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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing great fiction

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

Conflict is the core ingredient required for story. It is the magical elixir with the raw power to transform a story we think we’ve heard a million times before into something wholly unique and mesmerizing. FYI, there are no new stories, only new ways of telling the same stories. Just getting that out of the way.

A Thousand Acres is basically King Lear on an Iowa farm, and Avatar is Pocahontas in Space. I could give a zillion more examples but won’t.

In fairness, this makes our job simpler. We really don’t want to create a story no one has ever heard before. Not only because it’s pretty much impossible to do in the first place, but it’s also highly risky even if we managed to pull it off. Why?

Because the story ‘never before told’ cannot possibly resonate emotionally. Humans have no emotional touchpoint for something they’ve never experienced…ever.

Resonance is Critical

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

Love gone wrong? Betrayal? Messed up family? Righting wrongs of the past? Clearing one’s name from being falsely accused? Rebuilding after a loss? Finally earning approval, love, or acceptance? Impacts of abuse or addiction?

This stuff we get.

Most humans have real-life experience with these ‘common’ stories. Thus, when we stick to these core human narratives, that’s when we create that deep visceral resonance that ripples through generations of readers. It’s because people can relate.

Suffering is also interesting. What? Humans are morbid. Not MY fault, but definitely good for business if you’re a writer.

Now, the degree of ‘suffering’ obviously is determined by genre (or how bad the writing is).

A cupcake cozy mystery won’t probe at wounds the way a dark literary thriller like Gone Girl might. This doesn’t change that there’s ONE singular ingredient for all stories that must be present or it isn’t a story.

My goal in this series is to explore all the elements of structure, because the purpose of structure is to generate TENSION. Story is a machine. All parts serve a purpose and must work together lest we get screeching, smoke, meltdown, then breakdown.

Before we explore other elements of building a story, let’s discuss conflict.

Conflict

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, structure, novel structure

If we don’t have conflict, we DO NOT have a story. PERIOD.

A story captures us (readers) with a problem, then we turn pages because there are more problems! And we cannot possibly put down a book until we know everything is okay, right?

Few readers—emphasis on FEW—turn pages to see if the writer will use even prettier descriptions, employ even wittier references to obscure literature, or come up with even more clever names for starships/kingdoms/mythical beasts.

Readers aren’t picking up a novel to see if the author knows how to use a thesaurus or test the writer’s vocabulary skills. S.A.T. and G.R.E. prep manuals do that.

Want to read one of those in your spare time? Be my guest.

Granted, everything listed above (prose, description, world-building, excellent vocabulary) can all be wonderful elements to story, but none are powerful enough ALONE to BE STORY. Only one ingredient is inherently potent enough by itself to be considered story.

That ingredient is conflict. Conflict is story.

Here I am referring to BOTH external conflict and internal conflict, though mainly external. One CANNOT exist without the other. External conflict ignites and fans the flames of internal conflict.

Internal conflict alone is the literary equivalent of a diary to our inner child. Only therapists want to read self-exploratory navel-gazing…namely because they’re paid very well to do so.

What’s going to make readers care about internal conflicts are external problems 😉 .

Confusion with Conflict

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

Conflict—who generates it and how—can be very confusing. I am here, hopefully, to help you make sense of it all. Today we’ll use broad strokes to help y’all see what I’m wanting you to grasp, then I’ll blog in greater detail on each aspect.

Every novel MUST have a core antagonist. I call this particular antagonist the Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT) to keep it straight in MY head. I do this because a lot of well-meaning craft books (that assumed I was WAY smarter than I was) confused the crap out of me for years by using ‘antagonist’ as a blanket term.

Also, I chose this because Troublemaker is not inherently bad, evil, or nefarious. It’s merely trouble, which is subjective. This distinction (that the BBT is not, by nature, evil) will be important later, especially for certain genres.

EVERY STORY MUST HAVE A BBT. The BBT is responsible for creating the core story problem in need of resolution. When the core problem is resolved, THIS is how we (writer and readers) know the story is over.

***If the Hobbits don’t toss the evil ring in Mt. Doom and destroy Sauron (BBT)? NOPE not over.

Problem is, the BBT—while responsible for creating the core problem—likely isn’t present on every single page. Herein lies the pickle. If the goal is to put conflict on every page, in every line, how can we possibly do that?

Easy. Much of our story’s conflict isn’t necessarily directly a result of the BBT.

In any story, conflict will have many, many faces. Often you’ll hear this referred to as the antagonist. ‘Antagonist’ is a broad term, which includes any character whose goal stands in the way of what the main character desires.

Every character can at one time wear the antagonist hat (which gets shuffled around). Allies and love interests wear it most frequently, believe it or not. I’ll give you examples how, later.

