Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: characterization

We’ve been talking about the most critical flaw in most new manuscripts, and that is the lack of the CORE STORY PROBLEM. In order to make things simpler, I came up with the concept of the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker) because the core antagonist is not always a villain. He/She/It merely has a goal that runs counter to what the protagonist wants. Without that core story problem in need of solving we don’t have a novel, we have Day of Our Lives.

Just bad situations mixed with melodrama and angst.

So we need to give our protagonist a problem and not just any problem, but the perfect problem and one that is seemingly insurmountable. Now, we as Author God know this is good for the protagonist, but our character will likely scream, cry and resist more than a toddler headed for nap time.

Yet, whenever I write about the BBT (core antagonist), inevitably I get this in the comments, which is perfectly fine and a legitimate question…

“Great article, Kristen. I have a question. What about novels with an internal conflict? Where the main character has to make a hard choice and all the conflicts with the “bad guys” in the story are really just manifestations of the MC’s own character flaws coming to light as she works out the solution? Is there a BBT in this situation?”

Short answer? YES!!!!

One of the toughest concepts to grasp in writing fiction is this notion of “inner demons.” In all my years working with writers and busting apart countless manuscripts, the single greatest weakness I’ve witnessed with writers is a failure to truly understand how to plot. And before anyone breaks out in hives that I am encouraging detailed outlines, I’m not.

But the problem with inner demons is they are…well…inner. This means that our job as writers is to draw the demons out so they can be destroyed. It’s kind of like The Exorcist, though green puke and spinning heads is all your call.

You might laugh but if you have ever seen any movie involving an exorcism, what is the general progression?

The victim starts acting weird. Not herself. At first it might be written off as depression or lack of sleep or not enough caffeine. Then as the demon gains a toehold, the outward symptoms become more pronounced. Maybe physical changes (growling voice, speaking in Latin). Priests intervene and stuff gets cray-cray but to defeat the demon, what has to happen?

The demon must give its NAME.

You know you watch far too many horror movies when you are no longer scared, but are yelling critique.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.54.22 AM

But the point of this I want to make clear is that the one thing these exorcism stories pretty much all have in common is the demon must be NAMED and manifest OUTWARDLY to be defeated.

Same in fiction.

Inner demons are tricky for a number of reasons we will talk about today. The trick is finding the plot problem that will drive the demon to the surface so it can be defeated.

Inner Demons are Inner

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.53.05 AM

Yeah, I already mentioned that but this is kind of a big deal. Many new writers begin the novel with a character doing a lot of internalization and thinking and thinking and more thinking.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but the biggest is we (readers) just don’t care. We haven’t spent enough time to be vested in a stranger’s emotional baggage.

Do any of us like spending time in person with folks who do nothing but talk about their character flaws and problems? NO. So we are unlikely to want to pay to endure this too much in a book. Can we get there eventually? Sure.

Just like dating. I would hope by the time we dated someone a couple months we might know they haven’t talked to their father in three years and we would care about this problem. In the first fifteen minutes of a first date?

*backs away slowly* *slips barista a $20 to create a distraction to cover ex-fil*

Demons Hide in the Blind Spot

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.57.21 AM

One key thing to remember about demons is they hide really really well. If they didn’t then shrinks would starve and be treated like writers.

Wow, you’re a psychotherapist? Really? What’s your “real” job? Seriously, people PAY you to listen to their problems?

This is another reason we don’t begin with a protagonist thinking about her inner demons. Odds are, she is oblivious they are even there. She isn’t yet that self-actualized.

Denial is more than a river in Africa 😉 . In fact, the stronger the denial, the better the story (or if you’re a therapist, the better the $$$$$). This is why your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in Act One should lose. He/She has not grown enough in order to defeat the core story problem.

Plot is What Exorcises the Demons

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.58.02 AM

The plot is the crucible that will fire this demon to the surface so the character can then defeat it. This is why understanding plotting becomes so vital. A great plot problem is going to sprout directly from that inner demon. Why?

Because fiction is the path of greatest resistance. What good is a plot problem unless it pits the character against her deepest flaw and weakness?

Some weaknesses might be fairly obvious—grief, betrayal or addiction. The problem, however, is no one wants to read 300+ pages of someone whining about a loss or a compulsion. We would probably want to smother such a person to get her to shut up.

Whining is not a plot.

Also remember that there is a reason for the grief, feeling of betrayal or addiction and THAT is the real inner demon that must show its head. There must be an outside challenge that forces the character to eventually choose to remain the same or to evolve (Act III).

