Getting Characters Going
It doesn’t matter what kind of character is at the centre of a story, they will all face the same fundamental issue. Something needs to be done and they have to be the one to do it.
The world needs saving, a toy needs buying, or a heart needs winning, but before you get to that, first the character has to make the determination that they are going to act rather than give up and go home.
Whether they succeed or fail depends on the story you want to tell, but whether they try is not up for debate, because otherwise you wouldn’t have a story. So you have to have a character that decides to act and keep going no matter what. But what is that makes them unable to walk away? Understanding what drives them will provide you with a core element of the character, and the driving force behind your narrative.
Q:Have you any tips on how to write a scene in which the point of view character is extremely disoriented (in first or third person)? It seems like it would be necessary to either write incoherently or drop out of the character's POV. Is there a third way?
You can not write the scene as it happens, but have another character tell the MC what they did after the fact. Not only will the telling be easier to read but the juxtaposition of what the MC thought happened and what actually happened can provide humour/embarrassment/disbelief/denial/whatever.
There are a number of other ways to approach this issue and I’ll try to do a post on it at some point, but here’s a couple off the top of my head:
It helps if the scene has a point to it. Look at the scene without the disorientation, is it interesting? If it’s a dazed and confused man not knowing where he is, then what you’ve actually got is a man walking in circles for two and half pages, and who wants to read about that? Putting too much focus on the state of mind often masks the fact the scene just isn’t very interesting.
Just because he doesn’t know what’s going on doesn’t mean nothing is going on is story terms.Give the character a purpose or a mission and make sure the reader is aware of it (even if the character isn’t) and it will be a lot easier to stay engaged. An end point often makes a difficult section easier to bear. As does brevity.
Not having the character be on their own is also a good idea since isolation is tough to keep interesting. It may seem unavoidable but rarely is. Somebody else in the scene, even when viewed through a wonky POV, can add a lot of (narrative) stability.
Q:Any advice on writing a comical tragedy?
I’d say the best way to get good at writing dark comedy is to read a lot of it. This kind of story is hard to get right, and it’s easy to confuse an audience (was that supposed to be funny?), but submerging yourself in it helps set the tone, both in your head and on the page.
More importantly it will also help you see there’s a more to a story than the extreme moments (whether sad or happy). That isn’t just padding, the other stuff is there to provide structure and and a sense of reality to what can often be absurd events. Stories are made up of moments, but those moments have to be strung together. That tends to be the weakness of most humorous writers (with or without the tragedy),
Having said that, it’s still very tricky. Having a dark sense of humour doesn’t always translate. But a coherent story with a good sense of cause and effect will help keep readers engaged. Whether they actually get what you’re going for, well there’s only one way to find out.
Q:You're writing advice is some of the best I've ever read. I just finished your short story and BRAVO, I really enjoyed it! Your post on plot made the general advice of most of my creative writing teachers soo much clearer-- they too have often told me that characters need to WANT something, but the way you explained how this want needs to be hindered by something- well, it's all making sense to me now. I'd like to know, when you begin a story, do you find outlining to be beneficial?
Personally I find outlining to be very useful, but not to plan out what happens in detail (that never seems to work for me, things always change) but in working out the surprising twists and turns. This takes a lot of daydreaming and pondering (very hard work, I tend to need a nap afterwards, and often during). Coming up with unexpected solutions to problems often fuels all the other parts in between because I can’t wait to get to the cool bit I thought of. Outlining, I feel, should be fun and creative, and force you to be your most inventive.
All Character, No Plot
Occasionally I will get questions from new writers and by far the most common concern plot. The aspiring novelist will have a very strong grasp of who they want to write about and where proceedings will be set, but actually coming up with a plot seems daunting.
For some people the events that take place are the first things they come up with, but if that isn’t how it works for you then having an intimate knowledge of your main character is still an excellent route to working out what the story will be about.
Bear in mind that even the most inexperienced of writers is still a hugely experienced reader. We have all been reading, hearing and watching stories for many years. But while everyone feels confident in their ability to judge whether those stories are good, bad or indifferent, when it comes to our own writing it becomes much more tricky to gauge.
If you have a strong sense of how a story will go that’s all well and good, but if you don’t then here are three steps that will help demystify the process.
What Struggle Means For Character
As readers we like to see characters struggle. It’s entertaining and thrilling. But that’s what it’s like for the reader. For the character, struggle serves another, less obvious purpose. One that can easily be overlooked.
When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it is frail and weak. But it has to use up all the energy it has to break out of the little prison its caterpillar-self made.
However, if you were to lend a helping hand and make an incision in the side of the cocoon, enabling the butterfly to emerge quickly and easily, the butterfly would die.
Because that immense effort isn’t just there to make life hard, it’s there to give the butterfly the strength it needs to be able to fly. By struggling against its surroundings, the new body is able to stretch and flex and gain power.
Struggle provides the conditioning necessary to meet future challenges.
Story, Character and Contradiction
Human beings are full of contradictions. We want what we don’t have. We get tired of what we struggled to get. We say one thing but do another.
It’s not just people who behave this way, throughout the universe things are happening that aren’t supposed to be happening. We think we know how something works and then it does something completely different.
We like patterns, we like working out the rules and being able to predict events. But there’s always an exception to the rule. An anomaly will arise. The unexpected will turn up with alarming regularity. And when this happens our reaction is to take a closer look. We are fascinated by contradiction and want to examine it for answers, even when there are none to be had.
This urge is powerful and is just as strong in the fictional world as it is in the real one.
The Three Dimensions of Character
A well-rounded character who feels like a real person is obviously what we all want to write. Sometimes this naturally occurs, maybe because the character is based on a real person or on an archetype of the genre. In some cases they may be based on another fictional character from a favourite book.
The writer feels comfortable with writing about them because they know exactly who they’re writing about.
There’s no reason why that approach won’t work. Obviously there’s the danger of creating a cliché or stereotype, but even then that can work if the story is strong enough.
If, however, you want to write a character from the ground up, a character who is as real as any person living, yet wholly your own creation, then there are three aspects you need to know in depth: the physical, sociological and psychological.
Double Dipping Tension
Tension is an important part of any story. You want the problems gripping your characters to also grip your readers. But tension is not a one off thing that you can create and leave to do its job.
If tension remains at a steady state it decreases over time. If a guy is in a locked room waiting for the killer to come back and finish the job, and he waits, and waits, then he’s eventually going to stop freaking out. He might even get a little bored.
You either have to face the problem (leading to some kind of resolution) or escalate the tension in some way. But even then not all tension is created equal.
Motivating Your Inner Writer
You’re writing your story, maybe you’re a few days in or perhaps a few weeks, and suddenly you feel the compulsion to do the dishes. Or the laundry. Or tidy up that closet. And if, like me, you aren’t overly fond of housework or tedious chores, it may occur to you that it’s rather odd that you now feel compelled to do something you dislike rather than do the thing you’ve loved since you were a kid.
Not that writing can’t be a frustrating endeavour, but why would you actually want to do that menial job you usually find any excuse to avoid doing? Why not go do something fun? Or nothing at all? Seems a bit strange, no?
There is in fact a pretty simple reason why, and once you understand it, it can actually make it easier to get your head back in the game.