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Anyone who has worked with me knows that I take a pretty hard line when it comes to telling in dialogue tags. Examples are:

“I’m so excited!” she said exuberantly.
“That’s wonderful.” Coldness radiated from his voice.

Nothing bums me out more than reading scenework where the writer has decided to take all the fun out of it on the reader’s behalf. Sometimes I call it “hand-holding,” sometimes I call it “overexplaining,” sometimes I just cross it out.

The reason behind my aversion is that writers who do this are taking something essential away from the reader. The star of dialogue is the dialogue itself. Holding the reader’s hand through each snippet of dialogue says to me that you don’t quite trust yourself to communicate the scene in a way that the reader gets it.

Scene is one of the magic places in a manuscript where characters can be on display, speaking to one another, acting toward one another, and otherwise demonstrating themselves and their relationships. It’s the ultimate voyeur’s paradise (calling the reader a voyeur here). Whenever you tell, instead of show, you take away the reader’s power to interpret and appreciate character.

The first example, above, is there because it’s redundant. You would not believe how many writers do this. If a character says “I’m so excited!” then it can stand alone, with no further explanation. I’d be a wealthy woman if I had $5 for every time I saw:

“I’m sorry,” she apologized.
“Yes,” he agreed.

The second example is more subtle. Your character is saying one thing, but there’s an undercurrent of tension and the suggestion that they mean something else. Delicious! Instead of describing tone of voice (sneaky telling), maybe match up the dialogue with action to color it:

“That’s wonderful.” He crossed his arms.

Or, maybe even better yet, leave it up to reader or POV character interpretation:

“That’s wonderful.”
“Oh yeah? You think so?” The last time he’d used that descriptor, he was watching a snake choking the life out of a mongoose.

Let the character react, which will help guide reader feelings. Dialogue tags exist to communicate information. The two biggest things they should clarify are:

  1. Who is speaking?
  2. Is there anything going on in narration or action that’s not implied in the dialogue?

But too many tags tell about emotions, tone of voice, and tension when those are better uncovered by the reader for lasting character and relationship understanding. Next time you’re working on a scene and you want to try something hard, take out ALL of your dialogue tags and see how it reads. If it’s totally confusing, layer back 25% of what you had before and see if you can make it work.

If you’re one of those writers addicted to dialogue tags, especially in scenes with only two characters, where you theoretically don’t even need them, I bet this will be a revelatory reminder that you’re explaining too much.

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Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. In my work with editorial clients, I often see two types of stories. This can extend to the offerings on the shelves. Sometimes there are stories about making fate, and sometimes there are stories about following it. Both are valid and interesting, but there are unique considerations to each.

What is your protagonist setting out to do in the story? Is their future an open book or are they bound by some sort of mechanism to a specific outcome?

In the example of “making fate,” I’d say that your protagonist has something that they absolutely, positively want (objective) and they set out to get it. They are more active throughout, and they drive the events of the story by pursuing whatever it is. They are the tip of the arrow, and the plot follows from them. They will encounter obstacles, certainly, and they will be frustrated in their pursuits, but if I look on the page, I will see someone who is spearheading the story. The character leads the plot, more or less, with usually some wrenches thrown into the mix.

In the example of “following fate,” I’d say you’re writing about a character who may or may not be in charge of dictating where the story is headed. One very common version of this is the “Chosen One” or “prophecy” story style, where the protagonist has something they’re bound to do, whether they like it or not. This is usually sprung upon them at a very inopportune time in their lives, and has dire consequences if they reject the fate or fail at their mission. In this case, the protagonist isn’t as much the leader of their destiny as they are a follower, and in stories like this, the plot leads the character’s development instead of the other way around.

Both story types are valid. But they have a lot to learn from one another. I think that, in the long run, a strong character has more potential than the one that’s simply following orders, training, learning their mission from a dusty piece of parchment or oracle, etc. etc. etc. So when there’s a “Chosen One” plot on my desk, I suggest that the writer find some agency for the character and let them lead certain events, rather than spend the bulk of the plot being groomed by others to fulfill a prophecy.

