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Making Shallow Characters Relatable

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Gone with the Wind - Novel Conclusions Blog - Writing Blog - Writing Tips

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell via Amazon

No one thinks they’re shallow (even if others do), and I’m of the belief that it’s very important for your characters to be somewhat relatable in order to matter.  So if a story requires a very shallow character, how do we make that character matter?

For starters, remember that even though these characters are shallow at first glance, there is more to them than meets the eye — and it’s our job as writers to bring that out.  There are a few different strategies to show readers why they should care about a seemingly shallow character:

Give the character context.  In the opening chapter of Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t care one whit about the coming war (which will be the American Civil War).  In fact, Scarlett tells the Tarleton twins:

If you say ‘war’ just once more, I’ll go in the house and shut the door. I’ve never gotten so tired of any one word in my life as ‘war,’ unless it’s ‘secession.’

Although this makes Scarlett pretty shallow up front, Mitchell gradually shades in the character to give us more about her background and make her more relatable in the context of the story, in the context of the pre-Civil War era.

Give the character an arc that fundamentally changes them.  In the more recent Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, main character Tally Youngblood was so shallow in the first chunk of the book that I almost couldn’t keep reading.  At first, she only cares about being like everyone else.  However, (mild spoiler ahead…) Westerfeld turns this around by revealing the outside world to Tally a little bit at a time, almost painfully slowly at times, gradually changing Tally’s perspective to be dramatically different — and much deeper — than when we first met her.

Shape the narration.  Guiding the point of view also gives the reader subtle clues that there is more to come.  Mitchell does this masterfully, describing Scarlett in the first chapter of Gone with the Wind:

She meant what she said, for she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject. But she smiled when she spoke, consciously deepening her dimple and fluttering her bristly black lashes as swiftly as butterflies’ wings. The boys were enchanted, as she had intended them to be, and they hastened to apologize.

These are not things Scarlett could have said about herself, and the implication here is that Scarlett knows what she’s doing and has a grand plan for her situation.  As we get further along in the novel, we come to find out that Scarlett is a master manipulator, and whether we agree with her motives or not, she continues to surprise us and keep us involved in the story.

What else can we do to make shallow characters more relatable?

P.S. For more about Scarlett’s motives, check out Finding Character Motives.

Packing Emotional Punch: Connecting with Readers

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Packing Emotional Punch Connecting with Readers Emotional Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle

Children’s Concert by George Iakovidis via Wikimedia Commons

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The stories that stick out the most in my memory tend to be stories where I related to the characters somehow, really felt for them.  Creating this feeling for your readers is not just about putting your characters through some tough times on their way to triumph (although that’s generally a key ingredient in plot).  We pack emotional punch by helping the reader to connect with what the main characters are going through.  If the reader doesn’t care a lick about what happens to the characters, your story is dead in the water.

How do we pack emotional punch?  How do we connect with readers?

Build tension bit by bit.  The main characters’ reactions to and actions within crisis situations must build up through the story.  In The Shining, wife Wendy at first treats husband Jack with kid gloves when he starts to lose his marbles.  If we didn’t have these build-up scenes of gradually growing tension, it wouldn’t be quite so scary when Jack (inevitably) starts running around the empty hotel with an ax.  Because the tension has been building, piece by piece like a little Jenga game, we’re all the more scared by the time Jack is chasing wife and kid with an ax and a look of glee.

Have a “Save the Cat” moment early in your story.  Blake Snyder’s fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat describes this more in detail, but the gist of the idea is that your main character(s) must have a moment early on in the story that gives us a reason to care about them.  They must do something that, essentially, reminds us that they are human.  In Hunger Games, Katniss volunteered to take little sister Prim’s place.  In Matilda, little Matilda has a very sweet conversation with the local librarian exposing her innocence and insatiable curiosity.

Include humanizing details.  The Save the Cat moment will go a long way to create this, as well as character tags and general details about your character.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood does a beautiful job of both creating curiosity and building a relatable character by, early on, hinting at how much the narrator is afraid to think about.  We get bare hints of the narrator’s past, and, in addition to building curiosity, it helps make the narrator more human than the robot the book’s society is trying to create.

Give the characters a clear goal (or goals).  In addition to being nearly vital to plot, this gives readers something to root for.  If the main character is working toward a clear goal, this gives the character an opportunity to grow and – you guessed it – be more relatable.  You can up the ante even further by giving a secondary character a goal in direct conflict with the main character’s goal.  Sparks fly and create more opportunities to grow and be eminently relatable.  Fun times.

Don’t be overly dramatic.  Melodrama causes us to laugh at characters rather than laugh with them.  If you want to be like Voltaire or Alexander Pope, have at it.  Otherwise, we should all try to remember to temper the dramatic scenes with action or humor scenes in between; action and humor, done properly, can tell us just as much or more about a character as dramatic bits.

