Friday Exercise – Nightmare

The draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo this past November was based on an idea I’ve had (and written partial manuscripts for) for over a decade.  Last year, before I started writing it, I decided to cut the main character.  Yes, you read that right.  I cut the main character.  The main character, now, is the character who used to be the antagonist.  She’s still antagonizing, but since it’s her series now, she’s the protagonist.

Although she always had a sliver of decency and goodness in her, now that she’s my primary character, it hit home hard about halfway through November that I really didn’t have enough good and decent in my head for her, especially for the first book of the trilogy, before she goes totally batshit.  See, if you’re going to have an anti-hero as your main character, I feel like they have to be either (a) very funny, (b) heartbreakingly and tragically messed up, or (c) both.  And characters are not tragic if they are merely whiny or annoying.  No, what makes a character tragic is when they make the wrong choices while thoroughly believing they’re the right choices, or at least that they’re doing it for the right reasons.  Tragic is not being able to see the big picture clearly, while being firmly convinced that you do see it clearly.  Seeing no alternatives and moving steadily toward your own downfall because you’re missing something vital about yourself, the world, or life itself.

I’m getting to the exercise part, I promise.  I’m just verbose today.  Or loquacious.  Either word is a good one.

Anyway, it occurred to me that, both as a reader and as a writer of this book, I wanted more of a sense of this becoming-a-villain’s vulnerability.  NaNo requires such intensively fast work that one angle of that came out spontaneously – she’s claustrophobic about dim, underground spaces.  This particular fear is especially odd coming from someone whose race can’t tolerate sustained exposure to sunlight (they get “sun sickness”) so they usually live in underground communities.

The other thing that clicked into place was, late in November, frantic for inspiration to up my word count, I dug through every single cut scene, “parts” file, and scrawled-on-napkin note to myself, that I’d ever written for the series in these last almost-thirteen years.  And I ran across a nightmare that my previous protagonist (the one I cut) had.  I wrote this nightmare scene about eight years ago, for a completely different person, but I realized that it would work perfectly for Tessen (my new lead character).  The anxieties this nightmare points to, the imagery, the setting, and the foreshadowing all work for her inner conflict and the things to come for her, almost like I wrote it with her in mind in the first place…which I may have done, subconsciously.

So the exercise, finally, is this:  Whether you use it in the book or not, write a nightmare for your antagonist.  Start it as a free write, and keep in mind how dreams twist and settings change or combine, people in the dream with you shift into other people or aren’t actual people that you know (although, in the dream, you feel you know them).  Just see what comes out of it.  Afterward, give some brainstorm time to why this is your antagonist’s nightmare.  What underlying fears does this expose?  Is it the imagery of the dream that scares him/her, or what the imagery symbolizes (or both)?  What do the other people in the dream represent to your character?  The places?  What does this dream show is on your character’s mind – anxieties for the near future, reflections on the past, etc?  Does any of it foreshadow something further along in the book?

Interview

Send a character to a job interview.  You can start prior to the interview itself, with the character mentally preparing for it, or start with the actual exchange.

There’s a lot to be revealed here – why the character is switching jobs, what kind of job they have now and how they feel about it, what they’re striving for that this new job might offer (or may fail to offer), how the character feels about his/her life, how he/she deals with stress and his/her level of self-confidence, what his/her skills and qualifications are….  And that’s just the interviewee.

Your interviewer has a goal here too – what kind of person is he/she looking for, and why?  What will he/she like or dislike about another person?  What is a point of contention or a reason to pass judgement?  How does he/she feel about hiring someone new – maybe this person has never conducted an interview before, or maybe this is the millionth time in his/her career.  Maybe the vacant position belonged to a friend – or an enemy.

There are a million angles to approach this from, whole back stories the folks in this scene could bring to the table, and plenty of opportunity for conflict (both internal and external) to grow a story from.

