I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists, even those who are preparing to take the NaNoWriMo Challenge in November. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60,000-100,000+ words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task.
That said, all novels begin with an idea. We talked a bit about how to create a SOLID idea yesterday. Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no.
Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words.
Think of your core idea as the foundation that will eventually support your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm foundations with lots of rebar. If our goal is to write a trilogy or a series? We must create a foundation capable of supporting 170,000 to 250,000 words or more (depending on genre and length of the series).
So how do we know if the idea we have is strong enough?
James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods.
When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today, and I strongly recommend you either read Jim’s book or even take one of his classes or consults. He’s by far one of THE BEST writing teachers out there.
Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK
We will begin with the LEAD, because a large part of our story’s foundation is the protagonist we create.
First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It’s critical to have a protagonist the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.
Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and save whales in their free time…and no one likes them.
If we make characters too perfect, readers will revel in their destruction. If we didn’t like tearing down “the beautiful people” then Star Magazine and The Inquirer would have folded decades ago.
As writers, we need readers to rally to our protagonist’s team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws. Make her HUMAN. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.
One of the reasons Bridgette Jones is a fabulous character is because she’s flawed and shares all the same angsts other women struggle with daily. She’s insecure, trying to lose weight, says all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but she is a good person and we love her.
What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people?
Give them flaws.
The recent Iron Man movies did a fabulous job of casting one of “the beautiful people” and making us love him despite. How? Tony Stark comes to realize he’s a narcissistic jerk, and that “he’s created his own demons.” Yes, he might be fabulously rich, good-looking, brilliant and has lots of cool toys, but he’s DEEPLY FLAWED.
In Iron Man III, when attacked, Stark directs his armor to protect the woman he loves knowing he could die. He is kind to the kid who’s being bullied. Yes, he’s a jerk, but he knows it and is working to be a better man, even if the path for redemption has not yet been clearly revealed.
Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but we’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.
To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):
Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.
In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.
What are some of your favorite characters in movies or in books? Why did you “like” them? How were they flawed? What other characters fell flat? You could never like them because they passed a certain line?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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).
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Awesome, as always. I took notes and will be applying this to my current WIP. Thanks Kristen.
I have never heard this explained so well. Thanks for another wonderful post.
As always, your post is thought provoking and beneficial to those of us accepting the challenge of writing. Thanks for sharing with us every day!
I have a wounded heroine in my debut. Three chapters into the 1st draft, I realized no one would follow her through the entire book, so I gave her someone to love–a girl she rescued and adopted. This one change deepened her character considerably, and it affected every aspect of who she is. So instead of just being a broken woman dealing with partial memories, she’s a broken woman dealing with partial memories who is self-sacrificing and would do anything for those she loves.
One of my favorite characters of all time in a movie was LT. Colonel Frank Slade from Scent of a Woman. So much baggage, so pained, and somehow loveable all at the same time!
Oh, I love him! What a great character.
Thanks for this post. “Plot & Structure” has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while, now I must go get it. One of my favorite hero’s is Jane Eyre – she tempted, but stays true to her core beliefs, she’s offered security, but won’t settle for less than love, she’s downtrodden and emotionally abused, but doesn’t give up. Every few years I read her story again.
Couldn’t have said it better myself!
Great post! It forced me to realize I might have made my heroine too flawed and with so much baggage readers might not like her. Thanks!
Slightly ironic for me, the character that immediately comes to mind as having crossed a line was Obiwan Kenobi. I mean, I grew up with the original trilogy, I know Anakin was going to the dark, and I always hated the whiny brat he was as a kid anyway, so for me he was just a bad protagonist from the get-go.
But the end with Kenobi… he beats Anakin, this man that has called brother, practically raised, and rather than either killing him cleanly or trying to rescue him, just leaves him helpless in the path of a rising river of lava. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy, and Kenobi is supposed to be the good guy?!
Seriously, I get that Lucas had written the characters into a corner, but… some remorse at least? A fall to somewhere Kenobi COULDN’T reach him? Something other than just walking away with barely a backward glance?
For my own characters, definitely something I struggle with. I don’t think I’ve yet written a Mary Sue, but I do have a tendency towards to wounded, brooding hero.
Ha! I suppose we all have a character from Star Wars that we’re supposed to love but hated in the prequel. For me, it’s Yoda. He turns away a young slave boy who’s without his mother for the first time. Yoda detects fear in him (Duh! Of course, Anakin’s scared), says the boy’s fate is uncertain, so he casts out a child!