If you’re worried that this might be describing your plot, here’s a previous post on how to make the character more active, someone who manages to steer, regardless of their circumstances. And take heart, though this story type has the potential to lie flat on the page, and I see it a lot in aspiring manuscripts, two of the most famous heroes in children’s literature have started in this situation. Katniss in The Hunger Games and a little wizard named Harry both had their destinies planned. Katniss was to die as a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and Harry had the double pleasure of first facing the destiny of being forced into an ordinary Muggle life, then being forced into a very extraordinary wizard’s life. While he does end up filling his extraordinary wizard shoes (the prophecy of the Boy Who Lived comes true), he does it in his own way.

While I don’t often see this issue, a “making fate” character can run into trouble as well. When these stories go south, it’s because they can be all personal conflict (internal) without too much plot tension (external), because that decision-making protagonist tends to be the end-all and be-all within a story.

What’s the conclusion to this line of thought? The usual. It’s all about balance. If your plot is driving your character, give your character some moments of choosing her own destiny. If your character is driving your plot, let their relentless drive forward take a few unexpected left turns, courtesy of an enhanced plot.

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This post is a continuation of my previous week’s discussion of stuck emotions. When a character feels inadequate or down on himself, it’s very hard to get a character who cares about themselves or the story. Another alternative to this situation is a character who doesn’t want to be involved in their particular circumstances–they couldn’t care less about taking over the family business, for example–and so they try very hard to convince themselves and the reader that they simply don’t care.

This is very difficult to forge into compelling fiction. After all, I hold that the basic aim of any writer is to make the reader care. So if a character doesn’t care, my first objection is that they’re making it that much more difficult for me, as a reader, to get invested in the story. It feels a little unfair. After all, I’m working so hard to get into the book, suspend disbelief, latch on to a character, inhabit a point of view, hear a voice…that I want the protagonist to be in the same boat. You’re ideally creating someone the reader can get invested in. And if it’s an anti-hero type or someone stewed in apathy, who won’t invest in herself, that’s a tough sell.

It’s realistic, sure. It happens in life, and it’s very full of deep and real emotions. But it’s hard to pull off well. So if your particular writing challenge is creating a compelling character who just so happens to be detached, pent up, hidden behind defenses, or just a straight-up nihilist, you need to crack those walls at some point, and soon. Even if it’s for a minute, even if only the reader can see it because it happens in interiority…some measure of vulnerability needs to happen.

And then, there needs to be something that compels the character to move forward. Whether it’s a very personal motivation, a private objective, a small bit of light at the end of a dark tunnel, whatever, it needs to pull them forward into the story. One thing I won’t do as a reader is suffer through a manuscript where it seems like the protagonist is being dragged along, kicking and screaming. Facets of this idea are discussed in my post on “character buy-in,” which becomes an important concept here. It doesn’t just have to do with suspension of disbelief, it has to do with the character finding their own reason to engage with the story.

Finally, if your character really does care but they say they don’t care, it better not last too long, because ain’t nobody got time for that! Protest less and get into the real telling of the tale!

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Stuck Emotions

It’s been a difficult winter around here. Not just in terms of delving into yet another snowy Minnesota season… I’m speaking mostly about what my clients’ characters are going through. Protagonists in projects this winter seem to all have some common issues with self-worth. I’m reading so many attempts at putting difficult emotions on the page that I wanted to address them in a post. Everybody struggles, and so no protagonist should be spared from some good old-fashioned inner conflict.

As people, we sometimes hate ourselves, criticize ourselves, feel self-doubt, perform acts of self-sabotage. It’s just a part of being human. We are our own worst enemies, etc. As realistic as these feelings are, they should be treated with some caution when we try to translate them to the page.

