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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Jason Myers

 

 

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” –Helen Keller

 

One of the greatest goals a writer can have is to create characters so vibrant and real that they take on a life of their own. We as readers come to love them, loathe them, cheer for their victory or pray for their defeat. Great characters go beyond caricature—what I call “paper dolls” when I edit. They have depth and layers and texture just like real people…well, at least interesting people.

Many of us began writing in our teen years and we probably can remember our first characters—tall, fit, good-looking, perfect and basically everything we desired to be (mine was a wandering female moon-elf who made her way through Mid-Atlantia as a mercenary and thief—yeah, I didn’t date much). Anyway, characters manifested as little more than vehicle of wish-fulfillment.

As an editor, I often see this trend continue with new writers even when they are all grown up, and, while that might be great for therapy or self-entertainment, it lacks for creating memorable characters that will resonate with a readership. And I am not picking on the young or the new writer. Wish-fulfillment is a starting place. If creating unforgettable characters was easy, then there wouldn’t be so many workshops and books and conferences all geared toward teaching characterization.

One of the common errors newer writers make is the great-looking character who is perfect in every way. While many of us strive to be that person, truthfully? Who likes them? Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I am hitting a nerve here. But be honest. I mean every time Halle Berry or Christie Brinkley speak out against plastic surgery, I find myself making gagging motions in the background—well, yeah! If I looked like Halle-freaking-Berry I wouldn’t need plastic surgery. Duh! But that person who is beautiful and rich and brilliant and who never would dream of having a disorganized closet and her New Year’s resolution is to send even more money to the starving children of Africa???? Yeah—DIE!

And proof that I am correct on this point is how we all LOOOOVE us some tabloid dirt. I bet even Bob, while standing in the grocery store line, cannot resist his eye wandering to, “Angelina and Jen Caught in Cat Fight over Brad—Who Will Win His Heart?”—okay, maybe not Bob, but the rest of us would look….after we finish checking out the photos proving once and for all that Carmen Electra actually has fat thighs—GASP!

Why do we love to look? Because we LIKE that they are not perfect. We LIKE that they have flaws. It makes us feel a bit more secure that even the beautiful, talented and filthy rich are lonely, suck at relationships, are bad with money, have a temper, or whatever. Since many of us will never know what it feels like to wonder which palatial estate to keep—the one in Malibu or the one in Martha’s Vineyard?—the easiest common ground we will find is in our collective defects.

This said, defects provide us with something else invaluable in writing—a character arc. If a character begins as perfect, then where does he go from there? And some characters will be flawed but static. Jack in the movie Titanic didn’t change, but rather served as a catalyst for others to change (namely, Rose). But if you want to add that layer of depth to your writing, someone in your story needs to change over the course of the story.

The best way to do this? Grab up a big old hand full of rocks. This is the first time in your life you have permission to throw them. Because Helen Keller was right. Conflict fuels change and creates character.

A good example…

Last night I was watching a documentary on the Military Channel called Two Weeks of Hell which followed the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course, the initial weeding out process for those young motivated males who desire to become Green Berets. What I found most interesting—and Bob talks about this in his wonderful, awesome, inspiring book Who Dares Wins (great last-minute Christmas gift, btw :))—is that one really cannot tell who will succeed and who will fail by looking at the crowd. Why? Because physical strength is not enough to get into Special Forces, and mental and emotional fortitude can only be seen when a man is tested by fire. Get him hungry, wet, tired, frightened, hurting and then put him in a virtually unwinnable situation? You will see what he is made of.

Basically? Throw rocks. The more the better.

Characters are the same way. We editors love to use that phrase, “Show. Don’t tell.” This is what we mean. Put your characters to the test. How they react to stress will tell us who they are (inciting incident) as well as who they grow to become (climactic scene). Also, when you the writer heap stress upon stress upon stress onto the poor character, it makes for much more interesting reading (conflict) and, truthfully, more accurately mirrors life, which allows the reader to sympathize and relate.