Hi Kristen ~ I just dropped down to your comments section to say thank you for all of your posts. I read every one and want to say muchas gracias for all the time and effort you continue to put into sharing your thoughts, experience and guidance with us. I many not be as active a WANAalum as I should be (time, baby …) but I am always lurking and know you impact my continuing growth as a writer. I’m working on novel #3 and reading your “Rise of The Machines …”
Kristen, thank you so much for your blogs the last few days. I’m trying out NaNoWiMo for the first time this year, so I’m a little nervous, but your blogs have me excited over it. I’ve been writing more years than I haven’t, so it’s always great to remind myself again and again that there’s still so much to learn. Little tweaks and sometimes major shifts in an approach.. Love your blog. Please never stop 🙂
Thank you for this and all your other great posts. I just realized why my debut was rejected by – well, everyone. My main character was too perfect! which I suppose made for some dull reading;-(
Yay you for realizing this! I look back on my first heroine and laugh hysterically. She had long, long hair, she was beautiful, kind, modest, sang like an angel … yeah, enough to make one hurl. Which is why she is still trapped in an unfinished manuscript and she’s never getting out (evil author laugh)
LOL. After several readings I like her less and less – very one dimensional and complacent and that is why she and my ‘debut’ will lie in a box in the closet for eternity. Thanks for your comment Cathryn. Needless to say my new protagonist is deeply flawed. Makes for a pleasant change!
Great blog and great recommendation. I will put James Scott Bell’s book on my list to read before revising my YA that we will be resubmitting next spring. I know I have some work to do on my protagonist. Thanks!
I agree Bell’s Plot & Structure is a must read. I wish I could say it saved my first novel from being more than firestarter, but alas, no. I had almost finished writing before I finished reading. Read Bell first and then use his strategies. I love his plans for revision and will follow them when I finally get to that stage on my totally reinvented novel (thanks to Bell, Larry Brooks and my Jedi Master, Kristen Lamb).
I thought of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. He seems so perfect, a man who won’t let anything deter him from seeking justice for all. But he has a past, a client everyone wants to hang and in he end, protects a murderer. Hmmm. Very complex and still so admirable. I wish he were my dad!
Yes, I love Jason Scott Bell and have more than one of his books including Plot and Structure. I think that one thing he has in common with you is that you both explain things really well. I love it when people just get to the point.
Ironically, my two favorite characters in books are not in the genre I read most. I mostly read epic fantasy because that’s what I write, but my two favorite characters are Anita Blake and Harry Dresden. I don’t ready many vampire novels, but I think the reason I’ve been drawn to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series is because Anita is so flawed. She has a lot of issues, like wanting to date more than one man, but not wanting her boyfriends to date anyone else. She can be a little rigid and she’s not very good with words. But her bluntness and her flaws always come out in a humorous way. She is so powerful but often can’t control that power and over the series Anita is forced to recognize several flaws and learn to deal with them as she learns to control all the powers she acquires.
Harry Dreseden is another great character. He’s kind of a geeky loner wizard and his only family left is half-brother who is vampire. He struggles to pay the bills, struggles with his conscience, and he is very powerful but his magic is raw power, not pretty and not easily controlled. But his flaws are also tempered by humor, which makes him very real and likable.
Great post as usual,
I can only imagine trying to actually write the jerk syndrome: Tony Stark with incessant miserly thoughts about everyone that he suppresses because he’s trying to be a nice guy. In writing that could get old very fast. (I’ve not seen “Iron Man,” but I’m not even sure how it works on screen. Perhaps like “As Good As It Gets.”) Also, Bridget Jones’ constant insecurities must seem like a lot of whining when in writing. Maybe I should read the books, but she seems to have too many issues, much like the adolescent whinging of Anakin. (I also despised every second of the “Star Wars” prequels, so much that I lost all interest in the original movies.) Weaving flaws into a story in a way that isn’t tedious or repetitive is obviously no walk in the park.
I liked Bridgett Jones in the movie better than the book. I do think it IS tough, but writing ain’t easy for sure.
Great post! I loved reading it. It will help me stay on track with my MC. =D
Thank you for this =) Your advice is very helpful as I start my novel!