The antagonist in play is almost always a person (corporeal being), which we will get to in finer detail as to why in another post. Suffice to say, humans don’t do so well with existentialism. When our MC is pitted against anything other than another person with an opposing agenda, we risk tanking the conflict.

Bad Situations are NOT Conflict

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

Let me repeat. What makes readers turn pages is unresolved conflict. Conflict can only happen when opposing agendas meet.

Kristen’s riffed example:

Fifi, the teenage witch hunter must meet demonically possessed baton twirler at exactly midnight for the critical clue to who/what’s behind the drama nerds going missing.

***See, if the football team was going missing the authorities would care. But Fifi, being a long-time drama nerd and (unfortunately) a brand new witch-hunter knows she must step in to find her friends or no one else will.

This definitely IS a good story problem. Missing friends. Not to mention school administrators would loooove another reason to cut the drama program. It’s a juicy start, but not yet conflict.

For that? Add in *drum roll* MOM.

Mom, who previously worked night shift at the hospital switched THAT morning to day shift, because of her daughter’s strange behaviors and odd injuries. She wants to be there for her daughter, despite the cut in pay.

This means Fifi’s mom will be home, which gives boundless ways for any writer to sadistically torture readers. Mom being home (and NOT working at the hospital) gives a myriad of organic setbacks to generate high tension as Fifi desperately tries to sneak out to meet possessed baton twirler.

The clock ticks ever closer to midnight as Mom overcompensates to assuage her guilt for being previously absentee.

Pumpkin! I hear you’re awake. Hard time sleeping? Hold on! I’ll bring you up some hot milk like I used to.

Is mom BAD for switching to day shift? Is she a villain for not wanting her barely-legal-to-drive teen to leave the house at 11:30 P.M. on a school night (or ANY night)?

No their goals simply conflict.

Conflict is NOT Inherently BAD

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

Fifi’s goal is to meet possessed baton twirler to find missing drama nerds and stop the evil force (a noble goal). Mom’s goal is to be a good mom (again, a noble goal).

It is still, however, CONFLICT.

Notice how the external conflict (problems) only exacerbate internal conflict. Fifi is trying to shield her mother from vastly dangerous supernatural forces. Mom is intent on protecting her daughter and making up for being a ‘bad’ mother by being a vigilant mother.

Yet…

As tensions mount, secrets, baggage, and benevolent lies pile up like old rags soaked in ‘oil’ (guilt, remorse, anger) waiting to inevitably go BOOM.

This is why other characters with conflicting agendas are GOLD.

If all that is keeping Fifi from meeting the possessed baton twirler is bad weather, a lost set of keys, twisted ankle, a broken down car, these are bad situations not conflict. Bad situations are useful only for the momentary setback, but they lack the same power to inflame the internal conflict.

Can we use bad situations? HECK YEAH…just not at the expense of authentic dramatic tension, which can only be created by antagonists.

Why the Confusion?

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

One reason many emerging writers get confused (I sure did) is that the term ‘antagonist’ is often used interchangeably with ‘villain’ which is bad (or at lease incomplete) teaching. Not all stories have villains but ALL stories must possess a BBT and antagonists throughout. As y’all see with my Fifi example, Mom is an antagonist, but hardly a villain.

Antagonists are like ice cream, and ‘villains’ are like double-fudge ice cream. While all double-fudge ice cream IS ice cream, not all ice cream is double-fudge 😉 .

Do We NEED a Villain?

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

Yes and no. If your character is up against something existential, that existential thing should be pretty BAD (death, disease, poverty, alcoholism, racism, abuse, etc.). Problem is, these ‘concepts’ need to be represented via a proxy which may or may NOT be a villain.

I know, a brain-bender but work with me. Breathe.

I like to use the example of Steel Magnolias which does have a villain—DISEASE/DEATH. Ah, but the ‘Villain’ BBT is represented via proxy by the daughter Shelby.

Shelby has life-threatening diabetes. She tries to adopt but fails and longs to be a mother. Her decision to get pregnant knowing it very well could cost her life creates the core story problem (making SHELBY the BBT).

M’Lynn is the dutiful mother who’s there to take care of everything and everyone. Her goal is to outlive her daughter, to protect her. To give her very life if need be to save her daughter.

In this situation, however? She can’t. She has no control (which is her problem. btw).

Shelby’s desire to be a mother conflicts with M’Lynn’s desire for her daughter to outlive her and to live a long and happy life.

BUT this decision is critical for M’Lynn for grow, to evolve from being a control freak, and embrace all of life—even the ugly parts—to get to the truly good parts (I.e. the grandson Jackson).

Many Faces of NOPE

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, antagonist, villains, generating conflict in fiction, conflict, dramatic tension, how to sell more books, writing great fiction, how to write great stories, novel structure

All stories must have a BBT that creates the core story in need of being resolved. Once we have defined this core story problem, casting becomes simpler. Ideally, we want to cast an MC who’d rather crawl across razor-wire than confront the story problem. But what is on the OTHER side outweighs the fear (most of the time).