Because in life, when stuff blows up, it does it all at the same time. The day you have an unbearable migraine will be the same day your babysitter dies, your 5-year-old will experiment with fire and your car will break down. And when you go to call a tow truck? You will realize AT&T has cut off your phone service because they screwed up the account number…again. Meanwhile, the baby will be teething and screaming and the dog will eat something very valuable and throw up the remains on something even more valuable.

If this is our life, then why should our characters get off so easily?

I love using a scene from Jason Myers’ novel-in-progress to illustrate my points. His protagonist goes out to eat at a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat buffet. What begins as a simple lunch with colleagues ends up in disaster, with Jason’s character face-down on the floor as the place is being robbed. When I critiqued the piece, one of the suggestions I offered was to think of all the things that could go wrong at this moment…then amplify them. Why? Because we all know that if we were in that same situation, face-down on the floor trying to be invisible, that would be the ONE time we forgot to turn off the ringer on our cell phone—and the ringtone would have to be something ironic and mortally embarrassing (Feeling Fegalicious?). It would also be the exact moment a loved one, who was NOT supposed to join us for lunch with the coworkers, would come stumbling blindly into an ongoing robbery calling our name. You get the idea.

So make that curmudgeon Murphy proud! Turn up the heat and watch your characters squirm. When writing key scenes, ask yourself if you’re throwing enough rocks. Yeah, like any other reader, I like some scene-setting and exposition and even good description, but conflict is the fuel that drives the story. Make sure yours doesn’t run out of gas.

Until next time…

 ***Want to create characters like a pro? Learn from the best. Go to www.bobmayer.org and purchase Bob’s Novel Writers Toolkit and sign up for one of his mind-blowing workshops.

hannibal

What’s your favorite type of pain?

 Sure, sure, you’re going to say, “I don’t like pain at all.”

No one does, but pain is something we must experience to have growth. 

What if a masochist (we’ll call him “Bobby”) captured you and made you choose?: Do you want a sharp stabbing pain that occurs in a few seconds/minutes, or would you prefer a low level, always-on pain for a month?  Think about that for a minute while I wait.

<waiting>

Okay, you’ve made up your mind. No, no, you don’t need to tell me right now. You can keep it to yourself.  But you need to know the answer.

 

Why am I asking you this question and what the hell does it have to do with writing a manuscript? Well, everything.

 

I attended Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer Workshop a while back and he introduced me to something called “front-loading.” I had no idea what he meant, but when Bob speaks, you listen. Front-loading is just another word for a “plotter” as opposed to a “pantser.”  Plotters work out all the nuances and story before they write one word of prose. Pantsers do it during the work.  Which way is better? I’m sure Bob would tell you plotting is, but he would also deliver the caveat that either way will work. I agree with him. I used to be a firm pantser, but now do a lot more plotting and find it significantly speeds up writing. Now, don’t get me wrong, plotting is a TON of writing, just not your actual story. You have to write down everything you research, your characters back stories, key points , your overall outline, timelines, and your inciting event. Write it down.

 

But that doesn’t matter. Pantsers and plotters are doing the very same thing, just going about it differently. Plotters are pantsers and pansters are plotters—they just don’t know it

 

How is that, you might ask? Well you might not ask, but I’m going to tell you anyway, so buckle up.

 

When a pantser starts in on her story, she just jumps in and starts writing like a madwoman.  Typically, she’ll get a significant way into the story, and get lost or even blocked.  What does she do then? She must plot. She has to decide on which way the story will go from the stuck point. (Ha! To all you pantsers out there! You’re secretly plotters and didn’t know it!)  So she feels the pain while writing the story. It’s a slow, dull ache that lasts mostly during the middle parts and even toward the end, where she might not be entirely sure where the story will end up. (This can also be addressed by getting back to your Original Idea.) I have seen numerous pantsers on Twitter complaining about being stuck somewhere in the middle of the story, and when I throw out perhaps they should try to plot a little, they strike back with, “That’s not the way I work.”  I disagree.  You must plot out your story or you will write it forever.