Keep it moving.  Time frame (or the perception of time frame) keeps us involved in the story.  If every event is happening one after the other, it matters more than if there’s lots of lag time between important events.  Exposition creates the perception of lag time, whether time is actually lagging or not.  Relevant action keeps the story moving.  If that action is years apart, sum up the intervening years in a few sentences.  Relevant action keeps us involved in the story.

How else can we pack an emotional punch or help our characters be more relatable?  What’s a great story you’ve read that packed an emotional punch?

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Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot

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Sparkler by Josh Wickerham via Wikimedia Commons

What’s an inciting incident and what makes it so important?  Why are writing teachers always talking about them?

First of all, let’s get on the same page about what an inciting incident is.  It is that moment at the beginning of the story when something changes and sets the plot in motion, or, as Mary Kole puts it in Writing Irresistible Kidlit , it is “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”  This usually takes place at or around the end of the first chapter, sometimes sooner.

In Natalie Whipple’s Transparent (yes, the book I mentioned a couple weeks ago – it’s awesome!  Check it out!) Fiona’s father is trying to force her hand to get her to murder someone, and she has to run away or become a killer.  This catapults us into the story.  Although invisible Fiona has done her dad’s bidding before, she’s never had to kill anyone, and this pushes her and her mother to take action and run away.  It pulls Fiona and her mother out of their normal and into a world of conflicted plot awesomeness.

In Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us, Emma and Josh log on to the internet for the first time – and discover their Facebook pages, fifteen years in the future.  Facebook hasn’t even been thought of yet, but their careers, spouses, kids, and status updates are all there.  Every time they change something in their present, something in their futures changes, too.  Aside from the fact that this is such a cool concept, it also causes Emma and Josh to act very differently in order to create the futures they want.  They just don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.

In Ender’s Game, Ender is accepted into Battle School, and his life completely changes.  He is not allowed to see his family again for several years, and he’s going to be trained to be an isolated child warrior.  This moment defines him.

Why are these incidents so important?

  • They give the reader a feeling for the flavor of the book
  • They tell us something about the main character – and if they don’t tell us something about the main character, they should.
  • Most importantly, they kick off the plot of the story.

What are your favorite inciting incidents?  What else is important about this moment at the beginning of the story?

P.S. One of my favorite inciting incidents is the Reaping in The Hunger Games (awesomely plotted, Suzanne Collins!).

P.P.S. Check out my guest post over at The Art Abyss, How Perseverance Helps Creativity Blossom.

Awesome Moms in YA Fiction

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Cassandra Clare - Lily Collins - Lena Headey - Jocelyn Fray - Clary Fray - Novel Conclusions writing blog

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie poster via Google Images

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to 3 awesome moms in fiction.  Especially in YA fiction, moms with really deep connections to the heart of the story seem to be everywhere.  We frequently run across loving, intelligent mom characters (although sometimes they are not – that’s a different blog post), but what makes them integral to the story?

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry is brilliant and understanding and cooks dinner on her Bunsen burner.  Although Mrs. Murry is not a main character by any stretch of the imagination, her presence in the story is a constant reminder to the characters, while lost on their journey, that they have something to come home to, something to strive for.  The mother character plays a key role in thematically representing home.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling masterfully uses Harry’s mother Lily to evoke certain emotions in him.  We know very early on (so I don’t consider this a spoiler) that Lily died to protect Harry.  As we get further into the series, we learn more bits and pieces about Harry’s mother as Harry learns them.  Lily gradually becomes a more well-rounded character, and she comes to strongly represent love, something Professor Dumbledore is always bringing to Harry’s (reluctant) attention.  Lily’s love for Harry becomes the key that helps him to unlock a variety of things that I won’t get into because they would involve spoilers.  I would like to note that this is, of course, much clearer in the books than in the movies.

In Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (soon to be a super fun movie!), main character Clary finds out in short order that her mom, Jocelyn, was keeping some intense secrets – and that she was keeping some of those secrets to protect Clary from a seriously unpleasant fate.  Though Jocelyn has quite a bit more going on, story-wise, than the moms mentioned above, she wants to protect Clary above all else.  Even as a secondary character, her relationship with Clary helps drive the plot.  Her guardedness about her past acts as a foil to Clary’s openness and naiveté about the Shadowhunter world.  In addition to this, despite all the secrets, Clary still loves her mother dearly, and her mother still represents home to her in this new existence.

To sum up, what makes these awesome moms integral to their respective stories?  These moms help create some fantastic thematic depth to each of these stories.  Now, done poorly, mommy characters can be flat as Kansas, but done well, mother characters help their kiddos to shine as main characters.

