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Likeable Characters

If you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like—or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons for being that way—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.

Lady ScandalMy own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t cotton to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re going to have a hard time getting readers to settle down, buy the book and the world. That’s the voice of experience talking.

This is particularly true for series characters. I recently devoured the Phyrne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood. They’re fun, set in 1920’s Australia–but the important thing here is that Phyrne, while she has her flaws, is funny, sharp, and I’d love to sit down to dinner with her (particularly if she has her staff cooking). The books are a delight and I read all twenty because I wanted more time with Phyrne. Others have felt the same for the books have been made into an Australian TV series.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. Kurt Vonnegut even notes in his Eight Rules to “give the reader one character to root for.” That’s good advice and if you break that rule you’d better have a good reason and even more talent.

But this brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people—or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Indiana_Jones_in_Raiders_of_the_Lost_ArkMad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why sports figures at the top of their game—we like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child, and she may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this).

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times).

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. But think of Tony Stark in Iron Man–it’s his sense irony and his humor as much as his iron suit that makes him stand out in any crowd.

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws—no one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation—they need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits—that would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. And keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the main character too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And if you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Above all remember that you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things. At the very least–make sure you like them and find them fascinating.

Conflict From the Inside Out

conflictlockI first heard about conflict lock from Bob Mayer–he does great workshops on this. I don’t know if he heard it from someone else, but it has spread, however, I’m still surprised to find folks who don’t really understand (or put in) strong conflict.

The first thing you have to do, however, is figure out who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.

In a romance, many people think BOTH the hero and heroine are the protagonist–that’s not possible. There is one protagonist in every strong story–yes, even in an ensemble cast which may have very strong secondary leads, there’s still a protagonist.

Under the Kissing Bough_200The other thing to work out is if the other person in the romance is the antagonist or not–it doesn’t have to be set up that way. For example, in my book, Under the Kissing Bough, the heroine is the protagonist–she has to change the most (she has the strongest character arc, which makes her the protagonist). The antagonist (the person from keeping her from getting what she wants) happens to be the antagonist. Now…let’s look at another book. In A Proper Mistress, the hero is the protagonist (he has to change the most)–but it’s the hero’s father who is the antagonist. He’s the one causing the hero’s conflict–and the hero is causing his father conflict. That’s a conflict lock.A Proper Mistress

Very often what I see in manuscripts is that the conflict is contrived–it comes from the author manipulating characters as if they are paper dolls–and there is no real conflict from issues and goals. There’s no conflict lock.

So…how do you make a conflict lock?

As noted, you start by figuring out who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist.

Now you have to figure out what are your characters’ main goals.

Goals create conflict if this is one thing that only one person can have, or is two opposite outcomes, or is the same outcome with vastly different approaches.

The best summary I’ve heard of this is also from Bob Mayer—know what your characters want, what they really want, what they really, really want, and what they really, really, really want.

What does that mean?

  1. What does a character want?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????This is the obvious goal, and it’s usually external. This is the goal that drives the plot forward. In one of my books, Paths of Desire, the heroine’s external goal is to get married to a rich man—yes, she’s a gold digger. She has reasons for this buried deep in a past which has left her insecure. But this a surface goal—it’s not what she really really wants.

The obvious goal (external goal) works best if tied to deeper needs and issues, and this is where you start to dig deeper into your characters.

  1. What does a character really want?

Under ever want is a driving need—if a character just wants something, that’s a weak character. So you did deeper and ask why? This why becomes the really want. In the case of Thea from Paths of Desire, her obvious goal of wanting a rich husband comes from her really wanting security—she thinks if she’s rich and married she’ll be safe from an uncertain world. Again, this want has deep roots (the deeper, the better) that go back to a poverty stricken childhood. But this is still not enough.

  1. What does a character really, really want?

When you find out what a character really wants, ask: But what do they really, really want? You’re now starting to dig down into what makes that character tick. In Thea’s case, what she wanted was a rich husband, what she really wanted was security—but what she really, really wants is to not end up like her mother.

This is where you hope the character will surprise you. In Thea’s case, I hadn’t thought about her past, but when this came up it was an “of course” moment. Thea’s mother has ended up abandoned by a man (Thea’s father)—she’s ended up broken because of love. Thea’s determined to be practical to marry rich and have her security—but it’s her secret fear she’ll become like her mother. However, we’re still not done. We have rich material, but you want to dig deeper.

