Posted in writing

Finding the Story Start

It’s no secret that the start of the story is one of the hardest to master. The opening scene is your best chance to catch your reader and to hook them into reading your story the rest of the way through. As the author, you already have a love and admiration for your characters. Your reader however, does not, and you may only have a few paragraphs to capture their attention long enough to get them to care.

The key part is to figure out where your story really starts.

Stories are all driven by conflict. Frequently your conflict will force the character to make a change into a new normal.  Although it might be tempting to start with a look at what their ‘old’ normal looks like, keep in mind that this is oftentimes largely unnecessary. You can usually rely on your audience to fill in some of the details—we all wake up in the morning and generally have a morning routine that involves getting dressed, eating breakfast and preparing for the day ahead.

Instead of starting with the old normal, ask yourself what moment is when the conflict first touches your character? At what point in their otherwise ordinary day does the conflict become personal?

Most people have goals. Characters should be no different. By looking at the point where their personal goals are threatened by the story’s conflict, you get closest to the start of the story. Not only do you give your character a reason to react to the conflict, you’re also giving your readers something to care about: The character’s goal is jeopardized. How will they still achieve their goals despite this threat?

It’s not uncommon to find stories that have started too far back. We’ve all heard the advice against starting with the character waking up and looking in the mirror and so on and so forth. There is a reason for this: It happens a lot. Often enough that it’s practically a trope. Although it’s more common in YA, there’s examples of it across all genres. Your story’s start should be strong enough to skip a boring introduction to your characters. Make us care first.

As an exercise: Take a look at your current manuscript and its opening scene. Typically you only have between 5-20 pages to catch a reader’s attention, so look at the first 10 pages (roughly the first 2000 words).  Read these and ask yourself where in those first ten pages the main conflict becomes personal? Where is your character threatened? If it’s not within the first 10 pages, remove them from your manuscript (I recommend putting those extra pages into another document or folder, in case you find a use for them later). Then look at the next 10 pages. Keep doing this until you find the point where the conflict affects your character.

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Unheard

If you’ve ever had to be in the same room as someone on the phone, you’ve also had a huge chance to listen to half a conversation. The half you hear is just as important as the unheard half.

As an exercise: Take a two-person conversation from a story (yours or someone else’s). Designate Character A and Character B.

Now, remove all of Character A’s lines. Using B’s half of the conversation, come up with two or three possible responses to each line of remaining dialogue.  How does the conversation change when you only have one half to infer information from? How might changing this conversation change the story?

Posted in character

Character Archetypes

Characters show up in all forms of storytelling. Be that in literature or in movies and television. That means the chances you’ve come across character archetypes already is high.  Archetypes are the typical examples of a particular person or thing. When discussing characters, it’s also a sort of model for a character.

Don’t get confused though! Archetypes aren’t the same thing as tropes. Where archetypes are models, they’re largely independent of genres and themes. Tropes are conventions in storytelling typically defined by genre or theme. the Evil Overlord’s Monologue is a trope, but the Evil Overlord himself isn’t the archetype.

There are twelve common archetypes for characters in storytelling: the hero, the innocent, the orphan, the creator, the caregiver, the sage, the joker, the magician, the ruler, the rebel, the lover and the seducer. Although at first glance it might look like certain archetypes are bound to play protagonist and others are bound to play, don’t be fooled. Each archetype is defined by the behaviors, strengths or flaws they model.

The Hero. The hero archetype is almost always strong and courageous. Although physical strength is the most common form of strong to show up, consider magical characters.  who’s magical strength may be unparalleled. In a negative sense however, Hero types can turn out to be overconfident and arrogant. If you’re having a hard time considering this for any sort of antagonist role, think about how well your generalized tyrant king fits the archetype here: he’s often strong, if not physically then through military or political force.

The Innocent.  Typically, Innocent types bring optimism and enthusiasm as strengths, where their naivety and helplessness may often function as flaws and weaknesses. Initially you might see them suited for a secondary or side character, but consider someone like Dr. Horrible—who continues going for his goals with enthusiasm but is relatively powerless in the situation at large—as an example of how the Innocent archetype turns up in other roles as well.

