Kristen Lamb

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Posts Tagged: writing dimensional characters

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

Ah, the masks we wear. We all have them because it’s impossible to be fully human and devoid of cracks. We are all wounded. Yet, therein lies the conundrum for those who long to become writers. We’re all cracked, damaged, dinged yet simultaneously bombarded by countless conflicting messages.

Media, culture, family, society are like a gaggle of cocaine-fueled stepmothers relentlessly determined to make us ‘perfect,’ only then to turn around and zing us for being ‘superficial’ and ‘fake.’

It’s okay to cry, darling. Just next time wear the waterproof mascara.You’re a mess.

Many of us are the walking wounded, encouraged to embrace our flaws, experience all our emotions…but then cover them up because no one wants to see that. Jeez!

This ‘logic’ is absurd enough in life, but for authors we must choose the painful path if we hope to write the great stories, the ones that change people and endure. Perfect, flawless, normal and well-adjusted spell death for fiction. Superb stories provide a safe place for readers to ‘feel and heal’ and our job is to deliver that 😉 .

Yet, this comes at a price. I know! Always a catch.

Funny Thing About Pain

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb
My leg after Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Competition. What? I won the Silver.

I remember the first time I broke a bone. I was barely four. What stands out most is it didn’t hurt. At all. I remember gaping at my left arm in a spiffy S shape, unable to wrap my head around why there was NO pain. After many years and many more injuries I learned the wounds that hurt were never as bad as ones that didn’t.

Of course this is basic physiology. When an injury is bad enough it overloads the pain centers of the brain, short-circuiting our ability to feel anything. This gives time for the sympathetic nervous system to flood the body with hormones to keep us alive.

Heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and our endocrine system unleashes a tsunami of fight or flight hormones. All these physiological responses—in the meantime—are necessary for us to survive long enough to do something about the wound. But, if the shock is not dealt with, the victim will ironically die from the very mechanism designed to keep the body alive.

Emotionally Walking Wounded

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

Something similar happens to us when we experience emotional trauma. Emotional disconnection—also known as denial—is the mental equivalent of ‘being in shock.’ Denial was never intended to be a permanent solution, just a stopgap to protect our psyche from overload. It’s the brain’s way of protecting us from emotional implosion (I.e. a nervous breakdown or psychotic break).

Like the body lowers blood pressure and heart rate to keep us from bleeding to death, the mind dulls our emotions and minds to keep us from unraveling. There will (should) be a time and place to face the trauma, but drinking demons from a fire hose is not our brain’s first choice.

The trouble, however, is that though we need to face these traumas, denial can become a comfortable purgatory.

For many of us who’ve been through trauma we are still too damaged to face our pain. We have become masters at hiding, stuffing or numbing our emotions into submission. Maybe we’ve endured our wounds so long we’re unaware they even exist because pain is our ‘normal.’

Dare to Be Wounded

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

As authors, we’re wise to appreciate that readers read for the same reasons writers write. Wounds. This is where things get…tricky. Many writers write because we’re wounded. Face it, writing fiction is way cheaper than a good shrink or solid criminal defense attorney.

Murdering imaginary people is legal 😀 . *double-checks on Google* Yep, totes legal.

Yet, we writers simultaneously happen to live in a culture that shames the ‘damaged’ which makes us hesitant to admit we’re wounded. Many of us learned in high school it was safer to bleed in the library because the sharks were in the cafeteria.

Trouble is, being afraid to face or admit we’re anything but perfect makes for some seriously dull as crap ‘stories.’ Yet, I posit this:

All fiction is about a wound colliding with a core problem in need of resolution.

Fiction (stories) must possess both wounds and a core problem. If we only have problems, we don’t have a story. We have bad situation after bad situation after bad situation. Characters passively flung like flotsam and jetsam on the cruel currents of Life’s Unfair.

*yawns*

When we wax rhapsodic about inner demons (sans core problem in need of resolution), that isn’t fiction either. It’s comes across as self-indulgence, journaling, whining, lecturing or even pontificating. Why? Because fiction the wrong medium for solely discussing wounds. Essays? Self-help? Blogs 😀

Cool…maybe. As fiction? Snoozefest.

If we don’t have a wound or a core problem in need of resolution, we have pages of nothing happening. I call this the Literary Barbie Dream House (or Literary Holodeck if you prefer). No matter how glorious the prose, how lovely the description, how spectacular the world-building, it’s words on a page not a novel.

Writers KNOW Wounds

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

We’ve all heard that nebulous and seriously unhelpful advice, Write what you know. Um, I’m writing about space battles. Huh? Maybe you’re like me and tried to write a suspense with a cop as a main character, then thought, ‘But I’m not a cop.’ Then our idea slowly succumbs to Death by Research. 

This isn’t a pass to skip research but writing what we know is referring to wounds. We know human fragility and brokenness and often on a far deeper level than most. We see and sense what others miss. Many writers are extremely sensitive to the world and the feelings of others.

