Monthly Archives: June 2009

Great Characters Go Faster Deeper Harder

This from a guy whose first book had a tied-up woman on the cover. I should know, right?  (See my books page if you’re curious… and I bet you are.)

Actually, that cover — not my idea — has caused me as many headaches as it has book sales. But that’s another blog.

Most of us are drawn to writing with something that comes easy and something that doesn’t. More than a few of us find writing fancy sentences an easy labor of self-absorbed love (sometimes so much so that we have to back off our eloquence to dim the purple in our prose) and some of us are naturals at creating great characters right out of the chute, too.

Me? Not so much. I’m a plot guy, and the crafting of deep, resonant and compelling characters, the kind that excite reviewers and elevate the work to something worthy of a dust jacket, has been something I have to work at. Still do.

There’s more stuff written about characterization than any other aspect of storytelling, and it continues to elude a lot of writers because, unlike structure, there’s no template or format for a great character. But…

… there is a checklist. And a good checklist shall set you free.

Before I offer up that checklist — each entry of which is fodder for an entire workshop or book — allow me to share my favorite tip about writing great characters. More of a warning, really, since this is the most frequent abuse of characters found among new and unpublished writers, and a few published ones:

Don’t confuse personality with character. Personality — or quirks — is only one of the items on that checklist, and yet for some it becomes the alpha and the omega of characterization. A quirk-heavy character without corresponding depth is what reviewers and high school creative writing teachers call flat or one-dimensional. And what editors call “pass.”

Think Jerry Seinfeld in his fabled television sit-com, which was self-admittedly about nothing at all. One dimension — funny. Now think Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Also funny, but much, much deeper. Immortally so, as it turns out.

From a character-evaluation standpoint it doesn’t matter what they wear or like to eat or if they chew gum or bite their nails or sit with their knees too far apart. Those are all just quirks.

Other quirks can be more telling and therefore valuable — like whether or not they shower, if they’re good tippers of not, if they’re litter bugs, etc. These are issues that connect to deeper roots, and therefore are something more than quirks designed to amuse or differentiate. Rule of thumb: a quirk is not an indicator of character, it just is; if quirky habits and values link to something deeper and connect to the story, then it’s of value.

What does matter when it comes to characterization is the nature and depth of their values, their integrity or the lack thereof, their decisions under fire, their actions despite their darker urges, what they say versus what they mean, their relationship with the truth, their dreams, their courage, their kindness, the way they love, or not. In other words, their “character” as a human being.

My favorite non-literary example to make this literary point clear is a fellow named Bill Clinton. Brilliant. A true public servant. Funny. Eloquent. Nice hair. But what was his relationship with the truth, even when that truth was accountable to the entire American public? Where was his integrity when Monica wanted to play Hide The Cigar? What were his values when it came to his marriage? Just who was this guy?

Say what you will about Bill, he was complex and compelling. He stirred it up. Like him or hate him, there’s little doubt that he would go to the ends of the earth to defend his country and our way of life. Heroic in one sense — even if he’s a bit cloudy about the definition of the word is — very human in another.

If Bill Clinton was a character in a book, he’d be interesting.

Here’s that checklist about great characters. Much more on each in future posts.

What is your character’s backstory, the experiences that programmed how they think and feel and act today? What is their inner demon, and how does it influence decisions and actions in the face of the outer demon you are about to throw at them? What is the character’s arc, how do they change and grow over the course of the story, and how to they apply that learning toward become the catalytic force that drives the denouement of the story?

There’s more, but those are the basics. And they’re a whole lot deeper than a few quirks and a great sense of humor.

As for faster and harder… well, these, too, are products of all of the above. Just ask Bill.

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Filed under Six Core Competencies, turning pro

Fatal Distractions: Six Things That Will Tank Your Story Every Time

The oldest and perhaps best morsel of writing advice ever is to read.  You can’t play tennis having never seen the game (not so with golf; you can watch it until your eyeballs bleed and you’ll still suck) and you can’t write publishable fiction until you’ve absorbed enough storytelling to intuitively recognize what works.

