Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On-again, off-again character traits

In the last post, we looked at part of Alyssa’s question. Here’s more: I gave my MC the ability to know if people are lying just by looking into their eyes, and if they are lying, then she can learn the truth. Also, she can understand the cries of infants. I realized that the eye-reading ability I gave her isn't in use much. I might use it three times in one page, then not mention it again for about 20+ pages. The infant-cry-ability isn't used at all.

I've also been thinking about expanding this eye ability. She goes through a lot of complicated stuff, so she ends up hating a lot of people, so I've been thinking about making her able to kill people just by staring at them hard enough/long enough. Does that sound too violent? 

Also, she can write really well (mainly because it is my first real attempt to write and publish a complete novel and that is what I know best), so I have her writing a diary. I noticed the same thing with the diary entries. I put them into the story, but they have started becoming less and less frequent. 

I have started trying to add these abilities into the stories more and more, but I've almost got 100 pages and I don't see many spots where I can work it in. Do you think I could just revise my story a bunch and make the writing and the eye-reading more common? Or would it be better to just write them out altogether? 

I like the diaries. They give more of an insight to my MC's character and thoughts and the effect all of this stuff is having on her, and I have an excuse I can use for her not having written much, but the eye-reading seems like it would be a lot more difficult to fix. I might have an excuse to get rid of that, but I really like her having it.

In Alyssa’s story the ability to recognize a lie is a super power, but in other tales catching a lie by an ordinary MC can come up, as it has for me more than once. Here’s a link to a recent story in The New York Times that sheds light on the subject and reveals how difficult lie-spotting can be: The information may be helpful if you write about a sleuth or a liar.

Starting with the fatal-staring ability: I can’t say if that power is too violent, which depends on the story and the writer’s (and reader’s) preferences. But if we want our MC to be likable, we make that harder if she’s staring people to death right and left. Probably can be done; it’s just harder. But if she has a stare that feels lethal to her victims even if they go on breathing, the likability hurdle is lower.

When I introduce a character trait I worry that the reader will forget it and be surprised when it crops up again. I don’t want that moment of surprise, because it takes the reader out of the story for a moment. The solution is to introduce the trait solidly at the start and have it crop up a few times soon after, which generally should be early in our story. Let’s take Alyssa’s MC’s journaling, and let’s call this MC Ophelia. We can describe Ophelia’s diary from her first-person POV, possibly like this: Thick, but no larger than my hand; bound with blue thread, an ancient practice, which connects me to centuries of diarists; covered in plain, anonymous manila upon which I would never write, not even a single mark to identify the diary as mine. The whole book fits neatly into a brick-red cordovan case secured with a silver locking zipper. That zipper, which has never been breached, gives me a measure of security, though I realize the leather wouldn’t withstand a razor.

There. I hope I’ve made this diary distinctive enough to be memorable.

A digression: I googled bookbinding to get ideas for describing the diary and came across the creepy practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is binding with human skin, which continued into the nineteenth century. You can look it up. Ew!

After that description, we know the diary is important to Ophelia. Next we show her writing in it. Let’s say we write a scene in which she speaks to the manservant who attends the crown prince. As soon as the manservant goes off to perform some duty, Ophelia pulls out her diary to record their conversation as well as her thoughts about what was said. She keeps writing when a servant with a broom sweeps by, but as soon as the Countess enters the corridor, Ophelia tucks the diary in her pocket. The Countess says something or does something and passes on. Out comes the diary again, and this time the reader is shown what Ophelia wrote, which includes the conversation with the manservant and whatever happened with the Countess. The reader understands by this that Ophelia is devoted to keeping a record of events and that she probably has an important reason for doing so. After that, we don’t need to show the diary whenever something happens. The reader will assume that diary writing is going on. We do have to reintroduce it occasionally so the reader remembers, but not that often. If the diary comes into the plot directly–for instance, if it’s discovered by a possible enemy–so much the better. But it doesn’t have to actually be discovered. The reader will worry if he’s led to fear discovery. If we can make him scream internally, Put that diary away, Ophelia! Now! Hurry! then we’ve done a good job.

And making the reader worry leads me to plot. The character traits Alyssa mentions (or any character traits) will remain present for the reader and will recur naturally in the narration if they figure into our MC’s struggle. They’ll also crop up for us most readily if we see a role for them in our story. We can see this role ahead of time if we’re the kind of writer who plans her story. If we don’t plan and we plunk in a trait because we think it’s cool, because we think it will make our character more layered, then we have to keep it mind as we keep writing. We have to look for ways to work it into our story line. For example, I made Ella clumsy at the beginning of Ella Enchanted without any forethought, but the trait becomes one of her obstacles in finishing school.