To illustrate, let me talk for a minute about that person many of us know in life. Their Facebook feed is full of gripes about their injustice of the day. The bank closed early, ugh. The grocery clerk forgot to bag their mustard. Nobody invited them to the picnic. Their Goodreads review was ridiculed. If you know them well enough to be on their call list, it’s likely that you don’t get a word in edgewise as they detail the litany of hurts they’ve overcome…in the last 15 minutes. The point is, nobody likes a complainer. If you haven’t Unfriended them online, you may skip their calls when they come in. It can get to be too much.

One of the biggest reasons is usually that this personality type would rather complain that do anything about the problem. They are inactive in terms of overcoming their issues. If you try to help them with a perfectly reasonable solution, they probably don’t want to hear it. They just want to be heard and for someone to say, “Wow, that sucks.” But they’re stuck, and I personally find that maddening.

So a character who is full of woe or self-loathing or doubt only tends to magnify this dynamic. Fiction is an elevated version of life, where realistic things are elevated into something that can retain a person’s interest, be consumed, and ideally impart some valuable experience or lesson. As such, protagonists can’t be direct downloads of realistic people. They need to have momentum, even if they’re stuck in a rut.

If I see a character who has, for example, intense survivor’s guilt after a car accident, and they keep coming back to the point of “I don’t want to be alive. I wish I was the one who died,” that’s perfectly realistic. But I don’t want to sink four or five hours of my time into that emotional rut. There needs to be some traction and change as the plot moves along. The character needs to acknowledge their emotions, struggle with them, aim to change their situation, fail, struggle, acknowledge their new position, struggle, aim to change, etc. etc. etc. That sort of trajectory, at least, takes the reader on an emotional journey.

This is where stuck emotions and fiction are at odds. People who are stuck are…stuck. Self-loathing doesn’t lift in a week. Addiction doesn’t resolve itself because you meet a cute vampire boy. Inadequacy doesn’t fade after an amazing road trip. So there needs to be some suspension of disbelief to allow plot to act on these difficult emotions. As a result, the emotions are agitated, stretch, or grow, and there’s a level of payoff for both character and reader.

I think this is a really tough time for our culture. Since the economic downturn, kids are entering an uncertain world where they know they’ll face diminished job prospects, outstanding student loan balances, and an economy that’s far from booming. Stuck feelings, angst, and doubt are common. Issues of dreams and identity are more resonant than ever. All of these emotions deserve to be addressed. But just because a character is stuck doesn’t mean the narrative can be. If you’re working with a stuck character, make sure that their emotions still shift and change and grow over the course of the story instead of being bogged down in a rut. Some forward progress and redemption is expected if it’s going to be worth your reader’s investment of time and energy.

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Before I ventured into publishing, I was a Theatre major in college. (Well, I was concurrently an English major, but I thought about theatre before I thought about publishing.) As part of my thoroughly impractical training, I bought and read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was wonderful but, at times, definitely not fun. The historical tragedies were my favorite sleeping pill after a late night performing, you know? And as much fun as it was to be a student of the thea-tah (!), I was simply terrible at it. It wouldn’t be until I started public speaking at conferences that I realized something: I am pretty good at writing and delivering my own material, but when it comes to pretending to be anybody else, with anybody else’s words, I’m pretty hopeless. That didn’t stop me from trying, but that’s another story for another day. But Hamlet was one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare works. And I’ve recently found myself citing the following quote in editorial notes:

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Wikipedia explains the meaning better than I can:

It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive.

When I give this note, it usually goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts on characters in denial, another idea that I cite a lot in my editorial work. I’m also not trying to be sexist, because both male and female characters can “protest too much,” but admittedly it does happen more often with female POV manuscripts, especially when it comes to romance. It can apply to all manner of things where the writer wants the character to stay in disbelief just a liiiiiittle while longer, but the reader is already catching on. But yes, overwhelmingly, this applies to crushes and chemistry.

Writer, please. We have all read enough romantic subplots in fiction to know that the main character and the cute new guy are going to get together at some point. That’s what makes this event so difficult to render believably and genuinely. Because we’re all waiting for it, especially if there’s a girl and a dude on the cover with their lips hovering inches apart. The challenge then becomes acknowledging reader expectation while at the same time giving your character a full experience.