  1. What does a character really, really, really want?

This is where you get down to bedrock in a character’s psyche—this is what drives this person and makes them do stupid as well as smart things. This is where deep emotions brew—and where actions are driven by core issues for that character. In Thea’s case, her brother died when Thea was just a girl. The boy was even younger, and he died because there wasn’t enough money to pay for a doctor. That event both scared the young Thea and drives her still—she doesn’t want herself or anyone she loves to ever be hurt by lack again. That’s what she really, really, really wants—to have enough.

Now all of this is great stuff, but without obstacles (and other characters to stand in the way), you’re not going to have much in the way of conflict. A character that can move forward without problems is going to give you a boring story. So…what gives you conflict. Working out characters who want things that conflict with the main characters wants.

You also want goals with consequences–failure to achieve the goal will mean a change in status (not that things stay the same). The goal works best if it really, really, really matters to the protagonist (and the antagonist). And you want the goal to reflect something to do with the theme–or the story won’t resonate as well as it should.

You also want to look at your other characters, find out what they want and set them up to provide maximum conflict.

In every book, I love it when ever character wants something—and really wants something. And really, really wants something. And all of this causes trouble for the main character. In Paths of Desire, Thea (of course) meets a man who lives for adventure—he’s also married. He’s the last man she should become involved with. But he wants to keep his friend, who is rich, away from her, and that brings them together. His goals are not only different from Thea’s, but tangle with hers in a way so that something has to give—one of them has to change in order for them to find happiness together.

And that brings up the next issue with conflict.

If a character can easily give up his or her goal, that’s not a core, strong goal.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself—and dig deep for those very core goals. You don’t want a character who can casually say, “Oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important.” This leaves readers feeling cheated by the story.

Recently I watched a movie in which Will Farrell plays a man who loses his job and his wife leaves him on the same day (Everything Must Go). His company car is repossessed after he slashes his bosses’ tires and his soon to be ex-wife freezes the bank accounts to try and force him into a quick divorce. And she puts all his stuff on the front lawn and changes all the locks on his house. Everyone thinks he’s having a yard sale, so that gives him some money—and he starts to live on his lawn.

Now this is a character that seems without a goal—but he actually has one. His goal is simply to get by every day—and get hold of drink. He wants oblivion. But it’s not what he really wants. He really wants to get back at his wife and his ex-boss. But that’s not what he really, really wants. What he really, really wants is to get his life back. But that’s not what he really, really, really wants. His old life was a shambles, too—and he gradually realizes that. And what he really, really, really wants is to find his way back to a fresh start.

The really interesting thing about the story is watching the character cling at first to every stupid little thing that is his—all the junk on the front lawn. At first, he’ll sell nothing. He has a signed baseball worth thousands (not that he can sell it given he can’t get anywhere), and he has more stuff that no one needs. He hangs onto everything—at first. But the stuff is a symbol of his old life. As he starts to let it go, he starts to make room for a new life. The stuff becomes a metaphor for living. And letting go of it shows both his conflict and his growth.

Because the stuff is important to the character, letting it go is difficult—if the character had walked away without a look back, there would not have been conflict or a story. And it’s what the character wants, really wants, really, really wants, and what he really, really, really wants that drives the story.

That’s the kind of conflict you want to build into your characters. If you build this into the characters when you are first starting out with the story, you won’t have to contrive additional conflict. You’ll have tons of material all set up.

Is the Narrative Voice Dying Out?

title1I’m teaching my Show and Tell workshop in October and that got me thinking about the narrative voice. The two things that always happen with this workshop is that everyone comes in wanting to know more about “showing”–as in they’ve been beaten over the head in various critique comments to show more. The other thing is that I try to convince folks that good narrative is as important as good showing–each has it’s place in fiction, but I do worry that writers are being pushed into too much showing. What–is such a thing possible?

My answer is yes, and here’s why showing can be a bad thing at times.

1-Narrative can set a reader into the world. Too often I’m reading manuscripts and the description is more than sparse–it’s nonexistent. As a reader I want to know where I am, when I am and I want to experience the world. This means weaving in details to make the world vivid–sights, sounds, textures, tastes, smells. This can be done through a character’s viewpoint to show the world, but sometimes narrative can be a lot more effective to set your scene and put a reader into the story.

2-Narrative can weave in backstory. Yes, you can clog the opening of any story with too much–but too little can be just as bad. It’s like throwing someone into the deep end of the pool–the reader is left struggling. Too little information and the story becomes confusing and right after that the reader is going to check out of the fiction. Telling the reader a few things can keep the reader interested, particularly if you bait the hook with interesting bits of background so the reader wants to know more. And narrative can keep the backstory clean and crisp, so there’s no clunky exposition in dialogue.

