Tag Archives: author

The status of well rounded characters

A rich resource for writing well rounded characters.
A rich resource for writing well rounded characters.

I have written at some length about the importance of well rounded characters since they are foundational to storytelling. Today I want to focus on a word that points to an essential aspect of character dynamics—status

Thinking about well rounded characters and their interaction in terms of a social, cultural, economic and physical dynamic is helpful because it often resolves into a conflict predicated upon differences in status.

In this sense the status of a character, relative to others, directs his response to a threat or bounty.  It is a powerful generator of subtext—a boon to any story.

Status is in itself neither good nor bad, but it does mean that the character exhibiting it is the prime mover in a scene. The status-laden character’s desire for a specific goal drives the beats in a scene. It also means that this character has the most to lose if his status is diminished and will therefore fight to keep it.

“Well rounded characters exhibit behaviour that reflects their status.”

In his chapter, What No One Is Teaching You About Characterization (The Complete Book of Novel Writing: Readers Digest), Steven James provides a list of polarities that define the status of characters.

The list could be extended almost indefinitely, but you get the idea. The point is that power is communicated through a variety of physical and psychological signals expressed in carefully chosen words and actions. These signals can be exhibited by villains and heroes alike. Be sure to fully utilise them in your scenes as your characters vie for dominance or survival.

Exercise: Select several scenes you have written. Can you identify the status of each character? How does the power dynamic between them shape their interaction? How is this communicated to the reader?

Summary

Well rounded characters lie at the foundation of impactful writing. The status of each helps to determine the power dynamic between them.

How to work with backstory

Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,
Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,

Do you know how to work with backstory?

There is no shortage of how-to articles on writing on the internet, not least of all material on this website; there are articles on the inciting incident, turning points, on character arcs, dialogue and a multitude of other narrative elements. 

And this is all to the good. 

But there are some subtle aspects of the subject that are not as often discussed, such as how much exposition or backstory to reveal, and when to reveal it. 

The Whodunit, for one, can’t succeed without mastery over this element, but truthfully, most stories deploy the technique, since most stories withhold information from the backstory to intrigue and surprise. 

The question hence arises, when, where, and how much information to reveal or withhold?

“The more knowledgeable you are about story structure the more easily you’ll work with backstory – the art of when, where and how to best reveal background information.”

Enter the three act structure. Knowing that the first act’s task is to introduce the world and its characters, to create a ripple in the status quo and to state the goal—the first few pages that include inciting incident and the first turning point are good places to slip in nuggets of backstory. Ditto for the second act’s midpoint and second turning point, and the third act’s climax and resolution.

Information, at these junctures, may be leaked through action, direct dialogue, or subtext. 

When, in Unforgiven, one of the deputies doubts Little Bill Daggett’s courage, another deputy quips (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Little Bill scared? Little Bill grew up in (the mean streets of) Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.” 

The dialogue is laconic, befitting men of action. Nevertheless,  it does leak enough backstory to reveal just how tough an opponent Little Bill is going to be for William Munny.

Earlier in the story, at the inciting incident, the Schofield Kid rides into Munny’s pig farm to ask him join him on a job to kill two cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He asks if Munny is the same William Munny who killed so many people, including women and children, in the past. Munny simply replies, “I guess so.” The scene is understated and rather humorous, playing on the Kid’s naive awe for Munny’s ‘achievements’. It nonetheless gives us important background information about Manny’s past as a ruthless killer.

Additionally, Munny’s constant chatter about how his wife helped him abandon his wicked ways is an adroit way of sneaking in backstory. For example, he tells his children how, at one time, he might have whipped and cursed a horse for throwing him off, then later tells his old friend Ned that he ‘ain’t like that no more’.

The point is that the writer has to place nuggets of backstory at appropriate moments, preferably around the structural pivots, and even then, only as many as necessary to serve the drama.

Exercise: Consider a story you have written. Are there sections that leave you confused, rather than intrigued? Could this be solved by introducing more backstory elements? If so, tuck in only as much new information as is necessary through subtext, skilful dialogue or telling action. Try to locate it inside or close to one or more structural beats (discussed on this site). Use character emotion in the scene to distract the reader away from this slight-of-hand.

Summary

Sneak in just enough exposition to keep the reader or audience hungry to know more. Tucking in information around the structural beats and filtering it through the psychology of a character helps to keep the information unobtrusive.

The power of setting – how to tap into it

The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.
The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.

ONE way to tap into the power of setting in your stories is to place your characters in locations that add to the mood, and more specifically, locations that raise the tension.

In 2001 A Space Odyssey, the HAL computer turns against its human crew. HAL, who controls all systems on the space station, has even more power over them, given the hostile environment of space.

In Wuthering Heights, the brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect backdrop for the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a character in the story as any of the players.

“Tap into the power of setting by treating it as if it were another character—dangerous and even more ubiquitous.”