My piece of advice here would be: We know where you’re going, so get there sooner. Don’t rush through the establishing parts of your plot, but don’t also dwell in the time before character buy-in by employing denial. Often, writers put off giving a certain plot component the green light until other parts of the story have caught up. This often happens with romance. They really can’t hook up until chapter seven, but the guy has been around (and brooding) since chapter one because he had to make a grand entrance to hook the reader in the first ten pages. So how do we bridge the gap?

There are two options. The first is to have your protagonist “protest too much” that there’s an attraction:

A limo has been picking me up from school every morning, my locker is stuffed with a new dozen of red roses every day, and Garrett wrote “Will you go out with me? Love, Garrett” in skywriting, but I just don’t know how he feels about me because he’s so popular, and I’m not. Plus, I have way too many freckles for anyone to find me attractive.

I don’t know about you, but I want to take a chainsaw to this particular piece of writing. It’s overly obvious to communicate a point, but even in its subtler incarnations, this type of “protest too much” rhetoric really does sound this fake to me. It’s right there in the Wikipedia definition…this sort of breathless denial manages to sound incredibly insincere, which distances us from the protagonist. We don’t want to know more or guess more about the story than s/he knows (or is willing to admit). And once we do find out something the protagonist doesn’t know, we’re just waiting for him or her to figure it out so we can be in harmony as reader/character once again.

The second option is to allow the character to admit there’s a spark but use internal and external conflict to keep the characters apart…for probably less time than you’re comfortable with. Internal conflict can go like this:

The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to date Garrett. To give in and say “yes.” But I just can’t. He’s new here. He doesn’t yet realize that he’s made a horrible mistake. It’ll be social suicide for him to be seen with me, and he’s just too nice to realize it. For his own good, I need to stay away.

There we’re layering in some self-confidence issues where she ADMITS that there’s an obvious romantic desire between them, but blocks it. Then plot can come into play as well to keep them apart. For example, she can do something really embarrassing at an assembly and this, for her, confirms how “awful” she is. So she distances herself even further.

But if the two characters are hovering around one another with steamy dialogue, nearly kissing the entire time, and then the girl is like, “Nope. He can’t POSSIBLY be into me…” Well, I find that a little hard to swallow. If there are any instances of characters protesting too much in your work, they are probably even more obvious to your potential readers than they are to you. Writers tend to over-explain a lot to make sure readers get it (they do), and especially when it’s something a writer wants to keep hidden, the tendency to deny deny deny is magnified.

If you have a writing group (and you should), and you’re worried about this issue, ask them to read your manuscript with an eye toward what was so glaringly obvious that it was frustrating until you addressed it. That might help you tighten up your work.

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Much like with my post on “the blurt,” I invite you today to consider that characters actively making conscious decisions and taking conscious actions has more power than them acting impulsively, especially in important moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to have a character surprise him or herself with an action, like falling offstage during a monologue or tripping. Calamity happens.

For the more consequential actions, like slapping one’s best friend or driving past one’s house and ending up in, I don’t know, Argentina, though, I would prefer that some more thought goes into it. Here’s why: I fully believe that building anticipation is important to nurturing that connection with the reader. I’m going to get so much more out of the scene if I sort of know what’s coming.

I don’t need to know how it’s going to be executed or what the outcome will be–that’s the fun part where you build your suspense and where the unexpected happens. But I want to have some vague idea of where things might be headed so that I can start getting invested.

Let’s say that Julie has beef with her best friend Chris. They’ve been inseparable since kindergarten but, lately, Chris has been saying really mean things about Julie (often within earshot) to get in with some people who he thinks are cool. That’s part of the picture, but it’s just the situation that these two characters are in. Imagine, now, that Julie goes to see Chris and all we have to work with is the following. I see this sort of thing in a lot of manuscripts:

Julie sat down across from Chris and watched him carefully. “You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Not really.” He chewed his granola bar like he was thinking about it for a minute. “Yeah, no.”
“That’s it, then?”
“What’s it?”
Before Julie could think, her hand flew up and connected with his cheek. She’d never been more hurt in her life. “I can’t believe you!” she hissed. Before she even knew where she was going, she was running out of the cafeteria. Julie had no intention of letting it go that far, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. Great, now Chris and his stupid new friends could have something new to laugh about. All she wanted was some reassurance from her supposed best friend that they were still on track. But he apparently couldn’t see anything wrong with his behavior. Well, if he had no time to be nice to her, she wouldn’t waste hers on him, either!

