Saturday, August 25, 2012

Raise the Stakes for Your Character!

Writing a story is sometimes compared to having children: You, the parent-author, conceive the story, nurture it, and make sacrifices to bring it into the world.  Then you guide it, correct it when necessary, and hope it will make you proud, perhaps even take care of you in your old age.

Writers, like parents, also want to spare their “children” of any danger, grief, or hardship. 

But, as a writer, you must be cruel to your characters. You must treat them harshly, give them coal for Christmas, deny them their fondest dreams, and expose them to situations which, in the real world, would result in a visit from Child Services.

In short, something must be at stake for your characters. And the stakes must be high.
A story, by definition, is about a character who wants something and is prevented from getting it:
  • In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants to go home. What’s preventing her from getting there?  The Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West.
  • In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry wants to defeat Lord Voldemort, but the evil one and his crony wizards go to great lengths to prevent this.
  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss wants to win.  What’s standing in her way?  The other contestants, the game’s controllers, and a decadent society that revels in children killing children.

But goals and obstacles are not enough. Something must be at stake if your character fails.
  • If Dorothy doesn’t go home, she may spend the rest of her life in Oz, and the Witch will do mean and nasty things to Toto.
  • If Harry doesn’t defeat Lord Voldemort, the evil wizards will take over the world and subjugate muggles and mudbloods.
  • If Katniss doesn’t win, she dies. Plain and simple.

Yet this need to create stakes runs counter to what we, as writers, want for our characters. Just as no parent would willingly see their child suffer, we want to make it easy on our fictional children. We want them to be winners without having to struggle.

But real life, we know, doesn't work that way. And neither should your story.     

One of the fundamental reasons why people read stories is to experience characters as they overcome obstaclesthings which terrify us or make us angry.

Giving your character an easy ride robs your readers of the insights and catharsis that make the journey worthwhile.
  •  Dorothy, who had started out wanting to be "somewhere over the rainbow" learns "there's no place like home."
  • Harry, a once unloved and friendless orphan, makes friends and becomes a leader among the good wizards.
  • Katniss (at the end of the first movie, at least) learns that by being true to herself, she can break the rules and effect change in society.

These are the types of insights your readers want to experience. And they don't come easy.

But can’t your character solve a mystery, for example, without having anything personal at stake?

Sure. Fictional detectives do it all the time. But even if Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple do not always place themselves in danger (though sometimes they do), the stakes are still high.

If the detective doesn’t win, the murderer gets away. 

That, most of us would agree, would be bad. The murderer may kill again. Also, any crime--in real life as well as in fiction--disrupts our sense of safety and right and wrong. We demand the perpetrators get caught and punished. When this doesn't happen, our trust in the moral order of the universe is shaken. 

(Which may be why some stories have the good guys lose on purpose. But even losing comes after a valiant struggle with much at stake.)

So, go ahead: raise the stakes for your character.  The higher the stakes, the greater her victory (and ours) will be.

Friday, August 17, 2012

10 Things that Kill Writing—and How to Overcome Them

Call it writer’s block.  Call it fear.  Call it distraction.

Sometimes writers have trouble getting started or finishing what they’ve started.  It’s easy to understand why: Sooner or later, we subject our precious words to an audience which will pass some sort of judgment on them: they will like our words, loathe them, be indifferent to them, analyze and scrutinize them, or ignore them. Believing we must “get it right” can intimidate even the bravest of souls when it comes writing.

Here are 10 things that kill writing and some quick solutions for overcoming them:

 1. Worry.  Being a writer means you think about a lot of stuff, and thinking can lead to worry.  (This is better than the alternative, though: Not thinking is never a good thing.) While some concern is healthy, too much of it can immobilize you.
Solution: Identify precisely what is worrying you and make a list of possible scenarios, both good and bad. As Dale Carnegie said, prepare yourself for the worst that can happen and then imagine ways you can improve on the worst. If you write all this out, guess what—you're writing!

2. Procrastination.  This wordkiller whispers sweet nothings in your ear: “I’ll do it tomorrow.”  “I’m tired right now.”  “I have to be in the right frame of mind to write.” Procrastination is a way of fooling yourself into believing you’ll do the work later when you know you won’t.

Solution: Write. Right now.

3. “I have nothing to say.”  This wordkiller is a close relative of Worry.  It comes from the erroneous belief that you have nothing to contribute to your audience’s needs.

Solution: Recognize that everything you’ve experienced or imagined is unknown to someone, and, therefore, has value to that person. Do you know how to change a tire? Do you know what it feels like to be a child of divorced parents? Think your fictional story won't "help" anyone?  Think again. Look how Harry Potter inspired kids everywhere.

4. Ego.  The opposite of No. 3, this wordkiller takes the form of “My writing is perfect” or “There’s nothing wrong with my story.” Ego as a self-defense mechanism shields us from criticism. Often, though, it means writers think too highly of themselves.

Solution: Admit you’re not perfect. Distance yourself from your writing so you can look at it through another’s eyes.  Never take criticism personally.

