Tag Archives: character development

Fundamentals of Writing: The Strong Antagonist #amwriting

I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.

depth-of-characterAuthors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.

Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.

Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.

When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.

First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.

Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.

So, in an overly simplistic example, the antagonist gets two nouns: Good/Evil. We hide that perception of evil behind a lie, a falsehood. This lie is the antagonist’s belief that they are the hero.

One of my antagonists in a current work in progress is Kellan. He and his younger sister were born into an abusive family. When their parents were murdered, they were adopted by a family who raised them with kindness and understanding. At the age of ten, Kellan’s basic character and gut reactions were already formed.

protagonist-antagonist-06082021LIRFKellan is a complicated character who believes he is the hero. His story begins as a member of the protagonist’s inner circle and ends tragically.

The people who love him describe him this way: Ivan saw Kellan as two people. One lashed out at the people he trusted and loved most, was filled with jealous anger, and the other was sweet, gentle, and mesmerizing. Rage sometimes owned him, a flaw the earth-mage might never overcome.

Life is complicated, and the relationships in a good novel should also be complex. Often, a protagonist faces a second antagonist: themselves. In real life, who is usually our worst enemy?

We are.

It is us, our own fears, the little voice whispering doubt, indecision, and impulsiveness into our subconsciousness.

So, to further complicate life for our hero, we can go two routes when creating the antagonist. One way is to allow one of the characters to make choices that ultimately harm them, which is how I went with Kellan, turning him into the visible antagonist.

Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into self-hate, which I have done with Ivan. He has two enemies to fight, one is someone he loves but must reject, and the other is himself.

nebulousIn other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist—the faceless giant of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives, who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be thugs-in-suits, and in hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer, or both.

In that case, how the protagonist reacts internally to the threat these formless antagonists pose is the story. Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life.

To show great evil in genre fiction, we take the negative to the limit of human experience. And while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly.

What I can speak to is the perception of corruption, which sometimes horrifies us.

Perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after mother and father have turned out the lights can be terrifying.

We are frightened of the formless monster that we perceive as lurking in the corner until we discover the truth—it is only something that was piled there and was never put away.

As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.

War is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic, and shouldn’t be. Sometimes a faceless blob of evil is the right villain.

However, I seek out stories that delve into the characters as people and show their motivations. Word choices are the key to success in showing the darkness a character embodies without going over the top. Think about the word perversion, a word with many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are: corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.

Coloring an antagonist with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I don’t remember who—said in a seminar a few years ago that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This is an important distinction. Credible villains become evil for sympathetic reasons. They care intensely, obsessively about something, or someone. It is our job to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.

Therefore, a true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. You as the author and their lawyer, must know what that narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details.

You need to know why they feel justified in doing the sometimes-heinous things they do.

The greater the risk for the hero, the more interesting the story is. A strong protagonist requires a stronger antagonist if the risk is to be believable.

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Author Interview: Ellen King Rice on characters #amwriting

51v0Z1IolxSOne of the best ways to learn about the craft of writing is to talk with other authors. We all have different ways of creating our work, so hearing how another author works always gives me new ideas.

Ellen King Rice writes mysteries set in the South Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. She is a wildlife biologist and is happiest when out in the woods on a fungi hunt with her camera.

Ellen has a new book out, The Slime Mold Murder, and as one the advance readers, I found it witty and the series of events are well-plotted. The characters are engaging, and their stories emerge as the plot unfolds. She has agreed to talk about her characters in this book, and how she came to know them.


CJJ: Tell us about Dylan. When did he first come into your mind as a protagonist?

EKR: Dylan was in my first book, The EvoAngel, as a precocious eleven-year-old with impulse-control challenges. He channels my own life as someone who speaks boldly and often irritates others.

CJJ: This book has number of credible characters. Which character was most difficult to write, and why?

5EKR06042021LIRFEKR: Mitchell and Mark are a gay couple, but I didn’t want to write them as caricatures. I spent a great deal of time trying out descriptions to come up with two men who are individuals in their own right but collectively a pair who would rattle the conservative county commissioner.

CJJ: Which character do you identify with on a personal level. Why?

EKR: Mari reminds me of myself at eighteen. I was keen to explore romance but terribly inept.

CJJ: Do you create an outline for structuring a character arc, or do you wing it?

EKR: Authors are often divided into the pantser or plotter groups. Some of us are plontsers – a lovely hybrid who think they have a plan but are really making it up as they go along. No kidding. I do start with a plan and then I get distracted with new ideas.

CoralRootEKR06042021LIRFjpgCJJ: Do you think your characters or events drive the plot? How are your characters shaped by the events they live through?

