Pacing & Payoffs

On the subject of the middles of stories and novels, the foremost topic that comes to my mind is pacing.  The road of pacing is fraught with many perils, traps, meanderings, and pitfalls.  It’s one of the single hardest things to fix about any given part of a story, if it goes wrong to begin with.

Pacing, like most things, is a continuum with two extremes at either end.  Slow pacing is boring because the story drags out longer than necessary to get to any satisfying point(s) in the storyline.  Fast pacing is also boring, because too much is going on to take any satisfaction in the events of the storyline.  What’s the key in both cases?  A sense of satisfaction.

Before you can be satisfied with something, you have to start out by having a desire – take eating, for instance.  If you’re hungry, you eat something, and you feel satisfied if the meal is good.  If you’re not hungry, maybe you still have a craving for a certain food, and if you eat that certain food, your craving is satisfied.  If you’re not hungry and you don’t have any desire for a specific favorite taste, then eating is anything but satisfying – even if you eat compulsively, the whole point is that you are never satisfied.

So you have to make the reader want something from your story, to begin with.  That’s your series of narrative hooks, where you plant the seeds of interest, curiosity, questions that need answers, the wish for a character to excel or be crushed, etc.  Once you have that established, the trick is to give them payoffs along the way while simultaneously planting more hopes/wishes/questions in their brains for the story yet to unfold.

Some tips about middles, payoffs, and lead-ups:

  • Sufficient payoff for the amount of lead-up attached to the event or realization.  If you’ve spent the whole book leading up to this moment, then this scene is your climax, and you need to make it count.  If there’s been only a hint or two, this either needs to be an unexpected major turning point, or it needs to be okay that this scene is only a minor moment of satisfaction – a hint to your audience that you know what you’re doing and they can trust you to give them more.
  • If you’ve built this up as something important, it needs to alter the story and/or the characters in some way.  A big action sequence that leaves the characters and the story right where they were before the action is a waste of words and a waste of time.
  • A payoff scene should raise the stakes, change someone’s mind about something, reveal a new side of someone, alter the dynamics between two or more characters, move the plot or at least a subplot forward and/or link a subplot to the main storyline, and/or answer at least one question raised in the earlier part of the story.
  • Your protagonist must suffer to achieve his/her satisfaction.  There is no growth without pain, and there is no story without growth.  Readers want to root for someone who’s having a hard time and toughing through it the best they can.  The reader’s sense of satisfaction in the high points of your protagonist’s journey are only as strong as the severity of what the protagonist faces at the low points, and how well he or she bears that suffering.
  • Until you’re approaching your wrap-up, continue to raise questions, doubts, internal waverings, and so on as you write scenes to answer for the previous questions and doubts and so on.  Every choice closes one door and opens three more, as you head toward the climax.  The immediate lead-in to your climax is where that changes, where choices narrow and everything suddenly hinges on THE HERE AND NOW for your characters.
  • Give a moment, even just a line or two, of reflection after a big change, heavy action, heated dialogue, etc.  Make sure you give voice to the aftermath, the undertones of your characters’ feelings, etc.  After an argument with someone you’re close to, you may be angry, but there are raw vulnerabilities rattling around in your head that you normally ignore.  There’s emotional exhaustion.  There might be unexpected tenderness toward the person you’re at odds with.  There may be a battle in your head about whether to push the person away or whether to pull close to them again.  Bring this stuff out in your characters in these “aftermath” moments, and your pacing will be the better for it – your story will be deeper for it, too, and your characters more accessible and more “real” to the reader.
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Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.

The Hook

The Hook is a lie.  Let’s just get that out in the open right now.  Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel.  This is true.

The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement.  Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks.  You need a trail of breadcrumbs.  You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest.  You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story.  The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting.  These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact:  book = boring.  Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.

A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance.  An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”: 

(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity.  You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.

Drop hints.  Foreshadow.  Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes.  Throw in setbacks.  Raise doubts.  Bring up questions that will need answering.  Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more.  Build anticipation.  And make the payoff worth the wait.

A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping.  One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing.  In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view.  While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond.  Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden.  It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information.  And I thought, “A design hook.  Foreshadowing with hedges!”

I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising.  What am I giving a glimpse of here?  Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path?  Am I giving them too much, too soon?  I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.

