Tag Archives: character

When to Deep Six that story.

Writing may be a hobby, but if you’re publishing your books or stories, you have a responsibility to produce a quality story. I’ve got lots of articles on how to do that. What I want to address today is what to do when a story is awful.

I’m not talking normal first draft awful, but awful in the way that makes you stare at the screen and wonder What am I writing?

Now I know most authors go through this point somewhere in their story, mostly in what I call the swamp. That’s the hardest part of the book to write. No flashy battles, no introduction of interesting characters. The swamp is about the character flailing around in the final efforts to chase the LIE before they give in to the truth.

So how do you know if you’re stuck in the swamp or your story is awful?

I ask myself a few questions.

First and foremost – is the concept solid? The idea of basing a story on La Traviata featuring telepathic aliens and vampires might have looked great when you started. But can it carry an entire story or is it an extended gimmick? The easiest way to check is imagine your story without the characters being aliens or vampires. Will it still work? If it does, you’re writing a gimmick not a story. The way to fix this, if you want to is to make sure that being alien or vampire is essential to the plot, not in a side show way, but as it is involved in a major plot point way.

Second – Maybe you’re working the wrong character. The sidekick is a lot more interesting than the MC. You sigh every time you bring the MC on stage.  Maybe you’re secretly rooting for the villain. Examine your protagonist. Are they really the right person for the job?

The fix, and KM Weiland deals with this brilliantly, is simple. So go have a look and come back, please. 3 Ways to Choose the Right Protagonist

Third – do you have all the pieces of the plot in place? I’ve seen authors miss the inciting incident, or have it right at the beginning. Plot points out of order or missing entirely. Outline your story, just hitting the major points. Even ending the story before the mid-point. Have you covered each point? Have you made the scene do the right work? Again, KM Weiland talks about structure in great detail, so if you haven’t bookmarked her blog, you might want to.

Lastly – are you writing only one story? This might seem to be a strange question, but I’ve seen it happen. The author was creating two perfectly fine stories, but tried to cram them into one book. Not all melodies work together, and if your story is feeling like two bands playing different tunes. Look at your structure again. Have you doubled up on any of the parts of the structure? There should be only one inciting incident. The fix is to go through the story and separate them. Put one aside, work on the other, then go back. Let each breathe on its own. It can be a lot of work, but in the end, you have two books not one.

I’m going to give you a case study. I’m working on a short story where the main character is a troll. It also needs to show him as fair, generous, and kind. It was fun to write, but the further I got into the story, the worse it got. I was changing scenes so much I had trouble remembering everyone’s place. Then I got stuck and had no idea what had gone wrong.

The concept still intrigued me. Part of the story told of the troll’s coming to understand himself and his place in the world. Making him the antithesis of trolldom worked, and was necessary for the story to work. He’d learn and move toward a more complete view of the people around him. Particularly compassion for the trolls.

The troll needed to be the main character, it was the entire point of the story. But I had two other characters I really liked with very cool backstories. Their interaction got in the way of showing the troll’s character. I needed to move away from them. This is a short story, not a novel, there’s no room for two more strong characters and their story.

I outlined the story, refocusing on the troll as the one who acted at each of the plot points. The other characters had their part, but I’d severely cut them back. I expect they will show up in another story, or the short will become a novel and I’ll have time to develop them the way they deserve.

I ended up renaming the first version with Deep Six in the file name, and rewrote the story following the outline and keeping a laser focus on the main character. I’ve arrived at the point where I’d given up in the first run. I’d thrown the MC off a cliff. But the reason this time moved the story forward and it became a turning point in the story. More importantly, it no longer functioned as just a fun thing to do to my character.

The second run at the story is flowing much better and I know how I’m going to get from where I am to where I need to be for the finale. The story has been rescued from the drawer and given new life.

In summary, a story may be truly awful, but only if you go through these three steps, and it’s still awful, should you give up on it entirely. Even then, don’t delete, you never know when some chunk of that awfulness will be exactly what you need in a new setting.

I never throw anything out. Words don’t take up a lot of space on your hard-drive, and there is no worse feeling than wanting that snippet and finding you no longer have it.

 

Character – More than a great head of hair

I dream I’m walking through the grocery store. Look there’s a sale on Mean Girls! Jocks are buy one, get one free. Someone’s come out with a brand new product. It’s the Talent Show with a Sad Backstory and it comes in two flavours. I’m still trying to decide whether to risk it when I wake up.

It would certainly be easier if we could buy our characters ready made and needing just a bit of a warm up to be ready for our story. But if our characters are pre-cut and wrapped for us, what is left for us to do? There’s no room for them to grow. A Mean Girl #4 with the option to repent at the end of the story will only do what she is programmed to do.

