Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Characters: Motivation and Conflicts

Character Motivation

Kurt Vonnegut said: ‘Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Your character’s motivations don’t just drive the plot, they define them as people. Motivation is the core of characterisation.

Big/Primary Wants

Your character's primary want will impact on the plot arc--either acting as a driving force or a critical choice in the story's climax. A classic romance plot may revolve around a woman who seeks to further her career, with promotion being her primary want. At some critical juncture, she will have to choose between her career and the man who has come into her life. In an action novel, perhaps a man's child has been kidnapped and his primary want is returning his family to safety. Here he is less likely to make a choice; rather it is the driving force to keep him moving through the obstacles the plot provides.

Some will tell you this is what separates a character driven plot from an action driven one, suggesting that plots driven by character wants are character driven and plots where characters respond to events are action driven.

However even plots that are driven by events and environment are strengthened by strong driving forces (primary wants) behind the characters. Your character’s wants are what give the story urgency, so look at your plot and how your main character's (and your primary villain's) wants reflect and compliment the arc of the plot.

Take for example a man lost in the wilderness after plane crash. If he is driven by the need to stay alive and nothing else, it could be a good story. However if the plane was carrying medicine his daughter needed to survive and he is not just trying to stay alive, but trying to get home in time to save her life, the tension instantly shoots up.

Little Wants

Little or temporary wants are what drive individual scenes. Maybe your character’s primary want is to save their boyfriend from a mutant slug-beast. However in order to do that, she needs to steal her father’s car keys. Stealing the car keys becomes her want and driving force for that scene. Every single character in your story should want something at all times, just as every living thing around you wants something at all times. They may not always act on those wants, but you should be aware of them and have them act accordingly.

This is not limited to main characters and villains, but minor characters, the crowd—if you want to make your setting seem real, they all have to be real, complete people. Every single character with a name or even a passing description in my books has a short profile. It lists any information about them in the text, and at least one thing they want—be it in that scene, or in their life. Consider doing the same.

Internal Conflicts

Aside from what they want, what are your characters afraid of? I don’t mean spiders and snakes. Who are they afraid they will disappoint? What are they afraid to die without completing? Who do they desperately want love from? What are they terrified they will fail at?

Sometimes these can be scary things to explore, particularly if you are repressing your own internal conflicts day to day. The truth is, a lot of us spend much of our time terrified. Terrified to talk in front of a group. Terrified to admit what we want, in case people laugh at us. Terrified of rejection or success or responsibility.

Personally? I’m scared to wear really red lipstick. I have friends who wear the cat eye and deep red lips and they look amazing. I think ‘I want to do that’ and I don’t, because I think I’ll look silly. Why? I don’t know.

Readers want to empathise. Once you realise that everyone has insecurity and shame and anxiety sometimes, it makes it easier to write characters that people identify with. They bond with them, because they can share that secret fear. The fear people will laugh when you say you’re writing a novel. The fear that sexy guy will reject you. The fear that people are noticing that massive pimple you shouldn’t have picked at that morning.

Internal conflicts should not all be petty things. One or two occasional petty things are nice and make a character human, after that they become whiny and self centred. But there are big internal conflicts—recovering from trauma, fear or success or failure, fear of losing love and being rejected. These we want to see in spades. And we want to see characters that break through their fear and forge on, despite the risks.

Because that’s why we read.

External Conflicts

External conflicts are primarily tension between characters and events. You need both in equal measure to create a book that really resonates with readers. However different genres tend to tilt in favour of different sorts of conflict. Romances rely heavily on tension between characters, however adventure tends to be more focused on events. I feel this is a bad rule in general and if you feel one of these is your weakness; you should focus on that area for a while.

Your external conflicts are generally the things your character can not control—other people, bombs, hurricanes, slug monsters, etc. However how they react to them defines them as a character. The harder the decisions they have to make, the more we get to see of what they’re really made of inside.

The Right Tool For The Job

Hopefully now you are already thinking about wants, internal conflicts and external conflicts—not just of your main character, but of your supporting cast too. Remember to make notes in your character profile and chapter synopsis too—so these things remain consistent throughout your story.