EKR: For me it is the events that drive the plot and the characters respond, hopefully growing as they take action.

CJJ: Are there any final words you would like to say regarding the characters and events of The Slime Mold Murder?

EKR:  The inclusion of the sclerotia in the story is meant to be inspirational. Slime molds can enter a dry phase where they do not grow. This phase can last for years, but when conditions improve, there can be a vibrant response. I so hope that we humans can move past months of a global pandemic to build a better world where more of us thrive.


Ellen, thank you for taking the time to talk about how you approach the craft of writing and creating your wonderful characters.

If you are curious about this book, The Slime Mold Murder is available at Amazon as a paperback, and will be released for the Kindle on June 24th, 2021: The Slime Mold Murder.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

About Ellen King Rice:

I am a wildlife biologist who suffered a spinal cord injury many years ago. Although my days of field work are over, biology continues to intrigue me.

I am fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes. I also like the predictability of animal behavior, once it is understood.

A fast-paced story filled with twists is a fun way to stimulate laughs, gasps and understanding. I work to heighten ecological awareness. I want the details and your new insights to remain in your thoughts forever.

You can find me and my books at www.ellenkingrice.com

Please join me on Instagram at:

https://www.instagram.com/mushroom_thrillers.

And on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mushroomthriller/


Credits and Attributions:

All photos copyright 2021 Ellen King Rice. All images used in this post are the work and intellectual property of Ellen King Rice. She has kindly given me permission to use them in this post.

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Fundamentals of Writing: Character Depth – who do they think they are? #amwriting

Depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. Characters with depth feel solid, alive, as real as your best friend.

depth-of-characterTo achieve a sense of depth, we begin with simplicity. Each character’s sub-story must be built upon who these characters think they are.

One of the most useful seminars I’ve ever attended was given by a Romance writer. He is a strong proponent of assigning verbs and nouns to each character at the outset as a way to get inside their heads.

If there is one thing Romance authors understand, it is how to create a strong impression of character.

When I plan a character, I make a simple word picture of them. The word picture is made of a verb and a noun, the two words that best describe each person. We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the story’s outset.

We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms, so put your thesaurus to work. In my book, Julian Lackland, I had four characters with significant roles, so I assigned them nouns that describe their principal defining quality.

This noun is the core characteristic thread that stays with them, is challenged by events, and either wins in the end or is their downfall.

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love.) He sees himself as a good knight, a defender of innocence.

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion.) He aspires to chivalry but has a pragmatic side. He sees himself as a good knight but knows that good doesn’t always win.

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage.) She is a good knight but is under no illusions about the people she defends. She is chivalrous but practical.

Bold Lora’s Noun is: Bravado (Boldness, Brashness.) She desires fame, is convinced that knights are defined by the celebrity their deeds bring them.

In real life, the way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. Self-conceptions color how we react to events. We are gradually altered by events as life goes on. Our view of ourselves evolves, and our reactions are changed.

By the end of the story, the way our characters see themselves should have evolved. The circumstances you put them through must affect and remake them.

Once I know their nouns, I assign my characters a verb that describes their gut reactions. This word will shape the way they react to every situation that arises.

unreliable-narratorThey might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth.

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms: (Preserve, Uphold, Protect.)

Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare.)

Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are: Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist.)

Bold Lora’s 2 Verbs are: Desire, Acquire (Own, Control, Imprison.)

When I wrote these characters, I knew how they believed they would react in a given situation and that knowledge drove the plot. Why was it so clear to me? Because I had drawn their portraits in a few descriptive words.

Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity breaks his mind.

Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness breaks his health.

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. She’s at war with herself regarding her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Bold Lora must Acquire Fame and Control Chivalry. Her thirst for notoriety destroys her.

When we uncover the nouns and verbs that describe who our characters think they are, we have a grip on creating characters who are alive to the reader.

How we phrase this when describing them in our outline is essential. Placing the verb before the noun describes a character’s core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Knowing who our characters are before we meet them is important. Go ahead and make that personnel file detailing their backstory if you need to. Set that infodump aside because the real story will be built upon who they think they are on page one of this story.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which colors the readers’ view.

The characters we write are unreliable witnesses to the events that shape them. Their self-perception shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards.

These are the watershed moments when our characters must examine their motives, and either face them or gloss over their failings.

Depth is instilled into to a scene where the characters prevail despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds. Or conversely, depth can be added when character flaws cause them to fail miserably at a point where they could have triumphed.

What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the factor that could be their ultimate ruin?

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor.

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty.

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear (of Entrapment).