 

Case in point: I just now (yes, while writing this) see an assumed pantser on Twitter. This person tweeted: Brain this would be a great time for you to kick in and give me something useful for this scene.  Plotters don’t have that problem. They know the purpose of every scene before it’s written.  I hear those pantsers out there bemoaning the “creative process” and “getting into their character’s heads” and “What fun is it if you already know the entire story?”  They like to let the story go where it may and be surprised by their characters. (Stephen King is a pantser by the way…he said he didn’t even outline Needful Things. Read that sucker and tell me he’s not a genius. No outline!)

 

 Keep reading, you pantser.

 

Now, when a plotter begins a story, she starts with her Original Idea and builds upon that by deciding what characters and items are going to be in the story, their back story, what they want (no, what they really want) and plots out the general idea of where the story is going using the Narrative Structure of:

 

Initiating Event

Rising Action

Crisis

Climax

Resolution

 

This is all before she writes a word of story.  This is also where she is pantsing.  She is trying different flavors of the story, deciding on what POV to use, deciding on setting, and voice, the ending, how her protagonist will overcome the obstacles in her path, writing a good outline…all that good stuff. She is going through the very same thing a pantser goes through, but she’s doing it before she writes one word down. What’s the ending going to be? She doesn’t know, but she works through the story—just like a pantser, and finds it.

 

Her pain is sharp, like a knife stab, but over quickly.  Well, quickly being a subjective term. It may take her just as long as the pantser to figure out where her story is going, but she’s doing it before she writes. Once the pain is inflicted, it’s over. Unlike the pantser who will feel pain like a broken toe for chapter after laborious chapter of flailing about on the page, wondering where the damn story is going, and why is the main character going into that cave, when he should be getting on the ship? Plotters feel the pain and feel it sharply because, at the beginning stage, they test the viability of the idea without writing for two months only to discover the thing is only forty pages long and they’re out of story!

 

So take your pain answer from above and apply it to which type of writer you are.  If you like a shorter duration of pain, you might want to try plotting and see how it works. I know, I know, you’re a diehard pantser, but hey, you’re still going to get all that fun pantsing time, it’ll just be before you write yourself into a corner in chapter 22 and freak.

If you prefer the slower, dull ache of getting stuck halfway through your story, by all means, pants to your heart’s content.  However, understand one thing: you will be plotting later. And when you do, you may very well have to go back to chapter one and start rewriting the entire freaking thing!  If that sounds fun to you, by all means, carry on.  But often I’ve seen people have to turn their character from a tall blonde woman, to a short black man because of the revision they could have done before and saved them all that time. 

 

Which do I do? I have embraced plotting—with one exception!  I only stretch my outline (which is just a scene breakdown in paragraph form) up until the final few scenes.  I know by then where the story is heading, and I know my Climax, and my Resolution.  I then pants the final few scenes seeing where the story goes and how the characters are going to deal with the mountain of stones I am throwing at them.  I pants this part, because I don’t really want to know the ending of my story and more than the reader does, until I get there.  So does this make me a pantser?  Ha! Not so much, but I do get the best of both worlds. 

 

What about you? Do you plot? Is there a solid reason to pants?  I would be interested to hear it.

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Jason is a rising talent and underappreciated megalomaniac with a thirst for world domination. When he isn’t working his day job (IT Geek) or spending time with his family, he is busy crafting worlds he can destroy on a whim. As an enthusiastic member of the DFW Writers Workshop, he can often be witnessed dedicating his time to supporting his fellow minions–I meant other writers.

He is a highly talented writer and blogger. For more of Jason A. Myers, go to:

Web: http://jasonamyers.wordpress.com/
Twitter: twitter.com/JasonAMyersTX

He is truly a Warrior Writer and we are all grateful for this thoughtful post.

 

To sign up for a Warrior Writer near you, go to www.bobmayer.org