Trouble is, like tennis and golf, the pros make it look easy.  And that becomes a seductive illusion for newer writers who put down the latest Grisham and say, not so great, I can do that.  If you’ve tried it that way, and like most of us have enough rejection slips to wallpaper your bathroom, then you know its much more difficult than it looks.  From the right seat it seems pretty easy to fly an airplane, too, but you wouldn’t rent a Cessna and just take off.  To write publishable fiction you need to comprehend the hidden infrastructure of story architecture and adhere to critical criteria for every aspect of the process.

One of the reasons you need to tear into the craft of story architecture as a student as well as a reader is that published books aren’t, for the most part, broken.  That’s the seductive illusion, you don’t see what can go wrong and the train wreck that happens when it does.  Being a story coach, I see things in unpublished work that stick out like a tennis player swatting backhands with a five iron (to borrow from both previously abused metaphors here), which prompts me to warn you ahead of time about the major flaws you won’t see in next Dan Brown or Nora Roberts.

There are six of them here, but there are others lurking about like agents with bad taste.  All of them are fodder for an entire workshop of examples and avoidance strategies, but hopefully this teaser will help you to sniff them out in your work before someone else does.

1.   Heroes that aren’t heroic.  I read a manuscript recently with a hero worthy of a Tom Cruise role.  Hunky, smart, brave and so very charismatic.  That is, until he lands in jail and sits there while the damsel in distress rescues him and saves the day.  Nothing wrong with damsels doing that, but when the protagonist just sits and waits around while it happens, that’s a fatal flaw.  Your hero needs to be the primary catalyst that brings about the resolution of the story.  They need to be proactive and heroic in that role.  They need to have conquered some inner demon before they can step up and save the day (character arc).  If the hero isn’t heroic — or worse, if your hero is rescued – you can post that rejection ship right above the towel rack.

2.  Heavy, purple-hued prose.  Nothing says newbie quicker than chapter introductions that try to describe the inside of a coffee shop in Shakespearean terms.  Overwriting and the inhuman abuse of adjectives will get you booted faster than not including enough postage on the submission.  Editors hate purple.

3.   The dreaded deus ex machina.  Which in literary terms means, god is the machine.  Which means, the hero isn’t the catalyst for the solving of her or his problem, some outrageous and fortunate coincidence is.  In Nelson Demille’s #1 bestseller Night Fall, the book that displaced The DaVinci Code from the NY Times top spot, the story resolves when all the bad guys and even the guys who will save the day just happen to schedule a meeting together in the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Demille can get away with that kind of thing — that’s a whole ‘nother rant — but you and me, not so much.

4.   Slow motion pacing.  This is a structure issue.  When you follow solid architecture, your story unfolds and then accelerates over the landscape of your narrative.  Things need to happen in your story in certain places, and when they do they need to ratchet up the tension and the stakes.  We’ve all read books that we’ve put down after the first hundred pages, but chances are the author’s name on the cover is money.  Again, for you and me, no pace means no contract.

5.  One word: boring. While this seems obvious, the reason behind boring is a lack of stakes.  The core essence of fiction is conflict — the hero is put into a situation in which she or he needs or wants something, has to solve a problem, reach a goal, meet a deadline, whatever.  There are always obstacles in the way of that goal.  Always.  Stakes are the bad stuff that will happen if they fail to reach the goal and the wonderful things that happen if they do.  When stakes aren’t clear and compelling, editors stop reading.

6.  Wrong notes.  In other words, questionable and odd creative decisions.  A studly all-American hero who smokes unfiltered cigarettes.  A morning business meeting at which beer is served.  A politically-motivated mass murderer who is pardoned by the President because he meant well (and, because the President happened to agree with the author’s radical political views; I’m so glad I live in a different city than that guy).  I’ve seen these and worse in unpublished manuscripts.  Personality quirks aren’t issues of characterization, more often they’re candidates for wrong notes.

Wrong notes aren’t limited to poor  choices of words, they become glaring deal killers when delivered as eye- rolling disastrous choices by a writer trying to be clever and hip.

All of these issues pertain to what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.  Stay tuned, that’s what this website is all about.

In the meantime, I just heard back from a publisher, and I have to go finish wallpapering the powder room.  Because even when you master the Six Core Competencies — which I haven’t… we’re all and always will be works-in-progress as writers — there are still no guarantees.  It’s art, afterall, and one man’s art is another’s faux finish.


Filed under getting published, Six Core Competencies, Write better (tips and techniques)