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Character

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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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The tendency to do this has risen to the level of such cliché that it is now a joke. But in case anyone hasn’t gotten the memo, I want to run an idea by you: do not save villain motivations until the very end. How has this usually happened in the past? A villain does all sorts of dastardly deeds, with seemingly no motivation in sight, until they have the hero in their clutches, and then they start to “monologue” about all the hurts they have endured (probably some perpetrated by the hero, often without the hero’s knowledge), and how they are now enjoying their sweet, sweet revenge. Then the power goes out, their death ray is rendered useless, and the hero turns around and saves the day, etc. etc. etc.

(Random thought: If anyone has read a lot of my writing, I would be honestly curious as to how many times “etc.” appears in my body of work. The total count must be staggering. I wish I had a way to tally all of my blog entries, my book, and my notes that I share independently with clients. I bet it would be a trip. So if we’re ever sitting down and I say something like, “You know, I think your overuse of ‘just’ is one of your writing tics,” don’t feel too badly, I clearly have them, too!)

But it’s one thing to say, “Don’t do X, don’t do Y,” and it’s another to delve into the “why?” factor. Here, it’s a matter of explaining why motivation works for your protagonist, and setting the same rules for your antagonist. Generally speaking, if your hero doesn’t have a clear reason for doing what she’s doing at the scene level or the manuscript level, it’s going to be that much harder to get reader investment (which is, probably, the most important aspect of attracting your audience). “I’m doing all this stuff and I can’t tell you why!” gets old.

The more you establish motivation, the more you can generate relatability. After all, we have goals and strive for them, so seeing someone else strive similarly is instantly attractive and releases deep feelings of empathy. You want this when creating any character, whether you’re working on your protagonist, their sidekick, or, yes, the villain*.

In my book, I talk about why Voldemort of Harry Potter fame is such a great antagonist. First and foremost, he’s eerily relatable. He’s a guy with a lot of hurt inside him, striving to know what love feels like, but going about it in a totally terrifying way. I remember the moment where, despite my best efforts, I sympathized with him. Wow! Think of all the interesting feelings I would’ve missed out on if Voldemort had been characterized in a way that saved all of his motivations and deeper drivers until the very end? That would’ve only given me a few chapters to wrap my mind around everything, and generated a much shallower experience of the story.

Another reason to leak villain motivations over time instead of saving them up until the end is the questionable payoff of “the big reveal.” There are only a few books in recent memory that have surprised me on a level that works well. Being mildly entertained by a twist is not the same thing as shakes-you-down-to-your-socks surprise. The former happens all the time, the latter, very infrequently. So unless you’re banking on the surprise to end all surprises that is so deeply rooted in the story that it will undo and reverse everything that has come before it, you’re not going to get as much mileage out of your reveal as you’re expecting.

Fiction structure and norms have before familiar. Hence the fact that we’re playing with all of these elements as clichés, hence the term “monologuing” even exists to define this phenomenon. There are few very real surprises in fiction because so many stories and plot points have been exploited over time. You aren’t likely to shock your readers, so stop investing so heavily in your reveals and start building character from the beginning. Readers these days are skeptical and wiser than their years. They are more likely to appreciate a complex character relationship instead of a big surprise at the end which, with social media and book review sites, might get leaked ahead of time and ruin the experience. A surprise is a gimmick. If you rely entirely on it, you may pay more in opportunity cost than have that gimmick pay off. (Unless you’re writing in a genre, like a thriller, where twisty plots and surprises are expected, of course.)

Plant clues and small explanations throughout about your villain’s psyche and needs. Their reasons. Their weak spots. Not only will this give your readers more to latch on to, it will give your hero more to work with when it comes time to face their foe. Don’t rely solely on plot and surprise at the climax, try for spychological depth as well.

* Come to think of it, don’t do the big motive reveal for your hero, either. I didn’t think that note could possibly apply to anyone, but now that I think about it, I might as well put it out there in case any writers happen to be struggling.

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It’s perfectly possible, essential in fact, to engage in some interiority even when you’re working in third person narration. Most writers these days are getting around the whole issue by writing in first person. For years, this has been the vogue for MG and YA (a bit more for the latter). There is the perception that first person is more “immediate,” meaning, most likely, that there’s more that readers see from the protagonist’s POV, which means access to their thoughts, feelings, and reactions in real-time (which I have always called “interiority” for short, though Word still refuses to accept it as a word).

Interiority is important. The character acts as the reader’s closest connection to the story. They also guide reader emotions. If something happens in the plot and we don’t know how to feel about it (I’d recommend that this doesn’t happen that often, because ideally you should be layering in context and anticipation for big events long before they happen), we look to the protagonist and see how they’re reacting. If they are wigging out, we know the event is bad, etc.