And there you have it.  The truth about narrative hooks!  You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

The Grindstone

Marketing.  Bleh.  I’m so sick of doing it right now that I really really thought about skipping my post about it for today, or cheating and posting about something more fun.

As a compromise, this is a post sort of about marketing and sort of about rewriting.  In the past few weeks, I’ve started to realize that the opening of the novel I’ve been sending out is really not the best representation of the style, tone, type of story, or flavor of the book, and that it also puts forth most of the narrator’s bad side right off the bat, without giving a reader much to grab onto and like about her.  I’d never take away her flaws – they’re a good chunk of what drives her throughout the storyline, and aren’t necessarily flaws except when she lets them get out of hand.

Why didn’t I realize this before?  Well, I sort of did, but I wasn’t sure how big a problem it was.  As the rejection letters have come rolling in, I’ve started to think, Maybe it’s a Big Problem.  I’ve still got a sample out to an agent, so I won’t be impulsively rewriting anything until I hear back about that, but if I get a “no” from him, I think it’s time to sit down and look at how to get the most appropriate, enticing start to this book at the start of the book.

Currently, it’s chronological – it starts with the narrator’s death scene.  Now, I’m thinking I should start it after she’s already dead, raise questions about how she ended up that way and so forth as part of the hook, and catch the reader up as the plot moves along.  The good news is, I’ll probably be able to keep the material, just reorganized, and any dead weight (no pun intended) will be easily shed in the process (since I always felt like the first part of the book was a little more bloated than I wanted it to be, and yet the pacing in the first five chapters has always felt like a whirlwind).

So there.  The moral of this post is:  Be brutally honest with yourself about the first few chapters of your book.  Read it as if you don’t know what comes next.  And don’t judge it on whether or not you would buy it.  Judge it on whether or not you would sell it to make your living, based on the first five pages or so, when you have five hundred other queries to get through this week.  Because that’s the kind of person you have to impress.

Raising the Stakes

The trickiest part of writing a novel, IMHO, is structuring the story arc over such a long span.  Although there are exceptions, a lot of novels cover a course of months or years (centuries, if you’re Edward Rutherford), for the characters.  Readers will take days, weeks, or months (depending on their reading pace and how dense the material of your book is) to finish it.  And of course, you, as the writer, will spend months, if not a few years, writing and polishing it.  It can be hard to keep perspective from within all those thousands of words and hundreds of hours of work!  It isn’t always easy to tell, in the process, if you’re going on too much with one section and rushing through another.  Pacing isn’t something you can always judge on the first draft, or even the second.

But pacing is the least of a writer’s worries with structure – pacing is easy to fix.  What’s hard to fix is the scenes that don’t have a clear direction – especially when you have a lot of them – and the storylines that don’t fit together the way you want, and the plot holes that will take massive amounts of lead-up that you didn’t put in because you didn’t realize you’d need it.  My first finished novel, The Kind That Hurts the Most, which will hopefully never see the light of day, suffered from a hideous lack of plot structure and far too many directionless scenes in the middle.  To this day, I can’t see any way to fix it, short of throwing in some werewolves or zombies or possibly Godzilla, and I’d have to pay royalties for him.  Anyway, one of the tools I’ve picked up since that novel, which would really have saved it as I was drafting it, is raising the stakes.

If you’re meandering, unfocused, or directionless with your plot, one of the surest cures is to increase the pressure on your characters.  That doesn’t always mean changing the events of the storyline, either – you can make the events mean more to the characters, affect them more profoundly, as long as you have a basis established for why, for this person, is this event momentous?

There’s such a wide range of ways to approach the idea of “raising the stakes”, too.  In a comedy/adventure style of story, you can heap things on until it’s ridiculous (Indiana Jones’ “Snakes…why did it have to be SNAKES?” moment comes to mind).  In a literary novel, one character’s mindset can shift just a little too late, and the resulting regret can drive them to overcompensate, lash out, or strive to change.  In a mystery, the killer can come after the sleuth.  Loved ones can be threatened, or can threaten to withdraw or leave.  Loyalties can split at a crucial time.  Fortunes can be squandered, jobs can be lost, antagonists can attack in unforseen ways, storms can strike, wars can be declared.  There are a zillion options for making life hard in your story world.