One thing I want you to ask yourself though, is why your character? Why are they different from all the other people who want the same thing? Why does their want and story surpass the wants and stories of the people around them?

You need to have a reasonable answer for that—particularly if they are taking action no one else is taking. Recently a friend had done all the right things and given his characters wants and conflicts and woven them all into the plot. However one character’s driving force was to protect her children. But all mothers want that. Her children were in the same danger as many others and the character was timid and unskilled. Why was she the only one going on a quest to save them? What about the two hundred other more capable, brave and intelligent women in the city?

This is why you have to think of the minor characters as real people too. The crowd. The inn-keepers and apple-sellers of your world.

When you come to sell your story, editors are going to be asking the same thing. Why this book? Why this character? Give them the best damn answer you have.

More on this next week, when we cover Designing Characters.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Characters: Creating A Profile

What is a character profile?

A character profile is a gathering of information about a character in your manuscript that keeps track of their vital information: appearance, behaviour and motivation. It may contain a picture if you prefer and it can be as detailed or basic as you like. Its primary purpose is a reference to keep the details of your story consistent.

So don’t over-think it.

Main characters VS secondary characters:

There is a special trick when it comes to main character profiles VS secondary character profiles:

Firstly, you should use exactly the same profile template for main characters and all other characters, even the most MINOR shop keeper or blow-through.

Secondly, while you should try and fill in all of your main character profiles before you start writing your novel, you only need to fill in secondary characters info as you put it in the story. Name them, give them some critical details, but don’t fill in the stuff that doesn’t appear in the novel. Otherwise, you would end up with hundreds of pages of profiles for characters who are only in the novel for a few sentences.

However if you make a note of how you describe them (I like to clip and paste from the manuscript text), their personality, where they appear/live and their primary goal, you can quickly reference it if your main characters meet that character again. That way you won’t have to flip back through your novel looking for that obscure scene to check if you made them very short or how long their handlebar moustache was.

What should you put in a character profile?

So what actually goes in a character profile? I like to tailor mine to the novel in question. In different settings, different information will be important. However there are a few universal things you should always cover:

The basics:
Name, age, gender, hair, eyes, skin tone, height and weight.

The expanded basics:
Parents names, siblings, any other relevant family, friends and their relationship with all those people. Where they were born, where they live, their occupation and education, their title or rank, if they live in a world that is relevant.

The stuff that actually matters:
Their personality, morality and beliefs, their habits, interests and mannerisms, their background, their character arc, their internal conflicts and their external conflicts.

Both the basics and the expanded basics are just there to help you keep facts straight. They have very little impact on the story—even though they may be important to the character, they probably hold no real interest to the reader.

However the stuff that matters is the core of your story. It’s what makes your characters engaging and real. Which is why it’s getting its own blog post next week.

Maintenance and Upkeep:
Like your timeline, your character profiles need to develop with your story.

There will be new things to keep track of, relationships, motives and developments. Your character may be injured in chapter three and you’ll want to make a note of where and how badly so that remains consistent throughout the following chapters.

You also may want to make a note about less tangible things. If you are writing a romance, for example, you may want to make notes about the way the characters develop between each scene, as that emotional arc is the focus of the story.

I like using scrivener for my first drafts in particular, as it allows me to create a folder called ‘Characters’, mock up an empty profile and just duplicate it as new characters are introduced. Whenever I want to check my notes, they are right there and I can open them as a split screen while I am writing the scene. I can add photos and earlier descriptions to the file, their parent’s names and job title are all there. I don’t have to look anywhere else for the information I need. This is a great time saver and stops me becoming distracted as I either scroll through old text or have to minimize the novel to open the profile.

I also keep my character profiles in alphabetical order—particularly when dealing with a large fantasy cast.  It’s also simpler to have two sub folders, one for main characters and one for minor characters. Setting up a new project this way takes a little longer at the beginning, but makes life so much easier in the long run.

