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!

16 comments:

  1. Once you write your own version of a fairy tale, does it change the way you look at other retellings?

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    1. For me, not a WHOLE lot, but a little. It helps me see all the little subtle plot threads that are slid into a fairytale retelling.

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  2. I've noticed that now I tend to link Snow White and trees in my mind, and I tend to be suspicious of Cinderella's fairy godmother.

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  3. From the website:
    I liked your latest blog post very much and have a question related to it: if you have a character's, well, characteristics down in a description of him, can you give some advice for then writing that person in their own character, showing off their characteristics and personal traits? So often I feel like my characters are all blandly similar in my writing even though in my own 'Character Bible' I have varying personalities and flaws for them all!
    Thanks.

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    1. Oops! This great question came from Farina.

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    2. Wow, that is a good question. Umm, I have no idea, but maybe putting them in situations where their values are challenged would be a good idea. That way, you can see how true they are to what they say they believe, and everyone is going to react differently. Use the (it doesn't have to be in your story) 'A house is burning down and you can only save one of the two things, a priceless painting or a murderer.' Then have a conversation with you characters and ask them why they chose what they did. Keep in mind, there is no true right and wrong answer to this question, it's just a great way see where your characters priorities are.
      ( Question borrowed from Shannon Hale's Princess Academy: Palace of Stone)

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    3. Farina--I'm adding your question to my list.

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  4. I LOVED the last prompt! I have started working on a background for the story and that is something I have never done before! The prompts are fair game for publishing (ya know, in case I ever actually finish it) right? Even though I know that you're working on the same idea...

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  5. This came into the website from Writer At Heart:

    How do find/make your subplots? I had no difficulty what-so-ever- in finding my MP (main plot), but I am having a big problem in finding my subplot. What do you do in a situation like this? I must tell you that my MP is very into the fairy-tale genre. Prince Charming, maiden/princess, enemy, you know. Like fairy-tales, but I am looking for an appropriate subplot.

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    1. If you're retelling one specific fairytale, trying mixing it with another that has similar elements. I'm writing a Sleeping Beauty/Rumpelstiltskin right now because they both involve spindles. Or take parts of the fairytale genre you like, such as quests, curses, mysterious helpers, etc. and weave them in.

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    2. I'm adding your question to my list.

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  6. Hello y'all, I need some help. See, me MC, Tamara is a it of a difficult character. Her personality is a bit...prickly. To put it lightly. Her sense of humor is the hardest for me to write though. She is a very sarcastic person, and her humor tends towards being rather morbid. Example: "I can't!" "Why not my lady?" "Because I hold a king-sized grudge against him--no, check that, NOT a king-sized grudge, counting my third cousin, His most Royal and Sovereign Majesty Luka of Brentan, who was a slight man. More like a duke sized grudge, counting His Excellency, my uncle Abner. He ate more than an entire pig everyday. Consequently, he died of tape-worms." She's always tacking on totally inconsequential facts about how the people she's talking about died. Her sarcasm is very acerbic, especially when she has to deal with something/someone she dislikes. Such as when the guy (Aubric of Dorath) she detests comes to stay in her fortress, he come to speak to her as she's sorting out taxes etc. (She does a LOT of paper work) "Countess, there are snakes in my room." Said Dorath, almost respectfully. Tamara glanced up at him, then continued with her writing. "Who's good idea was that?" she muttered under her breath. "I wouldn't complain, except, they are poisonous." Blast, he'd heard her.
    So how do I keep her personality still Tamara-ish without overdoing it. I mean, a person can only stand so much reading about someone who is so acidic and gruesome. Right?

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    1. I for one find Tamara to be humorous (based on what you said about her). I think I may have trouble identifying with her, but you'd probably keep me reading just because she's entertaining. :) If you want her to be more likable -- which you likely do, since she's your MC -- then give her moments of tenderness and vulnerability. Let the readers see her soft spots every now and then, perhaps in her inner thoughts or in a situation that pains her emotionally. She can keep her acerbic remarks and hard front, or at least try to, but if we get to see the person behind the mask we'll probably end up liking her more.

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    2. Gruesome and acidic can be fun. I'd give her at least one person or cause that she really cares for and won't joke around about. That way readers will see her sincere side.

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  7. Another question on the website from Alyssa:

    I was trying to figure out the best POV for the story I am writing. It has multiple MCs, and I want to be able to write from all of their perspectives, since their beliefs and values are so different. I couldn't decide between a 1st person POV that switches between narrators from chapter to chapter or a 3rd person POV omniscient. I feel like I can get into their heads better if it is 1st person, but at the same time, I feel it would be easier to keep track of things if I'm in 3rd person for a story like this. What do you recommend?

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  8. Sounds like a job for close third, which gets into their heads one at a time.

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