Writers

How to Craft Characters: Desperate Needs

Character2This is the second post in this series (find the first post on voice and opening lines here).

To recap, here are the components I consider most important when crafting my characters (note: this might be VERY different from what you do, and that’s 100% okay):

  • Voice
  • Desperate need
  • Backstory/history
  • Behavioral/speaking quirks
  • Looks/physical quirks

Today we’re talking about desperate needs–or what your character wants so desperately that he/she will do anything to get it. Some people think of this as the “goal.”

There are two kinds of desperate needs/goals: external need and internal need.

The external need is a thing that the character wants. That thing–be it saving someone, stopping someone, finding something, delivering something, etc.–drives your external plot. There are tangible stakes linked to the external need.

So for example, Eleanor (in Something Strange & Deadly) wants to find her brother and stop the evil necromancer. Those are her external needs, and if she fails, then lots of people will die (our stakes!).

The internal need is what the character wants on a personal, spiritual level. Oftentimes, he/she isn’t even aware that he/she wants this, and the stakes are much more emotional in nature.

Eleanor’s internal need is to learn how to think for herself. If she doesn’t solve this, she’ll be forever unhappy and bossed around by her family/society.

Now, oftentimes, the external need cannot be achieved until the internal need is. In other words, our hero can’t save the day without first becoming a better person–Eleanor isn’t equipped to face the necromancer until she has learned to think for herself.

But the tricky thing about internal needs is that they’re directly related to a character’s deepest fear. In other words: the internal need comes from the character’s deepest internal fear.

Now, I’m not talking Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes here. I mean something emotional. Something the character probably doesn’t even know he/she is afraid of.

Take Eleanor again: she’s afraid that the people she loves will leave her (or stop loving her) if she doesn’t do what they ask. This fear leads her to a sort of chain:

Deepest Fears → Internal Need → External Need

Eleanor’s fear of being alone and unloved leads to her always doing what her mother and other people want. This in turn makes her internally need to learn be happy with autonomy and make her own choices. Until she learns how to decide for herself and give up “people pleasing,” she can’t meet her external need of stopping the evil necromancer that’s threatening Philadelphia.

It’s because these needs and fears are so deeply entwined in the story’s outcome and in the progression of story events that I consider them to be the second most important component of character development.

So…how do I figure out what the needs and fears are?

 

Finding the Needs & the Fears

To start, I write the book.

Helpful advice, I know. 😉 But it’s true. Oftentimes, I’ll only have the voice, the opening line, and a vague idea of the story I want to write. And that’s enough.

Why? Because knowing the general plot gives me my character’s external need. When I started writing Something Strange & Deadly, I knew Eleanor was searching for her missing brother. Which means she NEEDS to find her brother! External need, check!

As I wrote on and sank more deeply into Eleanor’s voice and emotions, I realized she was bossed around by her mother and society. She wasn’t very happy about it, either. Seeing these scenes unfold and feeling Eleanor’s emotions in them gave me her internal need.

And of course, as I wrote on, I uncovered snippets of her backstory. Her father had died when she was young, her brother had run off to tour the world (and left his family penniless), and her mother had gone off the deep end from grief. To add to it all, Eleanor’s friends and the high society she’d grown up with had abandoned her. What few people she still had left in her life, she clung to out of fear that they’d leave her too.

So from that backstory, I now knew Eleanor’s deepest fear.

Basically I discover my character in the reverse of the cause/effect list above:

External Need → Internal Need → Deepest Fears

 

How This Can Work for You

I realize that not all of you are plantsers (a.k.a. headlights outliners), and I also realize not all of you are starting a new project. You might be halfway through or revising even. You might be sticking like glue to an outline or you might be totally winging it.

Either way, you can apply needs and fears to your writing.

If you’re an outliner and just starting a first draft: Sort out your character’s desperate needs (internal and external) as well as your character’s deepest fears while you’re outlining (or before, even). Then make sure that your character’s needs and fears jive with the events you’ve planned. Remember that characters take action based on who they are, and who they are is a combination of needs and fears.

If you’re a pantser or already finished with a draft: Discover the needs/fears as you write, or–if that’s too “structured for you”–figure it out after you’re finished. You can always revise the story to fit the needs and fears you’ve uncovered during the course of writing (I almost always have to do this), and you can make sure the emotional dominoes all line up.

And that concludes part 2 in this How to Craft Characters series.

You tell me: Do you work with desperate needs/goals or deep fears when creating characters? And if you’re in the midst of drafting a story now, can you pinpoint the needs/fears?

Speak up:

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How to Craft Characters: From Opening Lines Spring Voice

CharacterRecently, I received this question in my inbox:

How do you get to know your characters? Do you work on getting to know them well before drafting, or do you get to know them as you work?

Honestly, at first I was like, “I HAVE NO IDEA HOW I DO THIS.” I’m such a free-writer and character is one of those things I really, really don’t plan well (I scribble things in my notebook, but it always changes as I draft).

So clearly I can answer part 2 of the question with great confidence: No, I don’t work on getting to know my characters before I draft. I get to know them AS I draft, and then I make sure voice/backstory/etc. all line up in revisions.

But, seriously, how DO I get to know my characters while I’m drafting? This isn’t something I’ve never thought too hard about. The voice is just there…or it isn’t. So as I always so when I get a tough question, I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and tried to break down what I do. What I ended up writing down are what I consider the components of character (and these are in order of importance):

  • Voice
  • Desperate need
  • Backstory/history
  • Behavioral/speaking quirks
  • Looks/physical quirks

I thought I’d spend the next few posts breaking each of those character components down a bit more. This week, we’ll address voice.

From Opening Lines Spring Voice

Now I just did two posts in the Misfits & Daydreamers on voice–here’s one on what voice is and here’s one with tips to find your voice. I also have this post on troubleshooting POV and voice (the key is in the filtering!).

The thing about voice is that it reflects who your character is. We can understand EVERYTHING we need to about a character (without backstory) so long as the voice is strong. We can even be entertained and put up with slow pacing (or a lack of a desperate need) for a while so long as the voice is killer.

As I was trying to break apart how I find character, I realized that there was ONE MORE STEP in my voice-finding toolbox that I forgot to mention in the newsletter: opening lines.

But let’s back this up just a bit.

I’ve mentioned before that I write stories based on character. My heroes, heroines, villains, and love interests–they dictate the plot and I just hang on for the ride. IF I don’t have a character, then I don’t have a story. Period.

In fact, the two times I tried to write novellas based on characters I didn’t know (and therefore didn’t have any connection to or inspiration for), I struggled months and months and MONTHS to find character–ALL because I didn’t know have some inner connection or inner need to write this character.

Yet in both of those head-desk-just-kill-me-now instances, when I finally stumbled upon the Right Story, I found it because I discovered the Right Voice.

And I found the Right Voice because I found the Right Opening Line.

So actually, the title of this post would more accurately be:

From Opening Lines Springs Voice (From Which Springs Character)

But that’s a mouthful. 😉

Basically, something magical happens when I’m ready to write the Right Story. An opening line will just appear in my mind. Poof!

I wish I could tell you HOW these opening lines (and subsequent voice) appear…But I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that it’s a culmination of all those scribblings in the notebook and my character playlists and the feel/promises I’m trying to create within the story. They knock around in the back of my skull for so long that eventually they swirl into something cohesive.

Now, since I can’t really explain/teach the pre-opening line magic, I want to at least show you how this process works for me AFTER I have an opening line. Below, I’ve got a smörgåsbord of opening lines to expound upon (some published, some shelved, some forever works in progress).

Something Strange & Deadly

“I scowled at the incoming train from New York–the one my brother was supposed to be on.”

This was originally what I wrote as the opening line to SS&D. It came to me after a month of researching and outlining (back when I still tried to force myself to be an outliner). Poof! Here was this line, and it immediately set the stage for Eleanor’s feisty attitude and her complete lack of patience. Like, I could just imagine her face, her bubbling frustration, and her need to do something already!

If you’ve read the book, though, then you know this is NOT the opening line in its published form. I took some external feedback that suggested cutting my first 2 pages and starting in media res. Yet, to this day I wish I had kept that opening line. But ah, c’est la vie.

A Dawn Most Wicked

“This was not how best friends hugged.”

I was having a LOT of trouble finding Daniel’s voice in ADMW. Essentially, I had agreed to write this novella thinking it would be easy to connect with Daniel…and the opposite turned out to be true. I only ever knew him through Eleanor’s eyes. I had NO IDEA what was going on in his head, and everything I tried felt forced. Wrong.

So I skimmed back through some of my shelved projects (one of my tips for finding voice!) and I came across one of my most favorite romances I’d ever written–a romance between best friends. The tension was so great, and suddenly I realized this was where I’d gone wrong with Daniel! He hadn’t been jilted by Cassidy (as I was originally imagining), but rather he was her BFF and madly (silently) in love with her. Once I knew that, his character literally just poured out of me.

Note: I went back and added a prologue (so the line above is now the opener to Chpt. 1), but it was the line that set off the rest of the story/character.

Truthwitch

“Everything had gone horribly wrong.
None of Safiya fon Hasstrel’s carefully laid plans for this hold-up were unfolding as they ought.”

When I originally sat down to start drafting this idea swimming in my head, I’d planned to write my from my Threadwitch character’s POV. But after a few false starts with her, I realized I wasn’t connecting. Then, after several days away (one of my tips for finding voice!), this line just HIT me. And I knew–deeeeep in my gut knew–that I needed to open the book from the Truthwitch’s POV instead.

Once I had Safi’s voice on the page, the story just exploded out of me.

Note: I ended up going back and adding a prologue…which then ultimately got cut again. But you can read that prologue here, if you’re curious. 🙂

The Mouse Queen

“If you were to ask Clara when it all began, she would say, without hesitation, on May fourteenth of her fourteenth year. It was in the afternoon.”

This work-in-progress came to me in one of those I-wasn’t-planning-on-this-but-I-have-an-idea-and-must-write-it-now moments. Like magic. So I shot to my keyboard and just started typing.