Who are youKnowing the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represented my characters made writing Julian Lackland easier. Their actions and reactions unfolded, and it was as if the story wrote itself.

So how do we get to know our characters and how they see themselves? Just as in real life, we meet and come to know them through conversations.

Conversations give shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal.

Our next installment in this series will focus on revealing character through conversations.

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Character Creation: The Character Arc #amwriting

We’ve discussed the many different aspects of our characters and the roles they have within the story. Some will be the hero, others a sidekick, and still others will be the villain. 

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcEach character should have an arc of growth and change as the story progresses. Heroes that arrive fully formed on page one are boring. For me, the characters are the story, and the events of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

How people are changed by their experiences is what makes the story compelling.

Many times, the protagonist begins in a place of comfort. They’re a little naïve about the rougher aspects of life. Consider Bilbo Baggins, Tolkien’s protagonist in The Hobbit.

Bilbo begins in a middle-class place of comfort. He lives in his family’s home, a comfortable, well-kept place. Bilbo has inherited a private income and has no need to work, so he devotes his time to writing and entertaining his close friends. He’s a little bored with his existence, but he’s a sensible hobbit and refuses to admit to it.

This is our hero in his comfort zone. He’s not unhappy and could have lived to the end of his days going along as he was. But he would never have developed any further as a person. He was stagnating and didn’t know it.

One sunny day, he’s just enjoying himself when along comes “the inciting incident”—Gandalf, a character who plays multiple roles within the Lord of the Rings story arc. In his first guise, Gandalf has the archetypal role of Herald. He is the bringer of change and unwanted dinner guests.

(The list of archetypes is shown in a picture at the bottom of this page—feel free to right-click and save it for your own files.)

the hobbitBilbo resents both the intrusion and being made aware of how bored he is. Secretly, he fears going into the unknown and resists Gandalf’s insistence that he must go with the dwarves. However, at the last minute, Bilbo realizes that if he doesn’t go now, he will always wonder what would have happened if he had.

Bilbo’s sudden irrational decision to accept the task of Burglar sets him on a path that becomes a personal pilgrimage, a search for the courage he always possessed but had never needed.

Fear of stagnation has overcome Bilbo’s fear of the unknown.

This begins the journey and events that shape Bilbo’s character arc. By the end of the novel, he has recognized and embraced the romantic, fanciful, and adventurous aspects of his nature. In the process, he discovers that he is competent and capable of bravery, winning respect by applying his wits and common sense to every problem.

People undertake pilgrimages for many reasons, often in search of moral or spiritual wisdom. Sometimes they will go to a location that has significance to their beliefs and faith. Other times, it will be an inner, symbolic journey, a delving into their own principles and values. One is always changed by the journey.

Events in themselves don’t change us. We are changed by what we learn as human beings, by experiencing how incidents and occurrences affect our emotions and challenge our values. Everyone perceives things in a unique way and is affected differently from their companions.

Each person grows and develops in a way that is distinctively them. Some people become hardened, world-weary. Others become more compassionate, forgiving.

the hobbit movie posterOver the next year, Bilbo experiences many things. Where once he was a little xenophobic and slightly disdainful of anything not of The Shire, he discovers that other cultures are as valuable as his, meeting people of different races whom he comes to love and trust. He experiences the loss of friends and gains compassion. By the time Bilbo returns to the Shire, he is a different person than he was when he ran out his front door without even a handkerchief.

A character arc should encompass several stages of personal growth. What those stages are is up to you and depend on the story you are telling.

In one of my current works in progress, my protagonist is a soldier of the Bull God’s world of Serende, an enemy sworn to conquer the goddess’s world of Neveyah. He has a religious conversion, and his story takes him on a journey that is both physical and spiritual.

Whether we write fantasy, literary fiction, comedy, sci-fi, or romance—our characters must be changed by their experiences. How they are changed is up to you, but stories and series where the protagonists are unaffected by what they have experienced fail to excite me.

The works that endure are those in which the events are the catalysts of personal growth for the reader as well as the protagonist.

Personal growth creates unforgettable characters. Great characters are why certain novels are considered classics despite having been written more than one or two centuries ago.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Wikipedia

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Wikipedia

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Wikipedia

ListOf ArchetypesVoglerLIRF04272021


Credits and Attributions:

Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster © 2012 New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films, Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Fair Use.

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Character Creation: The Ally #amwriting

An archetype is an ancient pattern describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with other cultures. Yet, our myths and legends share these familiar, recognizable characters we call archetypes.