There are sites on the web that help you get to know your characters. You can fill out questionnaires about them. What do they like? What’s their hair colour? What’s the size of their…oops better leave that one out it’s going to be a G rated story so it’s not like they’re going to get to use it. This is useful as a first introduction to your character. Kind of Match.com for characters and writers. But it only goes so far and then the age old question makes itself heard. Where do we go from here?

So we have a Biker who has blue eyes, red hair, listens to Paul Anka and cries during Little House on the Prairie reruns. But how is he going to react when you spill your latte grande on his leather pants? Even harder, what kind of dialogue can he have with the Emo girl who listens to Evanescence, has blue hair and red eyes and laughs all the way through Nightmare on Elm Street?

Let’s leave the quiz for a moment. Think about your best friend. What’s the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll bet you that it is not their hair colour/eye colour, what they wear, or how big their… oops still G rated. The first thing you thing of is probably a story. Maybe about the time you water ballooned your brother, or you got lost in the mall. When we think about people we know. We attach more importance to shared experience than we do to physical attributes. Sure we might be able to describe them to the police if they’re still lost in the mall, but when we’re talking about them with other friends, it is the stories that we tell.

So, back to the characters in the stories that we are writing. If we only think of them in terms of their physical characteristics and personality traits, they will come out flat and uninteresting. Creating a character is about more than following a recipe. We need to hear their stories. Why does Biker dude like Paul Anka? What the reason for the tears during reruns? Why is Emo girl hiding behind those red contacts? If we want them to talk we need to create a reason for them to have a conversation. We create a story that they will tell about each other. As their relationship develops the collection of common stories grows. We don’t have to put them all in our writing, but we need to know that they are there.

The funny thing is once we start listening to the stories behind our stories, characters become pretty easy. They become organic and rounded. They do odd things and go in strange directions. People who read our stories don’t feel that the characters are just pieces being moved on a board. They get interested in what is happening to these people. They root for them and they want them to succeed. Once you have your reader fully engaged with your characters, you have them hooked.

Character development is the next logical step. They learn from their experiences, just like we do. Ask yourself what you would learn if you went through what your characters had to. Then apply that insight to the way the character acts, talks and thinks. Now, not only are your characters three dimensional, but they grow.

So if the dream at the start was your character’s, why are they dreaming about cardboard people? What is going on that put them in that dream and not a different one? What are they going to learn from this dream.

And if this is a grocery store, where are the mangos?

Weight, or Keeping things in Balance

Weight is the term I use to talk about how important something should be in a story. In a lot of stories authors feel that the only way to make their characters real is to create some tragedy that they have to survive. The problem with this approach is that some things are heavier than others.

Killing a parent or a sibling is not something that a character will get over in a few days, weeks or even months. The same is true of other physical and emotional traumas. If you put some tragic in your story for effect, but then don’t deal with its lasting consequences your story will be out of balance. Instead of making your character look tragic it will make them appear uncaring. That can be a useful tool if you want to portray someone as a sociopath, but for the average character you need to think ahead about how the pain/grief/anger is going to change the way they interact with the world.

Conversely, a relatively minor occurrence shouldn’t be the case of a drastic change in the character. The exception would be the use of imbalance for comic purposes. The example would be a cheerleader who wanders blithely through life until she breaks a nail and goes thermo-nuclear. Exaggeration is one of the mainstays of comedy.

The other way that weight comes into play in a story is more important in longer works. This is how much time the author spends on something early in the story should be balanced by that thing’s importance in the conclusion of the story. If you spend six pages describing a log floating in the ocean, that log better have some importance toward the end. If it doesn’t the reader will be unconsciously watching for it and will get increasingly impatient. It is better if you don’t make it obvious that you are giving a lot of weight to something early on, but it can be a simple as giving it an extra adjective, or mentioning it more than one or two times.

It is amazing what the unconscious mind will store away for later. An example would be the bow in Hunger Games. A lot of words in different places go into showing what a great shot Katniss is with the bow, yet early on in the Games, she doesn’t have the bow. Then when she does, she hardly uses it. That way when it does come into play the reader thinks, “Ah, now that’s more like it!” and you have a satisfied reader willing to stretch their imagination just a little further.

The corollary of spending too much time on something of no importance is not giving a vital bit of information enough time. If you are going to have your heroine slay the werewolf with a silver knitting needle in the final battle of your book, you had better have made more than a passing reference to that needle in the second chapter. Again you don’t have to make it obvious, but mentioning it a few times or giving it some extra description will set it apart enough that the reader will think “Of course, she had it the whole time!” and be satisfied.

It is possible to use weight to misdirect the reader. I’ve read a few stories in which great time and care was spent describing a sword that was to be the hero’s salvation in the final battle.  Only to have the thing shatter so the hero needs to scramble to get the real magic sword. The interesting thing was there were also a couple of clues scattered here and there to hint that the hero had the wrong sword.

Mastering the concept of weight in writing will make it easier to guide your story and your reader to a satisfying conclusion.