There’s a good reason many of us are introverts.

Dare to Unmask

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

We are all emotionally messed up to some degree. If you’re not at all messed up then you’re a) a robot b) in denial c) a sociopath d) not fit to be a writer. There is no normal. ‘Normal’ is a setting on the dishwasher. Normal is also normal (a.k.a. boring), ergo terrible fiction.

Perfect people are dull and we secretly resent them because we know perfect is a LIE. Readers cannot connect with perfect, but they will connect with wounds. This means we writers, uh, need to connect via wounds.

Yeah.

Also, the wounds we will write the best *tugs collar* will likely be the ones we hide deepest and….*mutters low* the ones we fear most.

My own writing was all Literary Barbies until I understood the gold is always guarded by a dragon. The larger the treasure, the bigger the beast. Emotional damage in fiction is GOLD.

This means, my relentless drive to hone my skills as an author has been a petal-lined path with unicorns, rainbows and daily facials.

Okay that was a total lie. WHAT? I’m a writer. I am PAID to LIE.

I had to face I am an OCD control freak, a rabidly critical perfectionist, and a Type A+ because Type As didn’t do the extra credit #Slackers.

So Many Masks

And so little time. If we want to excel at writing, first things first. What are our masks? What wounds are we hiding? If we are brave enough to do this hard work, this is when the great stories happen (which we’ll talk about in another post).

For me? My primary go-to mask is the clown. Shocking! I KNOW!

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb
Am I doing something wrong? Or are Kiwi butts smaller?

For me? Everything is funny. Like this (refer to image below). I saw this digital billboard while presenting in Dallas and fell over laughing.

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

All I could think was, Holy Moly! Lock up any moderately attractive males under thirty. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. Also, SAIL? What exactly are these Seniors Active in Learning learning about? And does it have anything to do with the PSA about roving cougars?

Or is the Cougar Alert some new dating app like Tinder? Like if you’re a young man wanting romantic time with an older attractive woman, this can help you know if any are in your area?

Writer brains. Sigh.

Which humor is wonderful. I love to laugh and love making other people laugh even more. The problem, however, is that I use comedy to deflect, minimize, hide and, if pushed? Fight dirty.

Alas, there’s a good reason comedians have such a high suicide rate. They might be the funniest person in the room, but they’re often the most wounded. Jokes are a fantastic smokescreen for pain. This means most other people are oblivious to how deeply the ‘clown’ is hurting (I.e. Robin Williams). The self-defense mechanism ends up being the comic’s undoing.

Case in point, I was once in a horrible accident and had all the EMTs cracking up as they prepped me for the ambulance. My shame for actually ‘needing help’ spilled out in grand comedy, almost to my detriment. The first responders initially had no idea how badly wounded I really was because I kept them in stitches…since me needing stitches was *shivers* such a burden.

Though I hate admitting this, I’m fairly sure if I were shot I would either a) make jokes or b) profusely apologize for the mess as I tried to clean it up while stemming the bleeding…without using the good towels #Duh c) try to do surgery on myself with a glue gun and Batman stickers from Spawn’s last school project to save money or d) all of the above.

I learned to hide my weakness, needs, hurts behind a mask of humor and still do. When that doesn’t work? I have a vast collection of other guises to fake that everything’s fine. By paying attention to my own masks, I’m learning more about my wounds (many ignored so long they were forgotten).

Also, this is opening my eyes to others. What are their masks and what wounds are still bleeding beneath?

Born of Blood

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

Most humans are in some way driven by wounds (for good and bad). What we value, who we like, who we attract, our choices in clothes, friends, foods, music often have roots in an old injury (which is why The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is such a fabulous resource for crafting dimensional characters).

Setting my Comedian mask aside, here is the Controller. Trust me I deleted this at least seventeen times because vulnerability is not my strength. Since I am working on that, I am sharing about me *breathes in paper bag*.

I didn’t one day hatch an OCD control freak. I’m aware I possess rituals and habits other find silly or annoying. Fine. Ha ha ha. But that is MY finger above. Got myself while cooking last week. I always sharpen my knives before I cook. ALWAYS.

Even though I get teased about it.

Why do I do sharpen them every time? Because dull blades slip and this is what happens when I take someone else’s word the knife has been sharpened…and it hasn’t.

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

I’m way better than I used to be, and small stuff like a nicked finger rolls right off my back (when years ago it might have unhinged me).

Yet, while I’m better in some ways, in other situations, my OCD control freak behaviors escalate off the charts lest I suffer apoplexy. Why? Because there are still areas I’m deeply wounded. I’m terrified of large crowds. It’s why I chose a profession where I work from home. I always drive or at least keep the car keys once out of the car. Also, I shop alone.

Why? A number of reasons, but namely my father was a narcissistic sadist who found it extremely entertaining to leave me places…without me knowing.

