If you are like most writers, you read everything about writing that falls into your field of vision. Perhaps not everything you read makes sense. Or is that just me? When I first started out, I trolled the net for blogs and columns and articles and theses about what makes a good story. I quickly schooled myself in elements of the modern novel - something I didn't learn from my few college level creative writing classes.
Everything made sense. Focus on plot or character. Paint a vivid world. Speak like normal people speak (whatever that is). Write what you know - sibling rivalry, demonic perfectionistic zombies, love, broken hearts, etc.
Everything made sense except for one thing. The character arc. The character arc meeting another character's arc. Matching or paralleling or crossing your character's arc to or with your plot's rise, fall and resolution.
During my studies, I've narrowed character arcs into three categories. Let's take a look at them.
1. Transformative Journey. Called many things, namely The Hero's Journey, this character arc sees your MC move from a bit of a mess at the start to pretty much on her feet at the end. Think of Julia Robert's character in "Pretty Woman". At the start, she's selling herself on the street, lacking social graces, living in a rundown apartment. At the end, she's cleaned up, thinking of moving out and changing her profession (of course, handsome Richard Gere "saves" her - that was too obvious), but more importantly she's transformed from street girl to sophisticate. In this arc, your character needs to learn something about herself or the world that rocks her so much, she's forced to embody a whole new persona by story's end. This is more of a straight up arrow - the arc is in the middle where your character must examine her flaws that keep her from moving forward in life. (Of course, one can argue that it's Gere's character that truly transforms from self-important loveless power chaser to empathetic love chaser.)
2. Imperfect or Flawed Journey. When I read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Goldfinch", I kept thinking that Theo, the MC, wasn't so much on that traditional Hero's Journey. He had many bumps on his road to redemption. In fact, he travelled much further down in his person than up. His was an imperfect journey. Your character can learn much more about himself if he's forced to confront deeper issues in his life (envy, hatred, self-hate).
3. Spiral to Darkness. Sometimes, you read a story and think, "Wow, I really don't like this character. He's more of a jerk now than at the start." Hopefully (usually) that was the author's intention. Think of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". We don't much have anyone to root for when the story shifts in the middle. By the end, we feel cheated out of that arc. Who transformed? Who's learned the most about themselves and used it for the better good of the world? Uh, no one? This is a difficult arc to pull off because you want the reader to feel something has changed, that perhaps the world has shifted for them. In "Gone Girl", most readers come away thinking "you can't trust anyone" or "some people are nuts" or "be careful who you get into a relationship with". What happened was they went on a somewhat inverted arc journey - essentially, they transformed into more negative shadows of themselves. However you see it, taking a character deeper into their own darkness can be an amazing story.
Where is your current protagonist headed in your work in progress? Is it a transformative arc, imperfect or a spiral into darkness? Share your thoughts below.
Fiction is the one place you can get away with murder. The trouble begins with caring too much for your characters that you simply don't want to see them dead. You have birthed them onto the page, and you can't imagine staging their funeral. Are you really that heartless? Do you lack the very soul that your mother and father nurtured in you long ago?
Of course not. You're a writer. You create. You can also destroy. They are two opposing forces that provide balance to your story. What you need to understand is that getting rid of a character is more than murder.
I write YA, so I don't kill many characters. Well, that's not true. Characters die in my stories. Oh god, I'm a liar and a killer.
Welcome to the world of fiction, I tell myself.
Every story must have a death. Real. Metaphoric. Multiple. Single. Someone. Something. Must die. It's how you move from the world that was to the world that can and must be.
Every Shakespearean play features one or more important death scenes. Take "MacBeth", which is riddled with murders, most notably Duncan's.
In "Gone With the Wind", the old Tara must die in order for there to be any hope that Scarlet will change.
In William Golding's "Lord of the Flies", we find more than the death of childhood when Piggy goes.
Whether your story revolves around a single death of a beloved character or someone important to them, someone/something must die.
Death symbolizes the end and the beginning. Harry Potter's whole story is wrapped around the death of his parents. Until he unravels the mystery that is his early life, he cannot move on into adulthood. That's a nice seven books worth of soul-searching.
In John Green's "Looking for Alaska", our protagonist is in search of the Great Perhaps. He cannot locate this until he experiences a heart-wrenching loss of his own.
Consider what or who must die in your story. What loss will propel your hero into his or her necessary transformation? Besides people, you can kill or destroy ideas and things.
Not ready to kill a character? Here's a list of possible symbolic deaths:
Natural Disaster - burn down a home, school, landmark; destroy a memento; flood a town; crack a bridge in an earthquake
Loss - literally get lost (in the woods, on the road, at sea); lose something important (item, memory, person)
Ideals - give up on something (love, honesty, deceit, jealousy); change sides (political parties, sports team, nations, families - think Hatfield and the McCoys or Romeo and Juliet)
We could go on and on, but you get the idea. Death in your story places your character right in it. He must choose to do things differently now. What will that be for your hero?
Share your thoughts below.
We continue exploring character this week. Last week, we talked voice - creating strong character voice in young adult stories. I shared a list of attributes to pay attention to when crafting your character (tone, cadence, slang, etc.) Don't forget, if you subscribe to newsletters, you gain access to more helpful tips hidden around this site!
Today, let's look at stereotypes - specifically, how can we avoid them when crafting our characters?
When first creating my characters, I consider some basics as I develop their personality.
Q1. What's their goal? What does this character truly want in the story?
Q2. What's in their way of achieving that goal? What obstacles - people, ideas, beliefs, physical structures - keep them from reaching that goal?
Q3. What lie do they believe about themselves that must be revealed in order to release them from their internal conflict?
The answers to these three questions drive my plot. Once I answer these, I can focus on my character's personality, appearance, habits. Here I can be creative or stereotypical. Here lies the challenge.