WritersjourneysmallThe Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology (or literary canon). I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about archetypes and how they fit into the story.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  1. Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
  2. Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts.
  3. Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome.
  4. Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero.
  5. Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view.
  6. Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
  7. Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions.
  8. Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change.

Last week we discussed the Mentor. We also looked at one of the many aspects of a hero-character, the Sacrificial Lamb.

Now let’s look at Allies, friends and supporters, side characters who enable the protagonist to achieve their goal. Side characters are essential, especially characters with secrets, because they are a mystery. Readers love to work out puzzles.

f scott fitzgerald quoteOne thing I do recommend is that you keep the number of allies limited. Too many named characters can lead to confusion in the reader.

It’s sometimes challenging to decide who should go and who should stay. What is the optimal number of primary characters for a book? Be kind to the reader. Introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.

When you give a character a name, you imply they are a memorable part of the story instead of a walk-on. Even if a walk-on character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Does the character return later in the story? When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Also, never name two characters in the same narrative so that the first and last letters of their names are the same.

For instance, having a Darnell and a Darrell with prominent roles in the same book could be confusing.

Make their names unique and give them a name only if they have a memorable role later. Also, as audiobooks come more and more into the publishing rainbow, spelling and ease of pronounceability are critical.

callMeGeorgeLIRF04252021How easy is it to read, and how will that name be pronounced when it is read aloud?

Certain tricks of plotting function well across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter the setting. In most novels, one or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.

Every core character that the protagonists are surrounded by should project an unmistakable surface persona, characteristics that are identifiably “them” from the outset.

From the moment they enter the story, we should see glimpses of weaknesses and fears. We should see hints of the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas. Remember, they aren’t the protagonist, so their story must emerge as a side note, a justification for their inclusion in the core group.

Old friends have long histories, and the protagonist knows most of their secrets at the outset. We don’t engage in info-dumping. Their backstory should emerge only at critical points, if and when it provides the reader with information they must know.

If these friends are new to the protagonist, their stories should emerge in the form of information the protagonist must have to complete their quest. However, it should come out only when the reader must know it too.

Twilight_Confidences_by_Cecilia_BeauxIn real life, everyone has emotions and thoughts they conceal from others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge. Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what? Small hints revealing those unspoken motives are crucial to raising the tension in the narrative.

As writers, our task is to ensure that each character’s individual story intersects smoothly and doesn’t jar the reader out of the story.

To do that, the motivations of the side characters must be clearly defined. You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.

Ask yourself what desires push this character? What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?

Just as you have done with the hero of your story, ask yourself what the side characters’ moral boundaries are and what actions would be out of character for them?

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of all the characters—their personal mood.

ICountMyself-FriendsDialogue gives shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal. We meet and get to know our protagonists and the people they will travel with through the conversations they engage in.

Write nothing that seems out of character unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.

We want to create empathy in the reader for the group as a whole, but the pacing of the story remains central.

For all characters, whether they are the protagonist or their allies, personal revelations should only come out when they are necessary to propel the plot to its conclusion.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

Twilight Confidences, Cecilia Beaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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The Character Arc part 4 #amwritng

Today in our focus on writing, we’re talking about circumstances (situations) our characters find themselves in and how they are shaped by them. We’re delving a little deeper into our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

We met Dave, a hapless accountant whose moment of madness in “paying it forward” and purchasing a stranger’s lunch has led to his being taken hostage and forced to become a spy.

What does Dave want more than anything? He wants the Agents who kidnapped him to let him go home.

After the inciting incident, Dave must want nothing more than to achieve that objective.

So how do his circumstances reshape his personality? After all, we have a character arc here, not a flat line.

Let’s look at the plot outline:

On page one, Dave-the-accountant is shown in his ordinary world. He likes who he is and sees nothing wrong with his existence. We see a man who is only sure of himself when numbers are involved and see him in his office where he is working his way up the corporate ladder. The only thing Dave does well is straightening out tangled financial reports, and he is brilliant at that.

People like Dave, as he’s a good listener. However, he rarely volunteers anything conversationally because he has nothing of interest to contribute unless they are discussing accounting. He receives an unexpected bonus for having done well in getting one of their high-profile clients off the hook with the IRS.

Usually, Dave buys a sandwich from the machine in the employee lounge and eats at his desk while he works. But receiving the bonus calls for a little celebration. He tells the receptionist he’s going out for lunch and walks down the street to a café he has passed every day but never entered.

On page three, Dave does a random act of kindness that does not go unpunished. After he’s seated, Dave notices a striking woman. He imagines what it would be like to be a suave man of the world, wishing he were bold enough to introduce himself to her. He pictures her inviting him to dine with her.