Then we can layer in love interests, allies, threshold guardians, minions and all the BBT has to throw at the MC on every single page. Yes, it CAN be done and I will blog more on how. For more about that now? Buy a copy of HOOKED by Les Edgerton. He’s my mentor and one of the toughest yet finest writing teachers ever.

Anyway, this colorful cast of antagonists (friend and foe) and all their baggage is what will keep readers riveted to their seats wanting to know HOW IT ALL ENDS! By crafting organic opposition onto every page (every line), this is how we steadily wind tension tighter and tighter until it’s almost ready to snap nerves.

Readers will be begging for release. Hey, it isn’t called the climax for nothing *rolls eyes* . Alas, now that y’all grasp what I mean by conflict, we can now proceed to the next layer of learning next post.

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my 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 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 15th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. This class is for in-depth training on how to balance all types of antagonists for maximum impact.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Has the term antagonist confused you too? Heck, it sure confused me. Same with conflict. I need more conflict? Okay, I can put in a car chase. Kinda weird for a chick-lit, but alrighty! I do love hearing from you. Where you struggle, because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

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

By the way, yes I also offer classes. I want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales. Alas, we still should learn the business of our business so I hope y’all will check out the classes below.

Business of the Writing Business: Ready to ROAR!

Instructor: Kristen Lamb

Price: $55.00 USD

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

When: Thursday, February 15, 2018, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

Being a professional author entails much more than simply writing books. Many emerging authors believe all we need is a completed novel and an agent/readers will come.

There’s a lot more that goes into the writing business…but not nearly as much as some might want us to believe. There’s a fine balance between being educated about business and killing ourselves with so much we do everything but WRITE MORE BOOKS.

This class is to prepare you for the reality of Digital Age Publishing and help you build a foundation that can withstand major upheavals. Beyond the ‘final draft’ what then? What should we be doing while writing the novel?

We are in the Wilderness of Publishing and predators abound. Knowledge is power. We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate. This is to prepare you for success, to help you understand a gamble from a grift a deal from a dud. We will discuss:

  • The Product
  • Agents/Editors
  • Types of Publishing
  • Platform and Brand
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Making Money
  • Where Writers REALLY Need to Focus

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

Self-Publishing for Professionals: Amateur Hour is OVER

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $99.00 USD

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

When: Friday, February 16, 2018, 7:00-10:00 p.m. EST

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to go KDP Select or wide distribution with Smashwords as a distributor? Are you going to use the KDP/CreateSpace ISBN’s or purchase your own package? What BISAC codes have you chosen? What keywords are you going to use to get into your target categories? Who’s your competition, and how are you positioned against them?

Okay, hold on. Breathe. Slow down. I didn’t mean to induce a panic attack. I’m actually here to help.

Beyond just uploading a book to Amazon, there are a lot of tricks of the trade that can help us build our brand, keep our books on the algorithmic radar, and find the readers who will go the distance with us. If getting our books up on Amazon and CreateSpace is ‘Self-Publishing 101,’ then this class is the ‘Self-Publishing senior seminar’ that will help you turn your books into a business and your writing into a long-term career.

Topics include:

  • Competitive research (because publishing is about as friendly as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones)
  • Distribution decisions (because there’s actually a choice!)
  • Copyright, ISBN’s, intellectual property, and what it actually all means for writers
  • Algorithm magic: keywords, BISAC codes, and meta descriptions made easy
  • Finding the reader (beyond trusting Amazon to deliver them)
  • Demystifying the USA Today and NYT bestselling author titles
  • How to run yourself like a business even when you hate business and can’t math (I can’t math either, so it’s cool)

Yes, this is going to be a 3-hour class because there is SO much to cover…but, like L’Oréal says, you’re worth it! Also, a recording of this class is also included with purchase.

The class includes a workbook that will guide you through everything we talk about from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution, and much, much more!

Time is MONEY, and your time is valuable so this will help you make every moment count…so you can go back to writing GREAT BOOKS.

DOUBLE-TROUBLE BUSINESS BUNDLE

BOTH classes for $129 (Save $25). This bundle is FIVE hours of professional training, plus the recordings, plus Cait’s workbook to guide you through everything from how to do competitive research to tracking ISBNs and distribution and more.

Lately we’ve been talking a lot about what differentiates the decent stories from the ones that gut hook us and don’t let go. In my opinion the truly superlative stories stand out in one way. We are not only entertained…we are changed. We aren’t the same person we were when we flipped open to page one and decided to give the story a go.

By the end, through characters, trials, challenges, heartbreak, ruin and victory we are forever a different person. The story generates a chemical change, rendering us a cake that can’t be unbaked.