The Orphan. Don’t automatically assume this archetype has no parents. Orphan types are defined by their perseverance and independence as strengths. They often show up as part of a group: either they want to belong to a particular group, or they’re willing to defend they group they belong with. Ironically it’s those same traits that can show up as weaknesses for orphans. They can put up with a lot of abuse from a group as a whole just to try and people please, or adopt an ‘us versus them’ mentality in which they believe they’re the only ones that can be trusted.

The Creator. Defined by their creativity and their ambition, Creator types are exactly the type to be driven by a goal to serve their world or community at large. On a personal level, they’re happiest when they can do things themselves and take a lot of satisfaction in their work. The negative side of this however is that they can be perfectionists and have an over-inflated sense of themselves. Both as antagonistic and protagonistic characters, the Creator archetype want to see their visions and goals realized.

The Caregiver. As the name suggests, this archetype is a caring one. Empathetic and selfless, their goals are often centered around helping others. As a downside however, they may not have a goal of their own. Their negative traits often show up as being exploitable and people-pleasers. In a lot of ways, those negative traits are what lead Caregiver types into trouble, either because they burn themselves out for trying to do everything, or because they can’t stop themselves from trying to ‘fix’ and ‘help’ everyone in need. Note that this is also a surprisingly good fit for horror and thriller antagonists and villains, being that the villains seem themselves as doing what’s best for someone else, up to the point of ignoring social, moral or personal standards.

The Sage. The Sage archetype shows up incredibly frequently as a mentor or teacher. They come across as wise and experienced, often seeking out knowledge strictly for knowledge’s sake. In negative senses however, Sage types have a lot of potential for flaws. They can come across as know-it-alls offering unwanted advice. For having all the knowledge they do, they can become inactive, knowing something and doing nothing about it, if only to see how the situation plays out. They may also use their knowledge manipulatively by either giving it out for the sake of stirring up trouble and seeing how people react, or by giving false information to try and manipulate the outcome of a situation.

The Joker. This archetype is also frequently referred to as the Jester—and for good reason. The Joker type loves a good laugh and uses playfulness and cheer as their top strengths. In a negative sense however, their pursuit of a laugh can make them flighty or present a lack of empathy. It’s not hard to think of a villain for this type either: Batman’s Joker is quite literally the Joker. Often comedic movies use Joker types as their protagonist.

The Magician. Although they closely resemble the Sage archetype, Magician types rely on their knowledge from other sources, sometimes occult or supernatural and sometimes from other secretive places. Unlike the Sage who doesn’t always meddle, the Magician will interfere to complete their own goals.  In a negative sense however, Magicians tend towards egocentricity and arrogance. They can and absolutely will manipulate both their knowledge and others around them to fulfill their own end goals.

The Ruler. King, Ruler, Leader, Politician, Boss—whatever you call this archetype, the traits remain largely the same. These are the ones who remain goal-oriented and can control and handle most situations with ease. And, like the name suggests, Ruler types can easily become corrupt, using the power they for dominance. They may also become suspicious or even paranoid, fearing the loss of their control and power.

The Rebel. A good Rebel type is an innovative and outspokenly passionate one. Across the board, they also speak out against injustices and inequalities. The darker side of this passionate archetype is just that: they’re sometimes too passionate, giving in to anger and an unwillingness to follow a path set by others.

The Lover. Giving of themselves as freely as a Caregiver and as passionately as any Rebel, Lover types are strongly driven by their search for intimacy on both romantic and platonic levels. They can count empathy and charisma among their strengths, but when things go wrong their lack of self-identity and deep emotional drive can turn against them. Because the Lover archetype is directed primarily by their search for love and belonging, emotional turmoil is one of their biggest obstacles—and can all too easily turn them obsessive and needy when it comes to the object of their affection. This means they can play virtually any role, from the protagonist defending their loved ones, to the love interest and yes, even into the villain obsessively chasing the one they want.

