there enough conflict?
6. Is there a strong narrative drive?
7. Is there tension?
8. Are there character arcs?
9. Are the characters fully formed?
10. Does the dialog sound natural?
11. Is the setting developed?
12. Is the pacing working?

Janice breaks her analysis down even further, asking several questions for each point. It's a great article! (Here's the link again: Be Your Own Book Doctor.)

I especially liked Janice's comments on story structure, and would like to leave you with a link to one of her other articles on the subject: I Love it When a Plan Comes Together, Plotting a Novel: Part One.

Honestly, I can't believe how generous authors are on the web! In that article (I Love it When ...) Janice shares the fruit of her knowledge gleaned from years of writing. It is incredibly informative. I can't recommend Janice's blog, The Other Side of the Story, highly enough.

Question: Do you have any tips and tricks for editing a novel?

Other articles you might like:

- The Rules Of Romantic Comedy
- Different Kinds Of Story Openings: Shock And Seduction
- Chuck Wendig On Story Structure
- Story Structure

Photo credit: "Heavy Black & White" by Ben Fredericson (xjrlokix) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, January 19

How Plotting Can Build A Better Story

The Building Blocks Of Story: Plot Elements

Why care about plot elements? Because if all the elements of plot are in place--if they are clear and concrete--then you'll have a stronger story. Why? It will be easier to spot holes in the story. Also, it will show whether a scene is necessary to advance the story. If it's not then cut it!

The Benefits Of Knowing Where You Want To Go

Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is one of the best blogs on writing it has been my pleasure to read this past year.

And, of course, one of the reasons I love it is because she's a fellow plotter. Sure, the actual writing is done pantser style--whatever happens, happens, and I adjust my outline to reflect the story, not the other way around--but I like to know where I'm going, I like a roadmap, before I head out.

(Occasionally I wish I could be one of those types who can step outside, be inspired by the loveliness of the day--the sunlight, the warm fragrant breeze, the distant laughter of children--and decide to take a drive with no particular destination in mind. I had a friend who did this and it was splendid! But he always ended up somewhere interesting and there was always a gas station nearby. I don't have that kind of luck.)

So, there you are, at your desk. You have a scene to write, what do you do? How do you plan your scene? (What follows was inspired by Janice Hardy's excellent article: Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes.)

Here's more or less what I do, or at least what I try to do!

1. Write a summary of the scene

If I'm writing a first draft I usually just write out what I know. For instance, if I'm sure my protagonist gets into a car accident and that she's saved from the twisted wreckage by a starving vampire then I'll write that down. At this stage I'm (for the most part) telling not showing. There will be minimal description of the setting and just raw dialog without any tags ('he said,' 'she said').

If I'm editing my first draft I'll take more time. Dialog tags will go in and, at the beginning of the scene, I'll type out the answers to a few questions (see below). If I don't know all the answers, that's perfectly fine, I'll just write in what I know now and fill the rest in later.

2. The Elements That Drive Your Plot

- What is your protagonist's goal in this scene?
- Why that goal? What's her motivation?
- What obstacle(s) prevent her from achieving her goal?

Answering these questions is important because it can help reveal whether this scene is necessary. For instance, if your protagonist's goal isn't tied in with the story goal--what your protagonist has to achieve by the end of the book in order to succeed in her quest--then the scene doesn't advance the story and should be either re-worked or cut.

By the time you're ready to send your baby, your manuscript, out to beta readers you should be able to answer all these questions:


Whose point of view is the scene being told from?

Narrative point of view

First, second or third? If third, is it subjective, objective or omniscient? (Narrative point of view)

POV character's external goal

In each and every scene all your characters must want something, they must have goals. Even if your teenaged character just wants to be left alone in his bedroom to play video games and eat nacho chips, that's a goal. That said, many times your other character's goals will be determined by your POV character's goal.

Make sure the POV character's goal is both clear (no ambiguity) and concrete (something you can see and touch). You can have a more abstract goal, but there should be a way to cash it out in concrete terms.

POV character's internal goal

Internal goals can be tricky. Give me a nice clear concrete goal like, "Rescue the Ark from the Nazi's" and I'm happy. The goal is clear (get the ark) and it's clear whether the hero has succeeded (does Indiana Jones have the ark?).

But your characters have inner goals as well as outer. The example I always think of here is Mitch McDeere from The Firm, how his inner goal was to get as far away from the trailer park of his youth as he could. He was afraid, at least in part, that his wife, Abby, would leave him if he wasn't rich, if he couldn't provide her the kind of life she'd been used to. He was wrong about Abby, but this was his fear, his inner motivation for being a rich lawyer.

Your POV character will have an inner and outer motivation for each scene but I wouldn't worry if you don't have a clear idea what their inner motivation is on the second draft. That's the sort of thing that often emerges with the story, and the story often doesn't take its final form until you've gone through a few drafts.

External Complication

What is going to keep your character from achieving her goal? If your character were to achieve all her scene goals the story would be dull.

Similarly, if the POV character always flat-out failed to achieve the goal that wouldn't be interesting either. She needs to be frustrated in her attempts, she needs to be forced to modify her plans and adopt Plan B, another goal that will--they hope!--get them closer to achieving their final, ultimate, story goal. (See: Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive)


This is one of the most important aspects of any scene. What will happen if your POV character doesn't achieve her goal? What will happen if she does?

The stakes need to be, like the goal, both clear and concrete. (See: Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High)


What happens? At the very end of the scene, after the POV character has dodged all the proverbial (or not so proverbial) bullets, what happens? Does she achieve the scene goal? Probably not. Not completely. Usually some new complication is introduced.

An Example


A young woman, let's call her Anne, suffering from haemophilia cuts herself and must drive to the nearest hospital and receive treatment. If she doesn't get treated she'll die. On the way to the hospital a drunk driver slams his car into hers turning them both into twisted hunks of metal. Anne receives many cuts and starts to bleed out.

A starving vampire finds Anne, drawn by the smell of blood. He extracts her from the wreck and enjoys a nice light snack. Something in his saliva, or perhaps a substance released from his fangs, causes her blood to coagulate.

At the end of the scene the vampire decides he likes the taste of her blood and considers whether he should drain her dry or leave her to find her own way home (and possibly turn into a vampire).

The Elements That Drive Your Plot

POV: The young woman, Anne.

Narrative point of view: Third person subjective, also called third person limited.

POV character's external goal: Get treatment at the nearest hospital --> Survive the car crash --> Survive the vampire's tender attentions.

POV character's internal goal: To be able to live without fear of cutting herself and dying because she can't get treatment. To be normal or at least to find someone who will love her even though she isn't.

Stakes: If our POV character doesn't get treatment she will die; if she does, she'll live. The POV character will also likely die if she doesn't get away from the vampire, if she does get away, though, she will be terrified that she'll change into a vampire.

Climax: Our POV character didn't get to the hospital for treatment, but she no longer needs it. The vampire's bite saved her from bleeding to death, but now she has a bigger problem: The vampire is looking at her and he still looks hungry.

Or something like that! That isn't the best example, I made it up on the fly. Hopefully it'll give you an idea of what I've been talking about.

Janice Hardy goes over much more in her article Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes. It's well worth the read!

Other articles you might like:

- Building Character: The Importance Of Imperfection
- Ernest Hemingway And The Purpose Of Writing
- Revising Your Manuscript And Building Suspense: Making Your Character's Stakes Both Clear And High

Photo credit: "Geisha's taken my place in bed" by Dirigentens under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.