In Edge of Tomorrow Lt. Col. Bill Cage’s initial narcissism and cowardliness is accentuated by placing him in a war environment against alien beings. A time loop causes him to relive the conflict innumerable times, a conflict in which he is repeatedly brought back from the dead to learn from his mistakes.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the peaceful village of Mission Beach forms a perfect contrast to the violence of cyclone Yasi and the protagonist’s self-realisation, which occurs at the height of the drama. Setting the story in a busier town or city would lessen the impact.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, situate your characters in spaces that feed the plot and increase the dramatic tension between them.

Exercise: Pick a story that you’ve written. Where does the drama unfold? Does the location add to the danger and tension? If not, consider relocating the story to a more hostile environment

Summary: Utilise the power of setting by having it add to the danger, tension and conflict between your characters.

What makes for enduring writing?

Leo Tolstoy and enduring writing.
Leo Tolstoy’s relentless search for enduring values at the expense of religious dogma led to his excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church.

What makes for enduring writing? Is it style or subject matter? Perhaps both?


But if, as is certainly the case, style and subject matter are tied to the changing ethos of the times, how may we judge the merits of the old against the new, given this flux?

Even so, most scholars would agree that the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, and Steinbeck are indeed great writers, even though their work is as different as Baroque music is different from Rock & Roll.

Some timeless, unchanging standard must surely be at play here.

“Enduring writing stays relevant less from style and content and more from the values it encapsulates.”

Although some scholars argue against the validity of universal values, such values do exist and have always done so. Foundational thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love ennoble us as a species. They form the bedrock of civilization.

Throughout history great writers have served as humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the undying relevance of such values. They have written stories that chart the dire consequences of love being supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition, and the like. They have warned us that blind ambition can lead to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth); they have shown how a cathedral’s newly added spire might collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire); they have chronicled how families and villages are torn apart by greed (The Pearl).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal values and the warning against negating them that renders writing immortal.

Long may it continue to do so.

Exercise: Examine a story you have written. Jot down its theme. (The theme usually contains the value system of the tale.) Do the values in your story rise to the level of a universal truth? If not, consider changing the theme to suit.

Summary

Enduring writing contains superlative style and content, but more importantly, it affirms high universal values.

Characterising details – what are they?

Book cover of a nook which contains a chapter on characterising details.
Characterising details—an essential part of a writer’s toolkit.

Characterising details do not only provide important facts about story characters, they grant insight into their traits through a show-don’t-tell technique.


In her chapter, CHARACTER OBJECTIVE AND CONFLICT (Creating Characters: The complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Mary Kole defines characterising detail as “[a] multilayered piece of information or action that teaches us something deep-seated about a character.”

Height and hair colour are usually not significant details. Far better are small but telling actions that tell us something hidden about a character.

Someone who drops a sweet on the ground, looks left and right to see if he’s being watched, then picks it up and surreptitiously pops it into his mouth, does tell us something significant about that character: that he so compulsively loves sweets that he’s willing to eat germs off the ground to reacquire them, and that he is ashamed or embarrassed by his action. Importantly, it does it through the show-don’t-tell technique, making it a more rewarding reading experience.

“Characterising details are snippets of telling action that shed light on a character’s hidden traits.”

Place descriptions, too, may serve to characterise through a similar technique.

“The house was in desperate need of repair. The floors were damaged and caked with grime and dirt, the wall plaster was peeling, the ceilings were descending into the rooms like great arching sheets of cloth. There was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to do it in.”

This is not a bad description, but here’s a better one:

“Matthew studied the shell of the house. He’d have to start right away if he were to have it ready before she arrived—rip down the damaged ceilings, replaster a good portion of the walls, sand down the wooden floors and fit in new boards to replace those destroyed by termites. Finally, he’d have to paint and varnish the whole catastrophe. And all this in a week. With no money. It was an impossible task, but that, of course, was what Matthew did. Pursue impossible tasks. Like impressing an impossibly beautiful girl who had ignored him for a year.”

This passage is more effective because it not only puts us in the head of the character, it shows us something about his grit, drive and objective, too: to try and win the attention of a beautiful girl who doesn’t know he’s alive.

Exercise: Find a passage in your own writing that describes the motivation of a character. Does the description contain superfluous details that leave the reader un-engaged? Replace them with detailed actions that characterised through the show-don’t-tell technique.

Summary

Characterising details are snippets of telling information, usually revealed through action, that tell us something important about a character

Supporting Characters – Essentials

Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.
Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.

Supporting characters are ones who act to highlight your protagonist’s needs and shortcomings.

In her chapter, CRAFTING EFFECTIVE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS (Creating Characters: The Complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Hallie Ephron provides several examples of such characters. She points out that Dr. Watson’s function as Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick is to be a sounding board for the brilliant sleuth’s ruminations.

She goes on: 

“Virtually every mystery protagonist has one [supporting character]. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk.”

“Supporting characters should come across as ‘real people’ while simultaneously performing a specific set of narrative functions.”

In designing your cast of supporting characters, then, remember to utilise the principle: Opposites attract. To that end, weigh up your protagonist’s traits against those of your supporting characters and offer a contrast between them: Holmes is brilliant and unconventional; Dr Watson is slow and a stickler for decorum. Inspector LeStrade’s dislike of Holme’s whimsical flair provides an incessant critique of Sherlock’s investigative technique. 