Of course, I realized pretty quickly that it was different from anything else I’d written. I had an almost omniscient, almost tongue-in-cheek sort of narrator, and soon enough, I realized this meant the project was middle grade. (And, if you’re curious, because I knew it had a great MG vibe, I changed the age to be 12 instead of 14.)

So that concludes Part 1 in this How to Craft Characters series. I’ll be back next week to talk about desperate needs (i.e. goals and motivation!). You tell me: do you find voice or character spring from some magical place? How do YOU get to know your characters?

Speak up:

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The Great Critique Partner Match-up!

CPMatchUpSo I know that a lot of you out there are searching for The One–that person who makes your heart sing. Whose emails make your stomach flip. Who just gets you.

I don’t mean The Romantic One (duh!). I mean The Critique Partner One!

For me, critique partners and beta readers are invaluable. Basically, I am the writer that I am today ONLY because of my CPs. Getting their feedback and giving them my own feedback has taught me more about writing than ANYTHING else. Period.

To help YOU meet your own magical someone, I thought I’d revive the CP Match-up Forum. You guys can share your info, read about other potential CPs’ projects, and then go from there.

Here’s what you can share (keep in mind that you’ll need a forum account to leave a message):

Name: This should be straightforward enough. 😉 Feel free to  use an online handle if you’d rather not share your name.

Genre you like to write/read in: Also, pretty straightforward. If you need help pinpointing a genre, feel free to ask me!

Project and a short blurb: Give us a 1-2 paragraph summary–or even 1-2 sentences is okay.

What you are looking for in a CP/Buddy: Do you want someone to give you surface, big picture feedback? Do you want someone to get down to the nitty-gritty line level? Are you looking for an alpha reader who will read chapters as you write them? Or do you want a beta reader who reads an entire manuscript once it’s all revised? Get specific about what sort of partnership you’re seeking and how LONG a relationship (i.e. you only need feedback for one novel or you’d like this partnership to continue onto future projects).

Contact information: Give us your email/twitter handle/whatever–just make sure you’re reachable!

 If a project sounds interesting to you, then contact the writer! I suggest exchanging a 5-10 pages to start–just to make sure you both like the other person’s writing AND like/appreciate the person’s style of critiquing.

**ADDED: One reader suggested posting your pages in a google doc or blog post and simply linking to those pages in the forum. That way you can go ahead and skim each other’s pages for The One. I think this is a great idea!

Keep in mind, that it might take a few tries, so feel free to reach out to more than one person. 🙂 If you’re only sharing a few chapters, you can pretty quickly get a vibe for what you do/don’t connect with.

If the style of critique (or manuscript) doesn’t feel right for you, then simply say something along the lines of:

I really appreciate your feedback, but I’m not totally sure our visions for storytelling align. I think you’ve made some great points about X and Y, but I’m not totally sure I see myself going in that direction with this story. Rather than waste your time, I will probably try to find a different reader. Thank you SO much!

To wrap up this post, here are links to all the posts I’ve done on critique partners and first readers in the past:

Now off you go!! Shoo, shoo! Get ye to the forum and start meeting fellow writers!!

Oh, and feel free to tweet about this so we can spread the word and draw in more potential CPs!

Speak up:

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Pub(lishing) Crawl: Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline

I received an awesome question post in my forum last week, and I thought I’d answer it today. 🙂

I thought my first novel was done except for proofreading, after being through many CPs and two passes with a professional editor I hired. Now that I’m about 25% into its sequel, I keep discovering new things about my characters that I’d like to go back and put in the first one as a connecting detail or foreshadowing. This is for characters, but for places too, because my trilogy is fantasy and I get more awesome ideas about the various cultures and places as I write more.

The problem is when can I “stop” world building? Should I write and edit the entire trilogy before self publishing the first one or just publish the first one now because it’s ready. When I’m working on the other two, I’ll just have to delete some of my new ideas I guess? Because the first one will already be out in the world, unchangeable.

How do you deal with this when you have a traditional contract for only one book, not knowing if your editor will want to buy or publish the rest of the series as you envision it?

Okay, let’s break this down into two separate questions.

When to Stop Adding Ideas

It’s funny that this question–When can I stop world-building?–came RIGHT at a time when I’m struggling with a similar issue. I have so many new ideas! I want to squeeze them all in HERE and NOW and into THIS WORLD…

Well, there is a breaking point and there is such a thing as too much. And in all honesty, a tight book that gets complex without getting unwieldy and that wraps up in a great big AHA! of meeting threads–those are the books that readers love most. (An excellent example is the Harry Potter series: lots of threads and characters and world details, but it never bogs down the reader. Best of all, everything comes together for a truly spectacular ending.)

So how do you know if you’re only complicating things by adding more?

For world-building: If you have extraneous details that don’t actually add to the story or need to be there for the plot’s sake, then you might want to cut out some histories and details. A few subtle elements can absolutely enhance the story–little details make a world feel real. But if you worry you have too many details or so many settings that the reader is getting whiplash…Well, you might want to take a look at the world-building.