Great stories (and the authors who pen them) serve us fresh insight into ourselves and others, a different perspective on the world around us. They might reveal a darkness we never noticed or were to afraid to face or offer hope we didn’t know we could have.

Most vital of all, these stories provide perspective we could gain no other way.

Fiction is the only way we can step into the shoes of a broken, pathetic alcoholic (Girl on a Train), an aging heavy metal rock star burdened by false guilt who never truly escaped the sadistic father who turned his childhood into a hell (Heart-Shaped Box).

We can know what it is to feel like life is no longer worth living once we’ve outlived our usefulness even if we are young (A Man Called Ove). We can experience the gross injustice and humiliation of being a black maid in the American South during the 60s (The Help) no matter what color our skin.

Regardless of race, faith, gender, or background, stories allow us into a perspective to experience life, to encounter our own wounds (wounds common across all of humanity) from a different vantage point. We come to appreciate how seeing our pain worked out through another gives us the psychic distance necessary for us recognize then heal the pain that in real life we can’t yet touch…without screaming.

The Battle of Logic & Emotion

I find it interesting that scientists really don’t have a definitive reason WHY we dream. Is is the brain defragging? The subconscious mind revealing what we can’t see when we’re awake because the left brain rushes in with a logical explanation?

When left brain gets a vote, it’s all too easy to miss the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He wasn’t being mean. It was a joke. He’s right. I don’t have a very good sense of humor.

But fiction? Fiction is emotion. Fiction is primal and hooked directly into the right brain. Dreams are not ruled by logic, but they are extremely limited in what they can do once we’re up and have had our coffee. But, there’s another way…STORY.

Yet how do so many of us tackle our demons?

If you’re like me, you read self-help books about self-esteem, boundaries, forgiveness and healing and while these books can offer a lot of great information, (in my POV) they’re talking to the wrong side of the brain.

We can read all the self-help books about forgiveness, but what happens when we come face to face with our betrayers? When we have to be in the same room with flesh-and-blood villains who have zero remorse over the ruin left in the wake of their actions? The liars, pillagers, and plunderers we once supported, loved and trusted…who knifed us in the back and never shed a tear after leaving us like this.

I can tell you what happens when we face these folks.

We’re calm and composed and easily recall the breathing exercises, meditation, and self-affirmations spoken into a mirror. We stare into our betrayer’s face knowing we’re a better person who’s done a lot of therapy and exercises. We even composed long letters of how this person hurt us, burned the letters and let the embers fly away on zephyrs delivering our pain into the sky and to the unicorns.

And everything is okay because we know hurting people hurt people….and….

%$#& THAT $#!%!

Reptile brain rises up like a hidden viper threatening to sink its fangs into left brain’s soft gray matter if is says one frigging reasonable word.

While left brain is the calm, enlightened negotiator, reptile brain is Old Testament and Old School and believes an eye for an eye. Right brain is raw emotion and the one who’s closest to the reptile (brain) inside all of us.

What happens next in such a confrontation can be placed anywhere on a large continuum from getting in a shouting match spewing venomous words to ending up on an episode of Dateline.

Right brain is creative, thus good at hiding bodies.

Why Fiction?

Yes, self-help books and therapy, etc. have a place, but I don’t think they’re nearly as well-suited for healing wounds as story is. Why is that?

Because we cannot heal emotional wounds with logical poultices.

It’s like trying to halt a runaway MRSA infection with anti-depressants. Infection is virus and it needs something anti-viral, equipped to surround and dismantle the invasion.

Same thing goes for psychic wounds.

The wounds created BY emotion (betrayal, abandonment, exploitation, abuse) can only be healed WITH emotion. Inner demons and wounds are by nature emotional, thus in the realm of the right brain (and limbic brain). This means the right brain is far better suited (perhaps even DESIGNED) to stop the “infection” and heal the damage.

When we read fiction and vicariously experience our hurts, failures, disappointments, betrayals through another set of eyes, it’s a way of facing our villains in life. We get a place to feel these emotions, but better still? Story shows us it is possible to come through the fire not only healed, but stronger and better.

By reading all kinds of stories with characters battling a vast variety of problems, we can experience far greater empathy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It’s also far more effective than coldly analyzing our baggage on a flow chart.

Mending the Broken 

For me, my greatest AH-HA moments have come from fiction. Stories have allowed me another way of looking at myself and my pain.

The most recent example of this came from Heart-Shaped Box. Sure it’s a horror, the story of a vengeful ghost hot on the tail of an aging rock star. Yet, oddly enough, this story changed my perception of myself more than a stack of self-help books and years of well-meaning therapists ever did.

Fifty-four-year-old rock star (Judas Coin) is on the run from a vengeful spirit with his goth girlfriend (Georgia) who’s half his age. I could relate to Georgia, though our backstory is different.

