characterization

Digging Deeper into the Writing Toolbox

As promised for NaNoWriMo, I’ll share links to past posts each Monday organizing all my past content so that YOU can more easily find what you’re looking for.

In addition to the organized posts, I have a forum open where you can ask anything about said topic, and I’ll answer it as best I can.

Last week, I covered A Writer’s Basic Toolbox (ask questions here!), and this week, we’re digging into the more advanced tools at a writer’s disposal.

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Digging Deeper into Character

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Digging Deeper into Plot

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Infodump & Backstory

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Show vs. Tell

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Romance

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Voice

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Other

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A Writer’s Basic Toolbox

bc1As promised in the last issue of the Misfits & Daydreamers, I’ll share links to past posts each Monday throughout NaNoWriMo.

Why no new content?

Well, I did a survey a few weeks ago, and of the 100 amazing people who responded, I’d say ~90% asked for content I’ve already delved into quite thoroughly.  I realized that people don’t even know all the topics I’ve covered before, and so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll simply organize it all so you can find it more easily!

In addition to the organized posts, I have a forum open where you can ask ANYTHING about said topic, and I’ll answer it as best I can. 🙂

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Plot

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Character

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Point of View

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Setting & World-Building

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Speak up:

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How to Craft Characters: Deepening with Backstory

Character3This is the third post in this series on crafting characters. To recap, here are the components I consider when crafting my characters–and these are in order of importance:

Today we’re discussing backstory and history.

Now, I’m sure many of you are wondering WHY history/backstory is #3 on my list. I mean, a person is the sum of their past, right? It should be the most important thing!

Yes…but no.

A Tale of Two Bros

Let’s say you’re on the bus, and a bro with a cap sits next to you. He talks like a bro (his “voice”), and when the bus gets stuck in traffic, he complains like a bro.

“Man, I’m gonna be late for class.” He tugs his Gators cap even lower. “This blows.”

Ah, well, now you know his external need (to get to class on time) in addition to his voice. And as you start chatting with him, you discover what’s at stake: he’s going to miss the final exam if this bus doesn’t hurry the hell up. Worse, he’ll fail the class if he misses the final exam, and in turn, he’ll lower his GPA and LOSE his scholarship! WHOA, the poor guy!

And, double whoa: you have a story. You don’t need to know ANYTHING about where this bro came from to understand what he wants and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get it.

Basically, you could write a complete story with a strong beginning/middle/end without any history ever coming into play. Bro needs to get to class on time–will he or won’t he?

Let’s say, though, that while you’re stuck in traffic, you notice the bro texting someone. This someone is a real jerk, and he’s saying stuff like, “Don’t fail that final, dickweed.”

The bro catches you staring at his screen and flushes. “That’s just my older brother. He’s a jerk.”

“Where is he?” you ask.

“New York. He graduated with honors two years, and one of his frat brothers got him a hot shot job in Manhattan. My dad’s from Manhattan, so he always wanted us to end up there.”

“Are you in a frat?” You think this is a polite question that might, perhaps, distract the poor bro from his current troubles.

But he only glowers and slouches lower in his seat. “Naw. I tried for the same fraternity as my brother, but there was some rumor going around that I…” He leans in and whispers something TRULY awful into your ear. “But I didn’t do that,” he hastens to add. “That’s just what someone said, and it ruined my chances of anyone letting me join.”

You believe the bro didn’t do what that rumor said–and you can’t help but suspect that perhaps his older brother is the one who started that terrible tail.

Backstory Adds Dimension

Now, how did learning about the bro’s family history change things?

It certainly deepened the story (and perhaps increased your emotional investment in it). It also humanized the character. He’s not “just a bro” anymore, right? He’s more 3D with this tangible backstory that we can all relate to in one way or another.

If you’re like me, though, you don’t necessarily know the backstory/history of your character until you start writing. That said, I don’t approach a book with a TOTALLY blank slate. I usually know the bare minimum about a character.

For example, when I started Truthwitch I knew these things about Safiya, one of my heroines:

  • She grew up in a mountainous region that’s part of a big, Austro-Hungarian-like empire.
  • She and her uncle don’t get along. He’s a drunk and pretty emotionally abusive.
  • She’s been trained to fight by her childhood bodyguard and that bodyguard’s husband (both men, in case you’re wondering).
  • She has been in school for a few years and away from her uncle.

That was what I knew. I had no specifics, and I didn’t need them.

You see, part of the joy of writing for me is having those in-scene SPARKS–those little snippets of a childhood or experience that you can suddenly insert and that you didn’t know had happened.

But remember: it’s those LITTLE details that matter most.

It’s All in the Specific Details

Show don’t tell, right? That’s what we’re taught, and it’s an invaluable lesson to have.