Forcing the Issue

Anyone who’s ever written a novel (or a solid number of short stories) knows that there are times when the story or the character(s) just won’t go the way you want them to.  I’m not talking about those times when you feel like you’re unable to pull off a scene, when you feel like your writing skills are simply not up to the task at hand.  I mean the times when the story or the characters or a single character start veering away from what you had in mind for them, when a story takes on its own direction, or when a character develops a mind of his/her own.

I realize this kind of thing probably has a psychological explanation rooted in the subconscious, but I still think of it as “the story taking over” or “[character’s name] refusing to cooperate”.  Sometimes, when I feel like I, as the writer, have lost control over the events and people I’m writing about, it’s exciting and fun, and I get much better results than my original plan would ever have yielded.  Other times, I fight tooth and nail to get my characters back under my thumb and do any number of awful things to them in order to make them do what they’re supposed to do for the story.

Some writers hate rampant character takeovers and the story not going as planned, arguing that it’s plain sloppy not to reign in your characters and stick to the plot you set out to write.  Other writers thrive on the anarchy of their characters and the chaos of possible plot turns that even they didn’t expect when they sat down to write a particular story, and the argument on that side of the question is that you leave room for a dynamic, exciting story and characters who are true to themselves rather than slaves to a pre-planned set of actions to move the plot along.

Now, I think both sides have a point.  Sticking too much to an outline or a plan can be boring and, worse, get you stuck.  Making a character do something whether it feels right when you’re writing it or not usually means that it doesn’t make sense, on some level, that he/she would do what you’re telling your readers he/she is doing.  That means you either need to give the character the reigns and do things his/her way, replanning your story accordingly, or you need to have external forces (events and other characters) push that character in the direction you need him/her to go.  Which of those do you pick?  Whichever one makes the story better.

Then there are times when a writer gives too much leeway to a character, and the character ruins the story.  Sometimes it’s because the character isn’t appealing to the reader.  Or the character is too obviously appealing to the writer (*cough* Lestat *cough*).  Or the character has no clear goals or direction, but is just running around doing stuff.  Or the character takes things too far off track to be in line with the overall plot.  Again, sometimes you have to force the issue and make the character want what you need him/her to want – and you don’t do that simply by having them do what you want when it feels wrong for them to be doing it.  You have to use the power at your disposal, as the writer, as the god of your story world, to affect your character in a way that will get the reaction you need from them.

There are so many external factors that can affect a character’s choices.  From weather conditions to family drama, physical danger to a touching observation of a stranger’s troubles, an unexpected break to the anguish of loss – there are so many ways to push and pull at a character, and by using those tools, you not only get your character where you need him/her to be, but you make him/her more accessible to the reader, too.  You reveal a lot about someone by showing what gets to him/her.  You might even make the reader fall in love with your character by doing so.

Unlocking Potentials

I’m facing an interesting challenge with my upcoming novel, which has me thinking a lot about character development. Characters are by far my favorite aspect of writing, and inner conflict is the thing that gets me most excited about a plotline – I love constructing the cause and effect interplay between a story and the people in it. When it clicks, the plot and the characters play off each other in this beautifully logical dance, and it doesn’t even feel like work to write it. LOVE IT!

Character development is a damn tricky thing, though, especially when it’s necessary for a character to undergo a supremely intense transformation. You don’t want your characters to have too little growth through the course of the story, or you lose a whole dimension of what’s satisfying about both the writing and the reading of fiction. On the other hand, you can’t make a character do a complete about-face unless you really lay the groundwork first. And that groundwork better be convincing.

People are full of potential – toward all kinds of things. We don’t have just a potential to live up to, we have hundreds of possible potentials that are constantly in flux, always vying for dominance in our actions and behaviors and attitudes. Unless you know someone very well, you probably see only a small range of possibilities in them. Some people you’re close enough to that you’re aware of the contradictions within them and you can see all sorts of angles to what makes up who they are. I get a lot of inspiration in writing simply from observing other people, being aware of how people operate and think, paying attention to dichotomies and wondering how seeming contradictions are resolved within one person.