If a trait turns out not to do much for the plot, we can certainly cut it in revision. I’ve done that.

Back to Ophelia’s lie-detecting ability. It may be fine–unless this skill makes things too easy for her. If she can see through the deception that threatens her safety or her happiness, then her problem collapses. So we have to watch out when we give our characters super powers.

Here are three prompts:

Let’s use Ophelia’s lie-detection. She attends the coronation of the new king. One courtier after the other steps up to swear loyalty to the new ruler, but Ophelia realizes that three of them are lying. Write the scene and what comes next.

Ophelia writes the names of the false courtiers in her diary, along with her suspicions about them. Write the scene in which the diary falls into the wrong hands.

Or, closer to home, she hears her parents tell her older brother about the day he took his first steps and understands that the entire story is a lie. Write what happens next.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Character flip-flop

First off, I hope to see some of you at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, this weekend. Check the website for details.

This is part of an appeal for help that came into the website late in January from Alyssa: I might say something about a character, and then say something completely opposite that on the next page. For example, I might say that someone does charity work all the time, and that she is an awesome person to be around, but then later say that she would never do a thing for anybody else and nobody likes her. I can just revise that away, right? Or is that one of those things that is harder to fix?

One of my friends was reading what I had written, and she said that at the beginning she had loved one of my major characters, Eric, and only liked him more as I went on, but then around page eighty he started changing completely and she told me something along the lines of, "Well, sheesh. If I knew Eric was like this, I would never have fallen in love with him!" Is it normal for a character to change that much in such a short span of time? Because this is happening with a lot of my characters.

Michelle Dyck responded, As far as character inconsistency goes, I've found that something called 'Character Bibles' help a whole lot! You can keep them in a document or by hand in a notebook, whichever works for you. It's quite simple. You just list each character's name and jot down their personality, physical description, and any other miscellaneous bits of info you have. Then as you're writing or editing, you can go back to make sure you're keeping your characters consistent. For MCs, I give them each a separate file a couple pages long each. (And some of the info I make up for them never goes into a book -- it just helps them become real in my mind.) All the other characters have to share a file, and most of them only need a couple of lines. Anyway, if you're an outliner/planner, you'll probably want to put together these Character Bibles before you start writing. But if you're a seat-of-the-pants writer, then you can just add to them as your characters enter your story. It takes a bit of effort, but it's so helpful in the long run. Because who wants to wade through pages and pages to verify what so-and-so's eye color was or where she worked?

I’m with Michelle Dyck about the usefulness of a character "bible." There’s a questionnaire in Writing Magic that may help you write one for each of your major characters.

In the first instance Alyssa asks about, I agree that the fix is easy and we can just revise for character consistency, but sometimes characters undergo a troubling transformation because of a plot problem. For example, let's imagine that Mina, who's the best friend of our MC Ron, has been loyal and supportive. Then, suddenly, she rats him  out to, say, the chief of police. The reader shouts, “Mina wouldn’t do that!” and throws the book across the room. (Let’s further imagine that Ron’s crime is very minor, not deserving of harsh treatment.) We’ve made Mina act against all expectation and against her true nature because our plot demanded that the police chief become aware of Ron.

My only unpublished novel, which I won’t allow to see the light of day, has this kind of problem. It’s called My Future Biography, and in it my MC Marita is an aspiring teenage actor who gets a job as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra is like an unpaid intern; a summer stock theater is usually in a rural or suburban place and puts on plays only in the summer.) Marita, who’s obsessed with acting, has an exaggerated idea of her ability, although she is talented. She’s convinced that the leading lady in the first play of the season is botching her role. So–and this is where the story goes off the rails–she writes a negative review of the production for the local newspaper and says mean things about a lot of people. This terrible betrayal changes the reader’s opinion of Marita and makes her totally unlikable. The trouble is that the whole plot turns on it; it was necessary to set up the lesson Marita needs to learn. When I tried to reread the book not too long ago to see if there was anything I could save, I was so annoyed that I couldn’t finish it. I threw my own manuscript across the room!

Sadly, I adore the male lead and one of the other supporting characters.

My Future Biography is one of my early novels. I don’t think I would make this mistake again, and so far I haven’t I haven’t figured out a way to fix the plot. The reason it’s so hard to salvage is because the problem involves my MC. Luckily for Alyssa, her surprising character reversals involve secondary characters.

