Monday, January 31, 2011

Character Arc and Theme

I’m currently reading Stan William’s The Moral Premise on my new Kindle (Phil’s Christmas present to me.) It’s a book that was recommended by veteran literary agent Natasha Kern at the 2009 RWA conference, and thanks to Kindle, finally accessible to me in New Zealand at an affordable price. (I’ve already blogged on the ridiculous price of books here in New Zealand.)

The Moral Premise is about the core of every book: its theme. Actually, Williams says the Moral Premise goes beyond theme to the message the writer wants the reader to carry away with them about how the universe works. I’m only a third of the way through the book, so I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of William’s ideas. But, as I plot out my new novel, it seems to have come into my hands at just the right moment.

When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.

Williams is writing for filmscript writers, but his work, he assures us, is equally applicable to novelists. He has a totally different approach to planning your book. According to Williams, the first thing a writer needs to think about is what message he/she wants the audience to come away with in the end.

Every scene, then, becomes one more piece of evidence that draws the audience to the author’s inevitable conclusion. I’m not talking just about mysteries, and their ilk. According to Williams, the same process works for every genre.

Take the movie, Titanic. Its message is “True love frees you to be yourself.” When we first see Rose, she is being forced into a marriage she deplores in order to save the family fortune. But beyond that, she is forced to live by a code that is uncomfortable and restricting. We see the effect on her when she almost commits suicide and realize solving this problem is a matter of life and death. (Evidence No. 1). When Jack comes along and shows her a new way of life, she throws herself into it. Her dancing on the table – on her toes in bare feet – shows us she is ready for that life. (Evidence No. 2) But there’s also other bits of evidence thrown in – the art pieces in the cabin, which are the early works of then unknown but now great artists. It shows us that she can see and appreciate things her rich peers can’t. (Evidence 3.) And so on. By the end, she is so changed that when the survivors are picked up by the rescue ship, she chooses to stay on the lower deck among the lower class passengers, rather than take advantage of the comforts she could enjoy if she admitted to others who she is (one of the final pieces of evidence.) And the final pan across the photos in old Rose’s cabin is the last piece of evidence that shows Jack’s love has changed her so much she had the courage to live out her dreams.

Williams says this message has to be universal and credible. Universal means it must appeal to all, no matter what nationality. Well, Titanic came out the year Phil and I went to China to teach English. My students there were as crazy about the movie as young people in the US. Why? Because life-changing love is a universal theme. The idea goes beyond the circumstances of a rich girl and a poor boy on a doomed ship and hits something deep inside of us. Everyone dreams of experiencing that kind of love.

The theme lifts the story beyond its time and place and circumstances and puts it into a plane to which we can all relate.

The “credible” part of the author’s message has to do with how the story is constructed. I haven’t gotten far enough into William’s book to verify this, but it looks like he says this begins with characterization. The characters are the core of your evidence. It is their experience within the book and the internal change they undergo that proves your message.

So character and theme are inexorably linked. In planning Me and the Alpha Jerk, I need to start with considering  
  • what message do I want my readers to come away with,
  • what kind of change(s) are possible to come to that conclusions (there are many possible ones, which is why there can be so many novels about the same theme), and
  • what kind of characters would/could undergo that kind of change?
A couple of weeks ago, when I blogged on "Tips for Developing a Character Arc", one of the first points I suggested defining was the character’s mistaken or faulty world view. As I think about theme, I see that the mistaken world view needs to somehow be linked to the theme. This is the character’s starting point. But unless the character starts from a point that can lead them to the conclusion I want, the story isn’t going to have what Williams calls credibility.

So I’m back to looking at the character arc with fresh eyes and seeing how it relates to a theme.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

More Thoughts on Developing a Character Arc

Last week I blogged on my method for developing a character arc. This method, by the way, works for any genre of fiction, not just romance. Just eliminate one of the character columns. The big difference is that in any other genre of fiction, the character arc centers around the internal issue that keeps the character from achieving her/his goal. In a romance, having a happily ever after ending with the love interest IS the goal. In a well-crafted romance, the same issue that keeps the characters apart, also keeps the protagonist from achieving his/her non-romance story goal.