3-Narrative can help introduce new characters. Again, this can be overdone, but a few bits of telling can help a reader “see” a person and helps keep the cast of characters sorted out. This can be done in a character’s viewpoint, but a lot of times a little bit of telling the reader something important or “telling” about the character is a better way to keep the pace moving and keep the reader involved.

4-Narrative can help the writer’s voice stand out. This is perhaps the most important part of the narrative voice–of telling. Beautiful writing is a wonderful thing. Again, this can be overdone and the writing becomes “writerly” or so self-conscious it throws the reader out of the story. You don’t want to step all over the story–and your characters–to leave thumbprints, but a lovely turn of phrase here and there is not a bad thing. It adds to the overall experience.

Notice with all of this, the important elements of telling are to not overdo it, and to use the narrative voice to help the reader into the story. I like to say it’s about showing more in scenes that need emotion, and telling better between scenes. The narrative voice has it’s place in fiction–I just hope writers will continue to learn how to use it better.

 

Better Stories

cakeI read a lot of manuscripts as contest entries and a lot of them have the same basic problem–the story doesn’t start on page one.  It’s far too easy for a writer to get caught up in the details. Those details are necessary to make the fictional world come to life. You can focus so much on the right word or the right sentence or fixing the paragraph that you forget that readers want a great story. That’s the most important thing.

A few years back I noticed there were workshops on all parts of writing–dialogue, pacing, showing and telling, viewpoint. I teach a few of those and they’re important. But even more important is how to make all of this come together in a way that makes for a great story. Think of it this way–you can have flour, sugar, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder and still make a terrible cake. It takes knowing not just the list of ingredients, but how much do you need and when these should be added, and how to mix and bake them–you can’t just throw them all in a bowl and expect something wonderful.

That’s why I do a workshop on storytelling. I’m teaching it again this September for RWA’s OCC. It is a dense class with a lot of information but the focus is on story–on getting a great story onto the page. Meaning it’s about looking at the list of ingredients–viewpoint, dialogue, pacing, showing and telling–and how to mix them together into something tasty.

So…are you focusing on story? On your characters? Or are you too focused on details?

Workshops to Learn

wpaI’ve been teaching various writing workshops–and taking them, too–for a number of years online, and I’ll be starting a new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction next week. Over that time, I’ve found a number of things help some folks learn more than others–and I’ve experienced that as a student. So how can you get the most from any workshop? Here are some tips.

1-Make time to participate. This is so important. Yes, life can get in the way–and I’ve lurked my way through a few workshops. The workshops where I’ve been passive, I’ve never really absorbed the lessons–they didn’t stick. Or I filed the lessons and never really got to them. When I’ve taught, the writers who do the assignments do learn–I can see it in the work.

2-Stay on topic. There are so many things to learn about the craft of writing–viewpoint control, pacing, dialogue, when to use narrative, punctuation, and more. If you try to tackle everything at once, you end up with scattered efforts and not really getting a firm control of one specific thing. Focus also help you refine your skills–you may have some skills, but really working on a technique will improve anyone’s writing. I often see writers who get distracted–by ideas and by other topics. Resist this urge and start developing the discipline that will also help you focus on your stories.

3-Ask questions. This is another way to participate. Try and give some thought to your questions so they are clearly framed–it can be difficult to make yourself understood in just text, but you may spark a discussion that leads to new ideas for you.

4-Respect the teacher and the class. I’ve taught workshops where it seems like one person is ready to dive in and take over the class. This is frustrating to me. I want to encourage interaction, but if someone is hijacking the workshop and taking it off topic it means I have to spend more time pulling the workshop back on track instead of teaching and working with others. Think about what you post before you post. It’s fine to give a few comments, but do not treat the workshop as if it’s Facebook where any comment can be posted.

5-Respect your work. You want to develop the habit of always reading your work aloud before you share it with anyone else. This is particularly important if you are writing new work for specific assignments. Proof your work, then proof it again. A few typos is not bad, but a lot of them makes it seem as if you don’t really care about your own work–and as if you don’t respect your writing. Make every piece of writing as good as you can–work hard to master all the basic techniques such as verb tense, commas, dialogue punctuation, and capitalization.