She believes she’s damaged goods, worth nothing and grateful for the crumbs that fall from the table. She’s had a hard life filled with exploitation, pain, failure and shame and, as a result, chooses men she knows will hurt her because suffering is what she deserves.

The Lightning Strike

Judas and Georgia have a conversation at a Denny’s during a brief reprieve from the ghost who’s hunting them and end up on the topic of kids. She says she’s never had kids because she’s too afraid they’ll find out about her. Judas asks what exactly her kids would find out. This next bit is some of the most powerful dialogue I’ve ever read.

Georgia: “That I dropped out of high school. That when I was thirteen I let a guy turn me into a prostitute. The only job I was ever good at involved taking my clothes off to Mötley Crüe for a room full of drunks. I tried to kill myself. I been arrested three times. I stole money from my grandma and made her cry. I didn’t brush my teeth for about two years. Am I missing anything?”

Judas: “So this is what your kid would find out: No matter what bad thing happens to me, I can call my mother, because she’s been through it all. No matter what shi##y thing happens to me, I can survive it because my mom’s been through worse, and she made it.”  ~ Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (page 171).

I remember this part of the novel hitting me like a bolt from the sky and I burst out crying, the moment of catharsis so raw and visceral. I once was Georgia (maybe a part always will be). Because of my life experiences, I too believed I was damaged goods.

Because I empathized with Georgia (similar demons) I could vicariously experience her breakthrough, that WOW moment when Judas completely reframes what she’s just said. She isn’t “damaged goods” at all. Rather, she’s like furniture that’s been battered and scratched that collectors pay big bucks for because it’s “distressed” and thus more interesting and far more valuable because of its damage and scars.

I’m sure a zillion well-meaning friends or shrinks told me the same thing. Probably read similar notions off faded Post-Its on the bathroom mirror, so why didn’t the happy, happy mantras stick? Why didn’t these affirmations melt me, undo me and remake me?

It’s because that left-brain approach is too sterile, and it doesn’t shove us face first into what we need to face. Fiction, on the other hand is ugly and dirty and raw. It provides intimacy and slams that psychic distance tight (while we still are technically “safe”).

Real fiction, the good stuff, reveals that the worthless “damaged goods” in truth, are valuable and maybe even priceless. The story shows the protagonist his or her worldview, their perception of themselves is faulty and through the crucible remolds the protagonist into what we call a hero. This is why I challenge all of you to be fearless in your stories, because if you can be fearless? So can your readers and they will love you for it.

What are your thoughts? I like good self-help books and therapy is important and often vital. But fiction really has a way of grabbing me by the scruff and shaking me. Have you ever read a book that completely revealed something about your own wounds? That helped you? Gave you insight? Helped you heal?

I believe all genres have the ability to give us tremendous healing and hope y’all will check out my Speculative Fiction Class where we are going to bore into the grit and heart of the dark stuff.

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, 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).

July’s winner will be listed next week.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below (including writing layered characters and strong females) and sign up!

Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

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dad

Okay, yesterday I shared the tragic story of my father’s passing to give to an idea of what it means to “Write what you ‘know'” and today we’ll continue, but it’ll be a bit different. We’re going to talk about character change.

My dad was a HOOT. Both of us were always like kids. One time we both bought Christmas gifts for each other. Any year the anticipation would have KILLED us and we would have totally spilled the beans early, but this time we waited until Christmas morning to “unveil the PERFECT gift”—only to realize we both bought each other the same things; a Klingon dictionary and a tape to teach you how to speak Klingon.

My dad was always a little unconventional. Other little girls grew up wanting to be models or ballerinas. I wanted to grow up to be a ballerina-Navy SEAL. My father (former Navy Intelligence) used to tote me from ballet lessons to Karate (back in the days when girls were NOT in Karate), and I was one of the first girls to fight competitively (when it was ALL boys).

Dad taught me to shoot when I was eight and how to sharpen knives properly by the time I was ten. He bought me an SAS Survival guide for my birthday in high school. To train me to be better with my feet (a tad too much ballet and not enough power) he hung a canvas sea bag for me to practice.

I recall when I made a certain belt, I had to learn how to use a weapon and I chose the long staff since it was the most practical (and one of the few not illegal, LOL).

So Dad is in the yard training me for my test with the long-staff. He says, “Okay, on the count of three…” then whacks the holy $%#@%^&*&%$# out of my shins. As I am curled on the ground in pain, he hovers over me, grinning and says, “Fights in the real world don’t give you a count of three.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

In later years I went to a ritzy private college (was one of the few poor kids allowed in under the fence) and while other girls were in sororities, I was teaching Ju-Jitsu. In fact, I was one of the first instructors of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, commonly known as Gracie Ground-Fighting. Doesn’t matter how big you are. Get a fight on the ground and know what you’re doing and the other dude is toast.