Ari Thatcher commented, “One chart I use asks for the epiphany - what the character needs to realize to deserve their happy ending. I think that equates to your "What causes them to take a chance" but it makes me think about their mental processes rather than something that happens to them.” I like that and will add it to my chart. I think, though, that the moment of epiphany is actually a two-step process. First, some external circumstance or event shakes up the character enough that she/he has to rethink his/her actions or way of doing things. Then the character goes through a mental and emotional process that leads to committing to the new way of doing things.

I’m having my own epiphany, by the way. I’ve been getting a lot of praise from my critique partners on Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty, my YA set on Long Island during the post-McCarthy Era. Their comments were that I’d really hit hard with the emotions of a teen going through the pain of being left out. When I think about it, I was writing from my own pain as a young teen. It wasn’t hard to show Sophie’s pain because I’d been there, done that. That was me sitting outside the guidance counsellor’s door.

What I need to do with Me and the Alpha Jerk is find that same pain (well, a different pain but just as painful). Dig into my teenage years and find it.

Not hard. Being a teenager is like walking around with an open wound.

Not that any of this comes as a big revelation to me. Nor should it to any writer. We’re constantly being told to dig inside ourselves and translate that into our character’s pain.

A marvelous RWA on-line workshop given by TJ Bennet a couple of years ago, titled “The Black Moment” asked the participants to imagine the worst thing that could possible happen to ourselves and describe how we would feel. I did the exercise, but didn’t get much out of it. I now know why. I was answering the wrong question. Because, for me, the worst has already happened. I’ve lived though putting a cherished aunt in a nursing home, being fired, having cancer, learning a boy friend was gay, near bankruptcy, having a beloved parent die just as we were growing close. For me, when I look at the future, I can’t imagine anything worse than what I’ve already experienced. The best is to come…

But I can dig into what I felt then. In fact, my best stories have come from that. So what I need to do with Me and the Alpha Jerk is find the link between Emily and me, and let her live through my pain. 

Getting back to my planning chart, that pain is linked somehow to her Mistaken World View.  Interestingly, the Mistaken World View is a result of pain, but also causes more.  Because it's not the right response.

Lots of opportunities for some good writing here.  And Em is becoming real under my fingertips.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tips for Creating a Character Arc

I’ve been plotting my new novel, “Me and the Alpha Jerk”. It’s a contemporary YA set in Arizona. My main characters are an animal rights activist from the East and a young rodeo cowboy, the son of a rodeo stock contractor.

This is the first time I’ve created something totally from scratch, without having either a legend to build it around, as my Arthurian trilogy, or an incident from real life, as in my dramas produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty. By now I’ve learned quite a bit about novel writing, which includes building the plot around a character arc. I thought I’d share my experiences and what I’ve learned. Hopefully, if you’re struggling with character development, this might give you a few ideas.

Basically, a character arc is the change in the character from the beginning to the end of the novel. Any novel worth its salt has it. Novels, in fact, are about character change. The plot provides the incentive and opportunity to change.

In the past, my stories have been plot driven. I’ve said to myself, “OK, here’s what happens. Now what kind of character would get involved in this kind of situation and how would it cause her/him to change?”

Because the idea for “Me and the Alpha Jerk” came from the title, the book basically started with the characters, not the plot. An alpha male and a woman who can’t stand alpha males. Since I’m experimenting with YA’s, I’ve made them teens.

Now I need a teen alpha male. And not your usual football jock. Well, there’s only one alpha male who’s more alpha than a football jock. A rodeo cowboy. And as I happen to love rodeo, I’ve got the perfect setting, one I know a lot about, even though I’m now here in New Zealand.

But novels are about conflict. I’ve read over and over again that the best way to create conflict between your hero and heroine is to make them exact opposites.

So what kind of woman is likely to hate rodeo cowboys? Ding! An animal rights activist. Make her from the East, so she looks down on “rednecks” from the West. Make her a horse lover, too, but one who does dressage. No, even better, one who does Combined Driving, my favorite sport, something else I know a lot about.

At this point I’ve got two static characters. The thing that gives the plot life is their growth. Now, I could just say, “OK. She changes and sees his point of view and he changes and sees hers.” But that really doesn’t give much depth to the novel.