For characters: If you’re having a hard time incorporating characters into a scene, then maybe they don’t need to be there. I totally made this mistake with Strange & Ever After–I wanted to have Laure join Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters in Marseille and Egypt. But it got so unwieldy! Having to find ways/reasons for every character to speak and act in group scenes? I just kept forgetting characters were even there. Obviously, I solved this problem by leaving Laure in Paris and then trying to keep each scene focused on only a 1-3 characters at a time.

For plot threads: If, at any point, you have to start writing a really complicated, info-dumpy type scenes in order to wrap up and connect all the threads, then you might have too many plots twining through your book. I am SO guilty of this in Strange & Ever After, and I’ll talk more about that below. 🙂

The key is, in my opinion, to getting a streamlined book is to:

1. Work with what you already have when trying to connect scenes, characters, places, and events. Sometimes little throwaway comments from earlier chapters or books can become AWESOME plot points or props.

2. If you can’t work with what you already have, try to instead to TAKE AWAY. Maybe some detail or thread is actually clogging you up rather than giving you the freedom to move forward. Thought it sometimes requires rewriting, it’s often better to simplify than to complicate–unless, of course, the book is already super simple. Then you might want to…

3. Add in those new ideas and see/feel how it works. If you can tell that it’s just opening up too many new story questions or story directions, then maybe you shouldn’t add it. But you can always weave it in, try it out for a few chapters, and then decide.

Writing an Entire Series Upfront

Now, onto the other part of this question: If self-publishing, should you write and edit the entire trilogy before publishing the first? If traditional publishing, how do you deal with new ideas and being confined to what’s already in the world?

Goodness, I can tell you from experience that writing a sequel once the earlier books are published/unchangeable is REALLY HARD. Holy crow, it’s hard. You write yourself into unforeseen corners and you can’t go back to tweak things in earlier books.

Or, you’ll have the AWESOME ideas that you just love and that resonate so much with you…but that you can’t introduce because they really should have been introduced in the already-on-shelves book 1.

Or, if you’ll discover in your third book (as I did) that everything you’d kinda-sorta thought would tie up DOESN’T–at least not in a way that resonates with you. Now you’re stuck adding all sorts of little details and backstories that you really wish you’d dropped into earlier books. For example, in Strange & Ever After, I introduce the idea of gods and other creatures from the spirit realm. I REALLY wish I could go back to Something Strange & Deadly and weave in just a few hints that gods are coming up…But alas, the first books were already published.

So if you can (and if you intend to definitely self-publish the whole trilogy), I actually think you can benefit from writing all the books at once. Not only does this allow you to really build your story and streamline it, but it also allows you to publish the entire series at once (which works very well in the self-publishing world).

However, if you ARE confined to writing only one book at a time, I urge you to follow the steps I list above: work with what you already have, take away aspects, or add new ideas with heaps of caution. Will you be stuck scratching your head and screaming at the already-in-stores book for not being changeable? Probably, but that doesn’t mean writing sequels after earlier books are finished is impossible. (And perhaps my post on planning a series will help!)
Ask Sooz a Question

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Publishing in an English-Speaking Country When You Don’t Live There

Ask Sooz a QuestionI sent out a call last week for writing questions, and I thought I’d answer 2 today. (Thank you to everyone who sent questions!!)

…the problem is, I actually live in another country, and I’d be trying to get published in an English speaking country. Can this happen? Have you ever heard of it? Will agents only accept manuscripts that come from people who speak english as their first language?

Awesome question, and one I’m sure many of you are wondering about.

Short answer: Yes, you can most definitely do this! 🙂

Long answer:  You can publish in an English-speaking country, no matter where you’re from/live. While it can make things difficult when it comes time to promote a book, having an author live in a different country is NOT a deal-breaker for agents or publishers.

Consider that I lived in Germany when I sold my trilogy! I also have a close friend who lives in Australia, but her agent is American and her first book sold initially in the US (and later on, it also sold in Australia). I have another close friend who got her agent while living in Japan, and another friend who was living in Romania when her books released.

As for your next question, agents will definitely accept manuscripts from non-native English speakers (as long as your English is very, very strong). And yes, I have heard of this happening. 🙂 I knew a German girl who sold her book in the UK, and her first language was German.

THAT SAID, I’m not sure you should mention in a query letter that English isn’t your native language. It might end up biasing an agent against you simply because–despite an impeccably written letter–the agent may assume your English isn’t strong.

Let your letter and sample pages stand strong, and then–if you want–you can tell an agent/editor AFTER signing/selling that English isn’t your first language.

I hope that helps, and feel free to ask more questions in the comments or in the forum!

Speak up:

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Writing 3-Dimensional Characters

Character3DRecently, I received this question from Kaila in my inbox:

I was wondering, could you please do a post on your “For Writer’s” page about creating 3-dimensional characters?

At first, I was totally afraid to even TRY to tackle this question. I mean…gosh, are my characters 3D? Am I even talented enough or aware enough to talk about something so important?

But then I wrote in my newsletter last week about motivations and consequences, and I realized that–at least for ME–there are 3 things that make a character feel REAL when I’m reading.

#1: Motivation

Character motivation is the WHY of a character’s actions. It’s the WHY behind her goal, the WHY behind her inner and outer needs, and it’s even the WHY behind her short temper and her inability to commit.