Let me explore this process with my current work in progress (WIP) and my main character (MC) and other supporting characters.
A1. A teen needs to know if s/he's responsible for his parents' death.
A2. S/he's afraid to know the truth. S/he's afraid to feel the pain of their loss and her/his possible contribution. S/he's been lying to her/himself for seven years about what s/he did and how s/he might be responsible. S/he was nine at the time, and her/his memory now at sixteen plays tricks.
A3. S/He believes that liars must be punished and that's why her/his parents died - because s/he lied to them.
As I develop my character, I consider who is the typical person in this scenario (that depends on my own personal world and experiences). Then I ask who would be the least obvious type of person to deal with this situation. Who would have the hardest time feeling the pain and letting go of the lie?
To me, the person who'd struggle the most is a boy without siblings to support him. I need to throw in more obstacles. This is where I can break stereotypes, give my male character some other challenges. What if he lives with his grandmother who thinks he's perfect because he gets good grades, cleans up after himself and is polite to her? What if she leaves him the task of fixing the fence, but he doesn't know how. Then a girlfriend shows him how to use a saw and this becomes a metaphor for the fences he builds around himself?
Next, I create his physical self. Here, I don't ask who would be typical, I ask who would need to work the hardest. What if my character struggles with self-acceptance (like so many teens), but his issue is about race? What if my character is trying to understand two racial worlds? His dad was black, his mom white. Now, this becomes a metaphor for integrating the dark and light within himself.
Now we have a story and a character unequipped to handle what lies ahead. He's going to need to ask for help. I can continue to chip away at other stereotypes in my supporting characters - like the girlfriend who's an expert with power tools or a teacher who's unprepared for class or a grandmother who isn't a master baker.
We make assumptions when we meet people. Our job as writers is to challenge those assumptions in the characters we create, give our readers food for thought.
What do you think about when crafting your characters? How do you avoid stereotypes?
Answer my three questions, and share your character in the comments below.
Voice is as much what your character says as how she says it.
Whether you are writing in first or third person, your characters need distinct voices. However, there is a big difference in voice for a character who narrates the story (first person) and the one who's being narrated (third person).
I find first person narration more fun - but of course, plot-wise, it can be limiting. From the very start, it's important to decide how you will narrate your story. To me, it has as much to do with theme and message as it has to do with audience.
But this post isn't about POV, it's about voice.
Consider the following lines from two popular YA stories. What stands out? How do you feel about the character? Most importantly, do you care about them?
"Late in the summer of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time thinking about death."
How could a self-absorbed adolescent (yes, that's redundant) not want to read further? John Green is a master at the teen voice. In his acclaimed novel, "The Fault in Our Stars", he has created a narrator who we at once pity then quickly grow to admire and love. That's genius.
"Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence."
In Harper Lee's classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird", she drops us into the mind of a young woman's reflections on a dramatic childhood. Scout is memorable because she speaks directly to us, pulls us into the secrets, exposes the dissonance that exists in the world around her.
There are two simple things you can do to learn how to write voice for any genre: read great fiction to see what works; listen to people to hear how we naturally speak.
Read strong character voices. Get an idea how it's done. Go to the library or a book store and pick up a best-selling YA novel. Yes, best-selling. You want to read what readers want to read. Study the narration, the dialogue, the way characters behave around each other, how they describe their world, how they respond through emotions and actions.
Listen to teens. Don't get all stalkerish, but do go hang around these people. They are not shallow. They have deep thoughts about the world they live in. They see things from a perspective you might have forgotten. (If you live with teens, you know what I mean.)
Here's a partial list of attributes to consider as you develop each character's voice (including the omniscient narrator in third person POV):
Tone - friendly, casual, sarcastic, morose
Cadence - do their words skip lightly or thud forcefully?
Jargon - slang, words or phrases used habitually
Tics, quirks - bad habits, profanity, poor grammar, mispronunciations, repeated words (like, so, uh...)
Attitude, perspective - THIS IS KEY - know how your characters see the world; it paints everything they say and do
Sign up for my free newsletter for a handy character/voice worksheet. (See sign-up to your right.)
Can you feel it? The madness? No, not the spherical hyped up college hooping betting Las Vegas style kind of madness.
I'm talking the coming out of hibernation, the winter-into-spring kind. I realize some of you live in colder regions, areas covered in snow, locales near frozen ponds or snowcapped hills. Not me. I'm a California girl, and our winter is coming to a close.
Well, the very limited winter that visited, that is. Spring is on its way.
So let's celebrate!
What better way to honor the shift from cold to cool, from frozen to chilly, or from darkness to light than with some writing?
We recently spent the month examining setting. Hopefully, you've enjoyed the posts and have even been practicing perfecting your story's time and place. Of course you have! So now, show it off.
Choose one prompt from below, and tell us the best setting for that story. Fill in as many pieces as you can. If you feel inspired, continue on and write the first 100-300 words.
Try one. Try them all!
I'll get you started, but feel free to make changes.
Please post your responses in the comments section below or provide a link to your website or blog.
1. Cyndy, a rebellious fifteen-year-old, discovers three dead bodies in the woods behind her school. When the murderers discover she knows, it takes more than false bravado to protect herself. Can Cyndy find the courage to ask for help?
Duration of story:
2. Twelve-year-old twins Meghan and Molly find themselves lost in a new city. They encounter a cruel group of street kids who seem intent on luring Molly into their gang. Can Meghan locate their parents before it's too late?
Duration of story:
3. A mysterious family possess talents, both magical and dangerous. They have the power to create rain, but they can also cause floods and tidal waves. When one member decides to share these secrets with outsiders, his parents must decide what to do with him.
Duration of story: