);

Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: creating dimensional characters

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Which is more important? Plot or character? Anyone currently doing NaNoWriMo is all, “WORDS! ONLY WORDS MATTER NOW! Get off my case, Blogger Chick. I’ll figure out plot and character later.”

*awkward silence*

To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY.”

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

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension.

This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

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

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksOf course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and I apologize if I upset any DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

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

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

Yay, Texas summers!

Yet, I’ve read books with characters that make Gilligan look like a rocket scientist…then been compelled to hurl the book across the room.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books
This is me after reading certain books *stabbing self*

Flawed vs. Too Dumb to Live

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. This commercial never gets old *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*. Or this one about gals tripping too many times in horror movies. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

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

When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

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

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

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

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

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

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

Plot as Crucible

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

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

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

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic.

What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

Bright (Bad) Idea Fairy

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

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the blood-soaked fabric.

Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of a newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

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

***Side note here. Look at the genius in the choice of character names. Morse, a cryptic person who must unravel the “code” of his situation and realize the bear is actually the (MUCH) lesser threat. Green, the man who envies to such a degree it drives him to plot a murder. Stephen is the first to die. “Stephen” was also the first Christian martyr, the first innocent to die for the greater cause—salvation.

#DeepThoughts

Back to FLAWS

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksBut all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never had to use this type of information in a real-world way).

As a billionaire, Morse has never been required to explain himself before. He doesn’t understand that this might be a good time to START.

Additionally, the two photographers are city people who don’t have the training/understanding to know 1) NOT to drag a knife toward the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators. BIG ONES.

These men are used to the “civilized world.”  When thrust into the wild, they make a critical error. They fail to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain has drastically shifted.

Only ONE member of our stranded coterie gets that they’ve suddenly gone from ordering OFF menus to being ON the menu #DailySpecial #MarketPrice #JokesInPoorTaste…

Where was I? Oh, yes…

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

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

A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world.

To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

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

Bad Decisions & The Wound

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

We’ve talked about The Wound in other posts. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life.

Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise has been a victim (shamed and alone) and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

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

Making “Stupid” Forgivable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Great writing is a sort of alchemy that transforms the raw material of “stupid” into the literary gold we recognize as “damaged,” “broken,” and/or “naive”—which we have ALL been at one time or another.

This hits us in the feels. We relate, connect, and BOND with the characters because we’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.

In The Edge, “bad” decisions are forgivable because most of us are not wilderness experts. Readers can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if stranded in a similar fashion.

In The Lord of the Rings we, the audience, have “been” to the Shire—and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. Thus, we appreciate these characters are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

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

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

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions.

Plot Puppets

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

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

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

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you!

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? What are some great examples of characters who you should hate, but you forgive? Why? Can you think of what activated empathy instead of disdain?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

FYI: I’m AM loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. I know I said that last time, but whatever. I lied 😛 .

What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

BTW: October’s winner for the comment contest is Bjørn Larssen!

Please email your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times New Roman font, please. Or you are also welcome to choose to send me a query or synopsis instead. Query shouldn’t exceed 500 words and synopsis 2,500 MAX. Congratulations!

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).

 

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

Perspective is key to creating dimensional characters that resonate with the reader. Proper perspective adds dimension that transitions a ‘plot puppet’ into what feels like a real ‘person.’

POV (point of view) offers readers a glimpse into the character’s psyche, which will drive thought, action, emotion, conflict, choices, and change. Perspective can also rid our stories of ‘Talking Head Syndrome’—dialogue that all sounds the same.

Last post, I offered 7 Tips for Self-Editing. As mentioned, good editors are not cheap, but worth their weight in gold. Do as much cleanup as possible on our own? Pros can then step in for what we missed or failed to even see.

An analogy might help. When my son was little, I hired a housekeeper to come clean once a month. Though I kept a tidy enough home, I simply didn’t have it in me to do the necessary but time-consuming tasks (cleaning blinds, vacuuming baseboards, dusting fans, etc.).

I’d always clean before the housekeepers arrived (Hubby laughing at me all the while). Yes, it might seem silly, but I could do my own dishes. I could make beds and pick up toys. If the housekeepers did what I could EASILY do on my own? This was a waste of money. I NEEDED them to help with tasks that required ladders, patience, and special tools.

Same with a manuscript.

Developmental Edit

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

So last time I pointed out that proofreading is only ONE form of edit. Sometimes, if an MS keeps getting rejected, it’s time to bring in a developmental editor. Proofreading is essential, but I can’t recall ever reading a book and saying: Wow, the author placed every comma perfectly!

Developmental editors inspect the MS for what’s going wrong with the architecture of a story. Is there a plot? If so, is it too weak, too complicated, or too confusing? Are the characters dimensional? Do the characters arc? Are there character redundancies?

Y’all get the gist.

It’s very tough, time-consuming work and today we’re going to telescope in on a very common problem (especially with emerging authors).

Writing.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. ~Elmore Leonard

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

This is why those seven tips I gave last time can be so helpful. When we go through our WIP (work in progress) with these ‘cutting’ tools, we can strip away what screams ‘WRITING!’

You might laugh, but how often do you have a conversation and use that person’s name?

Good morning, Joe.

Well, hello, Kristen.

Joe, did you get the plans for the new design? You know, Joe, we are on a major deadline.

Y’all would be shocked how much of this kind of dialogue I see in samples. People in LIFE don’t talk like this. If they do?

That’s seriously weird.

Soap Opera Writing

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

This is what I like to call ‘soap opera writing.’ Soap operas were originally written for radio, then eventually shifted to television.

The audience?

Homemakers who might be busy ironing or scrubbing a floor or changing diapers. This is actually HOW these stories earned the name SOAP opera. Back in the day, the soap companies did most of the advertising during these shows.

Anyway…

In soaps, characters constantly call each other by name in dialogue. They also do a lot of, ‘As you know, Bob…’ and then fill in what’s happened. Soap operas are a string of vignettes and melodrama (as opposed to dramatic tension). There is no overall plot because soap operas are not meant to end.

Ever.

The reason characters called each other by name was because women busy ironing shirts couldn’t always SEE the screen. Thus, the characters had to keep calling one another by name so the target audience could follow along.

Soap operas could (can) also dedicate entire scenes to ‘As you know, Bob’ writing.

As you know, Marlena, Bo and Hope never wanted to divorce. They still love each other. But Stephano tricked them. He helped Sami fake her pregnancy and imprisoned Lucas in a Jell-O mold that gave him amnesia….”

****This is why we can miss twenty years of Days of Our Lives and catch up in about a week.

Point of View

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

Soap operas have the luxury of using talking heads because the ‘characters’ are basically mannequins with great hair and fashion sense. They’re not meant to have a lot of depth because every ‘story problem’ is dragged out for months or years. Soaps don’t hook with a story as much as they hook with morbid curiosity, ergo the cliffhangers and unresolved conflicts.

Soaps employ what I might refer to as a ‘bystander effect.’ We hear a couple start arguing in a nice restaurant and cannot help but eavesdrop and see ‘how it ends.’

***In soaps it doesn’t end, at least not for a minimum of three years.

The reason is that soaps are after longevity, and resolution gets in the way.

Days of Our Lives has been running since 1965, so no judgement here. Perhaps one could gather a decade of material and realize a character actually does possess dimension, but it takes TEN YEARS to deliver this…one painful breadcrumb at a time.

Novelists don’t have this luxury. Though, as a note, I can tell a writer who watches a lot of soaps 😉 .

Perspective Matters

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

Back to this perspective thing. When creating a character for a novel, we need to crawl into the head of the character we’re writing or they’ll all sound the same (a lot like us). In my last post, a few commenters mentioned hating said as a tag.

Said, when used properly, should be invisible. If it’s jumping off the page, it’s because it’s being overused. Why? First, the conversation is banal filler, which is doing nothing to propel dramatic tension.

Tags are also overused when characters are flat. Lacking in depth, we (the reader) wouldn’t be able to tell one speaking character from another without a clue (the tag).

When writers do the hard work and create distinct personalities (perspectives), tags are rarely necessary because the speech patterns give away the speaker. I like to read my dialogue aloud to a critical audience and, if they can’t tell the difference (with no tags)?

I need to try harder.

Perspective and Narrative

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

The internal narrative of a POV character is what clues us into the mental state of the character, because perspective generates conflict and complexity. Perspective dictates what a character notices, how he or she feels and how that character then responds (or doesn’t).

There are innumerable combinations available so that no character is ever just like any other. Gender, ethnicity, age, background, family, faith (or lack thereof), birth order, trauma, occupation, etc. all color a character’s perception of events.

A female septuagenarian has a vastly different perspective than a modern female teenager.

Take a trip into a neighborhood:

If our MC is an architect, she’s likely to notice styles of homes, cornice work, wainscoting, termite-ridden soffits, etc. She’s also going to know that ‘thingie’ actually is CALLED a soffit.

If our MC is fireman, he’ll definitely notice that jerk parked in front of a hydrant and might even take time to go bang on a door and make the person move the car.

Perspective is important in all genres, but perhaps most important when writing for young people. Our nine-year-old boy shouldn’t sound like a Baby Boomer.

Recently, I edited a work and the (modern) teenage girl was ‘punching in her friend’s phone number.’ Not in an age of smart phones she isn’t 😉 .

Just for FUN: An Exercise

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

I’ve used this little exercise for ages in classes, but this is a great way to train POV (point of view) and hone our empathy skills. Your challenge:

Four POVs. A family of four is taking a road trip. They’ve been saving over a year to take this vacation, but something goes very wrong (road construction, get lost, car breaks down, demons possess the engine, warp drive on their personal star-van fails). Use your imagination.

In the vehicle (wagon, time-machine, Honda Accord, 1973 hot pink Cadillac), we have Mom, Dad, a teen, and a grandparent. Now, tell the story from ALL FOUR perspectives.

Is grandpa a retired mobster? Does Mom have a pain pill addiction? Is the teenager hiding she’s a vampire? Does Dad have PTSD from the interstellar wars?

What went wrong? Who’s fault is it? What does each character prioritize? How do they conflict? What does each character believe the solution should be? How do they come to a resolution of the problem?

ENJOY!

Pick the one that is the toughest for you to write and, if you create something you’re particularly pleased with? Put in the comments. I’d love to see your creativity! Bonus point for the contest below.

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

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

NOW OFFERING…

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is two hours long, 90 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

***A free recording is included with purchase.

General Admission is $40 and there are some SUPER COOL upgrades! Get your spot HERE.

 

MORE CLASSES!

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming! 

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, Kristen Lamb novel, Kristen Lamb mystery-thriller, Romi Lachlan

What really makes a great story? I read an insane amount and always have, but it really wasn’t until I decided to go pro that I began looking at books very differently. Why were some books so utterly forgettable and others? I couldn’t get out of my head. What made the difference?

Why do I still revisit The Hours, The English Patient, Big, Little Lies, A Girl on the Trail, Gone Girl, The Luckiest Girl Alive? And others? I can’t recall if I even read them. I look at my Kindle menu and it claims I read it but…

This said, I’ve been putting a lot of thought lately into character. Reverse engineering it so that I can better understand what makes it tick. I’ve mentioned the raging debate about character-driven stories versus plot-driven stories and really all great stories are both.

Story is a machine. An engine. And if story is a machine, then plot and character are cogs. If one is flawed or weak or breaks? It cannot help but impact the overall machine.

But today, we are going to focus on the character cog. How do we create characters with resonance?

Who Are You?

Now, I know a lot of writing books recommend doing character sheets. There is nothing wrong with that. Get it out. Free write on the page. Think about who the character is, where she came from. Social class, religion, economic status, childhood, etc. Tell his or her life story and get it down.

But now I want you to dig a little deeper—ok, a LOT deeper—and ask…

What is my character’s paradigm?

This is to say, what is her reality? Her framework? What defines her? And, most importantly, what is its center? How does the character define his or her worth? Because a background sheet is nothing more than facts without context. To create a dimensional character, context is king.

Paradigms offer that context.

Though sociologists and self-help experts have used the notion of paradigms to assist personal growth, as a writer I felt the need to use this idea for a far darker purpose. Instead of using the paradigm to fix messed up people, I use it to create them.

So I bring you…

The Seven Habits of Seriously Messed Up People

Great fiction is about problems. It is about people with problems. And the more messed up they are? The better.

This means that to write any great story, we are going to need to create some seriously jacked up people.

So to do this, we need to know the character’s paradigm. But before we go further, I want to explain a bit how a paradigm works. Stephen Covey explains the paradigm as a set of lenses through which we see ourselves and our world. Rolling with that metaphor, a quick story to help you relate this to creating memorable fiction.

When I was pregnant with Spawn I suddenly needed glasses after having perfect vision my whole life. So I get glasses and can see! Yay! I just assumed I was getting older and accepted I now wore glasses.

But then something strange happened.

When Spawn was about three I kept getting headaches. My eyes hurt. I couldn’t see detail. Naturally I assumed I needed a stronger prescription so I went to the eye doctor. Turned out? I no longer needed the glasses. My vision had returned to 20/20.

So why did I feel the need to share?

When creating the character, take all of that background information then go deeper and reflect on what lenses the character is using. Our protagonist in the beginning wears a set of lenses that he or she is unaware no longer work. Maybe they did in the beginning, but life has changed. Maybe they never worked at all but the character has no basis for comparison so is unaware.

Regardless, they (our characters) believe their vision is correct, but we as Author God know that it isn’t. Our characters are suffering the headaches, strain and fatigue but are not necessarily aware what is causing such discomfort.

Plot is what will reveal that the old lenses are flawed and trade them for newer, corrected lenses that finally offer the clear picture and alleviate the strain.

Let Me Demonstrate

For instance, in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies the character Madeline has a family-centered paradigm. Her worth is determined by her effectiveness as a mother and being needed by her children.

In Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, Tif-Ani has a status-centered paradigm and believes social position and wealth are the most important things in life, that they are what will make her happy. Her dream job and marrying old money define who she is.

In Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller has an achievement-centered paradigm. Winning is paramount because winners get paid. He does not see himself as a justice-seeker, which is why he only defends those he is sure are guilty.

When we pan back and look at these great stories with the idea of paradigms in mind, then the genius of plot becomes far more obvious. We have the characters, we know them and now we have the perfect way to make them scream. We are going to show them that what they believe to be true really isn’t, that what they see is inherently flawed. That is what all three of these authors did in these three remarkable stories.

Madeline gets tossed through the parenting wringer, Tif-Ani is forced to confront the demons of her past that are driving her future, and Mickey Haller is confronted with the client he always feared. And to me, THIS  is what elevates stories like these from mundane to magnificent.

All great characters have their paradigm challenged then shattered then reformed. Paradigm melds character and plot into one. Plot problems are more than just “bad stuff happening” and instead, are direct challenges to the ego. Without paradigm, characters are one-dimensional puppets passively reacting to ill fortune.

Paradigm=Character

Paradigm is what adds depth to that backstory because backstory alone is not enough. We need to get to the interpretation of the backstory.

Game of Thrones. Every single one of the Lannister children is remarkably different even though they are from the same family…because of paradigms.

But even if we simply wrote ONE character background, we could have the same background and create countless variations off of it. How? Paradigm.

One woman grows up in a big domineering over-involved family and can’t wait to run away and do her own thing. She has no interest in marriage or children and wants a career.

Another? Has no idea why you wouldn’t want to live across the street from all ten of your relatives. She can’t imagine a world where family wasn’t meddling in everything. She can’t wait to get married and have lots of babies.

Same back story. Different interpretation. You, Author God, get to choose 😉 .

The Shattered Paradigm

There are all kinds of paradigms. There is family-centered, money-centered, relationship-centered, status-centered, enemy-centered, friend-centered, etc. Most people have an amalgamation of more than one paradigm, and so do good characters. Think of The Godfather. That is a delicious combination of family-centered, money-centered, power-centered, and status-centered.

Game of Thrones?

*head explodes*

So study it. Go to your favorite movies and series and think about the characters using this notion or paradigms and I believe you will see and be able to then add an entirely new level of genius to your own work.

That and now you can use “paradigm” in a conversation to impress your family and friends 😀 .

What are your thoughts? Does this shed new light on character for you? Maybe you can see what I am talking about in your favorite stories?

I LOVE hearing from you!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but that is a ONE TIME deal. After you do it once, WP will recognize you as a regular *sings Cheers theme song* once I approve the comment.

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

Talk to me!

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

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

I will announce February’s winner next time! I was going to announce it this time, but I lied. I am a writer and that is what writers do. We lie.

