The Beautiful Stuff Writers Workshop: Novelty #4- Character Part Deux

(image respectfully borrowed from Nick Cocozza’s amazing “selfies” series)

F*&k yeah, I just copied and pasted another great blog I wrote on Character (sorry for using F*&k in the first sentence, Mom). But if you haven’t followed me from the start you might have needed a reminder and I needed to work on some other projects. So… Ladies and Gents, enjoy Part Deux of Character.

From the dark, cavernous recesses of the author’s twisted mind springs forward all sorts of nasty and derelict creations.

Okay, that’s a touch overdramatic.

Frankly most writers will begin by creating a story from people they know or have read about (please see my last blog). Sometimes we do it without even realizing it. Characters and personality traits that we admire, or equally cringe at, stay with us in that sometimes-twisted-but-always-magical realm of our subconscious. Realism in characters is important because it adds to their believability and with that, their ability to connect with our readers.

Why is it so important to connect your character to your reader?

We are a society of channel flippers, of instant gratification lovin’, drive-thru eatin’, convenience hounds. We have the attention spans of goldfish. If you can’t connect your readers to your character through the common ground of sympathetic and universal traits they will put your book down. And often, when a book lands on the nightstand, it never gets picked up again.

I shudder to think how many amazing stories were lost to the underside of the coffee table.

If your reader can’t identify with your character in even some small way, they will cease to care about that character and will not follow them, no matter how interesting the story is. The human element is very important.

So along with grabbing them from the beginning with an interesting and challenging first scene, you must hold your reader to a character that they care about, either because they relate to them, or because they are fascinated by their darker side. Their traits and foibles make your readers want to know what’s going to happen to them next. And that keeps them reading.

In the ignorance of youth, I used to think that my character could be anything and do anything. They could be perfect because I was building their world and I could make them flawless. They could be smart, and athletic, and beautiful, always saying and doing the right thing, always in control of their situation and aware of their future. (In the business we call these characters “Mary-Sue”s).

Snooze-o-rama and eye-roll Central.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, wants to read about some pristine person who’s practically perfect in every way.

For one, we don’t need perfection rubbed in our face. We get enough from the glaring Hollywood machine. Secondly, a character that always says the right things, does the right things, and looks like a supermodel is not challenged and if they are, they do not fail. Characters that never fail are unrealistic, which means they cannot relate to the nerdy girl in her frumpy sweater and ripped jeans, curled up with your book (Yep, that’s me I just described). And what happens when that person doesn’t relate? The book is given a good chuck over the shoulder with a hearty ‘Good riddance’.

So make your characters dirty. Make them tarnished and worn. If they have to be beautiful, make them fundamentally broken somehow inside. If they are self-assured and intelligent, give them an outward physical challenge that hinders them. When a reader sees your character fail, they see the humanity within their own failures. More importantly, when they see them overcome the faults that stall their growth, they feel hopeful for their own path. They follow that character. They root for that character.

*In an amendment to this section, I would like to say, due to the overwhelming lack of Mary-Sue characters these days, they’re actually a bit of a phenomenon. So, if you must create a Mary-Sue, own the hell out of it. Make them so staggeringly perfect that its almost comical…or otherwise interesting. Think of the person with extraordinary good luck, that can’t do wrong, even when they try.*

As a beginner writer it’s tempting to live out the life you wish you had in your pages, and it’s okay to write those ideas down. But keep those rarities for yourself. When it’s time to write an amazing story for the world, give the reader a character they can root for.

This advice is straightforward for developing the protagonist’s character traits. But it’s equally important to give this attention to your antagonist.

Something tells me this guy has rope, a damsel, and a train to catch

No ‘good guy’ is all good, and no ‘bad guy’ is all bad. Even the worst ‘bad guy’ has to have reasoning in his actions. They must have something that drives them, and it has to be something we can understand on our basic human level, even if we don’t agree with it.

Having even a slight sympathetic response to an antagonist builds tension between the characters and gives your reader the nail-bite reaction. The opposing forces both come from places that can seem justified and ‘right’ in their position, which makes the battle all the more important on both sides and the outcome so much more brutal or celebratory.

This week’s exercise is to take a hard look at your characters. Do they have some baseline, deep-rooted faults? Are these faults causing interesting and plot-driving stumbling blocks? Are they loveable, and a little bit annoying? Are they dangerous, but still broken?