Even though he is sure the woman wouldn’t give him the time of day, Dave suddenly chooses to “pay it forward” by purchasing her lunch when he pays for his.

He leaves the café before she finds out what he’s done, mentally berating himself for being such a coward.

5,000 words into the story, Dave-the-accountant has become Dave-the-kidnap-victim. Unbeknownst to Dave, the woman he was so taken with is a well-known double agent. Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he has drawn the attention of the people who were following her.

Two days later, as he walks to work, a white limousine pulls up alongside him. Four men in dark suits hustle him into the backseat. Here, the story can go in several directions, but in all of them, Dave must make choices that will change his life.

The next event happens 10,000 words into the story. Dave’s kidnappers realize he is not a double agent, but decide he is useful anyway. He’s an unremarkable person, a man who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. His ability to see the patterns in financial numbers is just the skill they need to nail a criminal they’ve been trying to get evidence on for years.

What does Dave fear? At first, he fears he’s going to die, but as time goes on, he fears he will lose his job.

15,000 words into the story, Dave agrees to do what the Secret Service wants, on the promise he will be allowed to go home and won’t lose his job over it.

Getting back to the security of his comfortable middle-class life becomes Dave’s primary goal. Every scene and conversation will push him closer to either attaining that goal or discovering a new purpose.

25,000 words into the story, Dave learns that, despite their glib assurances, the government was not “there to help” him. He has lost his job and barely manages to keep his apartment. The agents have one more task for him, and he’s desperate to not have to dig into his retirement funds, so he agrees to it.

45,000 words into the story, Dave is in a tough situation, trying to get evidence on an extremely dangerous person. He has lost faith in himself and the people he trusted but can’t turn back now, as he is in a situation that will get him killed if he’s discovered.

60,000 words to the end – In completing that last task and going back to his old world, Dave finds he is no longer happy as an unassuming accountant. He’s seen what is out there in the world, and no longer fits in his old corporate life.

Each event pushes Dave a little further out of his comfort zone. He has to become an actor, but in doing so, he realizes he’s been acting all his life. How does this new awareness change him?

No one can go through these sometimes traumatic and terrifying events and not be changed by them.

Many different endings are possible, some of which could lead to another book.

This was the scenario for a mystery/thriller of sorts. Still, the principle of events forcing change on the protagonist’s character arc is universal across all genres.

Dave’s character arc is driven by the desire to go back to the comfort of his old life. Nothing evokes such longing in a person as the memory of home, a place where they were happy and secure.

That longing for a time that no longer exists, and which may never have been as wonderful as we recall, is a good theme that fits well into any genre. Trying to achieve the unobtainable opens the story up to myriad possibilities, all of which should force growth or change upon the characters.

When I look back at the books that moved me, the catalyst for my emotional attachment was the characters, way more than the events, the setting, or the genre. What drew me to these imaginary people was the way they were affected by the events they lived through.

I remained invested in them to the very end of the book. That, to me, is the mark of good writing.

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The Character Arc, part 3 #amwriting

Today in our focus on writing, we’re continuing our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.

Part 1 Posted on Monday July 13, 2020

Part 2 Posted on Wednesday July 15, 2020

Today we’re talking about circumstances (situations) our characters find themselves in, and how their view of “self” is shaped by them.

But first, maybe you’re a writer like me, one who needs a few notes and a loose outline help me get the manuscript started.

Many writers work at a day job, and using the note-taking app on the cellphone during work hours is frowned on. If you are in that category and you are not working from home, you can go old-school with a pocket-sized notebook, and write those ideas down.

That way, you can unobtrusively make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you won’t appear distracted or off-task.

Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about who the characters are and how they react to their circumstances.

At the outset of the story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings.

Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs, which is the inciting incident. This is an occurrence that falls in the first chapters of the story, forcing the protagonist out of their usual circumstances. It hooks the reader and is the first point of no return.

The protagonist, in those opening paragraphs, has been shaped by the situation and lifestyle in which they are accustomed to living.

We’re going to plot a mystery with an eye toward how the protagonist is changed by their circumstances. If it seems familiar, it’s because this is a scenario I’ve used before:

The story opens when Dave, an unmarried accountant, has received an unexpected bonus and splurges on lunch in a restaurant. He sees a woman from across the café and develops a small, instant infatuation. He wishes he were brave enough to walk up and introduce himself.

What is the action he would do that falls within his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is unusually bold for him?

Perhaps he chooses to secretly “pay-it-forward,” buying her lunch when he pays for his own on his way out. You must show him as a shy person not given to speaking to women he doesn’t know, much less buying their lunch.

So, this act is a bold one for Dave, and it must change his life.

Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he draws the attention of the people who were following her. These people operate on a level a mere accountant wouldn’t know exists.

To them, that act of buying her lunch was a secret code. They decide that Dave is a spy posing as an accountant. Unbeknownst to Dave, who goes about his life as he always does, regretting only that he didn’t dare to say hello to the woman, his every move is now on their radar.

His habitual routine is now interpreted according to a very different set of rules, by people who live and breathe conspiracy theories.

Buying a stranger lunch was the inciting incident. Everything that happens from here on occurs because of that innocent act.

This is where Dave is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation that is the core idea of our plot. For the rest of the novel, his circumstances will transform his way of thinking.

Two days later, as he walks to work, a white limousine pulls up alongside him. Four men in dark suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Lisa Desmond.

This is the new circumstance in which our protagonist finds himself as a result of the inciting incident.

How does Dave react to his kidnapping and what is his physical condition at the moment he is kidnapped?

How does Dave change his situation for better or worse?

How do the antagonistic forces react when they discover he is not a spy but is just an accountant who is now in danger of losing his job?

This is where we discover who the woman in the café really is and what role she will play in Dave’s new life as an unwilling spy.

Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail Dave’s quest and how the circumstances he finds himself in as each scene progresses shape his view of himself.

For a writer, winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating. Still, my years of experience with NaNoWriMo has taught me that writing by the seat of my pants for extended lengths of time only works until I run out of ideas for what to do next.

With a simple outline, I don’t become desperate and start writing random bunny trails to nowhere into the plot.

DISCLAIMER: This does NOT apply to anything written during November and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). By day ten, I will have written an incredible number of events-to-nowhere into the manuscript. These are things that have nothing at all in common with the original story. However, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison, so during NaNoWriMo, I must get my word-count. I write some crazy things during NaNoWriMo.

But I won’t trash them.

In December, I cut them and paste them into a separate document. I save those outtakes in my ‘idea file.’

Some of the prose will be good, and with a few minor changes (names, places), these outtakes are the seeds from which other stories grow.

I will post the fourth and final installment in The Character Arc series on Wednesday. Through the events that form the arc of the plot, Dave’s character arc becomes more defined. He becomes more decisive and able to act in the open as opposed to remaining hidden.

At first, Dave just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately and believes that somehow it will happen. On Wednesday, we will delve more deeply into Dave’s objectives.

We will explore how setting goals and working to achieve them gives Dave more control over his circumstances and forces him to become a bolder person.


Credits and Attributions

Eye on Flat Panel Monitor,  Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis © 2013

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The Character Arc part 2 #amwriting

I received much of my early education from Ballantine Books’ Adult Fantasy Series. These were readily available through Doubleday’s Science Fiction Book Club (books by mail) or at the drug store in the paperback section.

When I was in the fifth grade, I read The Hobbit for the first time. Bilbo was real to me, and when you ask others who are dedicated fans of Tolkien, they will tell you that it is his characters that make his stories so epic.

While I will read nearly anything you put in front of me, Tolkien got me hooked on high fantasy, and I went out of my way to find it after that.

So, what is high fantasy? Wikipedia says, “High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy,[1] defined either by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its charactersthemes, or plot.[2] The term “high fantasy” was coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, “High Fantasy and Heroic Romance.”

Other than the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, high fantasy wasn’t easy to find back in the early days, and a lot of what was out there was difficult to read.

But lighter fantasy was beginning to emerge in speculative fiction,

I read Anne McCaffrey’s sci-fi fantasy Dragon Riders of Pern series to the point that I wore out three copies each of her first six books in the series.

What makes a reader purchase and re-read a book to the point that she would wear out several copies of it?

The characters.

Sure, the dragons were great, and the setting was amazing, but the characters became my dearest friends as we moved through the events of their story.

McCaffrey’s characters were strong, brave, romantic—and the protagonists were most often competent women. They had a character arc that took them from a place of weakness to a place of strength.

Another series of books that influenced me as a young adult were Niel Hancock’s Atlanton Earth series. That series opens with “Greyfax Grimwald,” and is an exploration of the Buddhist interpretation of the cycle of life and death. War is the great evil, and the threat of war is a thread that runs throughout the series.

Some critics have trivialized Hancock’s books as “commodified fantasy.” Still, I enjoyed them for the often brilliant prose as much as for the deeper themes. Otter and Bear were endearing characters, people whose thoughts and emotions felt engrossing and real to me.

These were books where the storyline followed the hero’s journey. In each, the protagonists came to a point where they lost their faith or had a crisis of conscience.