You gonna keep hiding in a bottle? Or are you gonna face/defeat WHY you drink so you can walk your daughter down the aisle?

Not all inner demons are as obvious, though. The tricky demons look a hell of a lot like our greatest strengths, because…..um, they are.

Remember that every character strength has a corresponding weakness.

These inner demons are a real bugger to spot because they serve the character really well (or at least the character believes they do). In fact, this inner demon might be the very reason the character has always been successful…until you Evil Author Overlord hand her a problem where the old tools no longer work.

New level, new devil, baby 😉 .

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.59.57 AM

For instance, maybe your protagonist has a heart of gold. She is always there to help a friend, lend an ear, or fix a problem. Helping is the core of her identity.

But what happens when she wants to open a new cupcake bakery but then realizes she is spending too much time helping people who really don’t want to help themselves?

The plot forces her to recognize she sucks at putting down boundaries. She might even realize that she wasn’t helping after all…she was enabling or even controlling. She might come to finally see that the dark side of her helping. Deep down she doesn’t trust and so she always has to keep the ledger balanced in her favor. Or she could really believe she doesn’t deserve to be successful and helping others is a way of avoiding risk of failure.

Well, as soon as I get my brother sobered up, THEN I can focus on the cupcakes.

When the outside challenge—opening a cupcake bakery—reveals the BS of her core identity, what will she DO? See, before she had a dream of a cupcake bakery, she could be there for everyone and every problem. The plot problem, however, drives the demon to the surface and shows its real face.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 8.03.26 AM

Notice how the problem (outside goal) helps this become a story, not just 300 pages of tedious navel gazing and infighting. Without the goal, there is no real way to see if our imaginary protagonist succeeds. Yet, add in a cupcake bakery and it is pretty easy to spot failure. If, in the end she is still nagging her brother to stop drinking and does not have a successful cupcake bakery?

She failed.

Every side trip to rescue others that stops her from realizing this dream makes us worry (dramatic tension).

It All Goes Back to the Paradigm

Remember a couple posts back we talked about paradigms. The paradigm is the set of lenses (flawed) that the protagonist sees herself and her world through. Inner demons are what create the distortion in the lens. I strongly recommend checking out the Emotional Wound Thesaurus because these wounds are what grind the distorted lenses through which your protagonist sees the world.

The needs, false beliefs, fears, strengths and weaknesses are all part of the paradigm. The BBT is what forces the protagonist to see the lenses are no good and propels her to do the hard work required to see her world and herself more clearly.

For instance, using our cupcake baker above, WHY does she feel the need to rescue? “She just does,” is a bad/lazy answer. Her need to rescue is merely a symptom of the wound. Her paradigm is family-centered. Her paradigm tells her, “I am not worthy of happiness on my own. I am only worthy when I am ‘helping’.”

Thus, if we know we are working with this sort of character and this sort of inner demon, plot becomes self-evident. We now know exactly what kind of existential crisis to toss in her path to make her fall. We place her in a situation where she no longer can help the way she used to. Take away her crutch, let her fall and eventually she will see she never needed it at all. She was always capable of walking.

In the end, all great stories involve inner demons (character arc). But even in literary fiction, the outside problem is what is going to make that inner demon manifest. So take time to really think about how your outside plot problem can make the protagonist squeal then make them suffer…a lot. It’s good for them 😀 .

***NOTE: Also pick up a Positive Trait Thesaurus for help finding your protagonist’s weak/blind spots.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to better make readers care about the internal struggles of your characters? Any questions? Suggestions? Additions? Recipes for holy water?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 April 13th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 7.26.00 AMToday, I’m busy finishing up work before I have to travel and speak in Utah, so since we’d been discussing Deep POV, I figured I’d get a Deep POV expert to come and weigh in on the subject. Marcy Kennedy is an excellent teacher and has actually written a whole book on the subject, and she’s taken time out of her busy schedule to help us out.

Take it away, Marcy!

***

In her post Introducing Deep POV—WHAT IS It? Can We Buy Some on Amazon? Kristen explained why deep POV is more popular than the old trends that defined the classics. Those old ways of writing? Probably not coming back unless an EMP pulse permanently fries all our technology.

I think it’s actually a great thing we’ve moved on to deep POV. Deep POV is the magic sauce that can make our books so all-consuming that readers miss their subway stops, consider calling in sick for work, and burn the casserole.