What are some other well-written mom characters you’ve come across?  How did they affect their kids story-wise?

What Do Your Fears Say About You?

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Vincent Thomas Bridge via Wikimedia Commons

What do your fears say about you?  About your characters?  How do your characters react when they’re afraid?

This past week, I had to go to a restaurant in San Pedro for a work event.  San Pedro is the hub of the Port of LA/Long Beach, the largest port area on the west coast and home to the Vincent Thomas Bridge.  I freaked out a little on the way there when I saw the words “Vincent Thomas Bridge” on the directions.

I’m not normally afraid of heights, but this bridge FREAKS ME OUT because it is so high and so curved.  It feels like you’re looking over the edge of the horizon into nothingness.  It is 185 feet up at its highest point (egads!!!  That’s like 15 stories!).  I avoid it.  Avoiding it is not usually a problem since I rarely go down there, but I couldn’t skip this event.  I told myself I would get in the middle lane and grit my teeth and be done with it.  Fortunately, when I looked at the directions more closely, I realized I was just passing by the bridge.  At the event, my coworker A, who is more afraid of heights than I am, told my boss R and me (only half kidding) that she was going to turn around and not come if she had to drive over that bridge.  R, on the other hand, said he’d been really excited when he thought he might get to go over the bridge (at this point, A and I both gave him looks of horror).

This got me thinking about fear and how we react when we’re afraid.  My coworker A, my boss R, and I all had different reactions to the same event, having to drive over this crazy bridge.  A was planning to turn around and go home; I was going to grit my teeth and push through; and R was going to enjoy it.  How someone reacts to something shows us more about them than if we were just to say, for example, she’s afraid of heights.

In Jurassic Park (spoilers ahead, y’all), Michael Crichton uses fear to reveal traits about nearly every character.  Early on, after T-Rex shows up, the lawyer runs away and leaves the 2 kids all by themselves.  This underlines for us that the lawyer is a cowardly punk, and it also makes it more impressive when Dr. Grant comes to the kids’ rescue.  Crichton used this T-Rex experience to not only show us more about these 2 characters (the lawyer and Dr. Grant) but also to use the lawyer as a foil for Dr. Grant.  Later on, we see how greedy creep Dennis becomes impatient when he’s afraid – talking too much, driving erratically, and eventually bringing on his well-deserved demise.  We also come to find game keeper Muldoon is calm and collected in the face of fear; it becomes even scarier for us as the audience when the raptors have trapped Muldoon, the consummate tracker.

How can we apply this?  We show our characters taking action in the presence of fear.  What actions are they taking?  What does this show us about the character?  How is their objective influencing their actions in the presence of fear?

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Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent - Veronica Roth - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

Random Plot Generators or Another Way to Stave Off Writer’s Block

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Clint Eastwood - Random Plot Generator - Novel Conclusions - writing blog - writing tips - Christi Gerstle - plot scenario generator

Every Which Way But Loose via Google Images

Today, let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness and hilarity of random plot generators.  Picture this:  You stare at the blank page, and the blank page stares right back atcha.  After some time of this, you finally give in to work with some writing prompts.  However, you won’t work with just any writing prompts, you will use the fantastic random plot generators that pop up frequently in out of the way spots on the interwebs.

Random plot generators often get a bad rap for throwing out crazy, unrealistic plot ideas, but they can definitely help stave off writer’s block.  Although I can’t find the original source (sorry, y’all, Google let me down on this one) for matching this movie to this plot generator, Wikipedia tells us about an example from a retired version of The Official Movie Plot Generator, which has three vertical boxes, the first of which identifies a specific type of protagonist:

“A trucker who doesn’t play by the rules.” The middle box specifies a specific action on the part of the protagonist– “bareknuckle fights for money.” The bottom box specifies a specific type of antagonist, “accompanied by a mischievous orangutan.” By piecing these three elements together, the user obtains the odd sentence, “A trucker who doesn’t play by the rules bareknuckle fights for money, accompanied by a mischievous orangutan.” This plot sounds absurd, and it is — but it is also the plot of a movie starring Clint Eastwood — Every Which Way but Loose.

There are not only some really fun random plot generators out there in every genre you can imagine (such as this plot scenario generator, this genre plot generator, and this more creatively designed science fiction plot generator); character quirk generators exist, too.  Check out a fun example of character quirks from the character generator at Archetype Writing:

Your character is female.
One of your character’s cardinal traits is charisma.
The character’s greatest weakness is a fear of snakes.
The character’s most prized possession is a coin from the Roman Empire.

What do you all think of random plot generators?  Are they an amusing waste of time?  Or can they prompt actual, helpful ideas?

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