This point of personal crisis was where I, as a reader, discovered who they really were as human beings.

In reading these stories, I absorbed one of the basic principles of storytelling: A flawed hero is far more relatable than a perfect hero.

In looking back at my favorite books, a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat, was evident from the opening pages. How the characters reacted to that event felt unpredictable because the authors gave them agency.

As I discussed in my previous post, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.

When our characters are faced with an unavoidable threat that removes the option of going about life as usual, we should give them agency. This leaves them with several consequential choices, many of which will be made in stressful situations.

I have used the word consequential before as relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. When there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

My roots aren’t only in high fantasy—I love a good cozy mystery as much as anyone. In a cozy mystery, getting to know the main character as a friend is central to the story. The events that ensue are a means to further explore the life of the protagonist.

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Amy buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:

  1. She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. She can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Amy have? What does she see when she looks around the store?

Whatever Amy chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.

Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Amy will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The results of her decisions will change her outlook on life and give her wisdom she wouldn’t have had without those experiences.

At the end of the story, Amy will be more outgoing, surer of herself, and willing to step outside of her usual, rather boring, bubble of security.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what makes them human.

I recommend that in the first draft, you use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it. The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment, and give it form on paper.

When it is finished, the first draft is basically made up of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalog of events: who did what, where they did it, and why. These adverbs and modifiers are your guideposts, prose you will remove and make active later, but getting the raw concept on paper is the crucial thing at this stage.

At the outset, giving my characters agency is challenging. This is because, in the first draft, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed.

In one of my current works-in-progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. His world has been shaken to the foundations, and he no longer has faith in himself or the people he once looked up to.

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely, what does he discover about himself?

How are they emotionally destroyed by the events?

How was their own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?

How does this cause them to question everything they ever believed in?

What makes them pull themselves together and just keep on going?

How are they different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This is where he is taken down to his component parts emotionally and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

By the time you finish writing the lowest point of your protagonist’s life, you should have come to know them and how they will react in any given situation.

When your characters are real to you, that feeling will come across in your writing.

I have shown the covers of both halves of the final book in the high fantasy series by Tad Williams that shaped my early style of writing. Tad writes literate fantasy that is both epic and relatable. His characters are brilliantly portrayed–raw, human, and not perfect:

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “High fantasy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=High_fantasy&oldid=967547546 (accessed July 14, 2020).

Front cover art for the book Imaginary Worlds – the Art of Fantasy written by Lin CarterBallantine Books, 1973 Cover artist, Gervasio Gallardo. Fair Use.

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The Character Arc part 1 #amwriting

We who write fiction spend a lot of time plotting the events a character will go through. We may write to an outline, or we might keep it in our head, but most of the action is usually known before we write it.

Even if you don’t plot in the traditional sense of the word, you should give some advance consideration to character development.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character throughout a story. In narratives with a strong character arc, the protagonist begins as one sort of person. Through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often the change is for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

Great writing contrasts the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs against the hazards of their life when they are in the midst of change.

Give me the book that immerses me in the uncertainty, fear, and anger—let me experience the emotional journey as well as the events of the narrative.

The novels that have the most influence on me as a writer are those that allow the reader to experience the characters’ journey.

These authors introduced me to characters who were multi-dimensional. They were people with a past and a present, and who hoped to survive long enough to enjoy a future.

In the opening act, the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are strong but not omnipotent. Both must have character arcs that show either

  1. Personal growth over the length of the story
  2. Stagnation or the inability to grow

Stagnation is a kind of death. This is a creative ploy to use for an antagonist who is unable to see their fatal flaw.

Each scene is an opportunity to advance the events of the story. But every small arc of action is also an opportunity to illuminate the motives of the characters.

The characters begin to be changed by the events they experience. How you show their emotional state is critical at this point because emotions engage readers. If you want a reader to experience the sense of crisis that you believe your story deserves, you must

  1. Foreshadow or hint at knowledge the characters don’t have, information that affects the outcome of the plot.

Very few people are evil for no reason at all. Sometimes they are likable, people who appear innocuous, even loving. If this is the case in your story, you need to insert small clues for the reader early on about the negative aspect of their personality. This is so that their despicable behavior isn’t seen as unexpected and contrived.

Fleshing out the antagonist and making their motives realistic is essential. They are as central to the story as the protagonist because their actions force change.

It’s important to remember that at no point in the narrative can people be sitting around idly chit-chatting about the changes they have been through in their life unless it affects the action at that moment.

Instead, they should be dealing with the consequences of the decisions they have just made and trying to make better plans.

Consequences are central to the forward momentum of the plot.