So, what to do?

One solution is to suggest early on that a particular character, in this case Eric, isn’t all he seems. Alyssa can include a scene in which he disappoints her MC, whom we’ll call Corinne. Eric apologizes and Corinne forgives him, but a seed has been planted in the reader’s mind. We don’t have to do even that much. If Corinne’s sweet dog growls at Eric, the reader will doubt him.

Another approach is to show the reader the moment of transformation. An extreme example would be if Eric’s brain were taken over by an alien or if he were brainwashed. The reader would then totally get his alteration. But we don’t have to go that wild. Suppose Eric comes across something online that shows Corinne in an unfavorable light. The information is false, but Eric doesn’t know. Now he’s the one feeling betrayed, and his behavior to her changes. Or suppose he becomes friends with someone who dislikes Corinne and this person wins him over to her point of view. Again, we understand the change.

Here’s a prompt: Write down three more possible reasons for a change in Eric.

Another tactic is to keep Eric as he always was and give the bad behavior to another character, one who has been iffy all along. This doesn’t mean Eric has to disappear. I like it when my MC has someone she can count on for emotional support--Mandy for Ella, for example. Eric can’t save Corinne, but she can touch in with him occasionally when she and the reader need a break from the misery.

Here’s one more strategy: When we cast characters for a story, it’s helpful to think about the roles they’re likely to play. For example, in the book I started recently, Peregrine, my MC, is adopted by Lady Klausine, a childless noblewoman. Although Klausine is going to love Peri, she’s going to be hard on her, and her manner isn’t going to be loving. I don’t outline, but I do know that feeling unloved will be important in moving Peri through my plot. I’m defining Klausine as cold and demanding so that I won’t have to change her as the story progresses.

Here are three prompts:

Write a scene that introduces Mina into Ron’s story. Make Ron like her a lot and the reader distrust her.

Write the scene in which Ron commits the act that Mina later uses against him. Keep going with a story that involves the local authority (a police chief, a queen, a sorceress, or whatever you choose), Ron, Mina, and whatever other characters you need.

Write a version of the story I’ve started. Your MC Margot has been adopted by a reserved, not very loving noblewoman, Lady Waverly. The loveless home affects your story. In the course of it Margot changes, but Lady Waverly never does.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Vexing complexity

First off, I want to tell you that I’ll be talking and signing at the book festival in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from April 4th through April 6th. Details are posted here on my website: However, the schedule when you click on it needs to be updated, because I’ll be leaving by about 2:30 on Sunday. Anyway, I’d love to meet some of you there. Please come if you can!

On January 16, 2014, Melissa wrote, Does anyone have ideas on how to keep things from getting over-complicated? I feel like I get so far into my story that I get stuck and can never get back out of it to figure out an ending without everything seeming abrupt.

Eliza responded with this: Pace the ending like the plot. If you have a slow, thoughtful kind of book don't wrap everything up in two pages. But if it's fast paced don't drag it out forever. You don't need to tie up all the loose ends, it's ok to leave stuff ambiguous, but answer the big questions. Decide what your story's core conflict is. Make a list of all the subplots and characters and how they relate to it. Is there someone who really doesn't need to be there? Do your characters wander into Subplot Land for several scenes without discussing the core conflict? If it doesn't directly tie into your story's core and you can't tweak it, it doesn't need to be there.

Thanks, Eliza! Sounds like good advice for me, too. My tendency is to over-complicate as well. I’ve started a new book, although I haven’t been working on it much lately because of poetry school. Only twelve pages in and I’m already spinning a web that would make a spider blush, because it’s too loose to catch anything.

Here’s an example of how I get into trouble: Suppose I want to expand on “The Princess and the Pea” (never mind that I already did in The Princess Test). In this new story, Perlina, the true princess, is my MC, and I need to know what her backstory is before she shows up soaking wet at the castle doors, so I imagine that her throne was usurped the day after she ascended to it. She was escorted to the border and left there. Her core problem is getting her kingdom back. She wanders, cold, impoverished, often hungry, for a month until she hears in a village about the competition for a true princess, which she figures she can win, and then she’ll have a kingdom and its army to help her fight her way home.

Maybe this would work, but probably I’ve already over-complicated my story, which now has to detour through proving that Perlina is a true princess and dealing with the prince and the future in-laws. It’s possible that I would write two hundred pages before realizing that my real story has nothing to do with “The Princess and the Pea” and I have to remove that part (and save it).