Without a lot of cues in the moment, or with reactions that come long after the fact, the reader is often a little stranded. A disconnect opens up between reader and character, and if you don’t nurture that relationship, or too many disconnects happen, then it’s unlikely to result in the type of connection that you’re looking to foster. So I teach that interiority is important. I’d rather know a little bit more about what’s going on in a character than a little bit less in any given moment, especially if you’re a writer who’s on the fence abut this whole interiority thing and you suspect that you don’t have a lot.

This brings me to third person. It’s first person’s more “distant” sister. And because first person POV already has the perceived advantage of being more “accessible,” third person writers (those brave souls!) need to fight a little bit harder–or at least be more deliberate–about making sure that the reader can still access interiority.

Most third person is “close,” meaning you technically can access one brain, usually the protagonist’s. Writing without this modification is really difficult. Writing “omniscient” is also difficult, as it involves “head-hopping” into many characters’ psyches, which (if you’re going to master the technique) involves pretty advanced characterization and voice development for each new personality.

So in close, you have some options. You can use the “thought” tag to voice a thought verbatim (put it in italics), then add “she thought.” Or just leave it in italics and leave the tag off. Readers will catch on to what you’re doing.

Why did I ever think calculus was a good idea? What an idiot.

Another idea is to narrate interiority just as you would in third person, only using the different POV.

“She looked at the exam in disgust before handing it over and skulking away, certain she’d failed.”

Lots of emotion in that example. For those writers who have trouble addressing interiority directly and want training wheels, dialogue is going to be your best friend. That and action.

“Thanks for nothing,” she said, shuffling out of the exam room and slamming the door behind her.

Subtle, these examples are not. But they all convey emotion, which is the point of interiority. No matter how directly you want to address the issue, whether you want to break third person for a peek into direct thoughts, or stick to third person that gets into the character’s head a little, or stay away from thoughts completely and deal with dialogue and actions, you should be thinking of ways to inject more emotion so that your characters’ inner lives rise a bit more to the surface. You’ll never regret fostering that connection to the reader and putting a little more heart on your character’s sleeve.

 

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I’ve said often that the character is one of the main elements of a story that guides reader reaction/involvement. We look to characters to assess how we should be reacting, what we should believe, whether or not we should get invested. That’s what makes unreliable narrators so tricky–by the very nature of fiction, we, as readers, rely on the characters for a lot of our cues.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with quite a number of fantasy/sci-fi clients in my editorial business. And one of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about is “Character buy-in.” Before we’re ready to believe that dinosaurs roam the earth again (or whatever), the character has to believe it. Only then will the reader go along with the story and feel safe suspending disbelief. (We show up to the page with a certain willingness, but before we fully believe it, it has to be successfully sold to the protagonist or POV character.)

Let’s run with the dinosaur example, and I’m going to tell you a few issues that I’ve noticed when character buy-in isn’t accomplished as thoughtfully as it can be. The first issue is vacillation or flip-flopping. The second issue I’ll call “characterization friction.”

Flip-flopping. Let’s say we have a character who sees some dinosaurs running around à la Jurassic Park. It’s natural to question one’s eyesight and/or sanity if this happens, and your character can certainly do both of those things. But once that’s out of the way, it’s harmful to reader engagement to keep questioning whether they’re dreaming or not. Let’s say we see the dinosaurs on page 10 and have an immediate “Nuh-uh, this isn’t really happening” reaction. By page 11, once the dinosaurs have destroyed the school, the protagonist starts to buy in. “Maybe this is happening.” By page 12, they’re back in denial again. “This is all a dream and I’m going to wake up every second.” For the reader, who is waiting for the green light to buy into the story, this will get old very quickly. As long as the character keeps flip-flopping as to whether they’re going to play along with the plot, the reader subconsciously holds off going 100% into the story. You can do this once or twice, but there needs to be a moment that I can point to on the page where the protagonist decides, “This is real and I’m going to function as if it’s real from now on.” After that, no “I must be dreaming” business. You’ve devised the plot, now sell it and run with it.

Another issue here is that you’ve created a character who may clash with the overall plot, especially when it comes to buying in. If your super hippie-dippy out-there character refuses to believe that auras are taking over people’s bodies (the first example to come to mind, and it’s super lame, my apologies!), that strikes me as less likely. If that same character jumps into it and says, “This is super weird but I’m going along for the ride,” then I’m more likely to join her, because your characterization matches how she’s clicking into the story.

