The Power of A Flat Character

Hey kids! Today’s blog is all about writing, specifically pinpointing a very prevalent problem novelists face.

Flat characters.

Now, most of my novels are character driven. That is to say, I begin with a person. A beautifully flawed and imperfect hero who has a problem. Hopefully a big problem. (If they don’t have a reason to cry, by God, I’ll give them one!) And normally, not to pat myself on the back, I can write a pretty interesting character. Someone readers want to follow through the ups and downs of plot arcs.

And yet…

When I found myself mired in yet another round of editing my latest novel, wondering why nothing was working and everything seemed so boring and flat in nearly all of my scenes, I realized the story was trying to support dead weight. That is…my character was not providing any sort of flame to heat the story. They were just being pulled along by their circumstances. She was the equivalent of a wet blanket draped across a closeline, pulling both ends of it down in the middle.

I started this novel many years ago around a situation. And the situation was driving the plot. Instead of my character driving the story, she was just a passenger. Not only does that make everything in writing your novel a struggle, it also makes it less interesting for your readers. No one wants to know about the girl sitting complacently in the back seat. They want to know who in the hell is driving the car and how close it is to the cliff.

All the rounds of editing were wasted in trying to make the scenes and plot more vibrant but it never seemed to be enough. Because it couldn’t carry itself and her lazy ass too. A flat character, lacking depth, quirks, a solid core of values or lack thereof, is like an empty billboard in the middle of a field. Taking up the view without contributing to it.

So I’m back to the drawing board and today, I’m going to start it right. I’m starting with a detailed account of just who this girl is and what drives her. If it’s not interesting enough then I’m going to try out some weird shit until that awe inspiring ‘ah-ha’ hits me between the eyes. And then I’ll re examine every page of her story to see if she’s behaving the way she would and saying the things she should. The story will change, scenes will change, her interaction with others and the direction they head will change. I’ve got a ton of work ahead of me.

It’s going to be like starting over and I’m a little disheartened by that. But if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right and I’m not ready to give up on her just yet.

After all, she does know how to shoot, bakes the best biscuits in the county, and can shear an angora goat in under a minute-thirty.

(By the way, the world record for sheep shearing is 37.9 seconds. Goats take longer, because they’re feisty and require a more careful ‘clipping’ technique.)

more you know

Don’t be lazy. In the same way certain Robin Hood actors wouldn’t learn a British accent (ooo, Kevin Costner BURN!) don’t half-ass your main character. They should carry the story, not drag it down.

What are some of your favorite character development tools?

The Giant But

Nope. I didn’t miss a “t”. And this isn’t a self-reflective rant about the aging spread going on behind me. Today’s blog is about excuses, dare I even say… self-imposed limits.

I believe I’ve talked about the dangerous ‘but’ in terms of how we love one another, and how we limit feelings by making excuses from perceived imperfections. However, today’s talk is more about the detrimental “but” that gets between us and our dreams.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances the exact phrase:

“I’d love to write a _______ but…”

But…I have no time. But…I just can’t get started. But…I’m not very good. But…It’s hard to publish these days. But…people may not like it.

 

No.

Nope.

Stop it, no.

Nuh uh.

Not valid (and who cares if they like it?)

 

Article done! BAM!  Shortest blog ever. Happy writing!

 

Okay…I’m kidding.

Those big buts up there don’t lie. They are all valid excuses. Excuses that we build like walls in front of our potential. Walls of excuses to keep us from even attempting the loving art of writing because it also keeps us safe. Safe from rejection, safe from the work, safe from the expectation. Safe from failing. Safe from succeeding.

But is a wall builder.

But builds walls based on fear and hatred and not scientific, psychologically proven facts.

(Maybe I am missing a couple of T’s up there and a title…like President Butt…ahem. *Awkward throat clear*…back on topic.)

Same principle.

But keeps you away from ever having to actually start.

Now I’m sure there are people out there saying they want to write a novel to make me feel like I’m not so strange, all wholed-up in my pajamas, afraid of the general public. Maybe people tell me they’d “love” to write more, to make polite conversation.

This blog isn’t for those small-talkers (but bless your heart for trying to make me feel comfortable about my chosen/driven profession despite its financial drawbacks).

This blog is for those whose eyes shine with longing when they talk about that book they want to, need to, would love to write. This is your permission slip to the great unknown outside your stuffy, self-imposed safety.

No more buts.

Try this:

Say it outloud…softly “I would like to write a book.”

Little bit louder now: “I would love to write a book!”

Say it like you mean it!: “I want to write a book!”

So the people in the back can hear!!: “I WILL WRITE A BOOK!”

Deep breath you crazy loon.

And rejoice in not using the but.

You will write that book.

Stop looking at the world as a place of excuses waiting to trip you up and make you fail and start looking it as the beautiful, messy experiment that has no wrong turns, only lessons.

Need help starting? Great! Let’s strike while your fire is hot!

If you have an idea for your novel, or article, or short story, write it down. Loose outlines are great but if you are a type-A outliner, then give yourself an hour or two to adequately plot it down. There are some great computer programs if you’re that kinda nerd. Or if your MY kind of nerd, post-it notes on a wall or story board are awesome.

Chances are if you’ve been thinking about a book then you already have some characters in mind. Spend twenty minutes (or whatever you can spare at kid’s practices or boring meetings) writing down your main and sub characters’ physical attributes, their strengths, their weaknesses. Write about their childhood, their friends, their parents…none of which needs to go into the book, but it will help you understand their motivation so that when you write the story, they behave in ways coherent with their core.

Join a writing group and take the classes they offer. Todd Mitchell (Todd’s Website) once offered an amazing four week class on writing a novel that covered everything from plotting, to dialogue, to genre, and story arcs. It was maybe the most profound and important class I’ve taken and I highly recommend you start with something like that if you are struggling at the start. Plus going to classes and joining groups helps to build the immensely important network of friends and cohorts who will help you along in your process.

Stock up your library. One of the first things I did after scribbling down a rough outline was lay in the fetal position in tears (well, not quite that dramatic but it makes for a better story) and wonder how someone actually created a functioning plot. Enter the Write Great Fiction Series. They’re some of my favorite resources and they offer everything from plot and structure, dialogue, character and viewpoint etc.

Final bit of advice. Don’t let the but come back into your process. (I’d love to edit my novel but the laundry needs doing– the vacuuming, the scope of work meeting notes, the kids fiftieth soccer game this month.)

Nope. Fuck that noise.

There is time in your life to write a novel. You just have to want it and learn to say no to buts.

giggle
Come on. It’s a but joke…

 

You have to make your word count your priority. And no cleaning for god’s sakes until your daily goal is met. No video games or puttering around either.

If you want the novel; if you want to unleash the story burning inside of you, then stop giving yourself the excuses to not write it.

Make the time. Make the novel. Banish your but(t)… to the chair.

To write your novel.

Go.