Why did she slap him? I have no idea, unless the writer had gone through the trouble of establishing context for the action first. And it’s not as gratifying to have her unpack the event after it happens and worry about it, as you can see here. Without that work on objective before the scene, this seems like she’s just flailing around, acting on raw feelings that I don’t have access to. Getting her motivations later just isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Now let’s add some context. Let’s say Julie’s getting peeved that he’d rather sell out their friendship to impress some douchebags rather than maintain something that used to be important to both of them. Not only is he not sticking up for her when the bullies start to crowd around, he’s being outright mean and a bully himself.

So Julie goes over to Chris’s house to clear the air or to get some answers, she doesn’t know which. All she knows is that if he doesn’t apologize, she’s going to break up with him as a friend, even if it’s just for a little while. She’s clear that something needs to change, because she’s really, really hurt.

This is a lot of context and I know what Julie is going into the scene with, objective-wise. She wants clarity on a relationship. And she has thought through some bottom lines, boundaries, and possible outcomes. From all of this, I can tell that this confrontation with Chris means a lot to her, and that she’s really taking it seriously. As a reader, I begin to take it seriously as well.

Once all of these pieces are in place, if Chris continues to be a butt and Julie ends up slapping him in the heat of the moment, I am totally fine with it! It’s an impulsive, unconscious action when it comes down to it, but a whole lot of consciousness went into getting her to that scene.

Let’s try this scene again with some interiority to motivate the slap in the moment, instead of letting it all catch up to her after the fact:

Julie sat down across from Chris in the middle of the busy lunch room. She searched his eyes for a trace of the old Chris, her old best friend. Nothing. If only she could get him to really see her, to remember the old times, then maybe he wouldn’t treat her like crap. “Hi.”
He didn’t really react, not at all like the kid she used to know.
“You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Hmm, let me think about it.” His voice was mocking. He chewed his granola bar. “Yeah, no.”
Julie’s hand tensed into a fist. Twelve years was a long time to be friends, and he was throwing it all away. Well, she wasn’t going to take it. If he wanted a punching bag, he’d have to find someone else! “That’s it, then?” she asked. She pleaded with him, deep down, to just snap out of it.
“That’s it.”
Nothing. The rejection stung all over again. Before Julie knew what crossed her mind, she reached across the table and slapped his smug face.

These are quick examples, dashed off for illustrative purposes, but I want to try and convey here that unmotivated sudden action isn’t nearly as satisfying as something with backstory, sudden or not. Interiority, what the character experiences during the event, is a huge part of this, too. The more we know about what they want and what they’re going through, the more we can follow their conscious and unconscious movements through the story.

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Thank you everyone for your kind words about the wedding pictures. I hope that everyone had a restful and invigorating Thanksgiving celebration with loved ones! Now, unfortunately, it’s time to get back to business. There’s something I touch upon a little in my book that I want to discuss it in more detail: melodrama.

Sometimes I’m cruising along in a story and I encounter melodrama. It can happen in interiority, description, or the overall prose. Here are some examples:

My heart dashed into a million jagged pieces as thoughts of betrayal swirled like a thunderhead in my frazzled mind.

I cried out, my breath rasping, my voice desperately pleading, “No!”

He snapped his neck toward me, his eyes laser-beaming me with an intense glare. “Leave. Now.”

It’s actually quite tortuous for me to write this way. There’s not a whole lot that bothers me more in prose. Melodramatic writing works so hard to convey emotion that it goes completely over the top. You may be guilty of it if you’ve developed a finely tuned adjective thesaurus. Or if you have a lot of physical clichés in the work. Or if you’re taking great pains to describe a tone of voice.