As a kid, he’d take me to the grocery store, the mall, and even amusement parks and then just…leave. Like literally slip away when I wasn’t paying attention, go to the car and drive off. When I was eight, he found it very funny I spent the entire day at Six Flags looking for him instead of riding any rides.

I know. WTH? Dunno. It was the 80s and apparently not illegal to just leave a kid wherever so long as you eventually came back.

This said, while I still have lingering trauma that dictates the control behaviors, something else happened in me. I strive to be extremely considerate, careful, protective and there few people more responsible than me. In fact, I am over responsible.

I didn’t share this for any kind of self-indulgence (trust me). Rather, what I’ve learned is that writing can and has helped me heal a lot of issues and since my stories (I hope) are on a deeper level, readers might be able to experience healing as well. If I can find the courage to feel the old pain and bring it into the light, it can lead the way for the reader as well.

And makes a more interesting story. That jacked up childhood can be an anchor to drown me or an engine to propel me anywhere I want to go. Choice is mine.

The Wound Gives the Why

wounded, pain in fiction, writing dimensional characters, Kristen Lamb

I’m challenging you guys to embrace the wound because humans are born of blood and so are the best characters. It’s what makes them feel so real. Sure we can have a tattooed felon or a homeless prostitute as an MC but that damage is more obvious. Those types of characters also won’t work in some genres.

Some damage can only be seen by noticing the mask. Masks aren’t always beautiful, but are always deceptive.

What if your heroine is a doctor dedicated to saving lives? Great. Why? She’s wounded. Why does your hero sign up for every dangerous mission? Take on only the toughest murder cases? Sacrifice his/her personal life to rescue inner city kids?

Does your heroine really need to make every holiday storybook perfect? What propels your hero run into burning buildings? Why do any of these “people” do all these admirable and selfless and courageous things? They’re wounded.

And if not, they’re dull as dirt.

Once we (Author God) know the WHY, then everything else makes sense. We now know why she’s a serial monogamist who’s only attracted to bad boys and players. Or why he’s a nester who always falls for women who bleed him then leave him.

***For more on this I STRONGLY recommend a class Cait is teaching tomorrowBad Boys: Dangerous Love, From Rejection to Redemption.

A character’s need for order, or habit of always being late, or putting everything off to the last minute now has DEPTH because these ‘behaviors’ are tethered to something more than ‘just because.’

Wounds will enhance all fiction. ALL of it.

That cozy mystery with the cupcake baking sleuth? Yep, her, too. WHY is she chronically late? Because when she was fifteen she showed up early to meet her friend at the family business. She walked into a robbery, startled the gunman and knows she’s why her best friend’s dad was killed. If she’d been late, BFF’s dad would’ve been robbed but alive. In her mind EARLY means people die. No, humans are not rational (and good characters aren’t either). But the job of the story is to reveal the lie.

We don’t need to write deep probing Russian literature to create stories with meat.

Also, when we know and explore the wound, PLOTTING is MUCH easier because we know precisely what problem will create the most stress and force the most change.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Have you been afraid to write in a way that makes you feel vulnerable? Afraid to feel? I know I have. Working on it. What novels, series or movies resonated with you most? Looking back, did you connect because of what we discussed today? Have you used your fiction to work on your own masks, wounds, issues?

What are YOUR favorite go-to masks? Why do they help? How do they backfire?

I love hearing from you, and I am NOT above BRIBERY!

What do you WIN? For the month of NOVEMBER, for 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).

And a quick reminder of class tomorrow!

Bad Boys: Dangerous Love from Rejection to Redemption

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, December 1st, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.

Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”

This class will cover:

  • How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
  • Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
  • From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
  • Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
  • Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

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.

 

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

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

As mentioned in a previous post, one of my all-time favorite series is True Detective. There is a line that’s repeated in the series and it is SO perfect for our purposes today.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible. 

Plot is the push that drives the change. Without the plot problem, the protagonist is never forced to face weakness and can comfortably remain unchanged. Plot forces the protagonist to face the worst self in order to eventually unveil the best self.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Batman T-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others. Most of us have secrets we keep even from ourselves 😉 .

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

I’m working on a fiction series and currently outlining Book Three. But in Book One, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts and loves, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such. 

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write it out for you…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

I LOVE hearing from you!

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

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 2013-05-01 at 9.47.12 AM
Image via the award-winning show “House.”

Back in the Spring we started talking about ways to create multi-dimensional characters. Then I probably saw something shiny and, in case you are wondering? NO, I can’t catch the red dot. But I don’t give up easily 😀 .

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible. 

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Gears of War T-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others.

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

How could she just LEAVE those babies?
How could she just LEAVE those babies?
Image via IMDB “The Joy Luck Club”

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

Seeking the truth is painful...
Seeking the truth is painful…
Image via “Winter’s Bone”

I’m working on a fiction series and nearly finished with Book Two of three. But in Book One, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts and loves, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such. 

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write it out for you…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

I love hearing from you!

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

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