We all know our characters actions need to be guided by some sort of motivation. A character that simply reacts gets frustrating, and characters that have no logical consistency are usually unbelievable. So here’s the question for your character. Why would they cross a road?
My 5 suggestions:
1. Greed – They realised that by crossing the road there was something in it for them. Either something waiting for them or something to be gained. Either way, greed is a powerful motivator and most characters would cross a road for it (some would cross deserts, mountains, or outer space for it).
2. Love – Isn’t that sweet? Their true love is on the other side or they will prove their love by crossing. Doesn’t matter, either way, love is a powerful motivator.
3. Loss – Someone who has lost their way or lost a love one may cross the road just wondering whether the other side offers them anything to take away the pain. Or they may have made a promise to someone who is now gone and crossing the road will help them keep it.
4. Curiosity – Not such a good motivator because usually it is used when there is no good reason for characters to act in a certain way and so they ‘just want to see’ something. Still, if you’ve established your character as someone who likes to stick their nose into other people’s business you can probably make curiosity work.
5. The next logical step – If your character is on route somewhere then crossing the road might simply be the next logical step on their journey.
The point being here that characters need a reason to do things and as long as you, the writer, are clear about why they are doing something and it makes sense to the audience, everyone will end up happy. We usually don’t wonder why our characters cross roads but the same could be said of opening a door, running up a flight of stairs, taking that trip somewhere, or any of the other decisions our characters have to make.
What is your answer? Why would your character cross the road?
First things first, I have to thank Cassandra for this opportunity to write a guest post on her blog. I’m an admirer of her writing style and I thoroughly enjoyed her novel, Death’s Daughter (a review of which can be read on my own blog, The Rhapsodist).
As an amateur reviewer and aspiring writer, I’ve gone into quite a few stories over the years—short stories, novels, TV shows, films, and even a few video games. Some of these stories entertained me, some of them were thought-provoking, and a fortunate few were able to do both. And there were more than a few stories that didn’t really grab me at all.
I’ve had some time to think about this matter and the conclusion I’ve reached is that it helps to really know the premise of your story and flesh it out as best you can.
It’s all too easy to have an idea. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, and then wham! You can see it all in your mind’s eye—the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict, the setting. And you go to your notebooks or your computer to start to writing it all out… and you realize it’s not the best thing you’ve ever done. The premise is kinda cool, maybe you’ve got a few bits of dialogue that are too hilarious not to be used, but not much else stands out.
So you stick it in your drawer or save your notes on your hard drive, and go back to the rest of your life.
I think some of the best stories are built off those randomly-written notes. You start collecting them after a while and maybe you begin to mix and match things up—the hero in this story idea is now the villain in another concept, the sidekick maybe gets some real development, and you might jump through ten thousand different genres and sub-genres before you find something you really like.
Revision is a painful process, but it wouldn’t hurt if it didn’t care about producing your best material. And I can think of so many stories I’ve read or experienced where it seems like the author didn’t want to bother with a second or third draft. However, if you don’t put yourself through the misery of producing a really good story, you just might be giving that pain over to your readers, who’ll be miserably picking their way through your tale, trying desperately to understand what’s going on.
But how will you know what’s your best story? Well, that’s something every writer has to decide for himself or herself. You might produce ten thousand non-starts before you hit on the One Good Idea that forms the heart of your best work. It will be whatever gets you writing more and writing better. And when you reach something like that, you can sit back and smile, basking in the glow of your creation.
Just don’t smile for too long, because then come the editors, the literary agents, and those critical readers who will tear your beloved work to shreds. And your cycle of pain and beauty begins all over again, and again, and again…
Note from Cassandra: Thanks Alex for your wonderful post today, and for all your support with Death’s Daughter. And thanks for hosting me today as I continue my blog tour.