One of the most important things to do when you’re aiming a character toward a major, life-altering transformation is to hint at the fact that they already have this other, new self in them. It’s there, dormant, waiting to be unlocked. They already are who they’re about to become, on some level. Maybe the other characters are shocked at this previously untapped part of them being suddenly displayed, but it was always there. That’s the way things work in real life, and that’s the only way to make such a metamorphosis believable in fiction.

“People don’t change” is one of the least accurate phrases ever uttered, and yet, in a way, it’s also true. People do change, sometimes a great deal, both externally and internally, particularly in the intense circumstances that characters in fiction are often put through, but you’re never going to be a whole new person, especially overnight, and neither will your characters.

My challenge: making an altruistically inclined woman who wants to improve the world into a ruthless, cutthroat murderess who’ll stop at nothing to bend everything to her will. And then deciding if there’s any hope for her redemption somewhere later on in the series. I know the events that lead to her changing, much of the way her intentions twist from positive to horrific, and the sources of her need for control and power. The hard part is turning her into a cold-blooded killer. We shall see how I fare at this task next month!

The Antagonist

Among the many pieces of advice that writers hear repeatedly, one of the most common is:  Don’t make your antagonist pure evil.  Variants of this advice are Your antagonist should be a full character, too, and Antagonists don’t think of themselves as “bad guys”, and Give your antagonists realistic motivations for their actions.

Personally, I love my antagonists.  It’s rare that I come up with an antagonist that isn’t delightful to write about – I look forward to working on scenes from their point of view, sometimes more than scenes with my protagonists.  With my upcoming NaNo book, in fact, the current protagonist was the antagonist, originally. 

I’ve heard many an actor say in interviews that their favorite characters to play are the bad guys, that it’s fun to unleash creepy and disturbing behavior in a context that isn’t going to hurt anybody.  Well, I’m lousy at learning lines, which is why I’ve never seriously pursued acting, but I have a similar attitude with writing “bad guys”.  Just have fun with it.  Come up with someone who’s really twisted and let them loose on your story.  And by twisted, I don’t mean this person needs to be evil, crazy, or monstrous.  They don’t need to be vengeful or angry.  Just warped.  Take the same motivation you’ve given your protagonist, add a wrong turn in the logic process, and BAM, you have a great start to your antagonist – and a nice little parallel going on between your “good guy” and your “bad guy”.

And while it’s fine for comic books to explain that the reason a supervillain is so horrifically screwed up is that he got dumped in some acid or was the victim of a lab experiment gone haywire, you probably want a better background for an antagonist in a novel – even if you never give the full back story in the text of the book.

Think about things that real people go through – people you know, people on the news, friends of friends, anyone – and think about how much it really takes to make a person crack.  It’s a lot.  If your antagonist is an outright villain, it took a lot for him/her to get that way.  What did that to him/her?  When you, as the writer, feel sorry for them on some level, you’re getting somewhere.  Your readers may never feel sorry for your villain, and maybe they shouldn’t.  But the writer always has to know more than they’re telling!

Subplotting

Subplots are a tricky issue sometimes.  Without them, your plot can come off stale, impersonal, simplistic, and boring.  In fact, without subplot, there really can’t be any character development (unless the resolution of an internal conflict is your main plot).  Too many subplots, and you can spread yourself too thin, confuse the reader, get lost in tangents, and generally make a mess of things.

Paying attention to what works for me as a reader, I’ve decided that the best subplots are the ones which play off of the main storyline.  Preferably, a subplot not only stems from the main events of the book, but also, in return, affects the main storyline.  A sort of feedback loop of cause and effect, each building off of one another.  Get a few subplots like that going at once, and your story will practically write itself (and everyone will think you’re brilliant for pulling it off (not that I’ve experienced that part as a writer, just noticed as a reader which books I find brilliantly put together)).

George Elliot and Terry Pratchett (who probably never would’ve expected to be compared within the same sentence) are both masters of interweaving an overall plot with smaller storylines.