One thing you can do is think about bad timing in your own life.  Everyone has had those times when bad news seems to come in like a tide – wave upon wave of bad news, pounding in on you.  What did you really need right then that fell through or went wrong, or what was the last straw?  And when you got to the last straw, no matter how you reacted, what would your characters have done, in the same position?  How would they have solved the problem, or made it worse?

See, you’re getting a free exercise here, even though it’s not Friday.  And writing therapy, sort of.

Anyway, as crazy as this sounds, I’m going to recommend Adam Sandler movies as prime examples of raising the stakes.  They’re formulaic in many ways, and obviously silly, but re-watching Happy Gilmore a couple weeks ago, I thought, “Damn!  If I ever teach a creative writing class in my lifetime, I’m using this to show my students how to raise the stakes.”  Several of Sandler’s movies would work as examples (formulaic, as I said) but Happy Gilmore has an element that underlines that the stakes are being raised – the sports commentators, who throw in lines like, “And things just keep getting worse for Happy Gilmore!  If he doesn’t calm down, he’s going to lose this round!” when the audience knows, of course, that he must win this round to save his grandmother’s house from repossession.  So thank you, Adam Sandler, for helping me with this blog entry.

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂

Pet Peeves – Amnesia Openings

All readers have pet peeves about storytelling.  There are some things that just irritate you when you see them in a story or a movie.  I think writers are even more prone to these kinds of tics than other readers, partly because we’re used to watching out for what does and doesn’t work in our own stories.

One of my own personal annoyances is with books that start out with a main character having amnesia.  Why does it bug me?  Well, partly because it strikes me as lazy writing, most of the time – like the character who always asks obvious questions for the sake of exposition via dialogue (*cough* Tasha Yar *cough* Next Generation Star Trek *cough*).  I don’t mind if the character develops amnesia later in the story, but to start out with it just seems like such a cheap way to get away with a long setup for your world and your characters, with an oh-so-obvious element of mystery.  The trouble is, it leaves me cold, and here’s the main reason:

99% of the amnesia beginnings I’ve read treat “amnesia” like it means “lack of personality”.  I’m sure that, without our memories, we’d all act somewhat different than usual, but we wouldn’t lose our personalities altogether.  You’d still think like yourself, you just wouldn’t know why you thought the way you did.  Aside from the fact that it makes no sense to equate loss of memory with loss of personality, there’s nothing duller, to me, than a book without good characters.  I latch onto characters quicker than any other story element, and so do many, many other readers.  Give me a lousy anchor, and I’m getting on a different boat, thanks all the same.

One thing I love, though, is finding stories that break my personal rules of reading and writing.  I’m delighted when a writer can do something I detest, and make me fall in love with his/her book anyway.  For one thing, it impresses me, and for another thing, I like to figure out why their book was different.  Why did this work, when dozens of other books didn’t (or at least, didn’t work for me)?

For my Amnesia Openings pet peeve, the book that shatters the rule is Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series.  Why does Zelazny get a free pass when the very first page of his series starts with the main character having no memory?  Because, also on the first page, he shows me his narrator has a great deal of personality.  Within half a page, the reader knows he’s suspicious, calculating, tricky, and funny.  The narrative voice, the questions and doubts that cross his mind, the decisions he makes, and the way he handles his lack of knowledge about himself or what happened to him, work together beautifully to establish what type of person he is and how he thinks, and to simultaneously set up the first inklings of conflict and danger.  There’s nothing lazy about writing that can do all that with half a page.

The best writing makes the most of each and every scene – not just because it makes the book richer, although it does, but also because that’s the kind of writing that grabs people.  It’s exciting to open a book and be in another place, but more exciting to open a book and be in another place with interesting questions to be answered, mysterious events on the horizon, and a fascinating main character to anchor you in the world of the story.  A narrative hook, by itself, isn’t enough.  You need some bait, too – if I may mix my nautical metaphors here in my blog (I would avoid doing so at all costs in a story!)  😉

Shadow Characters – Part I

Psychiatrist Carl Jung, like Freud, defined the subconscious by breaking it down into separate “parts”.  In Jung’s breakdown, the Shadow self is the part of ourselves that we hide (or hope to hide) from others – things we’re ashamed of about ourselves, flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – things we may not even want to admit to ourselves are the case.