But no, you say, that’s backstory! Backstory and history explain her short temper and inability to commit.

Ah, but not entirely. Yes, she’s been burned by men before, so it’s left her wary. But WHY does she  use sarcasm and shouts to make her point? She could just as easily be closed-off and cold. What motivates her to behave the way she does? What does she subconsciously (or in full awareness) hope to achieve by behaving the way that she does?

If you don’t understand these WHYS, then you’ll have characters do things for the sake of the plot…Which means characters will act out of character–and readers will spot that stuff. I promise.

An example: In Truthwitch (which comes out next fall from Tor), I had one of my heroines keep a giant secret from her best friend. I mean, for the plot’s sake, it worked to have her stay quiet, but on a motivation level, it just didn’t make sense. These girls are the CLOSEST FRIENDS you can ever imagine–why would Noelle EVER keep a secret from Safi? Well, a few savvy critique partners asked that very question, and so I finally examined Noe’s motivation for silence…

And it turned out she didn’t have one. I was making Noe stay silent for the sake of the plot. And although changing the story so that there was no secret would require major revisions, I realized that it had to be done. Otherwise, there would always be that lingering question in the reader’s mind of why Noelle did what she did. There would always be the nagging awareness that the character wasn’t behaving quite right.

#2: Emotional Dominoes

In order for me to revise the book with this new awareness–the awareness that Noe wasn’t motivated to keep secrets from Safi–I had to go back to the book’s very first scene and work through every emotional beat in the book. All over again.

Now, I’ve talked about emotional dominoes before, and I will often write in my notes, What are my emotional dominoes?, and then go through each emotion scene by scene. I find this method is incredibly helpful for unsticking my plot, and I also find it INVALUABLE for revising my characters and building real people.

In the Truthwitch example, I had to look at what it meant for Noelle to have told Safi her secret. If Safi knows this bit of history about Noelle, how does it change their interactions? How does it change how they view each other? How they behave in each scene?

And, once I had adjusted one scene to reflect this “new normal”, how did that effect the emotions in the next scene…and the next and the next?

Remember: every scene is linked. What happened before affects what’s happening now, and it will also dictate what happens next. If you try to force emotions to fit a plot, well…You end up with a book that feels forced! And as I mentioned above: readers WILL notice!

#3: Consequences

Consequences are hard. These are very much linked to emotional dominoes–in fact, you could say that “consequences” are just a form of emotional domino. Cause and effect, right?

But what I mean when I say “consequences” is going all the way. I mean digging deep into emotions that scare you and writing raw, honest stuff.

There is nothing I hate more than a character dying and then everyone just sort of moving on! Or a character who commits a truly horrible act (perhaps the heroine keeps a secret which thereby causes the death of her love interest’s family) and everyone just glosses over it–or worse, forgives her right away!

If an act is irredeemable in real life, it will also be irredeemable in fiction.

And if an act causes deep emotional response in real life, then it needs to cause deep emotional response in fiction.

So, as frightening as it may be to face the dark stuff in your heart, you’ve got to if you want your consequences to feel REAL.

If I return once more to the Truthwitch example, I realized as I was revising the book to incorporate Noe’s secret that the reason I’d failed to have it in the first place was because I’d been scared of facing the consequences. I hadn’t wanted to “go there” because “there” was a very scary place, and now that I had Noe’s traumatic childhood secret out in the open, I was going to have to build those consequences and emotions into every single scene.

It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not sure I got it right (thank goodness for multiple rounds of revision!). But I now understand Noelle’s–and Safi’s–characters so much better. I feel way more connected to them as people, and that in turn makes me care about and love the story even more.

Now, obviously we aren’t ALL writing dark characters with twisted backstories. But even books that are funny and “fluffy” have loads of heart and can hit us right in the gut. I remember reading Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married as a teenager and suddenly bursting into tears at the airport. I felt what Lucy felt (oh, Gus! You bastard!), and she was as real to me as if she were sitting next to me, waiting for her flight too.

The reason I connected to Lucy–the reason she felt 3-dimensional–was because I understood WHY she wanted love in her life. I understood why she made the often hilarious and often DUMB choices that she did. I totally understood why her failures brought her low, and every scene toppled neatly into the next. And, above all, when Lucy was faced with the final, really tough decisions, I FELT all the emotional weight that those decisions were due. (If you haven’t read that book, I highly recommend it!! Romantic comedy at its finest!)

So there you have it: motivation, emotional dominoes, and consequences. Those are the 3 dimensions that make a real character for me.

What about you? How do you write 3-D characters?

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How to Write Romance, Part 3: Scene-Level Romantic Tension

Romance3Last week, I discussed the importance of fatal flaws (and strengths) in romance (I also talked about hate-at-first sight on the NaNoWriMo blog!). This week, I want to look at what all of this stuff means on a scene-level. Like, how do we bring the romance to life in an actual scene?

It’s All About the Feelings

Consider this: when we read a book, we root for the people–not the events through which they move. Though we’re all curious about who killed Veronica Mars’s best friend, the reason we keep watching the show is because we care about Veronica.