Week Two’s Exercise:

It’s time to set up a character profile template—either in word or Scrivener. Add all the things that are important to you and your storyline. You would be adding to mine, not detracting. Here’s one of mine to use as reference:

Name: (Including title EG: Ms, Dr, Prince, etc)
Physical Description: (Eyes, hair, height, weight, skin tone)


Parents: (Names, occupations and characters relationship with them)
Siblings: (As above)
Friends/Workmates: (As Above with other important people in their life.)
Other Family: (As above with extended family)
Born/Live: (Where were they born and where do they live now.)
Title/Rank: (If relevant to setting and not covered by name)
Clothes: (Style, etc)


History: (Their life until the story starts)
Character Arc: (What happens to them in the story, summarised by a few sentances)
Most Desires/Most Fears: (This should be tied into their personality and conflicts)
Internal Conflicts:
External Conflicts:
Habits/Mannerisms/Hobbies: (Quirks you want to remember to make them feel real. EG: Hair pulling, nail chewing.)
Morals & Beliefs:
Personality: (Five or six personality descriptive words. EG: Happy, intelligent, thoughtful, selfish, etc)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Characters: An Introduction

Over the next few months I will be doing a ten part series on characters in writing. Today’s post, part one, will deal with the very basics. Why we have characters, what their role is and how they drive the plot. First, I would like to outline the program as a whole:

01: Characters: An Introduction
As mentioned, this post will cover the basics and introduce you to the series.

02: Character Profiles
What is a character profile? Why do you need them? What do you need to put in them? I’ll show you how I organise mine, not just to keep track of hair colour and favourite foods, but to develop sub-plots, drive the novel forward and create natural conflict between characters.

03: Character Motivation
Kurt Vonneguard said: ‘Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Your character’s motivations don’t just drive the plot, they define them as people. Motivation is the core of characterisation.

04: Designing Characters
Tips on designing awesome, balls-to-the-wall, memorable characters. Then some tips for making those awesome characters actually fit in to the setting you created for them.

05: Gender and Gender Roles
Should your characters be male or female? Does it matter? Can you pass the Bechdel test? If lesbian porn can do it, so can you!

06: Conflict, Conflict and More Conflict
Your story needs more conflict. That conflict then needs to be maintained properly, escalated and finally resolved in a manner that has the strongest impact on the character and reader.

07: Heroes
Everyone thinks they are a hero. The worst people around you every day think they are the rising star, battling the injustices of the world. So what separates our protagonists from our villains?

08: Villains
Good villains are the ones you love to hate. The ones who make you so angry you want to throw the book against the wall. Sometimes the best villains are the ones you’re just a little bit attracted to too. Or terrified of. Either way, your villain has to be the strongest part of your story, because your hero can only push back as hard as your villain pushes forward.

09: Character Consistency
Do you ever read a book or watch a movie and completely lose your shit when the brilliant, tough heroine suddenly forgets how to take care of herself when a big strong man is around? Or when your favourite cold as ice villain does something so stupid it’s not just inconsistent, it’s like she had a full frontal lobotomy between scenes? Characters need to be consistent. Here’s how to check you’re not committing a plot-crime.

10: Driving Forces
Plot driven or character driven? What does that mean? Should it really be one or the other, or are the best stories both?

Excited yet? Hopefully the answer is yes, or it’s going to be very quiet around here for a few weeks.

Characters: An Introduction:

So what are characters? Obviously they are the people your story is about. Things happen to them and they do things that take you from ‘chapter one’ to ‘the end’. However what characters REALLY are, is your connection to the reader.

If you want really rabid fans, write good characters. Write Katniss and Harry Potter, I recall their names much faster than the women who created them. Alek and Deryn, Sand Dan Glokta, Arya and the Hound, Will Trent; my favourite character’s names are tattooed on my soul.

But it’s not just about the reader falling in love. The reader is literally experiencing the story through the character’s senses. The characters are the conduit to the story and it’s a very intimate relationship. Seeing what someone is seeing, hearing their thoughts—we don’t even experience that with our husbands and wives, so you need to write characters that readers want to spend time with. People they can stand to get that intimate with.

So let’s kick this series off with an exercise:

First, choose three or four of your favourite characters. Then, answer these questions about them:

1. List their top three personality traits.
2. What scene made you fall in love with them?
3. Who is their greatest enemy?
4. What was their darkest moment?
5. What is it you like about them?