*smooch*

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

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

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

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

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

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter
Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Craig Sunter

Today we are going to shift gears back to craft. Last week we talked about the single largest problem with most first-time novels. There must be a singular core story problem that is resolved in Act Three.

All good stories must have an overall goal.

Now, this of course doesn’t mean there are not a lot of subgoals along the way, but all tributaries eventually deposit into the same river (core plot problem). If they are not related to this problem? Likely you have a plot bunny (or ten) in need of caging.

Yet often emerging writers will toss around this word “character-driven story” when they really don’t understand what this term means. All too often they mistakenly believe it is a pass to skip plotting. Nope. Sorry. So today we are going to discuss what a “character-driven story” really is and what it isn’t.

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-11-51-06-am

Now we all know there are all kinds of fiction and some genres naturally lean toward being “plot-driven”. We don’t want to read a mystery where we are never told whodunit and are instead exploring the detective’s fatal character flaw.

We want the killer uncovered and brought to justice. Thrillers? Same deal. Stop the SUPER BAD THING from happening (I.e. Militant vegans launching the super weapon that turns all bacon into tofu).

Now, this doesn’t mean these stories cannot also be character-driven. They just don’t necessarily have to be. Yet, often what will separate the forgettable detective book from, say a Harry Bosch book, is this added layer of character depth that just gives the story this delicious je ne sais quoi that leaves us wanting more.

We walk away from the story feeling as if we have bonded with living person, not just some writer’s imaginary friend. But the character-driven story must work in tandem with PLOT. Plot is the fire that heats the crucible. No fire? No test.

The World View

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-11-53-25-am

Whenever we begin with our protagonist, this character (like real living people) has a distinctive world view that is born of his/her backstory. This world view is created by millions of variables colliding to make one special distinct personality.

Who were the character’s parents? Was the character adopted? Abandoned? Abused? What did his parents do? What was their world view? Does the character share this view or is he opposed to it? What traumatic events forged this adult (or teen) personality?

Y’all get the gist.

A character who was born into a military family that moved every two years is likely going to hold a vastly different world view than a character born on a family farm in Iowa. Both will be different than a character raised by a grandmother in a Kentucky trailer park because dad died when his meth lab blew and mom is in prison.

Story Challenges then Smashes the World View

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-11-54-46-am

As Author God, we get to choose the protagonist’s world view, but THEN it is our job to then smash it. How do we smash it? We create the perfect problem (story) that is going to shatter what the character believes to be true.

For instance, let’s look at a mystery-suspense that is also a very character-driven story. In Connelly’s book The Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller is a rock star defense attorney. He is a product of his background with a famous lawyer father, a man so great in his field, Mickey is a mere shadow. As we can tell from this quote, Mickey is a product of his rearing…

“You know what my father said about innocent clients? … He said the scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client. Because if you fu*& up and he goes to prison, it’ll scar you for life … He said there is no in-between with an innocent client. No negotiation, no plea bargain, no middle ground. There’s only one verdict. You have to put an NG up on the scoreboard. There’s no other verdict but not guilty.”

Haller screwed up once. He defended an innocent man but the evidence to free the guy just wasn’t there and he lives with the guilt that he talked an innocent man into taking a plea bargain for life in prison because it was the only way to save him from the needle.

When the story begins? Mickey has no interest in guilt or innocence. He doesn’t want to know. And, better yet, to avoid innocent men? He actively courts the worst of the worst as clients—pimps, drug dealers, outlaw bikers, etc.

But then he takes the case for Louis Roulet and everything changes.

Roulet is not just any case. In the beginning, Mickey takes him on because he is rich. He really doesn’t care if the guy did the crime or not. That is not his purview. But then, as the plot unfolds, Mickey realizes that Roulet might be responsible for the crime his innocent client is now serving time for.

The PLOT PROBLEM challenges Mickey’s worldview. It forces him to change, to question who he is, what he stands for and what he really believes. Now, this book might have been fine as a straight up mystery suspense if we just cast a very different character and focused more on solving who really was beating and raping the victims.

But, what makes this book stand head and shoulders above other mysteries is we are there to witness the evolution of Mickey Haller. He begins as a man who claims justice doesn’t matter and evolves into a man willing to die to do what is right.