When I wrote Ella Enchanted, I had Ella travel to Gnome Caverns with her father before starting her other adventures. I wrote 180 pages involving gnomes, Sir Peter, and the evil men who worked for him. My critique buddies were lost, and so was I. Eventually I cut the whole thing.

What sets me off is curiosity, imagination, and the fun of following an idea. This is important: If we tangle ourselves up, but we’re enjoying the writing, getting lost isn’t a tragedy. We snip and think and get going again. In this case, I would think about a more direct approach for Perlina. Where can she find allies without having first to marry one of them? Who would rally to her cause? How can she find out what’s been going on in her kingdom in her absence? Is a rebellion brewing?

Or, I might decide“that The Princess and the Pea” part is the most interesting and give Perlina a simpler back story.

My capacity for getting into plot trouble is at its worst if I’m writing in third-person omniscient or from more than one POV. Let’s take the story of Perlina’s ouster. If Perlina weren’t my first-person narrator throughout, I might decide to slip inside the usurper’s character and get involved with his goals. Maybe he forced his way to power just so he could offer a throne to the damsel he loves (not Perlina). She’s just a weaver, but she’s crazy for gold thread. Then I may get interested in this weaver, too, to find out if she’s in love with the young man who’s just hijacked a country for her. And there’s the prince who’s waiting for a true princess. He’s fascinating, too. What does he expect from this royal young lady? Are his ideas unrealistic? So I write a few scenes from his point of view. And my story is just a tad disorganized. But if I’m writing only what Perlina experiences I can’t be led astray into these side alleys, no matter how fascinating they are.

So that’s one strategy for story simplification: Limit your point of view to one. I don’t mean you should never write from more than one or from the POV of an omniscient narrator. This strategy applies only if your story is getting away from you. If you know how all your POVs fit into your story, go for it.

Another strategy is to come up for air occasionally, say every thirty pages. Look around. Ask yourself what’s going on. If your story is throwing out tentacles in every direction, follow them back to the center of the octopus and decide what you need. Clip off the extras before you’ve written 180 pages that don’t tell your story.

Regarding endings: Let’s imagine we have two subplots that have been moving along with the main event and we need to draw them to a satisfying conclusion. They're fine subplots; we don’t feel they should be cut. One of them, say, involves Perlina’s younger brother who’s been imprisoned to prevent a rebellion from forming around him, but he’s eager to escape and help his sister. We’re going to resolve his problem and the problem of the other subplot, whatever that is, before moving on to the final one. If we decide to go that way, we’ll orchestrate his escape and get him to the border to meet Perlina’s force. His presence will give her the boost to surge on to the capital. Or we can decide to have him (gasp!) executed, and news of his death will galvanize Perlina and remove any remaining doubts in her allies. The point is, if we settle the side plots, our conclusion can ring through with clarity.

Naturally, the prompts come from the post.

Write the scene in which Perlina loses her kingdom. If you discover that you need backstory, write it. Meanwhile, observe yourself in case you’re letting the story spin wildly. If you’re enjoying the ride, keep going. Otherwise, think about how the backstory might set up Perlina’s quest to get her kingdom back, and shape it along those lines.

Write Perlina’s wanderings in the kingdom of “The Princess and the Pea” after she's been expelled from her own land. Focus here on what she might learn that will help or hinder her later on.

Suppose Perlina was overthrown because the nobility didn’t find her a likely leader. Write the scene in which she meets her future in-laws and the prince and show her struggle to present herself with the dignity she had already been judged to lack.

Write the usurper’s first day on the throne, including his proposal to his weaver love.

From the prince’s POV, write the scene in which Perlina shows up at the castle door and comes in.

Put together whatever elements interest you and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Expressions in your world

On January 14, 2014, J. Garf wrote, What's a good way to come up with figures of speech? There are things we all say every day, and I feel like a few of these add color to a story, but some expressions just don't make sense. For example, you can't exactly say "what on earth is that?" if your story doesn't take place on earth. Another good one that doesn't work is "holy cow!" I use this one all the time in daily speech but can't in my book because it originated because of Hindus’ beliefs that cows are sacred, and since my book is fantasy this religion doesn't exist on my fantasy world. There are dozens of other things that we say all the time because of where we live or how we've grown up, and I feel like fictional characters should have these too. Any ideas?