I’ve taken a number of workshops on plotting, and one of the things that stuck with me is the idea that the character is driven by a belief, a view of the world, that is essentially flawed. In order to be successful, the character has to change that mistaken world view.

I’ve also heard numerous times that romances (ok, this is a romance, what else could it be with a title like that?) work better if the hero and heroine are basically dealing with opposite ends of the same internal conflict.

So what could be driving both my hero and heroine to take the stances they do? Why does one become an animal rights activist and the other a high school rodeo cowboy dreaming of making “Pro”?

How does this keep them apart and how do they need to change if they’re to ever get together as a couple and have the obligatory “happily ever after”?

At this point I started to put together a table with three columns. The left hand colum covered the turning points in the characters’ growth. The other two columns were headed with the hero and heroine’s name. Here are the turning points that I listed in the left column:

  • Original wrong world view
  • How this keeps them apart
  • Beginning – What does it look like when they’re “doing their thing”
  • What happens to force them to do it differently
  • They try the different thing and begin to become confident
  • What’s the reward for doing the different thing?
  • Major setback in doing it differently
  • Go back to doing it the old way (which leads to renewed conflict between the hero and heroine and a sense they’ll never get together)
  • How does this cause them to fail in achieving their non-romance/story goal? (This is the crisis)
  • What causes them to take a chance, and doing it the new way
  • Success (this is the climax)
  • New world view
  • How this allows them to get together (denoument)

As I filled in the two columns, I focused on how each character’s action would cause conflict with the other character, adjusting the action to cause maximum conflict. For example, in the beginning when they’re “doing their thing” I have her outside the rodeo arena, carrying a placard, protesting cruelty to animals. He, of course, as he enters the showgrounds, says something insulting to her. But what if she ups the ante and does something to cause him to lose the event?

I won’t go into how I’ve filled in the boxes, but by the time I was done, I could see what had to happen to make each of my characters change -- events which can be turned into scenes. This doesn’t give me the whole plot, but it gives me an overall arc that I can fill in with the rest of the story. Even better, it gives my story direction. Plus, as the structure of all novels is predictable, it gives readers a sense of where they are in the story as they read through the work.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Writing When There Just Isn't Time

Last winter (well, here in New Zealand June through August is “winter”) was sheer bliss with plenty of time to write. I finished the rewrites to The Black Crown and the first draft of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty, my YA set in a fictionalized version of my home town on Long Island, New York in the mid-fifties. Then I accepted what was supposed to be a contract writing assignment for the school where I used to teach, and the B&B season got off to an early start at the same time.

Well, the principal said the contract writing assignment was one month’s worth of work. It’s turned out to be six. Between that and the B&B, I’ve done little else. Oh, yes, I got a lot of writing done. Four big, fat looseleafs worth of documentation for a new program that school is initiating. But between that and my exhaustion at the end of the day after cooking and cleaning for the B&B guests, it’s been tough to do any writing of my own.

Fortunately, Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty is in the rewrites stage. Rewrites are challenging this time because when I wrote the first draft, I simply wrote whatever came into my head (yes, I did have a plot outline) and refused to let myself go back and revise. As a result, the book was drafted in a record 5 months. But there’s a lot of cleaning up to do.

It’s kind of like painting and papering the house, but not bothering to put away the glue, paint brushes and drop cloths as you move from room to room.

I'm starting work on a new novel now. It’s a contemporary YA tentatively titled Me and the Alpha Jerk. Sort of my rebellion against all these alpha heros you see in all these romances. No pen to paper yet, but a lot of planning. I love and hate this stage. In some ways, it’s the most creative part of what I do, but it takes time.

This does not mean I’m a plotter. What I tend to do is set out the conflict and characterization and a rough idea of where it begins and ends up along with a few major landmarks along the way. The major turning points. How I get to those turning points is pure pantser territory.

Mentally, I don’t consider myself writing until I’m actually filling up pages (or revising them). Yet, when you come right down to it, planning is just as much writing as clicking keys on the keyboard. And that I do all the time, even when my hands are scrubbing the breakfast dishes.