My Dad gave me an extreme sense of sticking up for others. I remember one day I was in between teaching classes and our dojo was located in front of a major traffic light. I’d taken off my belt to rest and stepped outside when I noticed this guy beating the holy hell out of his petite girlfriend in his truck. Without thinking (and barefoot) I go flying into the road and dare the guy to hit ME.

“Come on! You like hitting little girls? Hit me. I’ll even give you the first swing.” I probably would have dragged the guy out of his truck but the light turned green and the coward took off.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Anamorphic Mike.

Since teaching Ju-Jitsu didn’t pay the best, I also worked selling newspaper subscriptions and often was out in apartment complexes after dark (gets dark early in winter). I had some drunk try to mug me for my briefcase, which made no sense because the only things in there were paperwork and my expensive retainer, which was useless for pawning.

*rolls eyes*

He came up behind me in an arm-bar choke hold, but what he didn’t know is there is a nerve in the forearm, that if you crank down on it? Is VERY painful and will make most people release. I then beat the bejeezus out of him with the very briefcase he was trying to steal.

And y’all thought I was so sweet and delicate :D.

I mountain-biked before it was cool. I rock-climbed, went bouldering, jumped out of planes, and ran rapids. To my knowledge, I was the 46th person in the state of Texas to have a Concealed Handgun License. I only got one because I went camping almost every weekend. I lived life like a Mountain Dew commercial, largely because of my dad. I wonder to this day if he realized he had cancer and was trying to teach me to make the most of every moment.

But back to the bigger story…

I believe abusive people are often attracted to the strong to see if they can dominate them and break them. By the time of my father’s passing, my Evil Ex had changed me into a person I didn’t recognize. Through years of mental abuse, I no longer had an opinion or chose my own clothes. I didn’t visit family or friends because it wasn’t worth the verbal beating. I no longer camped or rode trails on my mountain bike because he “didn’t like outdoors stuff.”

I literally lived with the guy from Sleeping with the Enemy. He had labels in the pantry and all cans had to be facing forward and behind the “proper” label. He’d insist I vacuum all the floors then use a carpet rake to make all the lines go the same direction. He loved to play racquetball, namely so he could spend an hour laughing as he used me as target practice (then tell me I had no sense of humor, that he was just “playing”).

Never mind all the bruises.

Trust me when I say Evil-Ex was NOT this way before I accepted the marriage proposal. He was an ideal boyfriend and seemed he’d be an ideal husband. My family loved him (Dad hated him).

When it comes to abuse, it’s a lot like the story of the frog. Toss a frog in boiling water and it will jump out. Yet, set the sucker in cool water and turn up the heat slowly? The frog will boil to death without realizing it’s in danger.

So after Dad passed away, something of my former self ignited. Within a couple months, I began to ignore Evil-Ex’s antics. No insult worked. I wore what I wanted and grew my hair long. I even bought a gorgeous citrine ring (because Dad’s favorite color was yellow). When Evil-Ex had nasty comments about the ring, I replied, “You don’t have to like it. You aren’t wearing it.”

All along I was funneling money and plotting my escape and Evil-Ex began to notice the verbal assaults were being ignored. About a month before I left for good, he was yelling at me over something and must have noticed it was no longer having an impact.

He raised his hand to hit me and I replied in a low voice, “Go ahead. Hit me. But you better pray to God you knock me out long enough to start a new life somewhere else. I know a thousand ways to kill you and get away with it.”

I didn’t, but must have been very convincing.

I left and never looked back, but this “story of my life” reveals something about character arc. Yes, Kristen in the beginning was somewhat of a bad@$$, but obviously something was lacking. I grew up very poor, so when a wealthy man from high society showed interest, I ignored the warning signs. Deep down, I believed he was better than me…and that was the opening. I had to be tested by fire to grow into a person who believed in herself, who accepted she wasn’t “girlie” and that was okay.

This is my BOOM-STICK!
This is my BOOM-STICK!

I had to learn that money was meaningless. Yes, I lived in a big house and rode around in a Mercedes and took lavish trips, but I was miserable and hurting and NO MONEY, NO RITZY LIFE was worth the price. I had to become a person who was willing to live in poverty if it meant being happy. I had to learn what “security” really meant and I can tell you from experience it ain’t always a bank account.

Now, I can bemoan the experience, but it was VERY valuable. Not only did I grow as a person, but this time prepared me to become a writer. When Dad died, he never realized his dream. I had the same dream and was willing to do anything to fulfill it. There were many years I lived on Ramen and saltines and worried that the lights might get turned off. I wore clothes I rescued from Dumpsters. Nothing would stop me from becoming a writer.

So when you hear “Write what you know” harvest those emotions, but also pay attention to your personal journeys. What changed? What was missing initially that the “journey” provided. I am much the same person I was before Evil-Ex, but that critical flaw is now gone (probably replaced with New & IMPROVED ones, LOL).

What about your journey? Have you been through something difficult and when you look back, you SEE how you changed? And changed for the better? I want to hear YOUR stories!

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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Announcements: I LIED. I will announce September’s contest winner TOMORROW. Yes, Kristen IS human. Forgot today was Dad’s birthday and not altogether “there.” Sorry. Great ploy to get y’all back :D.

Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde."
Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.”

To give characters depth, we have to be people-watchers. Study people. Know thyself. I strongly recommend reading books on psychology as part of research. For instance, I read a lot of FBI books on profiling.

As writers, characters need some amount of consistency without being predictable. If there is some deviation from the profile, there must be a good reason WHY, other than we need a character to act a certain way to move our story forward.

For instance, the shy librarian who rescues spiders cannot suddenly gouge out the eyes of a guy mugging her unless we can offer a reasonable explanation for this deviation from archetype. I.e. She could have been raped and left for dead as a teenager. Yes, she remained shy and soft-spoken and true to her character…until circumstances brought out that wounded part who was capable of going for the eyes.

Today I will focus mainly on the protagonist, but you simply reverse this for the antagonist.

Every Strength has a Weakness

One key factor we must appreciate is that every strength has a flaw. A loyal person is noble, but they are also often naive. A strong leader gets the job done, but often is a control-freak who fails to rely on a team and sucks at delegating. A tender-hearted person is kind, loving, but often used.

Part of creating conflict is to place the character in situations where the strength becomes a fatal flaw. The character’s arc is to learn to address this flaw and change.

In my current novel, the character is bubbly, likable and loyal. She is also naive and that is why she’s initially taken advantage of and used to take the fall for a massive Enron-like scheme.

Often, the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. What the character believes about her world and those around her evaporates. The plot problem serves to bring the protagonist back into balance, but as a better, New and Improved version.

We all want homeostasis. We want our old life back, but often that old life wasn’t good for us. THIS is what your plot will reveal to your protagonist.

In Legally Blonde Elle Woods must learn to see people for who they really are. She is naive, but underestimated (she even underestimates herself). People assume she is a dumb Pollyanna, but they miscalculate that Elle will be tested by fire and change. They assume, wrongly, that being bubbly and sweet=stupid.

THAT is the flaw that brings the victory. Remember, the antagonist who took advantage of the initial weakness is counting on the character failing to learn and grow, and this will be their ultimate undoing.

Gracie Hart "Miss Congeniality"
Gracie Hart “Miss Congeniality”

In Miss Congeniality, undercover Gracie Hart is a tough hard-@$$ who is such a control freak she cannot rely on her (very capable) team. This costs them a major bust at the beginning of the movie and lands her in her version of hell–going undercover as the very type of woman she despises.

Gracie suffers personal extinction. She cannot be the belching woman in comfortable shoes who arm-wrestles for who’s going to buy the next round of beers.

She has to face her scary place—her femininity and being vulnerable. She also has to learn to rely on others for help and it is the story problem—being thrust into a world of girly-girls—that makes her evolve as a human being. The very women she initially despised ironically hold the keys to her personal growth and thus her ultimate victory.

She loses nothing of the take-charge bad@$$ that makes her who she is, but it’s a far better version…in heels. Again, the opposition underestimates Gracie’s ability to face her demons and change.

Agent Gracie Hart, NEW AND IMPROVED
Agent Gracie Hart, NEW AND IMPROVED

In Lord of the Rings the Hobbits are naive, sheltered and childlike. We see this early on when Merry and Pippin break in to hijack some of Gandalf’s fireworks. The discovery of the Ring of Power is what creates the personal extinction—getting out into the scary world full of bad stuff that lies beyond the Shire.

There is almost an unspoken societal rule. Hobbits don’t LEAVE the Shire. They stay in Happy Hobbit Land and believe the bad will stay away.

Problem is, in order to destroy the Ring of Power, the Hobbits have to grow up. They can’t light fires for a midnight snack when dark undead kings are after their heads. The very characteristics that make them the most immune to the influence of the Ring—their good hearts, their childlike ways, their innocence—must be tempered and eventually sacrificed for the good of all.

My favorite scene (and I cry every time) is at the end of Return of the King. The same Hobbits from the beginning are back in having a pint, but rather than dancing and singing like all the other Hobbits, they huddle at a table and no longer speak. They left The Shire as boys and have returned war-weary men who gave up their innocence so the world would be saved.

Innocence lost to save the world.
Innocence lost to save the world.

It is Sauron’s gross underestimation of the Hobbits that is is ultimate undoing. He fails to ever even see them as a viable threat. Yet, had the Hobbits NOT been able to rise above their natures, they would have all died in Book (Movie ) ONE. It’s their ability to grow up and lose their innocence that saves the world.

