Monday, January 6, 2014

Stories are about People

Remember at the end of the year, I said I thought we should do a few more serious "how to write" blogs? Well, we start today with a few thoughts on Characters...

A year ago, I was invited to speak at the 2014 Pennwriters Conference. Liking the idea of having a whole year to write the workshop, I asked for a topic and they said Characters.

I sort of laughed. Pennwriters is a multi-genre group so I have to come up with something that will interest everyone from comic book script writers to erotica writers and there is no better topic  for that than characters.

Every book has them.

In fact, one of the great changes in my writing came when I realized books were not stories about situations, but stories about PEOPLE in situations.

Your plot should evolve from your characters' actions and your characters' actions should evolve from their motivation. Motivation is a combination of goals -- what they want to have happen in the future, and their experiences -- the beliefs they formed from things that have happened to them in the past. (If a character was in an abusive marriage, for instance, she will have formed some beliefs about marriage and maybe even about men. Those beliefs will impact how she behaves.)

That's how you keep a story believable, but it's also how you write organically. You put your characters into a situation and then let them resolve it the way they would realistically resolve it given their pasts and their goals.

Right now some of you are balking. You say you know your plot! Your characters must do what you need them to do. You can't just let "them" resolve the issue. It has to be resolved a certain way.

Well, sure. I hear ya. What I say to you is...Choose your characters carefully.


Look, if you want to write a book about a spy who falls in love while on a mission to kill the heroine's boss, and the ending of the book revolves around her being taken hostage, I'm not telling you to abandon that story in favor of letting the hero and heroine run around willy nilly.  I'm telling you to create characters who will rationally decide to do what you need them to do. Who will fight the villain to the death because they have the right personality types, the right motivations and/or the right beliefs.

Or, in a romance, create characters who will fall in love but honestly not be able to commit because of something real, something vital, in their pasts. A belief that tells them they shouldn't fall in love, they aren't worthy of love or the person they are falling in love with is the wrong choice.

A few decades ago, I wrote one of my first workshops about characters. I called it interviewing your characters for the job of staring in your story. (Not very catchy. It took a while to figure out how to come up with good workshop titles.)

The takeaway from the teaching was that the first character who pops into your head might not be the one you should choose to be your heroine...or hero. He or she may not have the right past or the right personality type. Or the right life experience to handle the big jobs in your plot.

In the same way that you sometimes have to discard beloved sentences or chapters or scenes, sometimes your first choice for your protagonist just isn't right. You may have to totally get rid of him, or, conversely, fixing him might be a simple matter of changing his past. Give a hero a dead child or a stalker ex-girlfriend or an automobile accident that left him with a limp, and nine chances out of ten he'll go from being a cocky, simplistic guy to someone with substance.

Change your heroine from somebody with money to someone struggling for rent, and you'll have a character who is a little more willing or able to take chances. Or reverse that. Maybe your struggling heroine wouldn't take a risk, ever. She can't afford to. So give her some cash. Or give her a goal that makes her bold. And she'll do an entirely different set of things than the things her original version would have done.

Characters are created years before the date they appear on the first page of your book. So give careful thought to how a past forms a personality. Especially if there are things your hero and heroine must do. Otherwise, you could end up with one of those books where it looks like your characters are being pulled along by the plot, doing things those character types wouldn't ordinarily do.

Make sense?

Happy reading...

susan meier


CJG said...

Wonderful Susan! This felt like a refresher lesson on your Romance course I took last year. I was just starting to slip back into an old habit that wouldn't help. While reading your post, lights are going off and I am thinking: d'oh! My hero needs to appear earlier but it needs to be organic. I've already got his mother developed later, so I added in her phone call to him when she learns he has accepted a job at home. A simple dialogue and I introduce him, show the dynamics of several key characters, make it obvious why he avoided moving home for so long, and show how he fits into the story.

Susan said...

Nice. It sounds like it will all work.

Glad you liked the blog. This months we'll be talking a lot about characters!