6-Write specifically for the workshop. This goes back to the participation issue. Yes, you can copy and paste parts of any manuscript for any workshop assignment, but you’ll probably learn more by doing work specifically for the workshop. This also has the benefit of getting you writing. To do this, look carefully at your schedule when you plan to take a workshop. If you sign up for any workshop, clear a few other things off your calendar and set aside specific time to both read lessons and do assignments.

7-Schedule your workshop time. I’ve always gotten more by setting aside specific time for workshops–this is both for teaching them and taking them. For me, it’s best to do this in the morning when I’m fresh. I can sit down with my coffee, review notes, read and do some work. At the end of the day, it can be tough for me to focus and sometimes I’m tired enough I just want to sit and read–or stare at a movie if I’m really brain dead from a tough day. That’s when I’ll push things off. So get your workshop time allotted and set in stone. Workshops usually only last a few weeks–Writing for Women’s Fiction is only six weeks, and that’s a huge topic to cover in that short time, so you want to carve out time for getting the maximum learning.

8-Have fun–and try new things. You learn more when you’re relaxed and willing to experiment. Workshops are a safe place to try out new things. Never written first person–give it a go. Want to try present tense verbs. Okay. I generally end up reassuring everyone at some point there are no grades–there’s no right or wrong. There’s writing that works, and stuff that doesn’t work so well–and workshops are a place to go splat because you’ll learn more from stretching your writing muscles.

9-Discard what doesn’t work. In any workshop, if you come out with one or two new tools, you’ve gotten great value from that workshop. But remember–in every workshop, the teacher is sharing what works for her. This tool may not fit your hand. Maybe it’s too advanced a technique and you’re not ready for it–or maybe it’s not the way you work. That’s okay. Just trying something different will improve your skills. Never, ever feel it’s your fault if something isn’t really clicking for you–it’s not the teacher’s fault either. There’s no one right way to write.

10-Be open to new things. While we all have our writing habits, go into any workshop willing to learn. Yes, be critical. But also try even the things where you’re not sure if they’ll work for you. Maybe a workshop about plotting puts down guidelines for so much structure it kills your impulse to write. That’s okay. Look at the guidelines you can use and take them into your tool box. Maybe a workshop about dialogue gives you one great idea, but the rest of it is stuff you already know. Cool! Celebrate that one great idea–that’s the value you got from the workshop.

The great thing about writing is that there is always something new to learn. That’s why I teach–I get as much from the workshops I teach as any student. And I’m really looking forward to this new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction. It should be fun!

 

Showing vs. Telling — The Advantages to Each

Aug_SkyThe cliche advice is “show don’t tell” because most beginning writers start off telling too much. And that can be boring–unless the writing is really, really, really great. There are places where telling can be useful–but you want to know the difference between the two.

This is telling the reader information:  He was angry.

There is nothing wrong with that sentences. Except it doesn’t really show your character in action and doesn’t reveal characterization. An actor would take this and use it in a movie to SHOW more–does his guy get quite when he’s angry, does he yell, does he press his mouth flat and ball up a fist, does he punch someone, does the pulse jump in his jaw, does he smile? All those little details would SHOW the character expressing anger–and suddenly the character becomes more vivid to the reader–the character becomes more real. Which is what every writer (and reader) wants.

This is also telling the reader information: The sun was hot.

Again, that’s a perfectly valid sentence. And you may want those short beats and the punch in that sentence. But hot in Texas is a different hot than Death Valley in California and both of those are a different hot from the hot in Orlando, Florida. So if you want to put the reader into that world, you want to SHOW the heat. As in:

Heat waves lifted from the black top that stretched like a pencil line east and west. Shading his eyes from the glare, Joe scanned the highway. Freeways they called them here. Empty, he thought. To either side, baked land stretched to purple mountains and thin bushes struggled to stay upright. Not even enough water for a tree–or a cactus. Joe wet dry, cracking lips. Sweat trickled down his back and off his temples. His shoulders slumped. He would kill for a cold beer. But he had half a plastic bottle of warm water and a broken down Chevy truck that was turning into an oven.

Now the reader can FEEL that heat–they’ve got a parched mouth, too, just like Joe, because this layers in enough details to really SHOW Joe feeling that kind of dry, dusty desert heat.

But notice that showing takes more words–a short story is a place to tell a little more, but a novel gives you room to show. Telling can also help smooth transitions of time or place. And telling is the best way to get a synopsis done.

So show more where you need emotion and to pull the reader into the story, and use the telling in places where you need to compress time or distance. Use the tools the way that works best for your story.

And for more about showing and telling, I’m doing an online workshop next month (in June) for Heart of Carolina Romance Writers.

It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.