Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: Writers Helping Writers

So I contacted Kristen awhile back and asked her if I could hijack her blog and she graciously said Yes. Because of this lapse in judgment outpouring of generosity, I’m going to try and forget that sarcasm is my love language and, instead, be professional. I’ve just launched a book and am feeling absolutely giddy with freedom, so this is easier said than done. But we’ll give it a go.

I’ve been thinking lately about something that Angela and I touch on in all of our books: The Mirror of Real Life. It’s this idea that something in our stories is like a mirror for readers that reflects back to them something of themselves. When we portray the character as this mirror, it draws readers in and encourages empathy because they recognize a commonality with the character.

In today’s world, where there are roughly a gajillion books your readers could be buying, it’s super important to pull readers into YOUR story. You want them staying up way too late finishing your books, thinking about them after they’re done and running to the computer to see when the next in the series is coming out. While there are a number of ways to encourage this fascination, one of the strongest methods is by writing characters that resonate with readers on a personal level. So I want to talk today about common elements that, when applied to our characters, increase our chances of engaging readers.

Fears

I’m not talking about surface phobias like Brussels sprouts and spiders (though, please, both are icky). I’m talking about deep-seated, debilitating, life-altering fears: rejection, failure, betrayal, physical harm, the death of a loved one. These fears are so great that they become drivers for our behavior, leading us to do and not do things that we believe will keep these painful events from happening. Inflicting these on our characters is cruel and probably makes us as authors horrible people, but they do serve a solid storytelling purpose: they tap into common experiences that readers understand. When readers see the character struggling with a familiar fear, a connection is forged, and empathy is born.

Traits

There are many contributors to the formation of a character’s positive and negative traits. Fears can be a factor: Mom is proactive, observant, overprotective, or paranoid because she’s afraid something will happen to her kids; Joe worries about rejection, so he tends to be withdrawn, abrasive, or cautious. Upbringing can be instrumental, along with the caregivers who raised the character, positive experiences and successes they’ve had, their ethics and values—even genetics can play a part.

Regardless of their origin, when a character’s dominant traits mirror those of the reader or people in the reader’s life, the character becomes more interesting. Traits like stubbornness, optimism, fairness, and impulsivity act as tags that say, “Hey! This guy’s just like you, or Grandma, or that jerk kid who lived down the road who used to shoot you with his BB gun.” Giving your character flaws and attributes that are common to the human experience can be the most straightforward way to bridge the gap between readers and your cast.

Human Needs

This one takes us back to Psychology 101 (which is farther back for some of us than others) and good ol’ Uncle Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The premise of his theory is that there are five basic categories of needs that all people must have in order to be wholly realized. When one of these is missing, we become compelled to fill that void, and we do this through adopting new habits, thought patterns, and beliefs that align with that purpose. These needs are universal, meaning that even on a subconscious level, we all share them. So, for example, when readers see a character whose safety and security has been compromised, they understand what that’s like and why it’s so important for the character to get it back. Boom! Connection.

Story Goals

And how does the character regain that missing need in their life? Through an overall goal. To paraphrase Michael Hauge in Writing Screenplays That Sell, every plausible story idea can be explained with a simple formula:

It’s a story about A (the protagonist) who wants B (the story goal) because Y (the missing need that will be filled through the accomplishment of that goal).

Getting the girl, escaping an alien invasion, winning the court case, avenging oneself—we see the same goals repeated from one story to another because they’re tried and true ways that missing needs can be met. Why does he need to get the girl? Because he’s missing love and belonging. Why does she want to win the court case? Because it will provide the esteem she’s been lacking for so long.

Story goals resonate with readers on two levels. First, they’re goals the reader personally has pursued or have seen others pursue. Secondly, they recognize, often subconsciously, that achieving that goal will fill the need; they know that getting B is vital to the character’s happiness and success, and they want the character to win. Give your character an overall goal that not only makes sense for the story but also meets that internal need, and you’ll increase the chances that your reader will relate to the character.

Self-Growth

We may not verbalize it often, but we all are on a journey in this life to improve ourselves. We don’t want to be the same people ten years from now that we were yesterday, and we all hope to leave the world a better place than it was when we found it. When readers see characters on this journey of discovery and self-growth, they get it. They’ve been there. And they want the character to succeed because if the character can do it, then there’s hope for them too.