The last book I wrote was so narrowly focused (intentionally so) that in the rough draft, I left out all subplot, just making notes to myself of subplots that occurred to me.  Anything that didn’t hold together or any characters that weren’t coming across as full, rounded-out people, I worked through in the second draft by stirring in a few of those back burner ideas from my notes, and that’s how I knew what subplots were actually needed to carry the story off.

I won’t be so lucky with my NaNoWriMo novel in November.  It’s a huge storyline with multiple conflicts playing off one another and a cast of thousands–no, I exaggerate…only hundreds…er…well, dozens, anyway.  And all those characters have their own issues and their own parts to play, and things to overcome that will affect everybody else.  It’s rife with subplots and potential for more to pop up as I go along, and frankly, I’m a little intimidated by that.  But I’ll take a page out of my own book (haha, I make funny) and in the rough draft use only what I know I need, making extensive notes for things I’m not sure about.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Hah!  Wish me luck!!

Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

Isolation as a Theme & a Conflict

I reread some of my own short stories this summer, and noticed that one of the running themes in my writing is isolation – which isn’t unusual.  Isolation is addressed in tons of literature, art, and music.  It’s an interesting concept to play around with, since it’s both universal and highly subjective, and it allows a writer to interweave internal and external conflicts with one fell swoop.

I say it’s highly subjective as well as universal because we all feel isolated by different situations from one another.  Most of us feel isolated when we’re in an awkward social situation (alone in a crowd, as it were), but some people are comfortable with that feeling and others aren’t.  Some people feel isolated when they’re alone, others feel more in tune with and connected to the world.  Some people enjoy isolation.  Others hate it.  One person might feel terror and sadness at the idea of spending a night alone in the woods, away from civilization – someone else might feel pleasure at the idea of such an escape and revel in such isolation – someone else might not even feel isolated out in the woods by themselves.  For some people, isolation and loneliness are the same thing, and for others, they’re two wholly different experiences of aloneness.

In terms of character dynamics, there’s a lot of emotion and depth to be mined and explored through these different takes on solitude.  When does your character feel truly alone, and does he/she like that feeling, or dread it?  Does he/she usually love being alone, but some specific situation triggers a completely opposite reaction from him/her – a reaction even he/she didn’t expect?  A writer can get a lot of mileage out of that interplay between internal factors and external factors contributing to a character’s emotional state and reaction to his/her environment.  We all need a sense of belonging, but we all also need a sense of freedom and individuality, and we all have to pit those needs against one another and balance them.  Everyone does it a little differently, and that’s a pretty intense conflict to explore with your characters – it affects how they behave toward other characters and events, and how those characters and events, in turn, affect one another.  And boy, can you really mess a character up by unbalancing their sense of belonging and their sense of freedom.  Writing is a little sadistic, it’s true.  Mess your characters up.  Toy with their minds.  Play on their weaknesses.  Challenge them every chance you get.

The Interplay of Strength & Weakness

When it comes to creating well-balanced characters, one of the ways I like to think of it is that every character is a double-edged sword.  Any trait in any character has its positive and its negative potential, which can be drawn out, played with, used to create internal conflict, and/or increase external tension between characters.

For example, let’s say you have a character with a lot of determination.  Determination is good, right?  But what do you call determination in someone who is determined to do something you would rather they didn’t do?  You call it stubborn, hard-headed, contrary, or possibly stupid, depending on what the person is set on doing.  Double-edged sword.

A character with a lot of confidence – confidence is good, right?  It means charisma, leadership skills, self-assurance.  That character better watch out, though.  Confidence can become cockiness, and that opens up a lot of potential problems for your character.  Even if he has a healthy sense of his own limitations, maybe other characters perceive him as cocky and dislike him for it – confidence in one character can lead to jealousy in other characters.  Double-edged sword.

Turn the tables on your characters.  The things you admire or hate about a character, try to see from another angle.  What’s the opposing force in the equation?  What extremes would pull an attribute toward being a flaw, or a flaw toward being an asset?  A character’s greatest weakness can transform in to her greatest strength, or vice versa.  If a character isn’t very self-aware, he’ll be in constant danger of losing himself to the negative side of his own personality.  If he’s hyper-aware, that’s an issue in itself, and he’s going to question himself incessantly (hello, Dostoevsky).