Why? Well, in deep POV, there’s no distance between the reader and the character. The reader experiences the world through the character’s mind, body, and senses. They hear the character’s voice. It’s personal and intimate. This means readers form a stronger connection to the characters and they have to know what happens to them.

It also means that everything is filtered through the character before readers receive it. Nothing is objective. The character is interpreting the story for us in the same way that we interpret what happens in our lives. That means that in deep POV even the “less exciting” parts like description become exciting because they show emotion and personality.

So let’s look at two ways we can develop deep POV in our writing…

Show the Emotion, Don’t Tell It

This works to suck the reader in because we’re feeling an emotion rather than being told about an emotion. If I tell you that I’m sad, or feeling guilty, or scared, you’re not going to feel much. There’s too much distance. It’s too cold and flat.

If you’re brought in so close that my sadness or guilt or fear becomes real to you, maybe even reminds you of when you felt those emotions, now you’re feeling it too.

Let’s take an example.

Telling: Jennifer was sad because of the death of her daughter. She went into the little girl’s room and threw one of her favorite toys against the wall, shattering it.

Even an empath wouldn’t feel anything from the shallow Telling version.

Deep POV (Showing): Jennifer stood face to face with the delicate porcelain doll Ellie idolized too much to even play with. The doll stared back, her face held in an immortal smile, mocking. No doll deserved to live longer than the little girl who owned her. Jennifer snatched the doll from the shelf and heaved her toward the far wall. The doll’s head exploded like a car bomb, fragments flying everywhere.

In the Deep POV version, this is now a specific, nuanced sadness. It’s how Jennifer experiences her sadness. Jennifer isn’t just sad. She’s also angry, maybe even a little bitter. That’s very different from a character who is sad and guilty, or a character who is sad…but also a little bit relieved.

Use Description as a Way to Increase Tension, Heighten Emotion, and Reveal Personality

How many times have you skimmed over a description that read something like this?

Jennifer ducked into the only other room in the apartment—a bedroom. It had a Captain’s bed, an end table butted up to the bedside, and big windows along one wall. Ugly orange and green curtains covered the windows from the top to three inches off the floor. To one side was a tiny, doorless bathroom. She had nowhere to hide, and if he found her here, he’d kill her.

Yawn. I almost fell asleep writing it. I’ve described the room, but it’s a boring description because these are the objective facts. There aren’t any opinions to go along with it. There’s no personality.

Let’s try this again in deep POV. This time I’m going to weave the description in among the action (when Jennifer would naturally pay attention to each item) and let Jennifer tell it in her voice.

Jennifer careened into the only other room in the apartment—a bedroom. The unmade bed was one of those Captain styles with drawers underneath that she’d always associated with kids, not adults. No place to hide there.

Out in the main room, the rattle of a chain marked him locking the door behind him.

She spun in a circle. The only door other than the one she came in led to a tiny bathroom. Without a door. What kind of a person didn’t at least hang up a curtain? She glanced inside. Or a shower curtain for crying out loud.

A clatter on the kitchen countertop. Probably keys and a cell phone being emptied from a pocket. If he was like most people, his next stop would be the bathroom. And he’d catch her. And she’d be dead.

She skittered back to the orange-and-green pinstriped curtains that looked like rejects from the second-hand store her Aunt Bertie owned in the 80s. She ducked behind. Her feet stuck out the bottom. If he didn’t look down…please God let him not look down.

We now have a description of the bedroom that not only shows us the facts but also adds to the tension and hints at the personalities of both Jennifer and the man who owns this bedroom.

That’s the way deep POV makes description—and everything else—interesting.

***Thank you, Marcy. And, as a correction…

I was wrong, you CAN buy Deep POV on Amazon…well at least a good book about it.

Please check out Marcy’s book Deep Point of View on Amazon (and on Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks, and Kobo too). It’s available in print and ebook, and it’ll help you learn how to rock deep POV!

Image courtesy of Jules Morgan via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Jules Morgan via Flickr Creative Commons

Yes today is odd. Posting on a Sunday. We are headed into Spring Break and yeah…hard to maintain my usual schedule. Today we’re going to dive deeper into deep POV and then, later in the week, I am going to bring you guys an expert on deep POV 😉 .

Will be fun.

To accomplish “deep POV” yes, there are style changes we can make, like removing as many tags as we can and ditching extraneous sensing and thinking words. But deep POV is more than just tight writing, it’s also strongly tethered to characterization. Good characterization.