What do you notice? Do your favourite characters have anything in common? Is there a theme immerging? Do they have nothing at all in common? Tell me in the comments!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

13 Ways To Stay Motivated While Writing

Writing a novel is a marathon—it’s not something you can bang out in an afternoon or a long weekend. It takes persistence and focus over months, sometimes years, and no matter how passionate you are about the project, there are times when motivating yourself becomes a challenge.

Here are thirteen ways I keep myself motivated during the long slog to ‘The End’.

1. Write A Timeline.
One of the most demotivating things about writing is being confused. Go through your notes and chapters and make sure you have a detailed timeline for your novel. Keep it current, it will make your life so much easier.

2. Small Rewards.
Get a bag of MnMs or jellybeans, Written?Kitten!, or even paint one finger nail at a time and use these tools to reward yourself every 200 or 500 words.

3. Big Rewards.
Reward yourself big for major milestones. Not just dinner somewhere nice, but something you’ve been wanting or needing for a long time. When I finish my seven book romance series I have every intention of buying myself a new gaming laptop.

4. Have A Dance Break.
Every fifteen or twenty minutes, put on your favourite dance song and leap around the room like a racoon on crack. Increasing your heart rate will increase the blood flow to your brain and you'll sit down at the computer operating on full capacity again. A one minute dead sprint on the treadmill will do the same job.

5. Have A Daily Achievements Buddy.
I always have one or two friends I speak to every evening, just for a few minutes, so we can report our writing achievements for the day. Word counts, pages edited, timeline planning--whatever we've done, we share and congratulate. Shared enthusiasm is contagious.

6. Keep A Pinterest Board For Your WIP.
Or several. I like to have one board for locations and setting, one board for fashion of the era/world, one board for each of the main characters with their clothes, weapons and any celebrity doppelgangers they may have, one board for NPCs and minor characters and another for monsters/beasts/technology in the setting. Look through it when you're feeling unmotivated, or use it to help you with description and details.

7. Read Your Favourite Scene.
Keep bookmarks on the best scenes in your favourite novels and re-read them when you're stumped. Just try to avoid the temptation to spend the afternoon reading. For several years, when I was stuck I would read passages from ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Which is why I still have some of them memorised.

8. Meditate.
Don't know how? Look for some clips on youtube. You'll be surprised what 10 minutes of mental silence can do for you. It's like a soft re-boot of your brain. That brain silence is what your mind is looking for when it compels you to clean the bathroom when you're stuck on a scene, but meditation is a little more focused.

9. Read Your Thesaurus.
Or baby name book. It's good to have physical book copies of these, as it gives your eyes a break from the computer screen.

10. Physical Coordination.
Do something that requires physical coordination. I know most writers are naturally quiet, geeky types. However sport, dancing, yoga etc all form important new connections in the neural pathways that make writing so much easier.

11. Write A List.
I love lists more than I love chocolate. Get creative. Write a list of the first twenty things you'd do if you won the lottery. Or the top five things your main character would want if they were marooned on an island. Or the top ten reasons you want to finish writing that scene today.

12. Learn A New Skill.
Find something you know absolutely nothing about and learn how to do it. Bee-keeping, weaving, thatching roofs, smoky-eye makeup, changing your spark-plugs, growing orchids, baking a pavlova. Learning new stuff stimulates and brain and for a writer, no knowledge is useless.

13. Make Word Goal Jars.
A little like small rewards, Word Goal Jars are a physical version of ‘levelling up’ in writing. Every 500/1000 words, or every scene, you move a little glass bead from one jar to another—which effectively keeps track of your word count in a way you can see and touch and gives you that momentary rush of success. It also really motivates you toward the end. 6000 words seems huge, but six glass beads is nothing.

As you can see, the photo for today’s blog is my Word Goal Jars. I made them myself from two vases, some silver lettering from a craft store and those little glass bead things. They were cheap to make and are totally awesome. (That’s Ori ‘helping’ with the photograph.)

Do you have anything to add to this list? How do you stay motivated?