In literature, it’s common to find characters who represent the shadow self of the protagonist, even when the author wasn’t consciously writing with that intent.  In high school, I took an awesome elective class on Shadow Literature, in which, essentially, we spent a semester psychoanalyzing books – not authors, books.  Ever since then, I’ve been finding shadow characters everywhere, and I notice the parallels and contrasts in my own characters and their experiences in a way I never did prior to that class.  At times, it’s just been fun to note, but sometimes it’s been extremely helpful in fleshing out characters, drawing out interesting dynamics between the characters, and/or providing intriguing role reversals in the storyline.

I’ve written here before about the importance of giving character traits a little balance – making it clear that your good guys aren’t perfect, bad guys aren’t pure evil, and keeping in mind that we’ve all got a little of our opposite within us.  It’s essential to making interesting characters.

What makes shadow so fun to play with is, you can externalize some of that opposite within and let it out.  Let me illustrate using Batman (hah!  I KNEW I’d get Batman into my blog somehow, someday!) and the Joker.  The thing that makes Batman my favorite superhero ever is the fact that he walks a razor’s edge between complete diabolical insanity and self-sacrificing heroism.  He’s a hero, but he’s always struggling to hold back his own demons, as well as the various super villains he comes up against in Gotham City.  Toward the innocent, he’s compassionate and philanthropic, but he’s a vigilante, using his own judgement as to who deserves punishment – and man, if Batman thinks somebody needs punishing, there is no compassion about him anymore.  He may manage to force himself to play by the rules of justice most of the time, but it’s often a struggle for him not to deal out retribution as he sees fit.  So you see, as a character, he already has an internal shadow clearly laid out (particularly in the graphic novels and the most recent wave of movies).

Now, where does the Joker come in?  The Joker’s favorite game to play with Batman is to point out how much alike he and Batman are, which, of course, Batman hates.  But in a way, the Joker’s right.  Batman is crazy.  He’s maladjusted, incapable of resolving his issues with the world, prefers to strive for his goals in an unconventional and unsanctioned way to actually working with the system that we “normal” people have to deal with….  Depending on what version of the Joker’s background you read (every graphic novel writer seems to have his own), there are often parallels or intersections of Batman’s back story and the Joker’s back story.  The Joker is a clear-cut shadow character – he represents everything Batman is afraid he might be, or might become, and everything Batman doesn’t want to admit about himself.  The thing is, Batman chooses not to become his shadow self, and the Joker revels in being what he is.  That choice is what makes them different.

It’s also important to note that Batman is also the Joker‘s shadow self.  The Joker mocks Batman’s heroism, and (again, depending whose version of the Joker’s back story you read) has spent so long ignoring his better instincts that they’ve essentially vanished.  The Joker does not want to be Batman, any more than Batman wants to be the Joker.  That’s why he loves to mess with Batman’s head every chance he gets.

Okay, I promise I’m done talking about Batman now.

There are lots of storylines in which the protagonist’s shadow character is his/her adversary (or at least is the antagonist).  There are others in which the shadow character is a friend or ally, or the relationship between the two shadow characters changes.  It’s crucial that shadow characters are connected through important similarities, such as strategic thinking, a parallel grief, a core tendency toward anger – deeply ingrained elements of personality.  If they have nothing in common, they aren’t shadow characters – they’re just opposites.  Anytime a character says, “No!  I’m not like you!” to his/her adversary, you probably have a case of shadow on your hands.

Long story short, there is a lot to be said about shadow characters, which is why I’m breaking this topic up into multiple posts.  More about shadow characters, and with different dynamics, next time!

For now, I’ll leave you with some pretty clear examples of shadow antagonist/protagonist teams:

  • Batman and the Joker, particularly in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight, and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Probably the easiest and most clear-cut example of the shadow in all of literature
  • Gollum and Frodo in The Two Towers, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series – I say The Two Towers in particular because that’s where the two characters interact directly for the first time
  • Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books
  • FBI agent Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the film of Red Dragon (based on Thomas Harris’s novel, which is too gory and graphic for me to be able to read it, although I’ve tried)

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On Tuesday, June 15th (this coming Tuesday), I’ll be guest blogging at Marian Allen’s Weblahg.  Marian Allen has three novels published for electronic format through Echelon Press, many short stories published in magazines and anthologies – some of which are available at Amazon.  She is also, I’m proud to say, my mom.  I’ll be posting about giving and getting critiques, and how to get the most out of your feedback, on her blog this Tuesday, so be there or be square!