Like, have you ever watched a wild action scene on TV that made you feel nothing? That in fact, left you totally bored? Well, the reason you didn’t care was because you weren’t connected to the characters. You weren’t invested in whether the heroine made it out of the giant explosion alive, so all those special effects were just wasted eye candy.

All of this applies to romance too. Gratuitous sex scenes aren’t gratuitous if we care about the characters and have been waiting for them to get together. So, in order to care about the romantic events unfolding on the page, we must first care about the characters. And even then, it’s still less about the events and more about how the events make the character (and reader) feel.

So remember: if the reader doesn’t care about the character, then the reader won’t keep reading.

Deep Point of View

One of the best way to make your reader feel something is to put your heroine (or hero) to filter the story’s conflict through the character’s POV. More importantly, you want to give us the POV for whichever character has the most at stake.

If you’ve ever read adult romance, then you’ve seen this done before. Whenever the lovers are together, whoever is beings pushed toward the most is the POV we’re in. And it’s not just surface level, but DEEP point-of-view. We feel everything the character feels as events unfold. We feel how the hero’s insistence that our heroine push herself harder makes her angry and uncomfortable. Then we see how she leaves the scene–after pushing herself harder–changed by the events.

Of course, if your book has only one POV, then you’re limited to that one person’s growth. As such, you’ll want to make sure that every scene with the protagonist + love interest is pushing the protagonist toward growth.

So remember: deep point of view with high stakes doth the reader’s interest make.

Push and Pull in Action

In E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, we’re limited to only Lucy Honeychurch’s POV. Although, the book is an omniscient narrator, we still get a solid sense of what Lucy is feeling. Plus, we see how each scene (and the two love interests) pushes her in a good (or bad) direction.

Here’s a scene with George, the “good” love interest who pushes Lucy to reach her inner need:

In this scene, Lucy has just witnessed a murder and fainted (in true Edwardian style) into our hero’s arms. She is not only disturbed by the murder, but she’s disturbed by how George Emerson reacts to it. Everything he and his father say to her–about living life with passion and asking eternal questions–confuses her. Yet for the first time so far in the book, she’s actually slightly open to what he’s telling her. So when he says, “I shall want to live, I say,” she doesn’t take her usual approach of condescension or retreat. Instead, she joins him on the parapet and contemplates “…the River Arno, whose roar was suggesting some unexpected melody to her ears.”

Additionally, notice how we’re shown what Lucy feels (although not through deep, limited POV–this is an omniscient narrator, as was popular back then). We see Lucy’s discomfort as well as her growing warmth for George, and we, the readers, like that she’s been forced outside of her comfort zone. As such, we’re excited for the next time George comes around.

Now you tell me: How do you develop scene-level romantic tension? Or, what are some of your favorite romance scenes in fiction?

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How to Write Romance, Part 2: From Character Springs Love

Romance2As I mentioned in the first blog in this series, romance is all about characters growing.

More specifically, romance springs from a character overcoming a fatal flaw. A character’s fatal flaw is her (or his) largest weakness. It is what holds your character back and keeps her from achieving her goals.

For example, in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, Lucy Honeychurch is meek, easily persuaded, and lives life in a dull, uninspired way.

She also isn’t happy, and we (the readers) quickly see that if Lucy tried to think more widely, feel more deeply, and take charge of her own life, she would be able to find the love and contentment she desires.

As Mr. Beebe declares after hearing Lucy passionately play Beethoven on the piano:

“If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting–both for us and for her.”

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Note: Oftentimes, a character is usually blind to his (or her) fatal flaw. If a character knows his weakness, then consider that:

  1. It’s harder for the reader to sympathize when the fatal flaw continues to hold him back from his goals.
  2. It’s harder to convincingly prolong the character’s growth (since realizing the flaw exists is the first step toward personal growth).

Note: A character–particularly our protagonist–will have multiple flaws in addition to the fatal flaw. The fatal flaw simply refers to the “worst” one. Think of Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender. He has tons of flaws (short temper, a mean streak, no gratitude or appreciation), but it’s his fatal flaw (his need for love/validation from his own father) that continues to hold him back.

Complimentary Strengths & Fatal Flaws

Now here’s where the romance really extends from character: it’s our the love interest’s strength that pushes our protagonist toward growth.

In other words, our love interest’s strength perfectly compliments our protagonist’s fatal flaw. And, it’s quite possible that, in turn, our protagonist’s strength perfectly compliments our love interest’s fatal flaw. Thus, when the two characters are together, they force each other to grow (not necessarily on purpose, but as an extension of who they are).

So back to A Room With a View, George Emerson lives exactly like we know Lucy Honeychurch should live: he’s a philosopher who asks big questions, he seeks contentment in his life, he explores the world around him, and he lives passionately in the present moment.

Basically, George makes Lucy miserably uncomfortable and shocks all of her snobby sensibilities…yet he also makes her think. Every time George walks off the page, Lucy has changed just a little bit from being around him.

Lucy was puzzled. She was again conscious of some new idea, and was not sure whither it would lead her.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Love Triangles

Though I see a lot of blog reviewers complain about love triangles, the fact is that a love triangle done well is really hard to hate. But to do a love triangle well, our two potential lovers must offer two very different outcomes.