5. Inattention to detail.  This wordkiller can take the form of anything from not knowing the difference between comma splices and semi-colons to not doing enough research.  It can involve failing to think through your character’s motivations or brushing off story structure, mechanics, and conventions.

Solution: Learn the tools of the trade. You wouldn’t trust a carpenter who didn’t know how to use a hammer to build your house, would you?

6. Over-attention to detail.  The opposite of No. 5, this wordkiller results in writers spending too much time searching for the perfect word or character name, or researching the weather patterns of some obscure time and place. Details are important, but focusing too much on them takes away from the time you spend writing.

Solution: When you come across a stumbling block in your story, leave a blank and move on.  Come back to the blank after you’ve had fresh insight or time to research.

7. Keeping it to yourself.  Writing is a form of communication, and communication can only happen between one person (you) and one or more others. Writing for yourself has value, but sooner or later you’ve got to share your writing with others. That’s what it’s for.

Solution: Join writing groups. Post online. Start a blog. Submit your work for publication. Get it out there.

8. Judging your book before it’s finished.  You write a line and think it’s crap. You’re halfway through the book and don’t like your character. The setting isn’t working.

Solution: Turn off your internal critic. Give yourself permission, as Anne Lamott says, to write a “shitty” first draft.

9. Judging your book after it’s finished.  Okay, you’ve made it through one or more drafts.   Now it’s crap.  While it’s important for writers to be honest with themselves, judging your efforts too harshly can give you the feeling you’ve done all this work for nothing.

Solution:  Avoid exaggerating your story’s flaws. Admit your work probably still needs some polishing, maybe even a rewrite, but buy yourself a bottle of wine for coming this far!  Embrace your story’s positive qualities.  If you’ve made an honest effort, there are some!

10. Not writing.  This is a no-brainer. If you don’t write, you can’t improve. Worse, you can’t unleash your wonderful ideas upon a starving world waiting for your words to enrich it.

Solution: See No. 2, above.

Wordkillers are sneaky, treacherous enemies. But recognizing them for what they are and taking a few simple steps to overcome them will help make your dreams a reality.

Can you identify other wordkillers?  How do you overcome them?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Should You Write a Character Sketch or a Character Biography?

In a past blog post, I extolled the virtues of writing character biographies—a form of prewriting which helps you get to know your main characters before writing the actual story.   

Character bios, I asserted, save you time and frustration by revealing the details which shaped each character’s life. 

Recently, two members of my writing group—both talented writers whose views I respect and have learned from—offered a different view. They prefer to write short character sketches instead of full-length biographies. Sketches, they assert, work best for characters the writer already knows well, whereas bios can become bogged down in extraneous detail.

They make a valid point. And this is a good excuse as any to point out that most writing advice—even tips from this blog—should be viewed as flexible guidelines, not hard and fast rules. What works for one writer may not work at all for the next.

But let's not dismiss the value of writing full-length character biographies. Bios go further than sketches and can help erase blind spots that inevitably come up in your novel. Bios can make your characters round instead of flat by revealing their hidden desires, needs or goals. Bios can even influence the direction of your story in positive ways.

What’s the difference between a character sketch and a character bio?  How do you know which will work for your story?  Let’s define our terms:
  • A character sketch is a short description that tries “to capture a character at his or her typical.”  Sketches “only give a snap shot” of the character—an encounter, perhaps, along with a desciption of her mental and physical states, important relationships, and so forth.
  • A character bio, which can be several pages long, takes the form of a narrative which describes every important event in the character’s life up to the time we encounter her in the story. Bios include physical and mental details, relationships (past and present), what she got for birthday presents, who she wanted to date in high school, what her first job was like, what she wore to the prom (or what it felt like not go to the prom), as well as her goals, dreams, and desires.
As Scribendi suggests, there can be some overlap in character sketches and character bios, depending on how detailed you want the former to be.

But if we stick to a hard and fast (and admittedly vague) definition that sketches are short and bios are long, we can discuss the pros and cons of each.

Character Sketches—Pros and Cons

At first glance, character sketches seem like useful shorthand if your novel has many characters or if you don’t want to get too deeply into a character’s back story or inner world. Character sketches are particularly useful for fleshing out secondary characters—those peripheral to the main action or who do not carry the story themselves, such as most of Harry Potter’s classmates and professors in the Harry Potter novels.

Why write sketches for secondary characters? Because you want even them to come across as authentic, believable, “real”. 

(There is, of course, a difference between secondary characters and minor characters ("extras"), who merely serve the needs of the plot. You probably don’t need a character sketch for the waitress who takes your main character’s order in the café, or the policeman who chases him down the alley after mistaking him for a lookalike con artist.)

Sketches for secondary characters are useful because each character in your story thinks of himself or herself as the main character in his or her own story. They are not aware that someone (you) is writing a story about a different character entirely—a person they consider secondary to their fictional lives! Therefore, sketches help your secondary characters become "real".