You get the idea.

The point is that a level of conflict between your supporting characters and your protagonist, whether these characters are friends or foes, is a requirement if the story is to engage us.

Of course, it is not all strife and conflict with supporting characters. They can often provide comic relief. Shakespeare’s unforgettable Falstaff comes to mind. Still, even here, the main function of such a character is to act as a foil to the protagonist.

Getting the names straight

A last word on naming your supporting cast. Ephron admonishes us to assign names to characters that help us differentiate between them. She states: 

“It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond, or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.”

There you have it . A snapshot of supporting character functions to get you started.

Exercise: Go through any story you’ve written but not published. How many of your supporting characters act as a foil to your protagonist? Do they provide a humorous or critical commentary on your protagonist and his views? If not, strike these characters from your story, or combine them into one more pithy character.

Summary

The supporting characters’ function is to throw your protagonist into bold relief through praise or criticism, while simultaneously coming across as ‘real people’.

Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.

Keep it Simple, Stupid!

Man scratching his head while reading a book

Keeping it simple:

We’ve all read books and articles in which ideas rendered by verbose, obscure language are tied up into long sentences and knotted paragraphs.

I know I have.

When I started reading for my Ph.D on narrative structures I needed aspirin to keep the headaches away. I even considered going on antidepressants. How could I ever contribute to the field when I could not even understand the gist of what I was reading?

I understood the words of course. My problem was not a limited vocabulary. My problem was making sense of the convoluted way experts expressed themselves.

Their approach was to pack as much complexity, eccentricity, and obscurity into a sentence as possible; balance as many relative clauses on the back of the main clause and add as many qualifiers and modifiers to it as they could.

Do it consistently and you’d be allowed to join that exclusive club from which the common person is barred by default: The specialists club.

It was hard going but I stuck to the task. I remember the day of my breakthrough. I was sitting on the Ipswich train from Brisbane. The ride home was a good half-hour and I often used the time to catch up on my reading. I was wading through postmodernism and had previously failed to make much headway.

Then it happened. A particularly obscure paragraph suddenly flicked into focus. I blinked and read it again.

Yes, it definitely made sense. So did the next paragraph. And the next. Before long, I found I understood the whole chapter.

I quietly congratulated myself. I was no longer masquerading as an academic. I was an academic. I could not only understand the speak, I would soon be able to emulate it.

It was not long before my writing and speech adopted the mannerisms of a specialist. I solicited nods and smiles from fellow academics and frowns and head-shakes from everyone else.

I had arrived.

It was only years later, after niggling doubts about the usefulness of obscure forms of expression were fanned by my experience in lecturing college students, that I began to investigate the alternatives.

I poured over every style manual I could get my hands on—from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I became convinced that language that explores difficult concepts and ideas need not in itself be difficult to understand. Clear and precise writing that illuminates rather than confounds, writing that is accessible to anyone with a mastery of English, is preferable even when discussing academic matters. This is not dumbing-down language. It is making it more democratic—surely the tacit goal of any discipline.

You may notice from this post that I have not quite managed to expel the very elements I criticise from my own writing. The road to brevity, clarity, and precision is strewn with detours, but I am trying to stay on it.

My students are always the first to tell me when I stray.

Summary

Aim for brevity, precision, and clarity in writing.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Image: James Arboghast
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Penned: Tell Your Story

PennedApp

Penned:

AN INDIE writer’s path to success is difficult one. The journey not only demands writing excellence, but marketing acumen as well. In this post I want to highlight a free and useful utility for indie writers working on iPhones and iPads that may make the marketing part of the journey a little easier. I have it on good authority the app is about to be released on android, too. Its name is Penned.

Penned allows you to create a profile and upload sample chapter(s) of your book in a genre of your choosing. I found the interface to be intuitive and easy to use, although it did crash a couple of times on my iPad.

The app allowed me to upload chapters from three of my novels: Scarab, Scarab II, and The Level for display. Like Wattpad, the programme links writers with readers and other writers, encouraging comments and debate on the work presented. Anyone liking what they read on Penned can go to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or wherever their work is sold, and buy a copy there. I’ve received several comments already, and have even seen a slight bump up in sales on my Amazon page, which, for an indie writer, is all to the good.

Of course, there are many other forums for this sort of discussion, exhibition, and discovery of work to occur, but what is especially cool for an indie writer about a relatively new app is the terrain has not yet become crowded. Needless to say the situation may change as the programme gains exposure and popularity.

Any effort to increase the number of places where indie writers can discover, exhibit, and discuss work has to get a thumbs-up, and Penned certainly gets mine.

Why don’t you give it a try? The space provided by this app may be just the place where you make your next big breakthrough!

Summary

Penned is a great free app for writers and readers that allows you to upload and share sample chapters of your work. It’s a great new way to discover new talent, as well as to introduce yourself to others.

How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning

The Big Yawn:

An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Image: Björn Rixman
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode