Tuesday, December 4, 2012

And That’s Why

Here's one more thing about character needs that needs to be addressed: Motivation. Why do our characters desire the things we have so thoughtfully attributed to them?

You may remember an earlier post in which I said the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet” was a good example of a story except that I would prefer to know why she was so frightened by the spider. In a nursery rhyme it may not be that important; but in a story, the “reason why” can be a major force in shaping the course of the story.

In his book Creating Characters, Dwight Swain calls this process rationalization. He defines it this way:
“Rationalize: to provide plausible (but not necessarily true) reasons for conduct. To attribute (one’s actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.” (p. 9)
“Without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.” This is the key phrase here. When we rationalize, we make up excuses for why people behave the way they do... even though we have no way of knowing the real reasons. Their behavior confuses us, so we try to think up a reason that makes sense to us. That reason may not be their real reason, but it makes sense to us... so we accept it.

Swain says the same is true of fictional characters.

Since we don’t really know why our characters are doing what they do, we can just make up a reason that makes sense to us. And the beauty of it is that it’s perfectly alright to do so; just as different people might do the same thing but for different reasons, so might our characters:
“Not that any of these people’s beliefs, estimable or otherwise, were necessarily wrong, you understand; quite possibly they were right on target. It’s just that there was no way, no way whatever, that you could prove or disprove them. Indeed, it was entirely possible to advance other, equally plausible hypotheses to account for each individual's behavior... it meant that, within the bounds of my imagination, I was free to create any kind of character I wished, and have him do anything I might conceive, provided only that I rationalized the character’s behavior in such a manner that readers believed it.” (p. 10)
When you create a character, any motivation is acceptable so long as it is plausible to the reader. Perhaps your character acts a certain way because he had a good childhood; then again, she may act that way because she didn’t have a good childhood. Either reason is acceptable as long as it makes sense within your story.

Don’t make the motivations of your character a sticking point in your writing. Just choose a reason, any reason for your character’s actions; all that matters is that it’s a plausible reason. If you find a better one later on, you can change it then.

After all, you’re the storyteller. And ultimately, that’s why your characters do anything at all.

This is going to be my last post for a while. I've got a lot of projects to finish -- not easy readers -- and something had to give, so I'm putting this blog on hiatus for a while. I plan to get back to it later in 2013. In the meantime, the existing posts should help you get your own writing in gear. And if you leave any comments, I've set up the blog to notify me. I'll answer your questions as quickly as I can.

In the meantime, write some good stories!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Fifth: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

And last but not least:
5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
This final reason for knowing every character’s driving desire is important because so many writers simply don’t get it.

My last post hinted at this aspect of character creation. McClane’s need to reconcile with Holly is an internal need that is expressed through external action. People may enjoy all the action, but for the most part it’s way outside their experience. Rather, it’s the internal need that people relate to and identify with.

You might not realize it, but even Gruber is motivated by an internal need. It shows up in many ways during the movie, but perhaps the most direct statement of it comes near the climax. Gruber has realized who Holly really is and has taken her down to the vault with him. As Holly watches Gruber’s men and realizes that the “terrorist plot” is little more than a farce to cover their true intent, she remarks that Gruber is just a common thief. In a rare moment of anger, Gruber jumps in her face and says, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite!”

Gruber holding Holly hostage

It appears that Hans Gruber has an internal need to be the best at something, to prove that he is superior to everyone else, doesn’t it? It’s this inner passion that makes his character sizzle onscreen, that makes him a fitting villain to challenge John McClane’s “cowboy.” It creates the chemistry between the two that made Die Hard a box office smash.

By now I hope you understand why it’s so important to know what every character wants in your story. A properly-chosen personal passion can make even the most outlandish plot seem plausible. By knowing this one thing about your characters, you could conceivably revolutionize your ability to write powerful, gripping stories.

The photo came from the IMBD image database.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fourth: Are You Sure That’s What You Want?

Here's the fourth reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
In the movie Die Hard, the villain Hans Gruber is involved in a very complex theft, one that he has camouflaged as a terrorist act. All is going well except for one thing: a cop named John McClane. For some reason McClane has set his sights on thwarting Gruber’s plans... and Gruber has no idea why. Gruber spends most of the movie tearing his hair out, trying to figure out why McClane won’t give up. It’s only at the climax of the movie that Gruber figures out what’s really going on: McClane’s wife Holly, going under her maiden name of Gennero, is one of his hostages.

Of course, movie viewers know this from the beginning of the movie. Part of the excitement of the movie comes from wondering when Gruber will figure it out.

Why does this little bit of subterfuge work so well? Why doesn’t it come across as being contrived? Many movies using a ploy like this would fall flat.

The reason is because what McClane appears to be after isn’t what he’s actually after. Many writers would have made McClane’s reason for action a simple matter of a quest for justice — or, to use Igor’s line from the last post, “It’s what I do.” This is a common mistake writers often make; namely, that the hero’s goal is simply to accomplish the plot points of the story.

The writers of Die Hard chose instead to give McClane an unexpected passion: to mend a fractured relationship with his estranged wife. When Holly winds up as a hostage, McClane must rescue her in order to achieve his true goal. McClane’s motivations are now totally believable; the rescue of his estranged wife is a personal goal that all moviegoers could relate to, yet it was big enough and strong enough to explain why he would endure the ridiculously hard challenges he was required to overcome in the movie plot.

This is a useful technique to remember in your own writing. It’s logical to assume that your character’s biggest need is to achieve the goal of the story... but it’s not particularly realistic to do so. Giving your character a need that sends him or her in an unexpected direction also helps with plotting, since accomplishing an easy-to-understand goal can send us into complex situations.

Many of us pursue a course of action in our lives that makes no sense to anybody... maybe not even us. The reason is that what we appear to be after isn’t we’re actually after; a lot of psychoanalysis is focused purely on helping us connect the two. The irony is that even children can understand that, and it's fairly simple to make sure that they do. After all, if Holly is McClane's wife and she's in trouble, he needs to rescue her, doesn't he?

Our characters, when they seem most real, are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us... which brings us to reason #5 in the next post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Third: Villains Need Love Too

Here's the third reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
As a general rule, since you want every character to seem real, you need to know what they all want. Yes, all of them.

Even the bad guys.

This is one place where most writers fail at one time or another. It can be very easy to invest yourself in the hero, to give him a passion that you identify with, and make him seem very real... and then make a two-dimensional villain. Or perhaps you find the villain to be the most interesting character in your story, so you turn him into a fully-rounded character... and then turn him loose to face a boring hero with a paste-on smile.

Either case is a sure ticket to a failed story.

Every character in the story wants something. You don’t have to put anywhere near the work into a secondary character that you put into a main character, but knowing what each character wants goes a long way toward making your story more gripping and your characters more memorable. (Remember this, because failure to do so — to give each major character in the story a passion — is responsible for maybe 80 to 85% of our difficulties when it comes to developing a story idea.)

Now, there is one exception to this rule. This minor exception is, appropriately enough, the minor (or walk-on) character. This is a character who appears only briefly in the story, perhaps as part of the background, or is a character that we don’t really want people to care about. An obvious example might be someone whom our main character meets on the street and asks for directions. But on occasion this character plays a larger part, which requires a defter touch.

For my money, the classic example is Igor in the movie Van Helsing. Igor exists primarily as comic relief and the writers didn’t want us to like him; in fact, they wanted us to enjoy it when he met his end during the climactic fight at the end of the movie. So how did they do this?

They avoided giving him any depth by making him a character with no goals; he just does what he’s told.

In one particularly humorous moment early in the movie, Igor is seen with what I can only describe as a gigantic electric cattle prod, and he’s using it on a werewolf. When Count Dracula asks him, “Why are you torturing that poor creature?” Igor replies, with a shrug that implies it should be self-evident, “It’s what I do.”

While such a two-dimensional character may work well as comic relief, it’s unforgivable to treat a major character with the same lack of respect. Give all your major characters a driving passion, and you’ll have gone a long way toward making your characters come alive on the page.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Second: Using The Internal Compass

Here's the second reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
As the story goes on and the character’s path gets tougher, the character moves from:
  • interested in getting his desire to
  • must get his desire to
  • obsessed with getting his desire.
The character takes bigger and bigger risks as he goes, simply because he used the easiest routes to goal attainment first and they failed. (Don’t you do the same thing?) This results in that miraculous aspect of fiction writing sometimes referred to as rising action.

A character’s pursuit of his heart’s desire will automatically cause the stakes to rise as the story goes along. This is both important and useful to know if you struggle with ratcheting up the tension as the plot progresses.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Everything that the character does, and all of his thoughts and choices, are shaped in some degree by that one desire. It acts as a compass, directing him on a daily, almost minute-by-minute basis. And because of that, it also acts as your compass, helping you decide what to include and what to leave out of the story. Your story is, after all, about your character’s pursuit of his heart’s desire... and it makes no sense to include things that don’t further his attainment of that goal. That's especially true in an easy reader, where the number of words you use are at a premium.

I know you probably think I’m beating this “compass” idea to death, but it’s so vital to staying on track in your writing that I have to. Most people, once they set their mind on something, filter out all distractions and set a laserlike course toward their goal. Some of those “distractions” are things that shouldn’t be ignored, but everything is sacrificed in the pursuit of the goal. (These ignored “distractions” often provide some of the more interesting complications in your story.)

So remember this “law of increasing obsession” when working with your characters. Your writing will be much stronger for it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

First: The “Grab Me” Factor

In my last post I said that the one thing you must know about each character in your story is what that character wants most. I listed five reasons you needed to know this, and that we would look at each in turn. Today we start...

The first reason should be almost intuitive:
1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
Some people start writing a story because a certain character grips their imagination; some people naturally create worlds and wonder what kinds of adventures might happen in them; and still others have an idea for an adventure and set about creating characters and worlds in which it might take place. There is no single right way to develop a story idea but, when all is said and done, it’s the characters in the successful story that the reader ultimately remembers.

This should come as no surprise. No matter how novel the world is or how gripping the plot, we are “characters” ourselves and so we tend to identify with other characters whom we find appealing. For that reason alone, we owe it to our readers -- and especially our youngest readers, who may struggle with the very act of reading -- to make our characters as “identifiable with” as we can...

And what readers generally identify with is a character who wants things that they can sympathize with.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the stories (or series of stories) you’ve enjoyed most. Isn’t it the characters — or frequently, one particular character — that you most relate to? Or think about TV and movie series that have developed huge, almost cult followings. Don’t the fans usually identify with one specific cast member’s character? (If you see them at a fan convention, you probably don’t even have to ask which character that is; you can recognize the character’s costume, which they are most certainly wearing. Beam me up, Scotty!)

Knowing that readers tend to identify with characters who share the same passions as they have, doesn’t it make sense that the most important thing to know about a character is what he or she is most passionate about? Any time you find yourself stuck and unable to decide what a character should do in the scene you’re writing, you should immediately stop and ask yourself:
What is this character most passionate about? What does he want most, and what is the most logical choice he could make at this point in this story to bring him closer to that goal?
Nine times out of 10, I bet the answer to those questions will get you unstuck.

There is no more important thing that you can know about a character than their heart’s desire. This one piece of information serves as the character’s compass... and yours as well.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The One Thing You Must Know About Every Character

In many ways, writing easy readers is no different from writing fiction for adults. You use the same basic "blocks" to build all stories. You need to simplify the blocks when writing for children -- you have less space, fewer words, and less complicated plotting -- but good storytelling always uses the same techniques.

One of those "blocks" is particularly essential to good storytelling. And if for some reason a story "isn't working," this is the first thing I check.

In all likelihood, you have heard teachers say that conflict is the guiding principle of all fiction. You may have been taught that fiction is conflict. You may have even heard the old saw, “Conflict is two dogs and one bone.”

There’s a lot of truth in all those sayings... but it’s a bit misleading as well. An over-emphasis on conflict can actually cause your story to fall flat. Conflict isn’t a cause in fiction; rather, conflict is the result of characters doing what comes naturally.

And what comes naturally to characters? The same thing that comes naturally to all of us human beings...

Going after what we want.

So it follows that the one thing you absolutely must know about every character in your story is... what does she want more than anything else?

“Ah, yes,” you say. “That’s all well and good. Each character wants something, and I should know what that something is. But I don’t see anything so revolutionary about that.”

But it is revolutionary because there’s so much more to this than just “every character wants something and I should know what it is.” In fact, understanding this one concept can completely change your approach to writing.

There are several reasons why this is so, and we’ll be looking at each of them over the next few posts. They are:
  1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
  2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
  3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
  4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
  5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
I think you'll find that knowing what your character wants immediately improves your storytelling.