If you find that they’re not engaging enough, throw in a life-changing event into their past and rewrite them based on their new fault. Divorce, fire, murder, car accident, illness, or the loss of loved one can be good ideas to play with. Take away one of their defining traits and replace it with its opposite. Nothing you play with is set in stone, it’s just a way to grow your character’s depth and help you to know them better.

If you’re looking for a good reference, one of my favorite books on the subject is Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D Writer’s Guide to Character Traits.

Good luck out there, kiddos. I’d love to hear if this helped you out and how!

Happy Writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #1: Plot

Can you believe I couldn’t think of a more creative title? Me neither. Some days are like that.

Today, is not my normal blogging day, but we’re getting into the meat and potatoes of writing a novel, and this kind of thing needs space. So, without further ado..

What is Plot and Why is it Important?

All right, I get it, it’s a dumb question, we’re all writers and we all KNOW that plot is the basic story of your novel. It is the idea. The “what happened”, and why, and “what’s going to happen next” of any decent story. I’m not trying to dumb it down for you. But the true test of a good plot lies in the simplicity of answering those questions.

Now, you can have books that are character driven (an event happening TO a person, or BECAUSE OF a person). And you can have books that are historical non-fiction, based on one specific moment in time or occurrence. The PLOT of your book expands more than just beyond an event (otherwise The Hunger Games would have been maybe 50 pages long). The plot is the premise or sequence of events. Some novels will follow a very specific order of events that are common to their genre, or as we like to call them tropes. Tropes comes from the Greek Tropos define as “turn, direction, way” and refers to common, recognizable elements or sequences of events.

Many genre specific tropes (I almost prefer ‘formulas’) are embraced by the audience and even expected. Examples include: “the hero’s journey”, “enemies to lovers”, “small towns”, “cold cases”, “missing persons”, “AI gone wrong”, “fairy tale retelling”. But if almost every novel follows a plot formula how is it #1, that readers don’t get bored and #2 that you tell an original story that hasn’t been done before.

It’s an interesting dilemma on the part of a writer. We know which formulas work in fiction and straying from them often makes a plot fall apart or leaves a reader angry or unsatisfied at the end.

(She’s gonna want to talk to your manager)

But how do we follow commonalities in plot structure and still make it a fun, captivating, and surprising journey for our readers? The answer my friends, lies your ability as a writer to do five things: (Fuck Yeah! A bullet list!)

  • Begin with a unique event or crisis. This comes back to the “scan the headlines” exercise I’ve had you do before. A lot of weird shit goes down in the world. A lot of undercover, shady AF stuff too. Use it as a springboard, to your “what happens then/if” story building.
  • Tie the reader to your character (through love or hate) and make their reactions to events unique or contrary to the norm. (ie a cheerleader who fights vampires. A small town farm boy who becomes a powerful Jedi. A teenager who comes into supernatural powers without the maturity to handle them and doesn’t use them to download free porn–come on.) Character building will come later in this series but if you create unique ones, their actions will create new takes on formulas.
  • Use honed writing technique to build tension for climaxes. Yikes, that sounds dirty. Tension is one key to making a story more than just series of events. So much of this depends on your voice and writing style. But the big take away here is about risk. Making the risks personally huge for your character, and even the world at large, will keep the plot fresh and drive it forward.
  • Play with the number and intensity of climaxes (story arcs). I think I’ll start using story arcs (some prefer ‘beats’) because every time I type climaxes I can’t stop giggling. Ok. Story arcs are BIG deals in your plot. Think of these as door ways, crisis-points at the top of your arc, that your character has to move through in order to get closer to what it is they want/need. Once they hit that doorway, or crisis point, they can’t go back. A serious change has occurred either in the setting or with-in the character and they must move forward. Next blog will be all about these arcs so I won’t go into much more detail here.
  • Consider using unexpected but intelligent twists. The best movies and books I can think of that do this are: “The Sixth Sense”, “Fight Club”, “Gone Girl”, “Mind Hunters”. What better way to shake up an audience than by having them accept one reality for the entirety of the story, only to show them the true reality at the end.