Because character sketches are brief, however, they cannot convey much information. They are like having a conversation with someone you just met over tea: You get some details, but not a complete understanding of the person. As a result, it's easy to jump to conclusions or come to a one-dimensional understanding about what drives the character.
Character Bios—Pros

Few people (bless them for their powers of concentration) focus exclusively on their present circumstances or problem at any given moment. Most of us are also dealing with our jobs, relatives, loved ones, hobbies, random ideas, illnesses, conflicts with others, neighbors, how we feel about ourselves, how we come across to others, etc. These thoughts go through our heads constantly, whether we want them to or not.

Isn’t it worth knowing what else is going through your character’s head in addition to the story problem he or she is trying to solve? 

An incident which happened to your character years ago may have some bearing on his present situation—but you’ll never know unless you create such an incident.

For example, it’s through character bio that we come to know Hermione Granger is Muggle-born and that Ron Weasley has a large, extended family—details which at first seem minor but which ultimately influence their personalities and play crucial roles in the Harry Potter story.

(And, for the record, no, I don’t know if J.K. Rowling wrote character sketches, bios, both, or neither. But her characters are so fully realized, I find it hard to believe she did not know every detail of their fictional lives early on in the writing process.)

Character Bios—Cons

Character bios have limitations, as well. As a writer, you can get so bogged down in the details of your character’s life that you forget to tell the present story. You can also become so enamored with the juicy back story you’ve created that you want to include all of it in your novel, resulting in a bloated whale of a narrative.

Character bios can also create the unfortunate impression of setting details in stone. Suppose you decide up front that your character’s birthday is in March, but, during the course of the story, you want him to celebrate his birthday in August. Just because you wrote March in his bio doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  That’s why the gods of word processing gave us a delete key.

Likewise, writing your character's biography doesn't mean you can't add to, change, or delete material as your novel progresses.  Think of all the biographies that are written about famous and historical people, how they uncover new details or present established information in a new light. Your character's bio can be living, breathing document, as well.

Writers have to make choices—sometimes painful ones—about what to include in the story. If writing is thinking, as most writing professors claim, character bios force us to think. They give us a pool of information to choose from—and it’s always better to cut things out of your story than to go back and have to invent details later on.

Best of all, character bios make such choices fun.  They enable you to discover your character and how fascinating he or she truly is.

Tell me your opinion.  Do you prefer writing character sketches or bios?

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Dirty D-Word of Writing

Imagine this: You’re hard at work on your story when a new idea jumps into your head, an idea which takes your new project in a whole new direction. Or an idea for a new project altogether. 

You can’t wait to see where this exciting new idea takes you.  It may even be The One which makes all your dreams come true.

So you stop what you’re working on and dive right in—only to find your new idea's tank has no water.  Or, worse, yet another new idea comes along and steals you away—again.

Ideas are wonderful, but writers who chase ideas risk derailing their projects or never finishing them.

That’s why writers need the dirty D-word—discipline.

If you’re like me, the word discipline conjures negative images of teachers standing over you with rulers, refusing to let you go to recess until you’ve learned your ABC’s.

And that’s unfortunate. Discipline is an indispensable tool for writers. 

Discipline means
  •                 you stay focused
  •                 you finish the project at hand
  •                 you refuse to get sidelined by other projects or concerns
  •                 you believe in yourself and your work.

And that’s it. That’s really all discipline entails.

Sure, discipline may include setting a particular time and place to write or observing other rituals. But rituals vary from writer to writer and don’t have to be boring. (My blogging ritual, for example, involves walking to a certain restaurant and writing while eating a good breakfast. But I’m flexible—I do this on either Friday or Saturday.)

Discipline means you say no to your inner child (or inner dreamer or inner critic or whatever metaphor works for you). It’s okay. Your inner child can take it. She may scream and holler and pitch a fit, but she’ll get over it. And she’ll be better equipped to come up with ideas you can use once she realizes you’re serious.

Discipline means you trust the good ideas—the really good ones—won’t get away.  Ideas are like falling in love. The really good ones stick in the back of your mind after the initial excitement wears off.

Discipline means you do the hard work. Let’s face it: Writing is hard. I know, I know . . .writing is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be the thing we do so we don’t have to go out and get real jobs.

But if you hold fast to that attitude, you’ll never do any hard work—at least not without a fast food manager looking over your shoulder.

In writing, discipline means you get to be both manager and employee—but you have to be tough in each role.

Discipline means you finish what you started. Your project doesn’t seem feasible now? It entails tasks you never thought of (such as research, marketing, cover design)? You’ve got so many things going on—children to feed, bills to pay, laundry?

So what? So does every writer who’s ever “made it”. (Read Stephen King’s On Writing or Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’ for first-hand accounts of their struggles to write for a living.)

And your struggle to finish what you started can be a good thing. Overcoming distractions and meeting challenges which lead to growth are what most stories are about. Your personal struggles give you something to write about or add authenticity to what you’ve already written.

Discipline, in other words, helps you do two things: 1) know when an idea is worth pursuing, and 2) realize it.

So, go ahead. Use the dirty D-word. Pass it on.

 How do you discipline yourself as a writer?

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