Emotional Wounds

I saved this one for last because, when it comes to mirroring real life, nothing has the impact of an emotional wound. We’ve all experienced terrible things in our lives—singular events or repeated situations that were so emotionally and/or physically painful that we don’t want to ever go through them again. Readers can relate to those experiences and their devastating effects. As a matter of fact, when you take the effort to explore your character’s backstory and unearth this formative event, it enables you to incorporate all of the aforementioned elements, resulting in a character that reads as true-to-life and utterly relateable. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

Something awful happens to your character (emotional wound). They become afraid that it or something similar to it will happen again (fear). So they adopt emotional shielding to keep them safe in the form of new characteristics (traits), behaviors, and false beliefs about themselves or the world. But instead of protecting them, this shielding ends up creating other problems, such as keeping others at a distance or limiting their ability to successfully do what they love (human need). To fill the void, they either knowingly or unknowingly set out to accomplish something (story goal) that they believe will meet that need. But they’re unable to succeed because the wound is hobbling them, holding them back. It’s not until the character is able to face that wounding event and come to grips with it (self-growth) that they can distance themselves from the past and move forward into the future.

Basically, the wound is the Alpha and Omega of reader-character relatability. It supplies the starting, middle, and end points for a story structure and character arc that will offer many opportunities for readers to see themselves in the protagonist and the story. And once readers care about your character, they’re going to want to keep reading to see if he or she overcomes.

If this process seems oversimplified, it’s because there’s only so much information that can be crammed into a 1400-word blog post. For more information, the topic can be explored to its fullest, most in-depth, most ad-nauseum-est extent in our latest book: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.

BIO:

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels, including the latest member of the family: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writersa powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea
Original image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sodanie Chea

I love to think of myself as having a special eye for talent, and when I find gems like Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, it just makes a gal go “SQUEEEE!” I’ve been following these ladies for a loooong time since they were relatively new in their careers.

These days?

Back up because they are a powerhouse and they offer up some of the most excellent writing instruction in the business. They are the authors of the legendary Emotion Thesaurus which eventually gave rise to stacks of other writing tools (I recommend and use them ALL) and now they are launching something truly special.

And, since they are rockstars, they have given me, the W.A.N.A. Mama a very cool deal to share with you guys at the end of this post. This is HUGE! This is the new state-of -the-art-site every writer needs. One place for all the tools we use, and Becca is here to tell us some more about how One Stop will help you reach your dreams and how to get it. You need this. You deserve it. NaNo is coming. You will thank me later 😉 .

But, the best editors will always say, show don’t tell so this isn’t simply a sales pitch. Becca is here to talk about how story elements must work together and then use that to introduce how One Stop helps make that happen (and then the super sweet deal) …

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Take it away Becca!

***

When it comes to writing a successful story, people tend to think in terms of two elements: plot and characters. Obviously, these are incredibly important, and if you want to write a story that readers will appreciate, you’ve got to get these two pieces right.

But there’s so much more to a good story: setting, symbolism, theme, emotion, voice. And as important as it is to do all of these things well, it’s just as important that they fit together.

Look at The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Characterization is a huge part of this story—particularly for the hobbits. The opening scene is Bilbo’s birthday party, and we see right off that hobbits in general are fun-loving, laidback foodie types who like their tankards almost as much as their pipes.

But it’s difficult to define this people-group without also referencing The Shire.

Their passion for this place, their organic connection to the hills and rivers and trees: Tolkien didn’t just pick a setting out of thin air. He created one that fits with the characters like a missing puzzle piece. The characters and the setting go hand in hand; you can’t imagine one without the other.

Which is why, when evil arrives, Frodo’s decision to take it far away and preserve the Shire is a no-brainer.

I find it interesting that the symbol for evil is a gold ring: something that really has nothing in common with the hobbits or their home. They’re simple people; yes they have whole rooms devoted to clothes and they’re proud of their residences, but gold and silver and coins aren’t a huge deal to them.