All right, so there are some tips for building an effective plot that carries readers throughout the book. My advice to you this week, is to explore various tropes and patterns, especially those in your genre. Turn a piece of paper (landscape-style) and write out the typical pattern of your story, then overlay events and characters of your proposed idea. See how they match up, see if you have enough tension building scenes, just play around with it. I’m not much of a plotter myself, but even I will do a general outline to keep myself on track and make sure I’m building a solid plot.

Next time, more on story arc, how to climax well (*snork*), and end satisfied (*hahahahaha). Until Thursday, happy writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #31: Novelty

Happy Thursday, Writers.

I hope that you had a productive week and are staying safe wherever you’re stationed right now. It seems in all parts of the world, different calamities are occurring. In my own state we went from 80 degrees to 30 in a matter of hours. And while I weep for my garden, my hope is that the snow and rain will put an end to the massive fire that is raging north of our town.

Remember, remember…when the world wasn’t collapsing into chaos and death?
Photo by Ashutosh Sonwani on Pexels.com

So whether you are being lashed by hurricanes, trampled by heat, or decimated by fire, I am sending all my hope for your safety and well-being. Believe it or not (and most of the world’s leading climatologists agree) this is probably tip of the melting iceberg in terms of where our world is headed.

What better time to start writing that dystopian/apocalyptic novel that you’ve been putting off?

While we still have power to do so, let’s write.

THE NOVEL

Now, some of you are short story aficionados and some are poetry pros but there’s something beautiful and obstinate about writing a novel. It’s the kind of thing that gets bandied about at coffee shops and by people in thick rimmed glasses over cups of burnt coffee, smugly proclaiming that they’re drafting their first, second, or third revision. It’s daunting just trying to write a first version for some of us. While we could probably spend a month-long class on the craft of writing a novel, I’ll try to pare it down to the essentials for those of you who are looking to get started.

Most novels come in between 60,000 and 120,000 words. Some exceptions can be made and I’ve seen as few as 40,000 and over 150,000. The large spread is due to the specifics of genre. A light romance novel only needs to distract us for an afternoon, so 50,000 is plenty. A science fiction tome, where entire worlds are built and new languages are developed will require three times that.

For the most part, I like to keep my novels between 80,000 and 100,000 (but even the Southtown Harbor Series pushed into the 120,000s–ghost sex takes some time to maneuver through). This is simply the cold hard number in the equation. The real magic of a novel is so much more than that.

You can scour the internet all day and dredge up at least fifty sites, each with a pretty little bullet-point list of the “essential” elements of a good novel. One might have 5. Another 3. One had 24. Still another 12.

Just like a novel, it’s all cute and fun until it poops itself.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Just like parenting your first child, when it comes to writing your first novel, you will get a deluge of advice both good and bad. I encourage you to read as much of it as you can and reject what doesn’t fit your style. Because at the end of the day, if you are forcing your voice and writing style into the confines of a bulleted list that doesn’t gel, you’re not going to get that book written.

Here are the consistent elements that all novels really should have and that we’ll be covering for the next three to five weeks, in no particular order of importance. (Yes…I get the hypocrisy of giving you a list…just…go with it.)

  • Plot (can’t write a novel without a purpose/story)
  • Characters (can’t engage a reader unless they have someone to follow)
  • Viewpoint (or even Point of View if you will–affects how the reader travels with you and how you are able to convey information)
  • Style (your particular voice as well as the overall tone of the book)
  • Arcs (some say beginning, middle, end…I say doorways. Potaytoe, Potahtoe)
  • Setting (not only does setting affect character and style but can also be a character itself)
  • Dialogue (I’m throwing this one in because, if done well, it will move the plot along and connect us to characters. If done poorly, it will stunt the flow and disengage the reader)

Well, it looks like I have seven there. I think that’s a happy medium point and a good basis to start. Beginning next week I will be posting both on Tuesdays and Thursdays, mini lessons in the art of writing a Novel. I may even include some excerpts of my own work as examples.

If you have some thing you’d like to ask, or a problem you’ve encountered in the process and want to shoot me an e-mail, I’d love to hear from you and try to help get you out of the pit, so to speak. It may also help another writer who is struggling to hear similar questions and concerns. So don’t be shy.

Until then, gird your loins for next Tuesdays riveting episode on Plot.