Small details and specific memories are HOW we show a character’s history.

So, here’s an example of a tiny detail that came to me as I drafted a scene between Safiya and her uncle (pardon the roughness of the writing):

“No,” he cut in. “This is not a drunken scheme.” Eron splayed his hands on the glass, and old burn scars on the backs of his fingers and knuckles stretched taut.

Safi hated those scars. She’d stared at the white pocks and holes a millions times growing up. In Praga. In Veñaza City. In any town large enough to boast a decent taro game, Safi had watched those hands fan out cards while Eron waited for her signal to fold or pursue.

“You have no idea what war is like,” Eron went on, tone hazy as if his mind drifted across the old scars like his eyes did.

could have simply said,

Safi’s uncle was a drunk who always forced her to use her magic in his taro card games.

That took fewer words, but…Well, I hope you can gauge which example works better. Which feels more real.

Of course, you can’t ALWAYS show critical backstory or information. That can get unwieldy or slow pacing to much. I have a post here on how to weave in more the expository-type information.

Alright, I’ll leave you on once more example. In this snippet, I introduce a critical piece of my pirate prince’s character. I could’ve simply said,

Merik’s homeland was starving, and as such, he was a careful young man–never wasteful.

But instead, as I wrote the scene, I realized he had his backstory could actually give him a fun character quirk that I could use again and again throughout the series.

Merik’s furious gaze dropped back to his plate. It was scraped clean. Even the bones had been swept into his napkin. Several of the other guests had noticed—he hadn’t exactly hidden it when he used the beige silk to pluck the bones from his plate.

Merik was even tempted to ask his nearest neighbors if he could have their chicken bones, most of which were still untouched and sat surrounded by green beans. Sailors never wasted foodnot when they never knew if they would catch another fish or see land again.

And especially not when their homeland was starving.

This was a different approach. In the first example, I used a physical feature to trigger emotions and specific memories of the past. In the second example, I used a specific action (a funny one) to hint at my character’s history. Either way works, and there are certainly OTHER options for weaving in these tiny, specific details.

You tell me: How do you discover backstory? How do you insert it into your story?

Speak up:

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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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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?

Speak up:

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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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Pub(lishing) Crawl: Troubleshooting Deep Point of View and Voice

Susan Dennard

Deep point of view (POV) is hard, It’s one of those things that, when you have the Right Story and the Right Character, it will come out pretty naturally. But when you don’t have the Right Story or the Right character, you can expect forced emotions, forced character interactions, and just about forced everything.

But sometimes, even when you have the Right Story and Right Character, nailing the POV and voice can be tricky. You WANT it to be a deep point of view and you WANT it show us the character while also showing us the story…but boy is that easier said than done. And that’s why I’m here to offer you a little go-to troubleshooting for your deep POV problems. 😉

Before I do that, though, let’s define “deep POV”.

Deep Point of View is when you show the character’s internal experiences–thoughts, reactions, feelings–but you do it without the “he thought/I thought/she thought” tags.

It can be a great tool for allowing the reader to live the story with the main character–but it can also quickly become overwhelming to the reader if your MC narrates in full stream-of-consciousness the whole time. That’s why many authors move in and out of deep POV as the scene/story demands. An excellent example is the opening of Harry Potter. Rowling begins in an almost omniscient third to set up the setting, and then, as the scene progresses, we sink deeper and deeper into Harry’s POV.

I also think of deep POV as being very tightly tied to voice. When you tend to get the hang of one aspect, you get the hang of the other too. BUT, just because you’ve written voice well before or nailed a deep POV in a different manuscript, there might come a day (or already be a day), when you just can’t seem to get it right. (Read more…)

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Finding the Right Writing “Groove”

This is where all the magic...er, more like mayhem for the novella took place. Click on the picture for a chance to win a copy of SS&D AND to see more pics!

After breathing, eating, sleeping, and seeing ONLY my novella for a few weeks, I finally managed to cross the finish. Remember that draft I mentioned doing in my last post? Draft #3? Well, I was finally onto something there…but it still wasn’t right. It took me one more almost complete rewrite…but at least THAT draft was it. And once I’d tapped into the right vein, the words and story just poured out exactly as they needed to be.

The thing is, this always happens to me. And I know it–I know that it’s simply a matter of me uncovering the proper story. Then everything tumbles out in a waterfall of near-perfect words. It happened with Something Strange & Deadly, with A Darkness Strange & Lovely, and with Screechers. It took me a few misses before I finally hit the “right story”. I knew this would happen with this novella, but goodness, it took me a lot longer to finally get my groove. I went through 2 total rewrites with Something Strange & Deadly and A Darkness Strange & Lovely. For Screechers, it was 3 total rewrites. And for this novella, it was 4 total rewrites. (Read more…)

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