Melodrama is going above and beyond to hammer home a certain emotion. It almost always reads as false to me. Here’s my real issue with it. Real drama comes when a reaction matches the situation or stimulus. If I stub my toe, I swear a few times under my breath and walk it off. If my car rolls down the driveway and into the lake, I will swear…well, not a few times. But if I stub my toe and I’m on the ground, moaning and wailing and thrashing around, then the magnitude of reaction doesn’t match the situation.

Most of the time, when melodrama strikes me as especially fake, it’s because of this disconnect. If a situation is not particularly intense because there’s not enough tension or the stakes aren’t high enough, but the writer is trying their best to make it seem intense: melodrama. Whenever you see a lot of purple prose coming to the party, you’re likely trying to create a mountain out of a molehill.

But tension isn’t created with a lot of over-the-top adjectives. It’s created when a situation puts a character further away from what they want. So if that tension isn’t naturally there through how you’ve set up your characters and plot, you might find yourself (even if it’s subconsciously) compensating by tying on the window dressing of intense descriptions and heavy physicality. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve created adequate objectives for your character, and whether or not you’re frustrating them in an effective way.

Remember, your characters shouldn’t get to win that often. Struggle and frustrated desires are par for the course with a plot that’s going to really challenge your character. This is not the same thing as a superficial wound that sets your protagonist into a histrionic hissy fit. Where there’s intense emotion, there should be intense tension underlying it, and a real cause for concern that’s driving your character crazy. (Even if you have a really good set-up for a dramatic reaction, you may want to play it more reserved, to begin with. The sooner writers wean themselves off of purple prose, the better.)

If you’re worried that maybe you more flamboyant writing style is coming across as melodrama instead of desirable tension/conflict, ask your critique partners if a scene ever starts to feel fake or over-the-top. This is a very serious issue. Despite teens and kids getting a bad rap for being melodramatic in their personal lives, they are also really good at sussing out what’s authentic and what isn’t. You don’t want a flare-up of dramatics to alienate the reader.

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I’ve been preaching all along that characters need a clear sense of motivation and objective, those twin drivers that are often part of the same coin. Objective is, simply put, what a character wants to do, and motivation is why they want to do it. Each character should have these things in their back story, even if the objectives are smaller (for secondary characters and such). The protagonist of your story should have the clearest objective and motivation of all, with an overarching need/goal for the entire story arc, as well as more tangible objectives and motivations throughout, from chapter to chapter.

When you’re thinking about this, I also want you to think about balancing positive and negative motivation. Let’s start with negative motivation. Maybe you’re someone who hasn’t had the, ahem, pleasure of experiencing a lot of negative motivation in your life, and for that I commend you. But it goes something like this:

Everyone always told me I’d never make anything of myself. Well, I’d prove them wrong. Smoothing my brand new thrift shop suit down to get rid of any last wrinkles (though doing anything about its smell was impossible this late in the game), I headed into the job interview.

I joke that spite is a terrific motivator. And it is. We often react to adversity by stubbornly wanting to best it. But it’s important to note that this is a reaction to something negative in life that we’re inspired to overcome. It’s negative motivation to want to show your bully what’s what, or land a new job because your stupid current boss thinks you’re a bad employee, or want to claw out of poverty because you never had anything growing up. The motivation is valid, but the aspiration had roots in something negative instead of something positive.

On the other hand, positive motivation is more of a proactive goal. Take one example from what I just wrote: growing up in poverty. You could write two very different characters with the same backstory and related-but-distinct motivations, one negative, one positive. Character A wants to claw their way out of poverty, indeed, because they never had anything good growing up and it sure feels crummy. The buck stops, or rather starts now, and they’re going to do something about it. Character B grew up the same way, with the same kind of deprivation. But they’re positively motivated, they see what they want to do and why in a different light. Maybe they aspire to be the only person in their family to go to college, or maybe they’d like to provide a better childhood for their own kids than they ever had.