Kenzi Anne replied, I know exactly what you mean!! I like to make up figures of speech for fantasy characters; a lot of times it depends on the character using them. If, say, I have a humorous, innocent, and/or lighthearted character, I might have them say "Snarks and snizzles!" because it sounds silly and is absolute nonsense. Also, alliteration tends to make the phrases a little more catchy, which a lot of the phrases we use are. My personal forte is fairytale retelling, and oftentimes I like go back to the language that the original is told in (usually German, though it may be easier for me to use this because I'm minoring in it), and use words from the language so that they sound "real" and can have meaning. If you're not using fairytales, I'd suggest thinking of the kinds of things that make up the phrases we use. For example, people often would swear "by the king" or, as in Harry Potter, "by Merlin's beard!" (That one has always stuck with me for some reason). But it makes sense for wizards to mention a wizard that everyone would know, and who is often depicted with a long white beard.

We tend to use very important things in culture that most people living in said culture would recognize, like how the Hindus believed cows were sacred, so saying "holy cow" in the Hindu culture made sense. Taking elements/motifs/taboos/etc. from the culture you've created can help you to make phrases that coincide with your world. :)

I’m with Kenzi Anne, except in one regard. I don’t think that people whose religion is Hinduism say “holy cow!,” because we’re unlikely to make fun of our own religion in our expressions. I suspect that someone outside the religion, amused by the reverence for cows, coined this one. There’s interesting information about the subject on this Wikipedia link:

But I do agree that the source of our figures of speech is likely to be our characters and the world of our story.

Elodie in A Tale of Two Castles, a farm girl who is just beginning to see the wide world, says “Lambs and calves!” when she’s surprised. In Stolen Magic I expanded this kind of expression to other characters. Robbie, who used to live in a harbor village, says “Whales and porpoises!” The barber says “Hair and teeth!” because barbers also pulled teeth in the middle ages. And the dragon Meenore says “Fire and smoke!” Wrapped up in these examples are three approaches to expression development: a character’s background (a farm or a fishing village), a character’s occupation, the character’s nature (a dragon). Count Jonty Um thinks, but never says, Fee fi! or Fo fum! for the obvious reason that he’s an ogre.

Elodie’s world is an approximation of medieval, when conditions were grimmer than we have to face in our daily life, so a local adage is: Love your lice. Only skeletons have none. Ick, but having lice is preferable to being dead, so there’s that consolation. Few are rich on Elodie’s home island of Lahnt, and poverty gives rise to other sayings, like, Share well, fare well.  Share ill, fare ill, which leads to another strategy: Think of the realities in your stories. Here’s a prompt: Invent three proverbs that could apply to a warrior culture, three that might arise in a farming community, three for a university science department, three that might be used by fairies.

I love Kenzi Anne’s idea that an expression might reflect a passing emotion or a character’s usual state of mind. “Snarks and snizzles!” is delightful. And I agree about bringing in sound to explain why an expression catches on. For example, we have the rhyming “doom and gloom” to indicate a different feeling.

Although “doom and gloom” isn’t specific to a particular culture and would probably work in a fantasy, I’d stay away from it as too close to cliche. I’d prefer to come up with something fresh. Same with any other common expression. But if I couldn’t think of anything new, then I’d just skip the figure of speech entirely and reveal my character’s feelings in another way–through action or thought or dialogue (minus expressions). A gloomy POV character might get bad news and feel her limbs grow heavy, for example. A secondary character might appear uncharacteristically draggy to our MC.

Having said that about cliches, in a non-fantasy story, one of our characters, say Joe, might use ordinary expressions often. He might be a fountain of them and may not be an original thinker. We don’t want to be cliched writers, but we can certainly develop cliched characters. In fact, we can even think of a character arc in which Joe finally comes up with something surprising and new. And in a fantasy we can have a character like Joe, one who spouts the sayings that are common in her culture. She can set off spasms of yawns in her listeners whenever she opens her mouth.

Here are two prompts:

Invent three expressions for each of these emotions: pain, anger, love. Make two of the three use sound, like alliteration or assonance or rhyme, to boost their memorability.

Two of your characters, friends, swear to speak only in expressions for a day, and the expression has to fit what’s going on. Cliches are fine for this. No matter what happens, they will voice an expression or say nothing. As soon as they agree to this, something unexpected happens, one or more of these or an event you make up: a tornado tears through town, someone they both thought dead shows up, aliens land, a magic wand appears on the bed of one friend. The friends don’t abandon their vow in the face of the unforeseen. Write the day.

Have fun, and save what you write!