Connelly didn’t write a book where Haller spends 100,000 words questioning why his father never loved him, why he has a hole in his soul and feels nothing for his fellow man, why he isn’t a better man *queue violin* Why? Because that is not a story, that is self-indulgent tripe.

How a Character Can “Find Herself”

screen-shot-2017-01-31-at-11-58-29-am

All right, but some of you might be yelling, But Kristen, this is still a mystery suspense and it partially plot-driven. What about my story? My protagonist wants to “FIND herself”.

Hold on. We are getting there.

Hate to tell you this, but this story will also have a core plot problem. There must be a challenge to the worldview that is eventually resolved. Seriously, no one wants to spend 15 hours reading navel-gazing. Even in these types of stories there is a core plot problem complete with stakes and a ticking clock.

A good example? The 1999 romantic comedy Runaway Bride.

Maggie Carpenter is a feisty, spirited woman who just cannot seem to have success in relationships. She has left three men at the altar already and had it not been for the plot problem? She very well could have left far more.

But what happens?

Columnist Homer Eisenhower Graham or “Ike” gets a scoop from a drunk at the bar about this woman who leaves all these men at the altar. Ike then writes a flaming tabloid about Maggie, but he screws up. He gets a lot of the facts wrong and is fired for not doing his research. He is given the opportunity to redeem his reputation by doing a follow-up story on Maggie.

Now, Maggie is lost, but she doesn’t realize she how lost she is until Ike, believing he yet again is missing the real story does some digging and talks to those who know her. He challenges her that she is running because she is mimicking the men she loves (as evidenced by the way she eats her eggs). She is morphing herself to be each fiancés dream girl and losing herself in the process.

Why hasn’t she pursued her dreams? Does she even know what they are? Does she even know who she is?

The story problem forces Maggie to confront the ugly truth about herself. Instead of risking failure reaching for her own dreams, she is hiding behind the men she dates. She is driven by fear.

The stakes are love. Will Maggie ever find love? When she uncovers who she really is, can she marry Ike (or anyone) as a distinctive and whole person?

But the core story question is, Will the Runaway Bride ever tie the knot? And since this is a romance, the question is (more specifically) Will the Runaway Bride tie the knot with Ike?

If our story merely ended with Maggie leaving for a yoga retreat in India on a journey of self-discovery? That is a crappy story. And again, there was a problem that forced this journey of self-discovery in the first place and this is a problem in need of a satisfying resolution.

So when you are looking at your protagonist, ask the hard questions. Who IS this character and what is his/her worldview. Then, craft a problem that will challenge and smash that view and replace it with a superior lens.

What are your thoughts? Does this help clear up the idea of “character-driven” stories?

I love hearing from you!

And 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).

SIGN UP NOW FOR MY UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

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

All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! How to Maximize Your Earning Potential as a Full-Time Author Learn from Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg in your HOME. This series is normally $400 but W.A.N.A. is offering it for $199.

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors February 3rd, 2017

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors February 11th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies February 17th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character February 24th, 2017

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

Image courtesy of Nebraska Oddfish via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Nebraska Oddfish via Flickr Creative Commons

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 Call of Duty 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).

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 or control, 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 believe 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.

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.

Secret #4–The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Character arc is very often birthed from the biggest lies of all—the lies we tell ourselves. Your protagonist in the beginning should be raw an unformed. She has not yet been through the crucible (plot) that will fire out her impurities. Many of these “impurities” are the lies she tells herself.

I don’t need anyone’e help.

I am fine on my own.

I don’t have a problem.

These self-delusions are the biggest reason that your protagonist would fail if pitted against the antagonist in the beginning.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Army of Darkness. Even a silly low-budget movie takes advantage of the self-delusion. Ash is transported into another world where a great evil has awoken and seeks the Necronomicon (which is his only way back home).

Ash is a selfish ass who cares only about himself. He tells himself that others don’t matter, that he doesn’t really care about them and that he’s fine on his own. And he believes his own BS.

The challenges he faces (and often creates because of his poor character) change him and reveal that he was really lying to himself. He does kinda dig being the hero and he really does care about those around him. The lone-wolf maverick rises to be a leader who unites a frightened and divided people against the forces of darkness.

Good? Bad?

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 10.44.14 AM

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 everything out in detail for your own use…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?

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