I bet I conjure very different people in your mind just by describing Character A vs. Character B in terms of motivation. One is negatively motivated, one positively. They’ll do different things to reach their goals, and justify them with different logic.

In your own manuscript, keep an eye on who is negatively motivated and who is positively motivated. If you want to mix it up, get their negative vs. positive motivations in balance, so that there’s a little bit of both in each. They feel adversity but also possibility. That’s where you’ll find complexity.

Related but slightly different are passive and active motivation. Passive motivation is a condition that exists (unfairness in the world, for example) that your character thinks about and wants to solve or overcome. But it’s not something they can affect directly, it’s more part of their general situation. Active motivation, on the other hand, refers to something they have control over and that they can work toward by taking concrete steps. The needle is obvious and they know how to move it.

All of these are shades to the same issue, and it gives you more to think about as you craft your characters.

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One of my favorite things to talk about these days is character buy-in. It’s the idea of committing to the story, and when your character decides, “Screw it, I’m all in, let’s see where this crazy adventure takes me.” It’s very important, especially in fantasy, action, paranormal, etc. stories where there’s a certain amount of disbelief or world-building that needs to be overcome. I mean, Percy Jackson didn’t exactly imagine his life as a demi-god when he was just starting out. It took him a little while to get on the roller coaster and strap himself into the seat.

Fiction is built, ideally, in layers. We have the basic foundation of a story, then we layer something on as the plot advances or a relationship changes, then we layer the next development onto what exists already, then the next, then the next. It’s important, then, to solidify each layer before building on. We are, in essence, creating something out of nothing when writing fiction. The world doesn’t exist until you establish it. The relationships don’t come to life until you define them. The plot doesn’t mean anything until we combine the events with your protagonist’s objectives, motivations, and development.

Done right, this delicious fiction layer cake will be very satisfying. But the whole thing sort of tends to fall apart if each layer isn’t solidified properly before the next one is poured on. An instance where I notice this issue is when a character flip-flops in their opinions about a plot point or character. It’s one thing to consider one issue with multiple layers: that’s called building complexity. But when a protagonist can’t decide whether they can trust Character A, and this goes on for five chapters, I say it’s flip-flopping.

Let’s extrapolate on this a bit more. The protagonist wants to trust A, but A just told one of their secrets to the antagonist. Your character is really pissed off at A, but they also believe that A is the only person who can help them along in the story. So, with some nagging doubt in their mind, they decide to trust A because the benefits outweigh the risks.

What I’ve described above is a complex situation. The trust is established, but there’s something going on below the surface that colors it a certain shade of wariness. The most important part, though, is that the protagonist has decided to commit to trusting A. They have bought in.

Compare this to the same scenario. And let’s say the decision is made in chapter one to trust A. But then in chapter two, the protagonist avoids A’s phone calls, saying “I just can’t trust them.” In chapter three, your character crawls back to A to ask a favor, acting for all the world like there’s an intact relationship. In chapter four, the protagonist spurns A’s friendly advances, vowing to go through the rest of the plot alone.

But didn’t we say we trusted A in chapter one? Why does the tide keep shifting? To go back and forth on a commitment sends the reader for a loop. “I thought we agreed on A, and now the rules have been rewritten!” I’ll say as I’m reading a manuscript where flip-flopping is an issue.

The bigger problem here is that flip-flopping isn’t an action. Taking one step forward and one step back doesn’t advance either the plot or the relationship (in this case, the protagonist and A). There’s a slight distinction between committing to conflicting viewpoints about a character because of advances in the plot. For example, the protagonist can fully buy-in to trusting A, and only after some deep betrayal will they make up their mind to forge ahead alone. That’s complexity, and it’s the evolution of a fraught relationship. But the key is commitment. Buying in. Without it, the protagonist changes their mind without investing, resulting in flip-flopping and leaving the plot and relationship development stuck.

Some writers think that flip-flopping is complex, and in some ways, safer. Their characters have angst, but they don’t actually go down any wrong paths. They just keep changing their minds. I don’t find that this is beneficial in the long run, in fact, it’s maybe even a bit shallow. Instead of flip-flopping, commit! Buy in!