Thus, when looking at your characters, look to what their best qualities are…then what are the dark sides of those traits? The inciting incident obliterates what the person believes about who they are.

What is the other side of the personality trait? How can you harness this to put your protagonist into tough spots that goes against their nature and forces change? Who can you pair that character with to create the most friction?

In Miss Congeniality she is no longer in charge and gets waxed, tweezed and forced to walk in heels. She’s shoved out of her comfort zone and she resists with all she has because she wants things to go back to the way they were. BUT, if the protagonist regresses, the story problem will not be solved. Bad guys win.

TOO PERFECT CHARACTERS ARE BORING.

Always remember that bad decisions are the beating heart of great fiction.

What are your thoughts? I try to use a blend of movies and books because it’s easier for more people to get the references, but what are your favorite instances of character arc? What do you struggle with?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

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

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 9.29.21 AM
Image via Flikr Creative Commons, contributed by Ano Lobb.

I think it’s fair to say that writing a novel is no easy task. There is a lot to balance at the same time—narrative, setting, dialogue, POV, plot points, turning points, scenes, sequels, character arc, etc. It can be very challenging for even the best of us. Yet, I believe the hardest part of writing fiction is that, for most of us who aren’t crazy, conflict is something we avoid at all costs during our daily lives.

In fiction? We must go for the guts.

Today, I’d like to offer you a simple way to make your stories and characters three-dimensional and grab hold of great fiction’s throbbing heart. I learned this from the fabulous Les Edgerton who cornered me with this same question:

What is your character’s true story problem?

I gave Les a rundown of my carefully researched mystery thriller and he pressed again.

That’s surface, Kristen. What is the real story problem?

Fortunately, I was able to answer the question. Aside from the embezzlement, fraud, gun-running and drug-dealing, my character’s problem is she longs to be accepted, yet doesn’t fit in anywhere.

She began as small town trailer trash and ran away from home to go to college and pursue a better life. She naively assumed a fancy college degree would be her keys to acceptance, her ticket to become part of the high-class society she’d always envied. Yet, once she “made it” she found herself worse off than before. No matter how hard she worked, she was still, in the eyes of high society, gold-digging trailer trash who didn’t know her place.

In one world (home) she’s regarded as an uppity b!#$@ too good to be blue-collar working class. Yet, once part of “society” her problem was just as bad. The rich assume she must have slept her way into her high-paying job and that her sole goal is to marry money. She soon finds she’s regarded with equal disdain.

The story problem (the mystery) is only there to answer my protagonist’s deep, driving personal questions: Where do I fit in? Why do I need to fit in? Who am I?

The plot problem—a major embezzlement (Enron-style) leaves her penniless and blackballed and she has to go home to the trailer park she thought she’d left for good. This is where the story begins.

Now she is forced back into the lion’s den of her soul. Now she is torn between worlds. To solve the mystery and find the missing money (and a murderer killing to keep the secret) she must take on the wealthy and powerful. But in order to succeed, she must rely on a crazy-dysfunctional family who resents her and feels betrayed and judged.

Eventually, the plot will force her to face her greatest weakness—the need to be accepted—and she will have to make the tough choices.

If we look to all the great stories, the questions are bigger than the story. Minority Report has all kinds of cool technology, but the big question is, “Are we predestined, bound by FATE, or do humans possess free will?” In The Joy Luck Club the question is, “Can generational curses be broken?” In Winter’s Bone “Is blood really thicker than water?” In Mystic River “What is the nature of good and evil? Are people really who they appear to be?”

Thus, I challenge you to pan back from your story and ask What is the BIG question here? What is my character REALLY after? What will my story problem CHANGE about this character? What will it answer? 

As you guys know, I run a regular contest for free edit of sample pages. One of the biggest issues I see in new writing is it is very surface (Hey, I’ve been there, too. It’s all part of the learning curve ;)). Yet, to take that writing to the next level, we have to dig into the dark and dirty places. I actually have a sticky note on my computer that reads GO FOR THE GUTS. 

Every scene, every bit of dialogue must be uncomfortable. Fiction is the opposite of our human nature. Human nature is to avoid conflict at all costs. To write fiction? We must dive into the Miserable Messy head-first. Create problems at every turn (not mere “bad situations” but conflict).

Conflict turns pages. We have to be careful that our dialogue isn’t so busy being clever that it loses it’s teeth. Pretty description and scene-setting doesn’t turn pages and hook readers. CONFLICT does. Humans have a need to avoid conflict, but when we are faced with it? We want it resolved. THAT is why readers will turn pages. We make them shift in their seats and squirm and seek resolution.

What are your thoughts? What movies can you think of that have amazing BIG questions? Do you find that you have to revise places you are being “too nice?”

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

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

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!