Great post. So true. I like the examples from movies. I love Iron Man . . . it’s nice to see an athiest portrayed as a good guy for once. I actually dislike Bridgett Jones because she was a little too flawed for me. She was so irresponsible and made women in a proffessional envirnoment look bad.She reminded me of a friend I can’t stand who calls me to whine about how guys won’t date her because she’s fat . . . but maybe it’s because she’s a trainwreck like Bridgett. Just my opinion. If I don’t answer that friend’s phone calls, why would I want to read about a woman like that?
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Had a discussion about this during this past week’s game of Battlestar: Galactica, actually. Got asked why I passionately hate Cally more than any other character in the show, and it really comes to her having no redeemable qualities whatsoever. Even when the show gave a last-ditch effort to make her sympathetic, it failed. She was consistently whiny, selfish, bigoted, cowardly and wildly unstable.
By contrast, characters built to be antagonistic/unsympathetic — Baltar, Ellen Tigh — were ones I really enjoyed watching. Even when they were being self-obsessed, underhanded, or otherwise unpleasant, there were enough glimmers of genuine humanity to keep me watching and rooting for them to overcome their crippling character flaws.
In fiction, I want my characters to have enough of that essential humanity for readers to WANT them be redeemed. Not be so annoyed with them that they want them to die, die, die.
Great post, and I do second James Scott Bell… I have his book on Self-Editing and Revision, and it’s way, way more than a revision checklist. He just about hands you a workbook to give you a sound novel the first go-round to spare you a lot of revision time in the first place.
Reblogged this on chasynleigh's Blog.
One of my favorite heroes has to be Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. Yes, he’s heir to a kingdom and lover to the fairest elf in the realm, but he’s afraid of accepting his kingship and ashamed of the actions of his ancestor, who gave in to temptation and kept Sauron’s ring instead of destroying it. Aragorn worries he’ll make the same choice. He becomes more sure of himself as the trilogy progresses, more confident, especially when he’s faced with the same temptation of taking the ring, and he rejects it.
Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of my favorite films/books, even my debut novel MrRight&MrWrong explores a similar dilemma – a girl meets two men, whom to choose?
I absolutely agree with you Kristen – the protagonist is the flesh and blood of the story. I’m familiar with the LOCK system and other techniques, and I have several Bell’s books in my library, very useful. My favorite writing method is to visualize and to listen to what I write – I watch what I write like a movie, and try to amend the scene to get the best feel of it, and the same way I create my protagonist’s voice.
Great food for thought!
This is another great article. I’m with you on young Vader. There is no forgiveness for someone who kills children. Some of my favorite characters are Santiago, from The Old Man and the Sea, Paul from Dune, and David Copperfield.
Plot & Structure is a great book. I used Bell’s Borg outline to lay out my WIP – now I just gotta write the thing! And stay away from the Evil Bypath Bunnies…
One of my favourite characters is P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith – eccentric as all get out, but definitely someone I’d choose to spend a few hours with (alas, I read too fast to make a Wodehouse last ten hours).
Great Post. I think you are right, the protagonist is the key. For me to like them, they have to be real. You said it best because we all have good and bad qualities. Even Tony Stark, Darth Vader and Obi Wan.
In my unpublished work, the protagonist has the perfect life and it is all taken away from him. Eddie chooses to end his life but is stopped by a shadowy group who need his specialized skill, he is a airline pilot. Three weeks later this shadowy group and still suicidal Eddie, rescue 22 boys from a resort for pedophiles in Thailand and steal a 727. Eddie must deal with his demons and flying it into the eye of a Cyclone to escape from the local authorities.
To me, a great protagonist doesn’t have to be super human but they have to real. They have to be put into situations that allow for normal people to rise to spectacular actions.
Thank you Kristen! As always, great advice!
Great informative blog, thank you. My favourite female character has to be Elizabeth Bennet, (Pride and Prejudice). A masterclass of story telling.
Great post! I’ve been contemplating this idea recently, as I’m one of thousands preparing to NaNo in a few short weeks 🙂 I usually write light, fluffy fiction, but I’m thinking of doing something a bit less Harry Potter and a bit more Battle Royale this year. I’m pretty sure most of my characters will die, and lots of them will do horrible things before they die. But you’re right, the readers need someone to root for. Hmm … back to the drawing board for me!
Good information that I will definitely apply. I am currently writing a story and I strive to make sure that my characters aren’t too perfect or too flawed. I remember reading a book called Azure Dying. The “hero” of the story was a jerk 99% of the time and extremely unlikeable. It was the scenario of “he redeems himself at the end”. I try to look at stories like that to teach me what not to do with the characters in my story. There was not one character in that book that I actually liked which is strange because there is usually one stick-out character.