Fixing Flat Characters

While there are some fine examples of books/stories in which an “everyman” character can be interesting, there are many more examples in which an “everyman” type is…well, boring.  That’s not to say that stories about “normal” people can’t be awesome, but there’s no such thing as a perfectly neutral person, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

Don’t you risk pushing away some readers if you make a characters’ quirks, beliefs, attitudes, or lifestyles different from those readers’?  Yeah, but, just like in real life, not everybody is gonna like everybody else.  There are people who don’t like YOU, but you’re still yourself, right?  And a lot more readers will be intrigued by and endeared to a strong character (even one of questionable morals) than a flat, boring character.  Look at Han Solo.  He’s kind of a rake, self-centered, and smart-mouthed.  But that’s why he’s an entertaining character – that juxtaposition of “not a NICE GUY, but a GOOD GUY nonetheless” keeps you curious about his next line, whether he’ll do the right thing or not, etc.

Now, there’s another way to make a character flat and boring, at the other end of the scale.  There is nothing more intensely BLAH than a character that’s overdone – he/she is a stereotype, relies entirely on a single central trait, or is so over-the-top that he/she leaves readers rolling their eyes and sighing in moments that are meant to be powerful or gripping.  This happens a lot with the all-good hero or all-evil villain, but it’s not a problem confined to good guys vs. bad guys.

The core of the issue, really, is when the writer himself/herself doesn’t know enough about the character.  Sometimes, characters just come out three-dimensional without any effort on my part.  I love it when that happens.  Other times, they develop depth and back story during the writing process (I also love that, although it usually means I have to tweak the first scenes or chapters that character appears in, to account for things I’ve “learned” about them along the way).  And then, some characters take momentous effort to make them come alive.  Actually, I love that process, too, although it can be frustrating when the characters just won’t work with me.

For particularly troublesome characters, here are some things to try:

  • Break up stereotypes.  If you’re writing a character who is one, reverse a few expectations, throw in some additional interests, or give us some reason that your character him/herself is TRYING to be a stereotype.
  • Ask your character any 10 questions, like it’s an interview.  Write down your questions and their answers, and see what new information you can uncover about them.  What was his favorite birthday present as a kid?  What’s her ideal vacation?  What STILL bothers him, even though it happened 16 years ago?  What’s the ability she’s most confident about in herself?
  • Write down 3 things your character is aware of about himself/herself (pick some good and some bad), and 3 things that OTHER characters would readily notice about his/her personality (some good, some bad) that he/she isn’t aware of about himself/herself.  Think about the things you’ve listed – are they things that would factor into events and reactions within your storyline?  Are they things that will change, or things your character will realize, within the storyline?  Are they things your character will have to call upon or overcome in order to make it to his/her goal(s) in the story?
  • Strengths and weaknesses are sometimes one and the same.  It’s often the balance of a trait that makes it a “flaw” or a “merit” in a personality.  Being stubborn is bad, right?  The flip side of stubbornness, though, is persistance, determination, tenacity, and/or constancy.  Many of the best characters are ones whose flaws and strengths are a double-edged sword, and the interplay of positive and negative side effects of their traits gives the narrative plenty of potential intrigue and tension.
  • Don’t make a character all anything – good, bad, cruel, confident, indifferent, whatever.  Even if it’s just a smidgen of contradiction, and even if it isn’t written on the page, you should have it in mind that no one is all one way or another.  The ultra-confident jerk at the office who always gets the promotions and the girls may be exactly that to your main character, but YOU, the writer, can know better.  Maybe the guy is secretly horribly insecure and is overcompensating, or has something to prove to his overly critical father, whatever.  But, whether that’s specified in the story or not isn’t as important as the fact that, as a writer, you’ve got to know all your characters, heart and soul, as if they were real people.  They’ll never be real people to your readers unless they’re real to YOU first.

You can probably tell by now that I’m a very character-focused writer, so you know I’ll be rambling about characters and character development again.  You haven’t heard the last of it yet!  Muahahaha!  😉