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Relatability

There was a New Yorker article that made the rounds about six weeks ago. Why am I writing about it now? Because I just bought a house and I’m super slow. Besides, let’s face it: You get your breaking news from Facebook and Reddit and wherever else. If you’re trying to get it from my blog, I…I feel terrible for you and I’m sorry.

The article in question calls out “The Scrounge of ‘Relatability‘” by Rebecca Mead and it’s a great think piece. It goes into a brief history of the word “relatable,” takes some pot shots at Ira Glass, and completely denounces the concept of relatability as the act of readers or viewers demanding “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, The New Yorker. You look a little tense. Take a seat, loosen your tie. Would you like a drink? You seem a little…peaked.

I’ll be the first to admit that I talk a lot about the concept of relatability as it, ahem, relates to writing fiction, especially for picture book, middle grade, and young adult readers. And no, I did not have an epiphany reading this op-ed piece about how that’s stupid and “hopelessly reductive” to advocate. I still believe that relatability is very important when targeting younger readers, because one has to take their mindset into consideration. Today’s MG and YA readers, especially, thrive on connection and are going through a lot of stuff that they don’t have the facilities or life experience to process yet. Good stuff, and negative stuff. And a lot of the time, they run into problems when they feel alone. They are bullied, they are abused at home, they feel like they have no voice, something secret gets out about them and they feel like they have no control over it, etc. etc. etc. Readers in these age groups want to read to form relationship.

And relatability is a natural extension of wanting to capture a readership that craves connection. Do we make each character an Everyman meant to emulate and capture the widest possible audience by having the most generic (more relatable?) traits possible? No, nobody said that. I would argue that even the more quirky or odd or unsympathetic characters in fiction are relatable by virtue of how weird they are. Because we all have, at one point or another, felt like a profound freak. And even if they’re not the same kind of profound freak, we find solace in their freakishness.

One of my favorite “weird” characters is Beatrice from Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye In Robot. I have a lot in common with Beatrice and a lot absolutely not in common with her. But something about her is so damn relatable that I can’t stand it. Why? I believe it’s because the character is so specific. She feels real. A lot of detail went into her creation. She is the very opposite of the wide net Everygirl trying to be all things to all people. And yet she’s as relatable as any character I’ve read.

Rebecca Mead says that relatability is a pox because it somehow demands that a work to “be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… (who) remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Again, I disagree. Those works that pander to the audience and try to grasp the loose concept of relatability might maybe fall to this flaw.

But when Natalie Standiford was writing Beatrice, I don’t think she was coming from a place of “I have to construct this girl to appeal to all.” She wrote a quirky and TRUE character. Now, what’s true about Beatrice to you might be very different from what’s true about Beatrice to me. And that’s okay. The fact remains that there’s just so much there to choose from about this rich and complex characterization.

Instead of producing a cookie-cutter character and a one-size-fits-all book to strive for Rebecca Mead’s portrayal of relatability, Natalie Standiford created a work where relatability was a natural byproduct of a lot of tough, honest, and incredibly specific characterization and plotting. Nobody cut any corners, in fact, I bet it was harder to write someone so nuanced.

Long story short, I think that PB, MG, and YA readers are precious. And if they’re anything like I was in those age groups, they are searching. They crave connection. If the idea of relatability urges writers on to write even better characters and stories for readers who will very much flourish when relating to the work, I’d say it’s an amazing thing. Let The New Yorker see the glass as half-empty, I see it as half-full of great inspiration and potential for writers.

(Also, and not to ruffle any feathers with my off-the-cuff attempt at humor, I am a damn theatre major and I think that a lot of Shakespeare sucks. It’s a rigorous mental exercise, and a lot of fun to perform, and it revolutionized the English language, and all that is fine and good, but, as a modern woman, I’m happy to leave it at that without putting it on a pedestal. I’ve read the complete works once, when I was young and full of idealism. And you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

 

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