Last week, I was blessed to attend and teach at the DFW Writers’ Workshop Conference. Edgar-Nominated Author David Corbett taught a really excellent class about building dimensional characters. There was a particular message in his talk that stood out for me.
Force your characters to exteriorize. Thoughts and feelings can be taken back. Action makes characters commit to consequences.
There is a newbie author mistake we all make. Thinking, feeling, more thinking but nothing happening. I’ve blogged many times that writing can be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. I feel that Corbett’s point really crystallized what I was trying to say, but couldn’t seem to articulate nearly as well as he did.
As Long as We are in the Character’s Head, NOTHING is at Stake
There is no push-back, no opposition, thus no conflict. This really gets to the heart of the SHOW DON’T TELL line we have all had drummed into our heads.
I LOVE good horror movies (not slasher flicks). I have two reasons. First, if I am having a really bad day, a horror movie reminds me that life can always be worse. Yes, I am warped that way. But, for me, why I gravitate to horror is that GOOD horror authors understand people.
They have this way of digging down into the primal parts of who people are, for better or worse. Good movies—even horror movies—make you want to discuss the film (or book) afterwards. They rattle you and make you think. I believe this is why Stephen King is such a genius (particularly his early works).
King gets people. He pokes at the tender parts and makes people squirm.
The Higher the Stakes, the Better the Story
There’s one particular movie we watched recently (and I will do my best not to ruin it), but Hubby and I talked for at least an hour after the film was over. In the film Would You Rather? the protagonist is a young woman whose parents have died, leaving her the sole caretaker of her brother who has cancer. It’s a bit more gruesome of a film than I care for, but the character dynamics were fascinating.
Essentially, a sadistic aristocrat seeks out people who are in dire straits, seemingly willing to do anything to solve their current plight. It could be an ill family member who needs an organ donation (the protag’s brother needs a bone marrow transplant), crushing debt, whatever. Play the game. One winner. Winner takes all and the aristocrat has the power to solve all “the winner’s” problems in an instant.
The players are invited to dinner. They chat, get to know each other as people…and then the nightmare begins.
Slowly at first…just a taste.
The crux of the movie is that everyone has a price…or do they? The participants are toyed with through dinner. For instance, the alcoholic who’s been sober ten years is given a bottle of scotch. How much money can coerce him to drink the bottle of scotch? What amount of money will make him compromise all he’s worked for?
Movies are great for studying the show don’t tell rule because it is a purely visual medium—everything is externalized. We see the former alcoholic swear he will never drink again. He’s worked too hard to kick the habit that has landed him in his current desperate situation.
The host has his butler set $5000 in cash right next to the drunk. A dare. Five thousand dollars for just one sip. The alcoholic sweats. He pulls at his collar. He refuses to make eye contact and focuses on the meal. Then $10,000 is stacked next to him and on and on until he finally breaks…proving the aristocrat’s point that anyone can be bought.
The participants are all given an opportunity to leave. Last chance. Ah, but these are people with big things at stake. They stay…and probably wished they hadn’t. The doors are locked and anyone who tries to leave will be shot.
The game is afoot.
Would You Rather?
Take ten lashes with an rattan (a cane that slices flesh) or choose for someone else to take the beating in your stead? Will you endure ten seconds of electric shock? Or give it to someone else? Early on we start seeing the true character of the players revealed. Why? Because everything is exteriorized and has a consequence.
It is one thing to say or believe I am a good person, but will we stick to that when put to the test? When demons are externalized, we see who people really are. Talk is cheap. What will that character do when the heat turns up? Will they sell their soul (the inner man) to solve their problems (outer man)? In case you hadn’t guessed, the game doesn’t reward those with sound moral fiber.
Understanding Your Character’s Weakness Will Help Plotting
Your story problem should be your trial by fire that forces the inside angst to the surface. The plot should change the protagonist leaving a better version at the end (unless it’s horror or a French film and then everyone can die at the end).
An Exercise to Help You Externalize (and, yes, I’m being indulgent and using my novel to give you examples):
What is your character’s greatest strength? Now look to the shadow side and that is likely his/her greatest weakness.
In the novel I just finished, my protagonist is kind and loyal. The shadow side is that she is naive. Predators can smell this. They use her proclivity to believe the best in people against her.
What is his/her greatest fear?
She grew up as white trash in a trailer park. She sacrificed everything to go to college to escape. Her family despises her because of her education, yet she finds herself equally disdained by the rich. They feel she’s nothing but gold-digging trailer trash who doesn’t have the sense to “know her place.”
Her biggest fear is she will always be viewed as trailer trash no matter what she achieves and she will never “belong” anywhere.
What problem can make this character struggle the most?
The story antagonist used my protagonist to build his corporation then, in an scheme of ENRON-like proportions, took off with over a half a billion dollars. He was her fiancé (to add insult to injury). He has left her penniless, broken-hearted, and blackballed. She’s unable to find a job anywhere. Additionally, she owes money to the IRS (also stolen) and she’s the FBI’s favorite suspect.
What problem will force tough moral choices?
Being without options, she must return to the trailer park and rely on the family she abandoned in order to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder and find the missing money and regain her reputation.
What problem has the highest stakes? The most to win or lose?
If she fails, she could die, but that’s not the thing she REALLY fears. She is terrified she’ll be stuck back in the trailer park, working as a maid and taking care of her abusive, angry father and kleptomaniac grandmother.
Will she have to sacrifice the best part of her (her view of humanity) in order to conquer the problem? Will “winning” cost her good heart?
What are your thoughts? What books or movies really made you squirm? Why?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. 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 also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
Will announce April’s winner later this week. Scrambling to catch up :D.