Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Making Characters' Lives S*ck

Disclaimer: If you don't like the word "suck" don't read this article. I think I'm going for an all time record of the use of suck.

If I met my main character (in the plot line that is going well) I think she'd zap me through the heart with a purple lightning bolt (she's a mage).

Why is it my favorite plot line? Why would my character go all homicidal?

The answer to both of these questions is the same. Because her life sucks. I mean *really* sucks. Seriously.

Making life suck for your character is one of the most important elements of the novel. Seriously, who wants to read about Daisies and Rainbows all day? (Okay, besides Environmental Scientists...I totally lost Crystal and Jenny both to that section the other day at Barnes and Nobles...but those books *were* non-fiction :-P)

Plots are important, and your premise is really all you can go into on your query letter--so it needs to be solid in order to get a request for a partial--but the characters are who the reader identifies with. How your characters react to the events you have created in your plot is what propels the story along; and gets your readers to keep turning the pages (and maybe results in a request for a full--or a book deal--or lots of money...okay, backing up now).

I'll admit, this is why my one story line is a bit stagnant. Her life isn't sucking enough. "Push 'em to the edge and then throw rocks at 'em" is a common novel-writer rule. I think it's fun, and a bit maniacal.

Events aren't the only way to make your character's life more difficult. You can also raise the stakes--either the personal stakes or the public stakes--of the events you have already created.

For example:
Your heroine's husband getting caught having an affair sucks.
Your heroine's husband getting caught having an affair with your favorite 18-year-old babysitter really sucks. (Who will watch Timmy?)
Your heroine's husband getting caught having an affair with your favorite 18-year-old babysitter by the board of the country club you were trying to join that would ensure your 3-year-old gets into the best preschool really really sucks. (Who will watch Timmy? How can he get into Yale and make me feel better about myself? How can I go to the store--everyone will be watching me!?)

You know what else would really suck? The president of the board was the baby sitter's father. Timmy can kiss that preschool good-bye. Or what if he was the heroine's boss? Ouch!

Of course, it would also suck if the affair was with your heroine's best friend. Or with your heroine's best friend's husband (that would *really* piss off the country club). Or maybe your heroine's father left her mother with his mistress and her mother was unable to take care of herself and your heroine has all this angst.

And then your heronie can react to all this suckage, pull herself up by the bootstraps and make the reader cheer with her. Don't let her whine too much. Even if her life sucks, the reader doesn't care. They want to see her get out of the suckage.

I think you get the point.

But you probably already knew that. What's important is how can I add more of this to my story! I know where I want my character to get next. I just can't think of any seemingly-sucky-but-everything-will-turn-out-okay-in-a-couple-hundred-pages way of getting there.

I am modifing the snowflake method. Get out 4 sheets of computer paper (or really any paper). Tape them together along the edges to make a big square. About half way up the top two sheets of paper, in the middle, write a sentence about where your character is at now.

Draw a circle around this. For everything that could happen next, draw a line to a point below where you have started and write the sucky event. For an event to come after that, draw another line to a point even further down and write the next incident. If you need foreshadowing in order to make this event even more sucky, draw a line for this make make it go above your initial point. Once you are done, you will have a not-to-scale timeline from the top of the page to the bottom. Connect the dots of your favorite sequence and use this as your plot. You can also draw a line between events that you could connect. So it becomes more of a web than a snowflake. Below I drew an example of what I am talking about. Hubby caught is the starting point.

1 tidbits:

Chandra Rooney said...

Great post!

Robert J Sawyer said once that he goes so far as to make the wind blowing against the character or the light turn red as they reach the crosswalk.

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