Does your character have another trait that somehow keeps check on one of her double-edged aspects?  She’s confident, but doesn’t get cocky because she also has a strong sense of humility.  Uh-oh!  Humility?  That might slide into meekness if her confidence is down for some reason.  Your character’s internal struggle and the external dynamics have even more potential now.  This is great stuff for plot material, even if the story’s focus isn’t strictly about a character’s personal growth.  Characters should grow in any story, for it to be truly good writing.  Spy novel or literary fiction, science fiction or mainstream – a story will always be better for character development.

Let your heroes screw up.  Let your villains always try to do the right thing.  Let your characters be full, rounded people, in spite of labels like “hero”, “villain”, “protagonist”, or “antagonist”.  We don’t have those labels in real life, and stories with characters who transcend those labels are the ones that keep me, at least, coming back for more.

Point of View

In my last post, I wrote about getting details and subtleties across when your narrator doesn’t actually take note of them.  It’s a much bigger issue for a novel or story written in the first person than a piece written in third person – which has me thinking about the pros and cons of writing in first person.

How do you decide what perspective to use for telling your story – especially a novel, where your commitment is long-term?

With The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I had very strong reasons for telling the story directly from Erica Flynn’s point of view.  With the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo this November (working title as yet undecided), I have just as many reasons to write from third person perspective.

The first deciding factor, for me, is whether the main plot is one person’s story.  Of course, each of your characters thinks it’s their own story, but you know better.  You’re the writer.  All your characters should have depth, and the more development you can show of a range of your characters, the better.  If, at its core, though, the story is one character’s tale, then it can be told from a first person point of view.  If the story hinges on multiple people, then you most likely don’t want to limit yourself to one person’s viewpoint.

First person’s advantages are many.  It’s highly personal, and although you can do deep third person in which the characters thoughts and ideas and feelings are there in full detail (read Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), there is something about a narration from your main character that just doesn’t come through any other way – like someone is telling the reader their own story.  It gives your main character this quality of being a real person communicating directly to your reader.  It also allows for characterization through the narration – your word choices, the details mentioned, the style of the writing, all contributes to your reader’s sense of your character.  This was a huge part of writing my Erica Flynn novel – she’s a spunky, casual, humorous character, and I wanted that tone to color the whole book.  It seemed only natural to have her tell it, and let the tone flow from the character herself.  The personal nature of first person perspective was a factor, too – particularly since I kill Erica in the first chapter.  It’s a bigger deal for the reader when the narrator tells you she’s going to be dead in a few pages than when it’s just some character – the assumption would be that this character won’t matter soon, and reader interest in that character therefore wanes.  That’s just the opposite of what I needed the reader to feel at that point.  I wanted the reader to be like, “Holy crap!  I just met this girl, and now she’s telling me she’s going to die by the end of this chapter??”

I love anything that plays on unreliable narration (when your narrator lies, distorts the facts, omits details, or is oblivious to things that are obvious to the reader).  Chuck Palahniuk uses unreliable first person narrators in most of his books, Wilkie Collins frequently uses a collection of first person narrators in his novels (each with very different takes on the facts!), and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is written from the point of view of a man who’s so twisted that he can barely tell when he’s lying and when he’s not anymore.

Obviously, first person has its limitations.  It’s difficult to break to another point of view if you need to, it can be a real struggle to maintain voice and character consistency while still conveying the information necessary to the story, and it limits the focus of the story.  Granted, sometimes that’s what you want (in the case of the Erica Flynn novel, I wanted to keep the scope narrow and simple).  There’s no way I could tell my NaNoWriMo novel from a first person point of view because the scope is enormous and the characters’ development and decisions affect one another far too much for that kind of limitation of perspective.

Choose your point of view wisely, but don’t be afraid to play around with different perspectives or consider changing from one to another if the story isn’t flowing for you!