Tolkien could have used anything to represent evil in his story, but he chose something that had nothing whatsoever to do with The Shire. In doing so, he showed the Shire’s goodness and wholesomeness and the need for its preservation.

I could go on about other writing elements and how they all fit together to make a beautiful, resonant whole, but I think you get the picture. Very likely, none of us are present-day Tolkiens, but his work is the perfect study for how various elements aren’t only successful in isolation; they’re amazing in the way that they work together.

So how do we do accomplish this in our own writing?

Choose Thoughtfully

When it comes to the various elements of a story, it’s tempting to go with the things that excite us as writers: settings we’ve visited, character traits that we embrace, symbolic trinkets and knickknacks that speak to us. And while those things may work, they probably won’t be the best choices for our stories. When it comes to any writing element, don’t choose randomly. Ask yourself: What makes sense for my character and the story? This is the way to make sure that the elements you choose are the best possible fit.

Start With Characterization

I know, I know. Not every author or story is character-driven. But if you’re looking for ways to tie your elements together, the main character is a good starting point.

For instance, let’s say you’re trying to figure out the setting for an important scene. You could just pick one at random—a restaurant, the school cafeteria, an old barn, etc.—but your scene will have more impact if the setting ties in with your character.

Narrow down the virtually endless set of options by asking these questions: What locations have special significance for my character? What setting is emotionally charged for him or her? By choosing a setting to which your character is already connected, it comes with the potential for tension and high emotion—both of which are good for sustaining reader interest and building empathy.

Symbolism is another element that can be tied to characterization for added effect. In Great Expectations, the stopped clocks in Miss Havisham’s house symbolize her abandonment at the altar—the moment when her life essentially stopped.

Dickens didn’t choose a random, external object for this; he chose a specific time, down to the minute—an intensely personal symbol to represent the most formative event from Miss Havisham’s past. This is a great example of how choosing symbols that are personal to the character can add oomph to a story.

Know Your Characters Well

If you want to bring all the story elements together and you’d like to use a character as the centerpiece, it’s imperative that you know that character well. You don’t have to know every little thing about her; but you do need to have a clear understanding of the important parts of her past so you’ll know not only the kind of person she is in your current story, but also what objects, settings, ideas, and events are going to move her.

For a number of resources on building and understanding your character’s backstory, check out the Writers Helping Writers Tools page.

Bringing all of these elements together can seem daunting. But if you start with a solid working knowledge of your character’s backstory and who he or she is today, you’ll be able to move forward from there.

Once you’ve got that basic knowledge down and you’re ready to bring it all together, you might consider visiting One Stop For Writers. This new online library, dreamed up by Angela Ackerman, Lee Powell (creator of Scrivener for Windows) and me, is full of one-of-a-kind resources to help with various aspects of storytelling.

Its unique thesaurus collection covers symbolism, character traits, emotions, physical features, settings, and more—and it’s all cross-referenced and searchable, making it easier to tie all of these pieces together in a way that makes sense for your story and will resonate with your readers.

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Most of us probably don’t aspire to be the next Tolkien or Dickens. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their brilliance. Know your characters well. Choose your elements thoughtfully, and whenever possible, tie them in with your character and your story. If you can do these things, your work will be much tighter and will ring true with readers, which hopefully will lead to more people finishing your books and spreading the word about their new favorite author.

THANK YOU, BECCA!

All right, so last time we talked about channeling that inner Bad Girl (yes, this works for the guys, too 😛 ). No more Mr. Nice Guy. Take some time for yourself. You are important. Your writing is important and people like Becca, Angela and I have worked hard to give you what you need. Now, all you have to do, Sunshine is suck it up and WRITER UP! Give it a try!

Curious about One Stop For Writers? Register to check out the free version and get an idea of what it’s all about, OR take advantage of this sweet launch-week deal: 50% off any first-time subscriber plan—1 month, 6 months, or 1 full year. This deal is only available until October 14th, (6:30 PM EST), so if you’re interested, shake a tail feather and get on over to Writers Helping Writers for all the juicy details.

Bio:

Author, Blogger, Coach Begga Puglisi
Author, Blogger, Coach Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is a speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via her newest endeavor: One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

Because the Scarletts of the world get THINGS DONE....
Because the Scarletts of the world get THINGS DONE….

I’ve heard people say some books (or genres) are plot-driven and others are character-driven. My POV? This is a fallacy. All good books are character-driven and plot is what makes that possible. Characters have to make us give a hoot about the plot. If we don’t like or empathize with the characters, we don’t care about their problems.

Conversely, plot is the delivery mechanism and crucible for character (even in literary fiction). Characters can only be as strong as the opposition they face. Weak problems=weak characters. In a nutshell, character and plot can’t be easily separated.

For instance, in the Pulitzer-Winning The Road, the plot is simple. Man and Boy must make it to the ocean. Yet, since this piece is literary, the plot goal is subordinate to character goal.

It is less important that Man and Boy make it to the ocean than how they make it to the ocean. The world has been obliterated, killing every living thing other than humans. Many have returned to the animal state, resorting to cannibalism to survive. The question in The Road is less “Will they make it to the ocean?” and more “How will they make it to the ocean?” If they resort to snacking on people, they fail.

The Road
The Road

But I will say that while plot is great, characters are what (who) we remember. We have to be able to empathize. We want to love them, hate them, root for them and watch them fail, then overcome that failure. As the late Blake Snyder said, “Everybody arcs!”

Often, this is the trick with series and why early books generally are more popular. Once our main character evolves, we are left with three choices:

1) Have plot create a new flaw in the protagonist.

2) Peel back another flaw that was already there, but hidden by a more visible flaw.

3) Protagonist can serve as a static character who drives growth in other characters.

Whether we are writing a standalone or a series, character growth is pivotal to good writing. I believe one of the reasons humans are a story people is that we fear change. Often, we see our own flaws and have NO IDEA how to correct them, how to get unstuck. We can feel defeated. Yet, through narrative, we watch protagonists become heroes and, unlike life, there’s full resolution. We can see some slice of ourselves in stories and it helps us change or at least maintain hope that change is possible.

Tools

I highly, highly recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus (and add in The Emotion Thesaurus to assist in execution). These books are awesome at helping us see how characters should grow organically. What I love about these books is Angela and Becca show positives of the negatives and negatives of the positives.

For instance, a flaky character can be annoying, unreliable and unpredictable. BUT since this character is unpredictable, she can be very useful because she’s unconventional. She can add comic relief (Phoebe Buffet from Friends) or even tension (Riggs from Lethal Weapon).

Both thesauri show behaviors, attitudes and examples which can make writing life MUCH easier. The Emotion Thesaurus gives us ways to show not tell to express these traits and keeps us from beating up the same descriptions (hearts hammering, hearts beating, hearts thumping, etc.)

How I Use These FABULOUS TOOLS

There is no one right way to write a book. What I did was read a lot of methods, tried them, took what worked and what didn’t and then cobbled my own. But here’s a peek into MY process and the process I encourage students to begin with.

Since I’m writing a trilogy, I needed to look at who my character was in Book One. In Book One, Romi is very loyal and innocent which is ultimately what lands her in trouble. She blindly trusts because she sees only the good in others and ignores or writes off red flags. By the end of Book One, she’s been through a MAJOR crucible and crawled through hell. To survive the Big Boss Battle, she has to kill or be killed. The person she has to kill is a person she cares about and trusted.

My pitch for Book One is Legally Blonde meets Killing Floor.

And my protagonist is a person who, at the beginning of the story, couldn’t step on a bug let alone take a human life. This final action changes her irreparably and damages her innocence.

So, in Book One, my protagonist evolves from Green Pea Pollyanna to Hero Willing to Do What It Takes to Do the Right Thing.

Ah, but doing the right thing has a price. In Book Two, I can’t have her be the same person as Book One or she isn’t believable. Book Two, she’s flipped to the other side of the loyal-trusting-innocent coin and is two steps away from wearing a tin foil hat. Now she questions everything and can never relax. Everybody lies, is her motto. She no longer talks to just anyone, questions everything and is controlling and isolated (but for very good and sympathetic reasons).

Yet, let’s glance at The Positive Trait Thesaurus and I’ll shorten for brevity’s sake.

Book One: Romi Lachlann

Positive: Innocent characters are pure and trusting. They take people at face value and want to believe the good. Easy characters to like and protect.