I digress. I can’t wait to read more of the LOCK method.
Thanks for this post, Kristen–this is a thing I’m struggling with in my work right now: creating a protagonist that the audience will like and relate to… I feel more prepared now!
Thanks, that helped me realize and define how my protagonist is flawed and redeemable. My mind had already created a good character but defining how and why it’s a good character so that you can exploit those aspects in writing is important too.
Great post. I’ve been thinking about how to work with flaws of character a lot recently, so guidance is gratefully received.
Specifically, I have problems with serialisation of a character and the need, therefore, to find a new/adjusted frailty to probe in a second, third etc instalment. You’ve pointed me to a great example of this aspect done well with Bridget Jones. There was just enough of a different emotional quest in the second outing – I’ll dig the two books out and review. Will be interesting to see where the third book goes on this point.
I’ll nudge Iron Man 3 up the ‘to watch’ list (bump it up above Melancholia, at least).
such a great post! you’ve provided great examples to illustrate your points.
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Great post! I agree with you on “Plot and Structure” – it’s become something of a Bible to me as I plod along this writing path. Loved hearing your take on it.
Yet another post of what I need when I needed it!
So, I know I might get some hate for this but I had some issues with Katniss in the book version of “The Hunger Games.” I still very much enjoy the story and am looking forward to the next movie, but I found myself rolling my eyes when reading her because she was constantly worried about everyone but herself– yes, this is a good thing and we should strive to be like that, but no one is like that 100% of the time. Suzanne Collins did a great job of embracing other “flaws” in her characters but I felt that Katniss was just TOO selfless.
Havent read the books but I’ve seen the first film. You’ve got a real point there.
I think the character that falls flat to me is Robert Langdon of Dan Brown’s series. He’s too perfect. Brown gave him a fear of small spaces, but that’s not enough to counteract the tall, fit Casanova in his 50s who solves international crime in his spare time.
Thank you very much for your wonderful tipps and tricks, Kristen – there’s so much to learn! And this post is so exceptional interesting… I’m excited, can you tell? 🙂
Really great post!
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This was great! Theses blogs really help me when I write my novel.
Thanks for this. I have many favorite characters, one of the most enduring is fairly obscure – Gulley Jimson in “The Horses Mouth”. He is dishonest, incorrigible, and about half-mad, but nevertheless somehow endearing and admirable. dylan
I think it was hard for many people to stomach or grow to like Thomas Covenant as a protagonist – because he rapes a young woman in the first novel of the series. The fact he had leprosy probably didn’t help either.
Best is ofcourse that you put yourself in a reader position… then you can have the best option that they will read your post. And definitely it is still true.
My favorite character was the protagonist in a recent series I’ve read. There were six books in the series but I never tired of him.
One thing I liked was that Nathan, the protag was introduced as just another example of his species, nothing spectacular about him, nor deeply flawed, and without any real baggage. He starts on his ‘quest’ and we start to uncover more things about his character: how he may have chosen the wrong proffession, how he admits others may be better than him at what he does, that some things he has achieved might not be his merit alone. You know, inner conflicts that all of us have.
His love for his parents, his doubts on what he fights for (war backdrop), how he falls in love, the horrors he sometimes must do and how he deals with them, how his short temper lands him into the fire with his superiors, how he is prone to awkward situations and fits of the giggles at inappropriate times. His insecurities, doubts, conflict on where his loyalties lie, but also the moments when he delivers the kind of violent justice we readers think a particular jerk deserves.
The point is, the hero accumulates baggage, and becomes deeply flawed as part of the story, and it is something that we understand how has happened and we sympathise with this dude because we were in his head when it happened, instead of it being something presented to us in retrospect, but for which we have no sympathy.
I wish more authors would write characters like that. They work in whatever world you put them in because they have good traits and bad traits, they are strong in some aspects but can’t stomach others. Like the rest of us.
As for flaws and baggage, as a reader I believe the jurney is more interesting than any past of the character, be it happy or dark. Their past as presented to the reader is too impersonal, as tragic as it may be. I’m more interested in how the present happenings influence a character and creates him/her, and what they become in the end of their story.
As for Nathan, he had insecurities regarding his job, and sometimes felt he could do nothing right. And indeed, sometimes he messed up. But in the end of the series, the final action, he was finally convinced that he had done something right. And he did, too. And it’s great that his story ended there for us, because we had closure. He came full circle.