I’m currently faced with a decision. To keep agent hunting with my MS in its current form, or to overhaul the MS and see what happens. Technically I’ve only been rejected from four agents, which isn’t bad and two of them were not form rejections, which is better than when I first started trying to get Death’s Daughter published but still, I’m tossing up in my mind whether I need to go back and refine the work or whether to give a few more agents a try.
I guess what it is going to come down to is whether or not I actually think I can make the MS better than it is. One of the comments I received was that the beginning felt a little generic and so there is the question of whether I can change the beginning and make it better. If the answer is yes, then I should. However, I started sending the MS out because at the time I thought I had reached the limit of what I could do without further guidance and I was happy with how the story worked.
Before I send out another submission I will definitely be re-reading the MS, particularly focusing on the opening. I will probably make minor changes (just because I never read anything I’ve written without changing something), though I may be facing another round of rewrites.
At the end of the day, I can only do what I can do. As long as I’m happy I’ve put my best effort out into the world, things will be alright.
How do you know when you need to revise more? How do you decide your MS is ready?
In other news, if you missed the start of the tour:
Join me on the 7th on Sonya Clark’s blog.
Shiny, glittering, distractions.
It is how magicians get away with their tricks and it is frequently how movies manage to make even the weakest of stories seem somewhat plausible.
It would seem that in writing, distractions can’t save a poorly written story because you don’t have all the shine and glitter – you certainly don’t have an amazing soundtrack and special effects.
Still, many writers seem to use a bit of shine.
Colourful humour and language to throw the reader off the scent of poorly executed scene.
Flowery language and description to gloss over the massive plot hole.
Throw another dead body into a scene that was feeling like it was going nowhere.
Introduce a new character to hide the fact that one of your other characters has suddenly had a personality transplant.
And the thing is, as an audience member, you frequently allow yourself to be distracted by the shiny because it is fun. Because even though you know that you are being had, that something is missing, what you are being given is still enjoyable and there isn’t really any fun in pulling it to pieces. You know what is going on and you let it happen. At least when it is still enjoyable.
You start to really question the shiny when that is all you are being given. There is nothing else underneath and it isn’t really going anywhere. All you’ve been given is the glossy overcoat and there is no substance. As a reader, a lack of overall substance just can’t be tolerated.
So what shiny distractions do you enjoy reading? Which ones have you used? When won’t you accept a shiny distraction?
Alice recently tried to do six impossible things before breakfast and no one accused her of being too pessimistic in labelling them impossible.
Impossible seems to be a big no-no at the moment. It seems by pointing out that something is impossible you are being overly negative.
It may not seem like a nice thing to do but sometimes pointing out the highly improbably nature of certain outcomes can be a kindness. Of course it can also be tactless, mean, cruel and spiteful. I guess it all comes down to motivation behind the statement and the delivery.
But whether or not you like the word impossible, do your characters? Are they the negative type who likes to think that doors are closing everywhere around them when in point of fact they have millions of unrealised opportunities? Or are they optimistic to the point of insanity? Somewhere inbetween perhaps?
When people discuss character they talk about motivation and they talk about appearance and goals and all of these other sorts of things but the idea of them being an optomist or pessimist doesn’t seem to come up. The basic underlying personality that should motivate most of what they do.
I’ve actually been trying to figure this out for a character from one of my WIP’s that I’ve been playing with lately. The character is inconsistent at the best of times but I’m starting to see an underlying logic in her actions. She’s ridiculously optimistic. Her erratic actions and seemingly illogical behaviour actually come down to the fact that she genuinely believes that things will work out okay so you might as well jump. Now that I know where she’s coming from I can probably clear up some of her more bewildering actions and make it all kind of work out okay.
How about your characters? Optimists or pessimists?
I’m going to preface this post by pointing out that I really dislike animal movies. That is, movies where the main character is an animal that is befriended by a human and does a range of cutesy/mischievous things before ultimately solving some massive problem and healing all the wrongs in their friendly human’s life while giving us some moral message. There are a lot of these movies out there and they are well loved movies but they’ve never grabbed me as an audience member. Mostly because cute didn’t cut it for me as a replacement for story or character development even when I was a child and the overly moralistic message of so many of these movies seemed really condescending.