Negative: In their determination to only see the good, innocent characters may not view the world and other people as they really are, which puts them at a disadvantage.

When we look at this character’s personality, plotting becomes easier. We can also clearly see her Achilles Heel. She needs to be betrayed by someone she trusts blindly and be able to act in a way that is completely contrary to her nature. Also, by knowing who she is (in the beginning) it’s simpler to see who to cast as the antagonist and even allies. She needs allies who challenge her willingness to swallow whatever story she’s fed and help her toughen up.

The core antagonist has to be someone she never sees coming.

When we glance at The Negative Trait Thesaurus, we see that the dark side of Innocent is Childish.

Positive: Innocent and naive. Like children, they are teachable and adapt quickly.

We can use this positive attribute for the protagonist when we look at the proposed solution in The Negative Trait Thesaurus.

Overcoming The Trait as a Major Flaw: A character can defeat his immaturity by growing up. For some, this will mean encountering trials that force them to mature in a short period of time. Other characters will have to face past demons that are keeping them enslaved in this childish state.

This gives me guideposts as to what Book One must accomplish. Romi is tossed head-first into BIG TROUBLE and most of that trouble involves facing a past she believed she left behind when she ran away from home. The story problem forces her to go back to the place she vowed she’d never return.

I could leave my first novel alone. It’s complete. All books (even in a series) should be able to stand alone.

Romi arcs from innocent and blindly trusting person to a determined fighter. But, I wanted the challenge of trying a trilogy, so I have to repeat the process all over again. What is the opposite of Innocent? Resourceful. What is the dark side of resourceful? Paranoid.

And thus I repeat the process. Who is she in the beginning? Who do I need her to grow to be by the end? She can’t live in a hole hiding and terrified of dying. Something has to push her past her fears to face that she’s regressed into an unhealthy existence. Something has to make her rise above her fear and restore her faith. 

There will be residue of that innocent-loyal person, but it now has a hardened shell as a defense mechanism. The “thing” that lures her out of hiding is likely tethered to her core nature. Being uber-paranoid isn’t who she truly is. It’s a coping mechanism, a protection.

Remember, in the beginning, I said one plot problem can create a new character problem. Like cogs in a wheel these arcs propel narrative and drive growth and change.

Also, remember that no character is only ONE of these attributes. Strong characters are a unique blending or we end up with caricatures. An innocent character can also be loyal and funny (Elle Woods in Legally Blonde) or they can be isolated and fearful (Edward Scissorhands).

Favorite Story Example

The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings

I love Lord of the Rings probably more than is healthy. I loved the arc of the Hobbits. Sauron never saw Hobbits as particularly useful (they didn’t get a ring) and he never perceived them as any sort of threat. Yet, it is their innocence that becomes Sauron’s ultimate undoing.

Unlike the other races, Hobbits are not as susceptible to the Ring of Power’s sway because of their innocence and inherent goodness. But, in the first book (or movie) their naiveté nearly gets them and all their allies killed.

***Um, cooking bacon on a mountain while EVIL DEAD KINGS are chasing them and trying to KILL them?

The Hobbits must toughen up and lose some of that innocence…but not all of it. If they lose all of it, the Ring of Power will never be destroyed and Sauron wins. Yet, my favorite scene in all cinematic history (which makes me cry EVERY time) is the end of Return of the King. We see the once childlike Hobbits around a pub table, silent, sharing a drink and we see what they sacrificed to not only save the world, but preserve the inherent goodness of their people.

While the other Hobbits dance and laugh and drink in the background, these warriors are quiet and somber. They likely have PTSD and are trying to recapture what they’ve lost, but can never regain. They will never again see the world as they did before that first day leaving The Shire. It is tragic and beautiful all in the span of a few moments.

I hope this gives you some new ideas of how to create dimensional characters. When we know who our characters are (protagonists and antagonists) and where we need them to be/grow, plotting is far simpler.

What are your thoughts? Have you used these books? Maybe used them in a different way? What are some of your favorite character arcs? Do you dislike super-perfect characters?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, 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).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes

BOTH CLASSES COME WITH HANDOUTS AND FREE RECORDING.

A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.