I’m in the middle of teaching my “Plotting from Character” workshop and what always happens is that folks get frustrated. Which is actually quite normal. Learning something new is hard, and most people don’t want to really spend the time to break old habits and to the work to learn (or relearn) new ways of doing things. It takes not just persistence but also patience–with yourself and with the process. A lot of times you just have to do something over and over and over again.
I was reminded of this the other day–I’m learning something new. I’m struggling to learn how to play the mandolin. Now, the fingerings are the same as for a violin, which I used to play. But you have double the strings–and you have to pick (not bow). And eight frigging strings means one of them is always going out of tune. Took me an hour to tune it, then I broke an E string and it took me another hour to change it. Patience and persistence got be back to where I could do some chord and scale practice. It’s going to take longer before I don’t suck at it.
And that’s where I think a lot of writers have trouble. It takes patience as well as persistence to develop characters. I’ve had a few characters just show up on the page ready to go. Most of them take time and repeated work to really get them fleshed out and figured out. I had that problem in Proper Conduct–the heroine just took forever to show up. She was a difficult character all the way along, but after 100 pages she finally settled down and I was able to get her onto the page.
That’s where I see writers with less experience struggling–they jump into an idea and develop the heck out of the idea. But the characters don’t get development. It’s too easy to fall in love with an idea and forget the story is really about your characters. A great story won’t carry a book. And that’s where you end up with good writing and weak stories–and I see a lot of that in contests where there is a lot of cleverness but the characters are what my mother used to call ‘unbaked cookie dough.’
Now it is possible to overdevelop the characters–to spend too much time on details and not enough time on the main conflict and story arc. I used to do that and my characters came out flat. I’d written the life out of them. So it does take a balance.
And a lot of patience to go along with the persistence.
I’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.
- Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
- 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).
- 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.)
- 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.
- Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
- Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
- 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.)
- Know each of your character’s sexual history.
- Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
- 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).
- Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
- 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.