That said, I do like animals in stories. They can serve a valuable role and if well written can even have all the attributes of a full fledged character. There is a difference between a movie with an animal in it and an animal movie. Same with books.
When I consider using an animal in a story I usually think about the following:
1. Is the animal’s presence actually adding anything to the story? A means of transport, companionship, comfort, finding something, revealing something, etc.
2. Could a human character serve the same purpose better?
3. Is the animal actually acting in the way an animal would or are they simply a human character dressed up like an animal?
4. If the animal is magical and can talk, are they still acting in the way an animal would or is there some cross over between the animal characteristics and human characteristics? And is there any point behind this cross over?
5. Is the animal becoming simply a cute distraction from the plot?
Inserting an animal as a character for me is like inserting any other character. They need to have a purpose and serve some sort of function in the plot. They need to relate to the other characters and if possible those relationships should grow and change as the story progresses.
What are your thoughts on animals as characters? Or animal movies for that matter.
We could probably agree that very little writing is actually bad in the sense that at least words are getting written and it is a lot easier to make bad writing good than to make a blank page turn magically into good writing. However, if you’ve decided once and for all that what you’ve written is terrible and all you want to do is make it go away, here are five things to try that just might make you feel better.
1. Line the bird cage, rat cage, any other animal cage you can think of, with the print outs. Technically this is recycling and not only will the writing be well and truly gone, you’ll get that warm and tingly feeling from saving the planet.
2. Blow it up on the screen and then print it out. Cut up all the words and then stick them back together in random order. Read repeatedly to whomever you can trap long enough.
3. Cat toy. This one I have actually done. Cats love chasing scrunched paper, particularly over hard surfaces because the paper makes a great scratching sound that keeps them intrigued for minutes. Once they start getting bored all you have to do is throw it again and they’ll dive after it. If you really feel the need you could probably read the writing to your cat first, then scrunch it and throw it.
4. Art work. I don’t study art and don’t know what the style is (I could probably have googled it but I wasn’t really in the mood) but you can always paste various parts of your writing into the background of your painting. Call it something depressing and hang it up somewhere prominent.
5. Finally – something actually useful to do with bad writing – put it in a nice yellow folder on your desk top called ‘Junk’ and save it for the day when you just might decide you can do something with it.
What do you do with ‘bad’ writing?
I was thinking the other day about my post on the sycophant and that actually got me thinking about my most recent reading (I’m currently working my way back through Eddings, again, I know). What I started wondering was how many times should you remind your reader about the nature of a character (either through action or through other character descriptions). It seems that if you endless preface everything the character does by a reminder about why you like/don’t like them eventually your reader is going to get sick of being treated like a child with no attention span but if you don’t put enough cues and reminders in you risk your reader forgetting key points about that character.
In relation to my own writing I’ve noticed that I have a lot of reminders in first drafts. Most of my ‘abandoned’ projects are full of these prompts (some in bold for my reference so I remember what I was trying to convey about the character at the time). One in particular has something on nearly every single page to remind the reader that character S is meant to be unstable. Other characters hint at it, she does something that not clear minded person would do, an earlier incident is referenced, something is hidden from her because she may not be trustworthy. Every single page. Okay, I may have missed two pages because she wasn’t involved in either scene but you get the point.
Wouldn’t reading that just drive you up the wall? Wouldn’t you want to ask the author – how dumb do you think I am? You just told me she was unstable, you showed it clearly, move on with the story already.
At the same time, if she was called unstable, did one slightly zany thing and then consistently acted normally throughout the story, when her instability became essential to the plot, the reader may have forgotten it entirely and wonder what planet the author was on when they wrote that critical scene.
