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Making Shallow Characters Relatable

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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.

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A Sense of Home

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Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

5 Ways to Tighten Up Your Plot

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The Ramifications of Time Travel via tapiture.com

There are many different successful writing styles that get books to fly off the shelves, but most successful fiction books need one thing to really work: a solid plot.  In my opinion, calling an author a tight plotter is one of the highest compliments.  A few authors that are great at this are Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin, among others.

With a tight plotter, we’re hooked into the story, we encounter some crazy obstacles along the way (that totally make sense at the end of the story – I’m waiting on this one with Game of Thrones, Mr. Martin), and we solve whatever we’ve come to solve, while tying up most loose ends in ways that push the plot forward.  I like to think of it as a complex puzzle that doesn’t fully make sense until you put in the last few pieces – that’s some classy plotting.

How can I tighten up my plot?  Of course, I can’t give any in-depth advice about this without actually reading what you’ve written.  However, a few things generally always apply.

  1. First of all, make sure you actually have a plot.  This is a post in itself, so I’ll point you to a couple of experts in the meantime.  See Nathan Bransford’s Do You Have a Plot? and Mary Kole’s Writing a Hot Plot.
  2. Kill Your Darlings!  What does this mean?  (And why do I hear it so often???)  This means that there may be a few extra secondary characters just hanging out in your story that don’t really do anything for your main character or your story line.  If the character is present in your story, their presence should matter.  Does this character affect my main character in any important way?  Does this character move the plot forward?  If your main character has a best friend and a sister that fill the same role, perhaps that character can be combined.  If you have an evil neighbor named after that teacher you hated just to spite her, perhaps that character should be cut.
  3. Are the stakes high enough?  Obviously the stakes will be different depending on the genre.  However, are your stakes high enough for the reader to care?  If, in Jurassic Park, the story was just about whether or not the dinosaur theme park itself was viable, that’s not particularly exciting.  When suddenly our main characters’ lives hang in the balance, that changes the stakes.
  4. On the other side of the coin, are the stakes laughably high?  Remember to work within the confines of the world you have built.  It’s okay for your characters’ goals to seem a bit unreasonable (like Katniss surviving the Hunger Games or Scarlett O’Hara getting her family through the Civil War alive), but not laughably unreasonable (like Katniss learning to fly or Scarlett becoming president during the Civil War) – unless you’re writing parody or satire, of course.
  5. Cut out extraneous scenes.  How?  Go through your story scene by scene.  Does each scene push the plot forward and/or show readers something they must know in order for the story to work?  If this scene doesn’t fit those criteria, why is it in my story?  If you can’t answer the “why,” the scene might be ripe for the chopping block.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  What else can we do to tighten up plot?  What can we add/take out/change to make our plots tighter?

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What Makes Love Triangles So Compelling?

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Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca (Dante’s Inferno) – via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been pretty absent from the blogosphere recently as I’ve been down for the count with that cold/flu thing that’s been going around.  If you get it, hit that Vitamin C, stat!  Anyhow, in honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day, we’re going to chat about some famous love triangles in literature.  What makes them so compelling?  And why do they seem to be in every other story?

If you take a little tour through past and current popular fiction, love triangles abound like wizards at Hogwarts.  Before all the tween girls this side of Friday were oohing and aahing over Jacob, Bella, and Edward (Go Team Jacob!  Yes, I confess I did read the books…), some pretty justifiably famous love triangles reigned in literature, with a few things in common.

Who can forget Darcy, Elizabeth, and Wickham?  In Pride and Prejudice, while we’re on Elizabeth’s side the whole time, we watch Darcy and Wickham alternately lose and win her favor.  In Gone with the Wind, we’re pulling for Rhett the whole time as Scarlett pines after a guy named Ashley (Scarlett, honey, you should’ve known he wasn’t the one as soon as you heard his girly name.  Sigh.).  Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence gives us a heart-wrenching love triangle with a much sadder ending.  When Newland falls in love with his fiancée May’s married, scandalous cousin Ellen in the 1870s, bad times ensue.  You can go further back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and even the Arthurian legends of Guinevere and Lancelot falling in love behind Arthur’s back.

We could go on and on here, but what makes these love triangles work?  These love triangles compel us to turn page after page because the emotions feel real and immediate.  It doesn’t hurt that love triangles naturally create tension, an essential ingredient for plot.  When love triangles are done well, when the author upholds the emotional integrity of the story, we as readers can’t put the book down.

Elizabeth Bennet’s original hatred of Darcy and her infatuation with Wickham were as real to us as later her slowly dawning love for Darcy and her disgust for Wickham feel real.  We live through these events as Elizabeth does because Austen upholds the emotional integrity of the story.  She doesn’t step outside the fourth wall to preach at us or to tell us what Elizabeth or Darcy or any of the characters ought to think.  She lets the characters lead the story, rather than letting the story lead the characters.  And it doesn’t hurt that Darcy is pretty hot and pretty rich…

Which love triangles do you love?  Which love triangles stand out to you in fiction?

The 10 Most Read Books in the World

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Happy 2013!!!  Today is the first day of Lucky 13.  Are you excited?  I can’t hardly wait!

I thought this would be a good time to start out the new year with a super fun infographic from Business Insider, The Top Ten Most Read Books in the World:

Most Read Books - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Top 10 Most Read Books Infographic, via Business Insider

I’ve read at least part of every book on this list except for Mao’s little red book (and I think it’s fairly safe to assume I can continue on just fine without reading that little Communism handbook).  2 things struck me about this list:

1.  These books are dramatically different.  This is great as it means that there’s lots of room at the top!  As a reading public, we aren’t stuck inside any one genre — we read lots of different things.

2.  Some of these books are relatively recent, which means that this list is ever-changing.  In a few years, your book could be on the list!

Have you read any of these “most read” books?  Which were your favorites?

P.S. Speaking of the new year, there’s a great new year’s resolutions post over at bottledworder.

Finding Character Motives

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We’ve all heard what a motivation is, but how do we find our character’s motive?

Characters and their motives focus a story.  What is a character fighting for or against?  Although not true in all cases, most stories can be stripped down to be rooted in love (fighting for) or fear (fighting against).

A Wrinkle in Time

Courtesy of Amazon.com

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg is fighting to find her father and bring him home — a motive based in love, her love for her father and her family.  Though quite a few twists hop in front of this motive, her desire to bring her father home and reunite her family gets the story going.

In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, though the love story has gotten the headlines (and really, who doesn’t love Rhett Butler?), Scarlett’s primary motive is survival — surviving the war, surviving General Sherman’s fire, surviving the way her family’s land has been ravaged, surviving heartbreak. She is fighting against humiliation, starvation, and death — a motive based in fear, at least at first.

Love and fear need not be narrowly defined by familial or romantic love or fear of death or physical pain; they can be more basic, like love of a home or love of honor, fear of shame or humiliation.  What other books stick out immediately as being rooted in love or fear?

P.S.  Check out the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time (adapted by Hope Larson) here.

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