If consequences are to have meaning, motivations are crucial. What drives the characters to endure the results of their poor planning? What keeps them focused on achieving their goal?

Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them? If you know that, you won’t muddy the narrative with look-alike and sound-alike characters.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story.

Sometimes, in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me. I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, and then in a later draft, I have to sort out why they have made that decision.

Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the characters agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency can make writing their story a joy. Remember, we write as much for ourselves as we do for a potential reader.

At times, I have a character I just can’t figure out. I make a character study, a personal history. Once I know their past, I understand what drives them and what triggers their emotions.

I then decide what personal revelations must come out about them in foreshadowing and figure out how to make it emerge organically.

In the character study, I ask the most important question of all: what does the character discover about herself?

When I have the answers about why, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story to see if it passes the logic test. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.

Did I keep those clues distinct to each character, or was there a blurring of personalities within the group?

Most importantly, do my characters have recognizable motivations? Sure, we want to be subtle and not drop a ton of backstory on the reader. However, we can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery.

If a beta reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

Creating intrigue yet making it believable is a balancing act.

Reading is the key. Every novel that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to.

When I stumble upon a book that engrosses me, I study that author’s work even if I don’t like one of their characters. I want to see how they fit the backstory into the narrative, ensuring their characters’ motivations made sense.

Their good writing habits help me improve in my own work. In my next post, I’m going to discuss the influence of novels that I once loved, and how they shaped my writing for good and for ill.

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What I learned from my #BeachRead #amwriting

My summer vacation is over; I’m back once again in my little house, sans grandchildren. The rewrite will soon be underway on Julian Lackland, thanks to my intrepid beta readers. This manuscript evolved over ten years, and several old writing habits still embedded in the earlier sections have come to light, little writing crutches long gone unnoticed. They will be dealt with by using a global search, and examining each instance, then either changing it or leaving it.

I also have a wonderful novel on deck for beta reading, written by a fellow Myrddin author, Marilyn Rucker. When I’ve finished with this amazing book, I have one more beta read for a member of my writing group lined up before the end of summer. After that—it’s NaNoWriMo Prep Season!

The novel I took to the beach with me was Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author, Liane Moriarty. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa, and three members of the staff.

Moriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. I was sucked into their world in the opening pages. In fact, I hated setting the book down, wanting to know everyone’s dark secrets, curious as to what led each one to book themselves into that very unusual health spa. Structurally, it’s a bit jerky, and the ending is a series of short infodumps, but it works. By the time I reached the startling conclusion, I looked forward to the informational epilogues just because I didn’t want to let them go.

Moriarty introduces us to The Cast of Characters by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

The story picks up ten years later when nine people meet at an exceedingly remote health spa that promises to change their lives and completely transform them in ten days. The recommendations by their friends and the reviews they have read are glowing, but none explain how the transformation will be accomplished.

Each guest arrives with secrets and personal reasons for wanting to be remade into something better that what they believe they are. Masha is later revealed as the benevolent antagonist, and Yao has become her disciple.

Liane Moriarty’s characters are so compelling because, at the outset, she establishes each as an individual and endows them with a mystery. Immediately the reader is hooked.

  1. Each character is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  2. Each character projects an obvious surface persona, but early on, cracks reveal glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  3. As the unusual rules become clear, each is angry and afraid, yet willing to continue because of what they hope to gain on a personal level.
  4. Each of the characters’ stories combines and connects to make a larger, powerful story of transformation.

So, what did I learn from reading that novel? I had a reaffirmation of sorts—the reassurance that no writer is able to follow every writing group rule and no book that does would be worth reading.

Moriarty’s novels often end with info-epilogues, showing me that every writer has habits that are technical no-noes, but which are part of their creative process. It reinforces my belief that good writing and great characterization engages the reader and overcomes a few minor defects.

This is not permission to use lazy writing habits. Slapdash writing is jarring and interferes with a reader’s ability to sink into the book.

In the first draft, we spend a lot of time trying to convey our story and characters to a potential reader. Sometimes a shorthand of sorts is necessary for the first draft to help me get the right pacing or the note an insight into a character. But that can backfire if I’m not vigilant in weeding these crutches out in later drafts.

One of my personal habits is the tendency to rely on certain words when a good description eludes my creative mind. Good beta readers help us by spotting when the words and tricks we use consistently become jarring.

Melding character arcs with the action…reaction…action flow of the story is crucial. Moriarty’s narrative was smooth and easily readable. Only an experienced writer or another editor would notice what I did. And, as this little bunny-trail habit is a trait I’ve noticed in all her books, it can be assumed it is part of her style of storytelling.

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