If you have an overly analytical, scientifically minded kid who is thrust into the dinosaur plot, and they jump into the deep end right away, there’s friction there for me. This character might need more proof, they might need to establish their own version of the truth before they can suspend disbelief. Long story short, characterization should be consistent with buy-in style, and without vacillating for too long.

This seems pretty self-explanatory, but I’m seeing some dissonance here as of late. What’s the moment your protagonist buys in? Is it decisive? Is their willingness to believe your story fast or slow? Is there flip-flopping? This moment is very important, because it’s guiding your reader, too.

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Stalling Out

This post discusses a “technique” that I often catch in manuscripts. Here I’ll attempt to describe it and guess at what’s behind this phenomenon. Simply put, it’s stalling.

As savvy writers, you already know that you need to give your character an objective (something to shoot for over the course of the story) and a motivation (a personal and relatable reason for doing so). If you’ve done this, you are well on your way to having the two main tools of character and plot installed in your story already. Bravo!

But sometimes a strange thing happens. You have the proverbial “To Do” list, but all sorts of smaller errands end up worming their way in place of the main action, which should be pursuing that objective. First, they can’t get the Key until they go talk to Person X, and Person X isn’t home, so they have to rough up Person Y for details on Person X’s whereabouts, and when they finally get to Person X, they’re not talking…all for the Key, which turns out to be a very small part of the overall objective.

By giving your character objective and motivation in the first place, whether you know it or not, you’re promising to the reader, “Hey, you get to watch this protagonist do this stuff in the interest of pursuing his ultimate goal.” Every time we deviate from that, it better be for a good reason. In the above example about Keys and Person Xs, you should be able to see how a deviation can spin out of control into its own mini plotline. But if we zoom back out and look at the grand scheme of things, the Key ends up useless and we never see Person X again.

So is this a valuable component of your plot or is it stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective? The more tedious the digression, the more the reader feels further from the “To Do” list, and the more they may feel jerked around. In an, “I thought this was going to be a story about dragons but now I feel like I’m picking up the protagonist’s dry cleaning for 50 pages” sort of way.

Why does this happen? Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing the big picture of their story. Or they just love a scene or character (maybe even Person X) so much that they don’t want to do the cutting that honestly could be done.

Or the writer is terrified of the Muddy Middle phenomenon where the midsection of the story seems like it’s unraveling or rambling without direction. So they insert a lot of “stuff” into the middle in the hopes that this satisfies the reader. “What do you mean, I have a Muddy Middle?” they ask. “Look at all this STUFF that’s happening!”

But stuff isn’t the same as action which furthers the plot. That’s another way of saying action that brings the character either closer or further away from their objective, while impacting that “To Do” list along the way. This is the bull’s eye. And when we don’t see the bull’s eye any more, because we’ve taken a detour somewhere to pick up some dry cleaning, your stakes will likely dip and your pacing is going to be affected.

If you’re struggling with a plot that stalls out, set your protagonist out in the pursuit of the objective and don’t waver from this path for too long with things that don’t DIRECTLY impact the outcome.

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I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently and have noticed a quirk that I’m totally guilty of. Instead of choosing one very strong image that says it all, writers don’t quite trust their readers to get it (a very common problem) and are dogpiling several related ideas into one sentence of description.

For example:

Looking at the buffet, she was so famished that she could swallow it all in one gulp, leaving nothing left, licking even the grease trap of the giant rotisserie oven clean.

Girl is hungry, we get it! (Side note: Don’t try and write examples on an empty stomach.) Here we have three images, one weak (leaving nothing left), one medium (swallow it all in one gulp) and one very strong and specific (the grease trap thing).

The reason I went a bit off the deep end with the final image is that it is unusual, descriptive, and teaches us a little bit about character while conveying the same information as the other two–not only is she hungry, but she’s a little grungy, and knows her way around a kitchen. There are people who just want the tenderloin steak, and then there are people who want the gristle and bones to gnaw clean. The strange way her mind goes to the drippy, fat-caked grease trap puts her firmly in the latter camp.

So pick one strong, specific image with potential emotional or characterizing undertones to it. Your aim isn’t to give a reader information as many times as possible, it’s to do it once, and ideally in a memorable way. Less is more. In fact, in writing, piling imagery onto one idea actually dilutes the effect instead of concentrating it.

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I am back from Europe and ready to rumble. And by rumble, I mean edit manuscripts. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat. It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation.

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions. Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying. Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened. Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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There’s a book that I recommend over and over called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on “Show, don’t tell” here) are choices and actions.

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary character or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? All of these things teach the reader about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For example, your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are passive plots in which the character either can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or gets dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your character can’t make any choices or take any action, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the character doesn’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel.

Think about whether your character can be described as active or passive. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating these very powerful tools in crafting character and plot.

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