It is essential to know our cast if we hope to successfully write “deep POV.”

KNOW Your Cast

There are all kinds of ways to get to know our characters. I often write detailed character backgrounds before starting a story so it doesn’t become a fish head.

Why we need to know our characters is that deep POV is a reflection of the inner self, how that character sees the world, responds, evades, processes, etc. It is also a reflection of personal history and relationship dynamics.

*cue brain cramp* *hands paper bag*

It’s okay. Breathe. We’re going to unpack this.

Reflection of the Character

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky’s “Peaceful hearts Doctor” courtesy of Eva Blue.

Back when I used to run a weekly workshop, I had writers do a little exercise to help them learn POV and also strengthen character-building skills. I gave this scenario:

We have a family of four—Mom, Dad, a grandparent (either gender) and a teen (either gender) who has spent a year saving for a family vacation. On the way to their destination, the vehicle breaks down. What happens and tell it from the perspective of EACH family member.

Every week, writers showed with the perspective of one of the four. We had ASTONISHING creativity.

Who These Characters ARE Changes the Story AND Deep POV

When we layer in some background, the characters (and consequently the story, problems and conflict) all change drastically.

What if dad is finally home from his forth tour in Afghanistan and has terrible PTSD?

What if Mom is a closet alcoholic?

What if the teen is recently in remission from Leukemia?

What if Grandma is a tireless flirt who’s antics got her turned into a vampire and the family can’t understand why Granny wants to travel only at night?

What if the teen is an asthmatic and forgot his inhaler?

What if Granddad has early on-set Alzheimer’s?

What if the teen has been recruited for a mandatory deep space mission by the New Earth government and will never see the family again?

What if the teen was adopted and the purpose for the trip was to meet the child’s birth mother? How would this impact the emotions of those in the vehicle?

What if there used to be TWO children and one had died in an accident a year previously?

Do you see how by changing WHO these people are, this cannot HELP but affect everything else?

If Dad has PTSD, he might jump at every lump of roadkill because that’s how insurgents hide IEDs. If the family is stranded and Mom can’t get to a liquor stash, she might start getting belligerent or, left too long, start going through DTs. What would an addict notice? Likely nothing beyond how to get a fix.

While a kid in remission with a new lease on life might enjoy being broken down in the middle of nowhere (appreciating the little things in life) the addict would be hysterical.

All of this will impact Deep POV because we are in the HEAD and EMOTIONS of the character.

Let’s pick on Mom for an illustration. I’m riffing this, so the writing is just an illustration. Just roll with it.

Geiko Caveman.
Geiko Caveman.

Kidding! Lighten up. You seem tense.

Example One:

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one she’d carried everywhere for fifteen years. She hated she was happy the old van had finally given out. Her husband stared, bewildered at the smoking engine. Other than car trouble, he seemed fine. Fine. How can he be fine?

She glanced back at her daughter, the living reflection her of all her dreams and failures. She’d wanted a baby more than life. Every night on a freezing floor. One miscarriage after another and then came a tiny bundle of everything she’d ever longed for.

That woman hadn’t wanted her. That woman had abandoned her. That woman was Gretchen’s real mother and now Gretchen wanted to meet her. Real mother, like hell. And I’m a real astronaut.

How had she failed? If she’d been a good mother, Gretchen would have forgotten that woman and they wouldn’t be here.

“You okay?” Her daughter bent between the seats and kissed her cheek. “You said this was okay, that we could do this. You’re sure, right?” A wary smile revealed new braces, the braces Fifi paid for with money she’d saved for a new van.

“I’m fine, Honey.” She crumpled the baby picture and opened the van door. She needed air.

***

Example Two:

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Do you see how changing WHO Fifi is changes everything? Everything she is sensing, feeling, thinking. Being in the emotions of a heartbroken mother who feels betrayed is a very different experience from being in the head of a sympathetic addict who’s struggling to get clean and stay clean.

***

Both women are impacted by the daughter. One Fifi is hurt by the daughter, the other Fifi finds hope in the daughter. Both women are conflicted. One is tormented with feelings of failure and betrayal and the other is tormented by failure, but very real physical problems of addiction that impact the story.

Deep POV has thrust us into the head and emotions of both women. We feel what they feel. The author is invisible because there are no tags. The sensations are raw and visceral because we have gotten rid of the coaching words.

Instead of:

Fifi felt millions of insects boiling beneath her skin….

We get right to it.

Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin…

The sensation is CLOSER. There is no psychic distance. She isn’t thinking she is going to lose it. She isn’t wondering if she can keep it together. She is experiencing everything real-time and up-close.

Instead of:

Fifi thought, What am I doing?

She just does. We KNOW Fifi is thinking because we are camped in her head.

Deep POV is Akin To Method Acting

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 9.49.06 AM
Couldn’t resist. I LOVE “Tropic Thunder”!

When we know our characters, who they are, how they came to be, the formative experiences, what they want from life, etc. we can then crawl in that skin and become that person. By us becoming that character, we then have the power to transport our reader into the skins we have fashioned.

I hope this helps you guys understand the magical, mystical deep POV and now you’re all excited about writing stronger characters. What are your thoughts?

Before we go, I want to give you a heads up especially if you are thinking on attending a conference.

I’m holding my ever-popular Your Story in a Sentence class. Can you tell what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t? There might be a huge plot problem. This also helps if you are ever going to query or pitch an agent. The first ten signups get their log-line shredded by MOI for FREE.

Also speaking of FREE, I’d like to mention again the new class I am offering!

How and WHY are we using FREE!?

Making Money with FREE! As a bonus for this class, my friend Jack Patterson who’s so far sold over 150,000 books to come and teach us how to ROCK the newsletter. This is in excess of two hours of training and the recording (as always) comes with purchase.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.42.33 AM

Just a quick reminder that I am running my log-line class again. Often synopses are a nightmare for writers simply because they cannot state simply what their story is about. If we don’t know what our story is about, then revisions are hell because it is virtually impossible to discern what should stay and what should be CUT. Everyone who signs up gets their plot shaved down to ONE sentence, so hope to see you guys there! Sign up HERE.  The recording is included and if you can’t make the day of class, I will still repair your log-line 😉 .

Moving on…

Which is more important? Plot or character? Though an interesting discussion—sort of like, Could Ronda Rousey take a Klingon with only her bare hands?—it isn’t really a useful discussion for anything other than fun. To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY”.

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension. This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.53.43 PM

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

Screen Shot 2012-05-04 at 11.05.40 AM

Of course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and don’t want to upset ant DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

 

I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that returned asphalt back to a plasma state (Yay, Texas summers!).

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. That and I SO had to blog about something that let me share THIS! *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay. When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.32.45 AM

When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic. What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the bloody fabric. Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of an newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.34.45 AM

But all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never HAD to use this type of information in a real-world way) and also the two photographers who are City People and don’t have the sense to know 1) NOT to drag a knife towards the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators.

These men are used to the “civilized world” and at the beginning, have failed to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain is NOT static.

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

 

A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world. To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs and don’t have the experience base to realize that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon to the enemy.

Bad Decisions Can Be Birthed From The Wound

We talked about The Wound last time. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life. Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise was raped and no one was there for her. She’s been a victim and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We are immersed in their worlds and thus empathize with the bad decisions.

The bad decisions are forgivable because unless we live in the Alaskan wilderness? We can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if we were stranded, too. We (the audience) have “been” to the Shire and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. We appreciate they are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions. Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? Did you hate Gilligan, too? Do you think Ronda Rousey could take on a Klingon with her bare hands?

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 8.26.28 PM

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Note: I will announce July’s Winner next post 😀 .

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of FromSandToGlass
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of FromSandToGlass

Writing is like anything else. The trends and fashions change along with the audience. For instance, Moby Dick spends an excruciatingly long time talking about whales, namely because the audience of the time probably had never seen one and never would. If we did this today? Sure, feel free to walk around in a literary gold-plated cod piece, but er…

Yes, awkward.

Epics were also very popular. Follow a character from the womb until death. FANTASTIC STUFF! Why? Because no one had HBO, Pinterest or Angry Birds. Books were a rare indulgence usually reserved for a handful of literate folks with the money or connections to get their hands on…a book.

Also, since writers were paid by the word, their works were padded more than a freshman term paper. Their motto? No modifier left behind. These days? We have to write leaner, meaner, faster and cleaner.

Recently, we talked about POV and which one might be the best for your story. I can’t choose for any of you, but before we talk about deep POV, I want to mention that POV is also affected by audience and I believe is a direct reflection of how connected we are as a society.

You guys may or may not know that POV has changed along with communication and connectedness. Waaaaay back in the day, omniscient with a god-like narrator was all the rage. But people didn’t travel at all. Most humans lived and died in the place they were born and in isolation from other communities.

