Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering
When it comes to feeling sympathy, our emotion are hardwired to be triggered by the distress of others.
It can be tempting to avoid putting your characters (especially the ones you like) in too much pain and agony. Whether physical or mental, any kind of suffering can feel like a betrayal of characters you’ve become very fond of.
Unfortunately, if you don’t put them through the wringer their problems will seem minor and not worth worrying about.
Forcing Readers To Like Characters
The story you’re writing may have the kind of lead character that people automatically root for. He may be a good guy doing the right thing; or a decent woman trying to sort out something that needs sorting. Heroic behaviour and overcoming adversity can bypass the whole need to tell the reader this is someone to cheer on. It’s obvious.
But they might be a little more complex than that. Maybe flawed, maybe even a bit awkward. Or they may not get to their heroic moment until much later in the story. How do you get the reader on board as quickly as possible without having to add ‘stick with it, things get good later’ at the bottom of each page?
Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff
Often the reason a scene doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to have any life to it, is because what’s happening in the scene isn’t very interesting.
People may be doing things, moving around, attempting to reach their goals, but how they’re going about is too straightforward or too easy.
There are various ways to achieve things in life that are reasonable and sensible. You want to be a doctor, you go to medical school and study hard. If you portray that within a story it may feel realistic and true, but it won’t be very gripping.
There is more to a good story than holding a mirror up to life.
What Episodic TV Teaches Novelists
After the last post on episodic writing a lot of people mentioned TV as an example of where an episodic structure works very well. So I thought I’d address that.
The first thing to bear in mind is that just because something is delivered in an episodic format, doesn’t mean it’s episodic narratively speaking.
If I take a novel and split it up into sections, and then let you read one chapter a week, then that’s an episodic way to read the story, but it makes no difference to the story itself.
Episodic Storytelling Is A Problem
The problem with episodic storytelling is that often the writer can’t really see the problem with it.
Stuff is happening to the main character, as it’s supposed to. Maybe even quite interesting stuff. Different scenes may not be directly connected, but they’re still happening to the same person, so it feels like there’s a connection.
But when you have a character who goes from one thing to another seemingly at random, what you end with is a character who has nothing better to do. It’s not very captivating when the story meanders and the main character doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Secrets Of Language Revealed!
The point of language is to communicate your thoughts. The rules of language are there to clarify structure and prevent misreading. If you can communicate what you want to communicate without following those rules, that’s perfectly okay.
However, it’s easier to follow the rules because that’s why they’re there—to clarify your meaning—and most people are already aware of them.
And, generally, if you’re not sure if it should be a semi-colon or an em-dash, is the adverb necessary, does the repetition work as emphasis or is it clumsy, chances are you’re over-thinking it.
I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it is another way of saying you don’t really know what you’re trying to say.
Words: The More The Muddier
The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.
Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.
If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).
On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.
The Single-Mindedness of the Novel Writer
Working out if you’re meant to be a writer is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do.
Talent doesn’t come into it. The truth is, if you are a moderately intelligent, imaginative person, chances are you have the ability (at your best) to write something someone somewhere will want to read.
Of course, connecting with those ideal readers isn’t quite so easy, but that’s another post entirely.
No, the way you can determine whether you are a novel writer is quite straightforward. You have to write a book. See, it’s easy. And also very hard.
Characters Should Think Progressively
Written fiction allows access to a character’s mind in a way that no other medium can. What someone thinks often gives a new perspective on events, can reveal aspects you hadn’t considered, or add depth to the way you perceive a character.
Often this is presented as a snapshot of the character’s current state of mind. This is what’s happening, and this is what the MC thinks about it. But what makes a character interesting isn’t just who they are or what they do, it’s how they get there.
And while ‘it’s the journey not the destination’ may seem obvious, knowing exactly which part of the journey is the interesting bit may not.
After The First Draft: Part 3
A short series looking at how to approach revisions. Part 3: Seeds need water, water needs seeds.
So far we’ve looked at tweaking the start and end (where information tends to bunch up), and making sure characters have identifiable story-world reasons for what they’re doing.
Another element worth looking at early on is establishing the tone. Not the overall tone of the story, I’m talking about the tone of each scene. The specific tone I’m talking about is one that indicates this will be a story worth reading.