In other words, the love interests have different strengths, both of which will push our protagonist to grow–but that will push the protagonist in different directions. She WILL grow, but depending on which lover she chooses dictates which possible person she will become.

Back to A Room With a View: Cecil is Lucy’s fiancé. He’s not a bad guy. In fact, I rather adore him. But he’s a snob, he has little interest beyond himself and high society, and when Lucy is with him, she backslides into a more uninspired, more thoughtless, and more blah version of herself.

With Cecil she most certainly grows, it’s just in the wrong direction (or what we, the reader, know is wrong because we know Lucy won’t be happy with Cecil).

“Come this way immediately,” commanded Cecil, who always felt that he must lead women, though he knew not whither, and protect them, though he knew not against what.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

If you’re looking for a more modern example of a love triangle, I’ll point you to Erica O’Rourke’s Torn, Tangled, and Bound. This series has an INCREDIBLY well-done love triangle that never feels forced and that  offers two good options for the heroine. No matter if she goes with Lover A or Lover B, she will become a better person–just in two very different ways. Thus, as she grows through the plot events and her own personal choices, she must decide which “better version of herself” she wants to become.

Putting It All Together

Personally, I often find it easier to logically break apart all of this stuff after I’ve written my first draft and I’m revising. If I try too hard to fit the characters into these Fatal Flaw + Strength boxes, my writing feels forced. It’s when I’m revising that I really break apart who I have and how to better push the characters toward growth.

However, I know many writers (particularly in adult, where character growth is SO critical) who analyze and develop all of these aspects prior to writing. It’s really all about what makes you, the writer, comfortable. It certainly can’t HURT you to think about these aspects prior to drafting (or during a first draft), so why not give it a try? Simply scribble down whatever comes to mind for the follow questions.

1. What is your protagonist’s fatal flaw?
2. Why does this flaw keep him/her from getting what he/she wants?
3. What is your love interest’s biggest strength?
4. How does this strength push the protagonist to grow?
5. What is your love interest’s fatal flaw?
6. What is your protagonist’s biggest strength?
7. How does this strength push the love interest to grow?

 

And stay tuned for next week’s post, in which I break down romantic tension on a scene level. 🙂

You tell me: Can you think of any favorite romances in which the characters’ strengths + flaws clearly align? Or, how do you approach writing a romance prior to starting your draft?

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How to Write Romance, Part 1: Do you actually need this?

Romance, part 1A month or so back, someone asked me (in the forums) about writing romance. This is no easy topic to tackle, and it’s something that every author approaches differently. But, I thought I could share a few general rules and also share how I approach romantic elements in my own stories.

Romance as a Genre

I want to preface this series by saying that romance as a genre is a totally different animal from romantic elements in a story.

The romance genre typically adheres to a certain structure and a certain outcome. In romance, the love story MUST be the primary plot, meaning all your other story threads are secondary. So for example, if a book is a paranormal romance following a werewolf as she tries to take charge of her pack while also dealing with that sexy alpha across the way, the pack conflict (of her taking charge) will be a subplot to the romance between the werewolf and the sexy alpha. The love story will take up more page time than the pack conflicts.

If the book were just a paranormal, however,then the primary conflict would be how the werewolf comes into her own and takes charge of her pack–and the majority of the page space would be devoted to her pack-leadership. The romance with the sexy alpha would be a subplot to that.

Additionally, the romance genre demands an “emotionally satisfying ending”–often times called a HEA, or Happily Ever After. The hero and the heroine must come together in the end, and it must be a “happy” ending.If you’re writing a book in the romance genre, be sure you stick to these genre requirements! I’ll link you to this excellent post in case you’re hoping to learn more.

A story with romantic elements, on the other hand, does not require any sort of happy resolution for our lovers. One character might die, they might already be together when the book opens, they might not end up together, or they might decide they hate each other after all.

What is Romance in Fiction?

In fiction, romance is always going to be linked to character arcs. Always. Whether your story be the primary plot or a subplot, the coming together of two characters must be linked to who they are now, who they are as the story progresses, and who they are when the story ends.

I’ll get into this more deeply next week, but for now remember this: Romance is all about characters growing. If the romance does not push a character to change (for good or worse), then the romance doesn’t need to be there.

And that leads me to my next point…

Does the Romance Add to the Story?

Have you ever seen a movie or TV show that opened with a sex scene that felt totally gratuitous? Like the poor actors were just having to show skin or touch lips because someone in some office somewhere said, “Sex sells.”

Well, we do NOT want that in our stories. When our romantic leads interact (this can be with or without touching), it needs to mean something. It needs to affect the plot, affect the characters, and affect everything that comes after.

If you can remove the love interest character or remove the love scenes without anything in the overall story being affected, then you do NOT need your romance.

I have totally been guilty of this. In the very first book I ever wrote, I spent ages honing the sexual tension between my MC and the love interest. Whenever the two characters were together, I thought sparks just had to be flying. Surely everyone who read would love Finn as much as I did!

Nope. Finn might’ve been sexy in my head, but on the page, his scenes added nothing. He didn’t connect to my MC’s primary plot, and he certainly didn’t push my MC to grow or change in anyway. I could have easily cut him and all of his scenes from the story without affecting the plot or my MC’s character arc at all.