With the early epics, we often had a narrator who was separate from the events.

Dear Reader, come with me for a tale of AWESOME…

Later, after the Dark Ages, people got out more, traveled more, etc. We see the narrator merging into just general god-like presence. Then, after the printing press was invented, more and more people were reading and a lot of monks were out of a job and started the first microbreweries.

Don’t argue. It’s history 😛 .

With pamphlets and papers, people became more engaged and journalism eventually gives birth to this new-fangled invention…first-person. Third person and third-person shifting only became popular after audiences grew accustomed to radio programs (and later television) and could mentally process the idea of a cut-to scene.

As people became networked closer and closer, we see the psychic distance closing. Now that we are a culture of reality TV and social media? Omniscient is a tough sell. I am not telling any of you what POV to choose, but I will say that modern readers will shy away from these older forms of POV because they “feel cold.” Modern readers LOVE being as close as possible, ergo my little side-trip through history.

And this is where we get *drum roll* deep POV.

You hear this word flung around the writing world. Oooh, deep POV. That is deep POV. Deep, Man.

Um, what is deep POV?

And, if you are like me, you go along and are too embarrassed to ask what the heck deep POV is? Everyone wants it. Readers love it. Uh, but what IS it? How do I do it? Can I order some on-line?

Deep POV is simply a technique that strips the author voice completely out of the prose. There is no author intrusion so we are left only with the characters. The reader is nice and snuggly in the “head” of the character.

Okay, clear as mud. Right? Right.

As an editor, I see the intrusion much more than authors. It is actually shocking how much you guys interrupt. In fact, you are like my mother chaperoning my first date who would swear she was quiet as a mouse.

NOT.

I actually like deep POV because I love tight pose. I loathe unnecessary words. Deep POV not only leans up the writing, it digs deeper into the mental state of the character. We probably aren’t going to stay completely in deep POV, but it’s a nice place to call “home.”

How do we do it? Today, for the sake of brevity, we are just going to talk about simple stylistic changes, not the actual writing. We will do that next time 😉 .

First, Ditch the Tags

Just using the word “said” tells the reader we (the author) are there.

Kristen’s Made-Up Example (don’t judge me, just roll with it)

“No, I always love it when you drop by,” she said. Fifi felt her hands start to shake. She glanced over Tom’s shoulder and saw that the street was deserted. She knew all of her neighbors had already gone out of town for Christmas and no one would hear her scream. She thought, He is going to kill me.

Okay, so we get that Fifi is in a bad spot. But just that little word said tells us the author is present. So in the next layer we are going to remove the said.

While We Are Here? Thought and Sense Words—Ditch Those, Too

If we really pause and think about it, thought and sense words are frequently redundant. If we are IN the character’s head? We KNOW she is thinking. Who else would be thinking?

We aren’t dumb. Yes, it is my personal opinion, but I feel sensing and thinking words often qualify as holding the reader’s brain. We don’t need to. Readers are pretty smart.

Let’s look at my made-up example.

“No, I always love it when you drop by.” Fifi felt her hands start to shake. She glanced over Tom’s shoulder and saw that the street was deserted. She knew all of her neighbors had already gone out of town for Christmas and no one would hear her scream. She thought, He is going to kill me.

So we ditched the said and that tightened it up. Did you notice how losing the tag tightened the psychic distance? Now let’s remove these stubborn stains  unnecessary sensing and thinking words.

***Also, try to ditch any “starting to”.  Do or do not, there is no try starting to.

“No, I always love it when you drop by.” Fifi’s hands shook. She glanced over Tom’s shoulder. The street was deserted. All of her neighbors had already gone out of town for Christmas and no one would hear her scream. He is going to kill me.

Do you see how just getting rid of those excess words upped the tension of this piece? We (the reader) go from being a distant observer to being in the potentially deadly situation. We don’t need to tell the reader Fifi is thinking or feeling or about to do something. The reader gets that and us putting in glowing directional arrows is a distraction.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 5.19.06 PM

Fifi felt Tom’s hands clamp around her throat.

Just get to it already!

Tom’s hands clamped around her throat.

So I hope this helps clear up some of your “deep POV” questions. Remember that we live in a culture that is spoiled with intimacy and we can give them what they love. Next time, we will discuss characterization and how to write in deep POV beyond the stylistic choices.

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

Winner for May is Ugirid Haprasad and the Dojo Diva winner is Amy Kennedy. Please send 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl.com. Congratulations!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook