Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Inserts

Characters are often the first thing a reader falls in love with. Building a detailed and dynamic character can be difficult. Thankfully, there’s plenty of ways to practice.

As an exercise: Pick someone you know in real-life. Describe them as the main character in a story. Think about how they act, walk, talk and any habits or quirks they have. You can also try writing them as a villain for an added challenge.

Then: Insert them into a short story. Try rewriting a fairy tale to feature them or even putting them in the place of a character in a show or book you enjoyed. How does the story change to accommodate them? How do they solve some of the conflicts of the story?

Posted in writing

Character vs. Plot Driven

When it comes to moving your story forward there are usually two driving forces: plot and character. Because each one drives the events in a story a little differently, this gives us plot-driven and character driven stories.

With plot-driven stories, the events drive each other forward. High taxes from the king cause a famine in the kingdom, which leads to bandits stealing from the rich nobles to help feed the poor. Cause and effect directly affect what happens next.  Often, plot-driven stories have a predictable outcome. The murder is solved, the couple gets married, etc.

Plot-driven stories often feature static characters.  Arguably if you replaced any of the characters in The Lord of the Rings you’d have largely the same story. The ring would still be destroyed, Aragorn (or his replacement) would still take the throne. This is because the events happening are more important than the character development.

With character-driven stories, the reactions to each event drive each other forward. The high taxes cause anger which causes riots, which causes a civil war, which leads to the division of the country. In this case, emotions and motivations push events forward. Endings can be a little harder to predict because they’re often focused on internal goals instead of external conflicts.

Because the focus on character-driven stories is heavier, they rely heavily on character arcs and development. In The Hobbit, replacing any of the characters gets a little trickier.  Replacing Bilbo leads to a few less questionable incidents (the trolls, anyone?). Replacing Thorin probably avoids the fight over the Arkenstone.

The main difference between character- and plot-driven stories is where the focus is. A story focused on external conflict lends itself more to a plot-driven structure. The conflict must be resolved in some manner, and as a result, events push forward to that inevitable resolution.  A character-driven story is less about the end goal and more about the changes a character goes through during the course of a story.

If you’re wondering which one is better, the answer is neither. As a writer you may find yourself preferring one style over the other, but neither character- nor plot-driven stands firm as a ‘better’ option. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Going back to The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit you can see that a character-driven story like the Hobbit gives way to a plot-driven story such as the Lord of the Rings.  If Bilbo never steals the ring, then the ring never needs destroying. And, as above, with high taxes and a famine sweeping the land from our plot-driven example, it makes sense for a motivated Robin Hood to start stealing to help his community.

Which storytelling style do you prefer to write?

Posted in Exercises, worldbuilding

Building the Backstory

For most stories, we don’t get to see every moment of a character’s life. We certainly don’t get to see every moment of every single character. Often the parts of a character’s life we don’t see are referred to as backstory. That is where they came from, what their home life was like, their personal biography up to the point of the story.

Backstory is a powerful thing. It informs character actions and helps us as writers figure out how, why and what makes our characters tick. It’s also rife with other smaller stories we might not consider.

Take your main characters parents. Even if they don’t know or never met their parents, they had to come from somewhere. How did their parents meet? What made them have a child together? What were their hopes and dreams for their son or daughter? Are they proud of them or dismissive? In the case of those who grew up with their families, what did they struggle with when raising your main character? For those who were orphaned or abandoned, what made their parents do it?

Those are all questions that can be answered by looking at the backstory of the parents. Even if it’s just a brief summary, having that on hand sometimes helps when trying to help develop and flesh out your characters.

It might also help to think about other people your character would have interacted with outside of the main story. Childhood friends, teachers, extended family members, neighborhood bullies—all of these are people who might have an impact on your character before they come into the story and before your readers meet them. While they most likely won’t show up in the story, it bleeds into your writing.

The nice thing about backstory is that it’s not limited to people, especially when you’re attempting to world build. Think about particular holidays or events your character would witness during their lifetime. What makes those holidays important? How did their traditions come about? If there’s a particular event such as an annual balloon race, how did that come about? How long has it been occurring? What significance does it have for participants today?

As an exercise: Take fifteen minutes and write out a biography for your character or characters from birth up to the start of the story. Then go through that bio and highlight people and events that don’t show up in the story. Work out brief biographies and histories for each item.

Posted in character

Using Negative Traits for Arcs

Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.

Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?

Their flaws should impact them in some way.  Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.

As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.

Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.  

Posted in writing

Balanced Characters

Characters are at the heart of every story.  Whether it’s high fantasty full-on dragons breathing fire and magic spells or crime fiction with despicable crimes and grieving victims, the one thing readers connect with are characters. A realistic, believable character is easier to connect with than one who only exists as an exaggerated stereotype (the exception here being that satire is rife with well-done examples of how this can be effective to send a message).

One way to create a believable character is to make sure they’re balanced. People have both positive and negative traits, and your characters should too.  There’s a few ways to achieve balance in a character.

Flaws. Everyone has flaws–whether this is our tendency to get impatient with others, poor listening skills, or generally being a little too selfish about some things, everyone has flaws. Characters should have at least a few flaws, but avoid throwing them in as an afterthought.

A common example of poorly developed flaws is the Mary Sue character. She’s pretty, smart, skilled at the one thing that is vital to the story, popular. By all appearances she’s perfect. And the most common ‘flaw’ is that she’s clumsy. Clumsy so of course she trips into the love interest. Clumsy so when it’s important for her to be saved by someone else, she drops something, or stumbles. The afterthought becomes less of a flaw and more of a plot device, making it hard to like and relate to her because inevitably the rest of her perfection saves her somehow.

So, how do you avoid making that flaw an afterthought? Look at her positive traits and turn them against her. She’s pretty, but could it be that she’s pretty because she’s vain and works hard on her appearance? If she’s smart, she could also be arrogant or even entitled because she knows these things. Skill also typically isn’t gained by sudden happenstance, and if it does, there’s going to be a resulting emotional trauma. How does she handle having this newfound power? Is she prone to dramatic overreactions, or to trying to deny it exists? What happens when she discovers she can’t use it on command?

Lack Thereof. If your character excels in certain areas–magic, sports, leadership–then make the areas they lack in things that they need. An inability to clearly communicate can hurt your character when they ask for help. Similarly, someone who’s still learning a necessary skill might feel out of place around others who have already mastered that skill, bringing in self-doubt and opening up places for internal conflict.

This doesn’t just apply to skills either. Characters might also be lacking traits like trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence or a host of other things. Those missing traits can make it harder for other characters to get things done around them. After all, passing information to someone who isn’t trustworthy might mean that information gets into the wrong hands. A character lacking confidence can be deterred by having their qualities attacked, not because the attack is true, but because it plays off the thing they’re missing and feeds into that lack.

Give them problems. Everyone has struggles. It might be a problem with body image, it might be a problem with time management, it might be a problem with mental health. Everyone in the world has problems. Some are personal, and some are clear and public. Perhaps your MC has a problem with a cheating girlfriend and as a result is conflicted over whether or not to confront her. Perhaps your supporting character is struggling with health problems that limit the amount they can, in turn playing into a problem with mental health.

By forcing your characters to struggle with something relatively mundane, you make their imperfections clear. Giving them personal struggles also provides more routes for conflict and subplots. Think, what will make them lose their patience? What would finally turn them against their friends? This gives you opportunities to show where their breaking point is on their ‘positive’ trait and as a result, provides a balance to characters who might otherwise seem ‘too much’ of something.

What are some of your favorite ways to balance your characters?