So remember: If you can cut the romantic scenes without affecting the story, then you don’t need that romance.

Of course, let’s say you have a pair of lovers planned that you just KNOW will influence the trajectory of your story and force each other to change, now comes the most important question of all: are you actually excited about them?

You Gotta Love your Lovers

I am the MASTER of coming up with great plot solutions that seem so easy in a synopsis, but when I actually sit down to write said plot solution, I find myself bored. Or at a loss for how to translate a one-sentence solution into a full chapter. Or I’ll be faced with characters who wouldn’t actually do what I had brainstormed for them.

This same problem of “good in theory, not so good in action” happens often with my romances. I’ll be imagining this epic romance between a sexy pirate lord and a fiery duchess, but when I actually put the two characters on the page, they have totally different partners in mind. Or the love/hate relationship I thought they’d share just doesn’t interest me.

Well, that’sno good.If you’re not into the relationship, your readers sure as hell won’t be. You need to be as madly in love with your characters (or as passionately hateful) as they are with each other. The romantic scenes should make your gut flip exactly like theirs. If you’re not into love or not feeling the feels, then it’s time to find a new romance–maybe even rewrite your characters completely.

When these situations strike, I always head back to my notebook for some more brainstorming and some intense question/answer time (more on that later in this series).

For now, just remember: If you don’t love your romance and love interest, then you either 1) don’t need to write a romance at all, or 2) need to find the romance/love interest that does ignite a spark.

Next week, I’ll get into the basics of actually crafting a romance–from understanding character flaws to building characters that challenge each other to grow.

I’ll also be on the NaNoWriMo blog discussing the “hate-to-love” trope (or defending it, rather), so look for me there!

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Announcing the YA Runs a 5K Fundraiser!

A month ago, Melody Simpson reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in setting up a 5K fundraiser. I think I terrified her with my response of “OMG YES LET’S DO THIS” (especially since I answered her, like, 5 seconds after she messaged me).

Neither of us really had any idea what we were doing, but after a bit of research and fumbling, we finally managed to put together something that we’re proud of–and SUPER excited for. So allow me to introduce the…

YA Runs a 5K

On July 19 Melody and I are running a 5K! (Though I might just be walking because I’m SO OUT OF SHAPE. Thus far my attempts at jogging have been…pitiful…at best. ;)) Our goal is to not only improve our fitness (and maybe yours too!) but—more importantly—to help children without access to books (more on that below or read more here).

The 5K we’re running is the Color Run in Philadelphia. Why the Color Run? Because it looks AWESOME. Why Philly? Because that’s where Eleanor Fitt is from (duh!)!! We’d love for you all to join us if you can, or if you can’t reach Philly on 7/19 (we totally understand!), then you can enter the Virtual Run instead! 🙂

That’s right–in addition to a physical 5K meet-up for the Color Run, we’re also hosting a Virtual Run! Virtual runners will get a virtual bib (that you can tweet, Facebook, Pin, whatever!) and can share their running progress with the #YARunsA5K hashtag! Learn more about the Virtual Run here.

Now, a little about what this donation/fundraiser thing is all about. Essentially, we’re trying to raise money for First Book. This organization provides access to new books for children in need. To date, First Book has distributed more than 100 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income families throughout the United States and Canada. First Book is transforming the lives of children in need and elevating the quality of education by making new, high-quality books available on an ongoing basis.

To donate to our First Book fundraiserclick here. If you donate $39 or less, you can enter a giant raffle! See the raffle prizes here!

If you donate $40 or more, you automatically get a free book! (Yep, you read that right!) Once you’ve donated, scan the list of available titles and choose what you want. Then fill out this form or email us (yarunsa5k@gmail.com) to select your book. By donating financially to First Book, you can help us reach hundreds of children without access to books!

We’re also auctioning off books and critiques. Half of each auction will go into funding our team t-shirts (until we cover that cost, of course!), and all extra proceeds will go to First Book. 🙂

Additionally, if you can’t donate financially (we TOTALLY understand), you can donate books, ARCs, or critiques! By donating physical items to our fundraiser, you can help us increase our donations! We’re shooting for $2000 raised, and every item donated helps us get closer to that goal!

Finally, if you run with us and BRING books, you can help us expand the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We’ll gather up all books brought to the Color Run on 7/19, and then we’ll donate them to the Free Library after the race.

So let’s do it, guys!! Let’s come together and RUN for healthiness, fun, and books! And help us spread the word using the #YARunsA5K hashtag and the link http://yarunsa5k.tumblr.com/about!! Thank you SOOOOO MUCH!

P.S. We have to extend a HUGE THANK YOU to all the agents, authors, and bloggers who have donated! We are beyond overwhelmed with the amount of support thus far! We can only imagine what’s ahead! Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

P.P.S. Melody will be attending BEA as well as the Teen Author Carnival in NYC, so if you’re an author and would like to donate a book or if you’re a reader with too many ARCs lying around, feel free to reach out via twitter or email (yarunsa5k@gmail.com). Melody will gladly receive your donations. 🙂

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