The Explorer. The two key strengths of the Explorer archetype are curiosity and self-reliance. This is the type to seek out something new just for the experience. Because they seek out new experiences and things so often, it’s easy for the Explorer to alienate themselves from others in the belief that others will only encumber them. It’s the same reason they can end up trying a dozen different things without any results to show—they’re enjoying the attempt more than the success.

Which archetype do your characters fall under? Which one do you see yourself as?

Posted in Exercises, writing

Editing Worksheets

Editing is probably one of the hardest parts of the entire writing process. Once you’re through the effort of writing a rough draft, you then have to pick it apart to find the parts that aren’t working and to make them better. It might be hard to do that, especially when you’re still in the honeymoon phase of just having finished a rough draft. To celebrate the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m including some of the worksheets I use when starting my editing process. Hopefully one of these gives you a good place to start and helps you through the next step of the journey!

Keep in mind that writing—including editing—is a hugely personal and diverse process for each writer. What works for your favorite author may not work for you. Conversely, stories can also throw  Try lots of different things.

Worldbuilding Questions Packet. I’ll often use this as way to help flesh out and kickstart any necessary worldbuilding when my setting feels flat. You don’t necessarily need to answer every question, but having a general idea can help find places where I need to spend a little more time developing the setting, or can highlight interesting conflicts I haven’t explored yet.

The Main Plot. Based off the classic pyramid plot structure, this gives a good overview of the main plot points and tensions in the draft. It can be a good starting point before getting into a more detailed outline, especially when I have a story that needs heavy restructuring in the plot.

Conflict and Event. Similar to the above, Conflict and Event can be used to see how the main and subplot(s) are playing off each other. I have it set up for three conflicts (a main and two subplots) but you can ignore the third if you only need two.

Character Motivations. I’m firmly in the camp of ‘characters make the story’. Character actions and reactions create a plot, and the reason behind their actions and reactions all comes down to motivation. This helps get beyond long-term and short-term goals and into their core values.

Where will you start your editing?

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Psst! Patrons also get an additional three worksheets, one for character arcs, one for subplots and one for more worldbuilding. Check out my Patreon to find these!

Posted in character

Motivating the Antagonist

Think of your favorite show, or book series. More specifically, think about the villain. Think back on every terrible thing they’ve done.

Now, ask yourself why they’ve done those things.

If your first reaction is to say because they’re evil, or because they’re terrible people, or any reason that can be boiled down to ‘just because’ stop. If you can at least guess at their motivations or reasons such as greed or revenge, then you’re good to go: you have a fully developed character for an antagonist.

Whenever you come across an antagonist in a story—your own included—they should be just as developed as any other character. This means they have a backstory, they have motivations and they have goals. Because antagonists most often show up as the villains of a piece, it’s too tempting to say they’re doing things just because they’re  bad. People don’t like doing bad things, so he or she must be doing these things just because they’re bad, right?

Wrong.

Even someone terrible enough to properly earn the title of villain has a reason for what they do. They may not have the moral high ground, but they do have motivations and reasoning to make them choose the terrible instead of the ethical.

Take a look at your own antagonist. Ask yourself the same questions about them that you would about your protagonist or any of the supporting characters. What are their long term goals? What are their short term goals?

What obstacles do they have to solve to achieve those goals?

Now take it one step further. Ask yourself why they want those things. Don’t automatically assuming their logic is twisted either—your antagonist might be trying to get in the way of your romantic couple because they feel they need to protect one or the other from what they perceive as a bad choice. Similarly, your antagonist might want to kill the king because he feels the king is abusing his power.

Don’t forget backstory is just as important your antagonist as it is with any other character. Consider what their family life was like, where they grew up, what hardships or ordeals they’ve faced.

It’s also worth noting that two of the more common tropes in antagonists is either mental instability or abusive backgrounds. While these are tragic and often difficult topics, keep in mind that they’re common tropes and potentially harmful. Think of the people you know who struggle with mental illness or who have come from traumatic childhoods. They probably don’t go around doing things to hurt people or animals on the regular, which makes using it as a reasoning for your antagonist weak and unrealistic.

What motivates your antagonist? Let me know in the comments!