Writing when I’m not writing.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Mistakes Writers of Historicals Make

It’s that time of year when the package arrives in the mail and I’m judging novels for an international contest. The last couple of years I’ve been doing historicals. Waiting for the package to arrive got me reflecting on what I’ve learned from what I’ve judged (and critiqued). While I’ve read quite a few good manuscripts, it’s the ones that fall short that teach me the most.
Here are some of the most common mistakes I’ve noticed. I’ve listed them with the most damaging first.

1) Lack of a plot. In too many of the historicals I’ve read, the main character is like a billiard ball, flying this way and that through the historical events of the novel without any direction of his/her own. Living through an historical event does not make a plot. Let me repeat that. Living through an historical event does not make a plot. Even if the historical is the fictionalized biography of a real person. Plots are built on the premise that the protagonist (and the antagonist) has a goal that is meaningful to him/her (in other words, motivation) and is striving to achieve that goal, no matter what else is happening around him or her. Plots have conflict, which arises from the people, things, events and situations that stand in the way of the protagonist achieving his/her goal. The main character cannot be a mere hanger-on, observing the events of the time or even reacting to them. The main character has got to be going somewhere, achieving something that would still be a plausible goal even if set in a different time period. For example, solving a mystery, winning someone’s love, saving one’s home, healing an internal wound, etc.

2) Cardboard characters. OK, they may be real, historic figures, but they still had personalities and idiosyncrasies that make them different from everyone else. Things get even worse if it’s a whole troop of cardboard characters, and except for the name and maybe the job, the reader can’t tell one from the other. Want to know if you’re creating cardboard characters. Take out the names and substitute “he” or “she”, but not both. Use only one gender, even if it’s a mixed cast. Now read the passage to yourself. Or to someone else. Three dimensional characters bring their personality into their actions and speech patterns. If after a paragraph or two you have no idea who is doing/saying what, you know you’ve got cardboard characters.

3) Villains and saints. This is a variation of the cardboard character theme. Everyone, no matter how heroic or despicable, has a little bad and a little good in them. Find the weaknesses and the strengths in your characters and exploit them. (In The Black Crown, one of the smartest things I ever did was to make Guenevere scared of heights.)

4) Not enough research. If you’re going to set your story in a grist mill, for pete’s sake, find out how one works. What kind of maintenance is required? What can go wrong? How is the miller paid? What’s the hierarchy of jobs and how much flexibility is there for one person doing another’s job (under the guild system, none.) Learn the vocabulary (for example, what does “fair to middling” really mean?)

5) Loading down the story with research. Just because you know it doesn’t mean you have to use it. It’s a novel, not a text book. Historical facts inserted into a story merely for the sake a background grind the plot to a halt. Usually, I find, they pull you right out of the POV character’s heads, as well. All of a sudden, the narrative switches to what I call the “professorial voice”. I’m back in Freshman History. Again.) Add just enough historical detail to make the setting come alive and move the story forward. Add it in tiny drips. If in doubt, leave it out.

6) Imposing your culture on the past. Nothing bothers me more than the scene in Braveheart where Mel Gibson, playing a 13th century Scottish knight (who would have been dressed as other knights, not as a 6th century druid), proclaims his desire for “freedom”. The only people in the 13th century who wanted freedom were serfs, and only those brave enough to consider running away and hiding out for the requisite year and a day. The Scots wanted a Scottish king, not freedom. Ditto Russell Crowe in Robin Hood. The concept of freedom, as a political idea, doesn’t appear until the American Revolution (and then only after the colonials finally came to the conclusion that independence from England was the only way they were going to get their rights as Englishmen). Don’t assume that because it’s important to your culture, it was back then.

7) Characters acting inappropriately for their culture. Most cultures of the past were extremely hierarchical. Even though Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, Sally Hemmings, was half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Mary, she was still a slave and would never have dared act familiarly towards her in public. Even in private, any liberties she took would have been those allowed by Mary, not the other way around.

As you can see, poor story-telling techniques, not historical detail, head my list. No matter how well-researched and accurate an historical novel is, if it lacks the essential elements that make all great books, no matter what genre, it will never find its way past the editor’s slush pile.