This brings me to Eddings (awesome epic fantasy writer that he is) and his use of provisional reminders. Mostly with the Ellenium trilogy I’ve noticed that as each character is introduced they are given, or demonstrate to have, a number of very specific character traits. These recur periodically but not to the point where the story is stagnating in flags and pointers. However, if a character is absent for multiple chapters, upon their return, one of the other characters will usually make mention of having missed something about them, or they will almost immediately do something that reminds you of their character traits. Also, at the beginning of the second and third books, the first time a character is reintroduced the protagonist makes a point of considering his companions but he does it in a way that isn’t too intrusive to the story and it is a pretty quick recap.
I think Eddings found that balance between reminding the reader of the critical points without getting endlessly repetitious, and he’s disguised his reminders for the most part or at least managed to weave it into part of the story.
So, writers and readers out there, what are your thoughts? Do you like to be reminded or do you like to move on with the plot? Is finding a balance the key?
I seldom read over what I’ve written immediately after I write it. Mostly because I usually hate every single word and delete it rather than giving myself the space I need to read it and see the good in it and preserve the good while carefully editing.
That said, I read a scene that I drafted the other day immediately after finishing it. Not so much because I wanted to delete it but because I had a nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong and the feeling wouldn’t let go of me until I’d read it. For once I didn’t reach for the delete key right away. Instead I started thinking through all the sensible questions. What was I trying to accomplish with this scene? What perspective was I trying to tell the story from? How did this scene fit into the overall story I was trying to write?
Then I reached for the delete key. Not because I hated what I had written but because I suddenly knew exactly what was bothering me about the scene.
The point of the scene was to introduce the character of a new player in the story and establish her relationship with an already established character. This relationship is going to be built out and has quite a history that will unfold throughout the story but at this scene just needed to establish where their relationship was and not how it got there. So the question I was left asking was why exactly this new character’s family history was being explained in extremely dull exposition, meanwhile the relationship was so played down as to be non-existent within the scene.
Two rewrites later and I think the scene is now serving its purpose. It still isn’t good. It is very much in a rough draft stage and no doubt I will have to rewrite it many more times before I’m actually happy with it, but just getting rid of all the excessive and useless information that was cluttering up the scene and making it drag has made it that much better and easier to read. It’s also helped to highlight what is actually important within the scene.
I don’t think I’m going to do this with every scene during the first draft stage. I’d probably never finish the first draft and end up in an endless cycle of rewriting, but an occasional surgical look at specific problematic scenes definitely served its purpose.
What’s your drafting process?
I promised I would go back and look at why writing and baking must indeed be two totally separate events are not anything alike. So here goes, my list of why writing a novel is not like baking a cake.
1. It takes a lot longer – unless you are the world’s slowest cook and you aren’t worried about your eggs going off. The time commitment you are making for writing a novel compared to making a cake is enormous. One is something you do on the spur of the moment because you are bored and it’s raining (or because of some event like someone’s birthday) while the other is one that should almost never be jumped into without at least a little thought.
2. If you follow the recipe for baking you will end up with a half-decent cake (hopefully). However there is no recipe or magic formula for making a brilliant novel. There are basic plot outlines and various tools and break downs of the essential elements and some genres are formulaic however if there was a step by step manual to writing a best seller, everyone would be doing it.
3. Cake mix tastes pretty good even if you don’t finish cooking it. A half-baked novel is just that – half-baked.
4. Even if you don’t like the taste of your unused cake mixture, chances are someone else will or the dog/cat/whatever will eat it. Very few people will swallow an unfinished novel.
5. Nobody stares at you strangely when you answer the question, “what are you doing?” with “baking a cake”. Unlike when you answer that question with “writing a novel”.
6. When you finish baking the cake you may criticise it but odds are you aren’t going to pull it apart and try to fix what went wrong. There is no revision process. There is accept what you have or throw it out and start over. The novel is a bit more malleable.
I still like my reasons why writing a novel is like baking a cake but I think it is important to be thorough.