Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ah . . . Sweet Misery

By Julie Wright

Have you ever shelved a book project because you, as the author, were bored?

I have four shelved manuscripts in various stages of completion. Yeah . . . they bored me to shame.

Most of the time, this happens because your character is flat, or has nothing going on to retain your interest.

This is why you need to make your characters suffer. In screen writing, this is called the principle of antagonism. Not saying that you’re character needs to be a bad guy, but that bad things need to keep happening to them. Your character needs to be pushed to the limits of what they can handle. They need to have weaknesses and then have those weaknesses tested to the point of pain for that character.

Just like misery loves company, the suffering loves an audience. If you’re bored with your manuscript, it’s usually not the plot’s fault. So what are some ways you can raise your characters from the dead?

Remember your characters are human. And as such they have human feelings. They feel anger, jealousy, sorrow, loss, depression, fear, happiness, excitement, love . . . Find an emotion you can identify the character with.

Show don’t tell. Don’t tell us he’s angry; show him throwing the bottle against the wall. Don’t tell us she’s in love and deliriously happy. Show her drawing hearts all around his name as she talks on the phone. If she’s mad at him she can draw a picture of him hanging from his necktie.

Don’t try to make the reader feel unearned emotion. If you open up a story with the wife getting news her husband is dead and you show all this great emotion, you might be pretty proud of yourself. But why do I, the reader, care? The dead guy could be a schlub for all I know. Show me a brief scene where the two of them are making dinner together and he surprises her with a dessert he’d made while she was at work. She can say something like, “That’s my favorite.” To which he’d respond, “I know.” Or something like that—something that helps you glimpse their lives and see that all is well. So when you take it all away, we, the reader, care.

Take it ALL away. Characters need to suffer. No one wants to read about some perfect person with no lumps to take. So if you’ve got a character with a great job, a great boyfriend, a great apartment in Manhattan, you have to take it all away so that we’re interested in what this character is doing.

Act, don’t react. Characters who consistently react to the things taking place around them are weak. Make them make their own choices—for good or bad—your characters need to act, make decisions, and take control at some point.

Identify with your character. If you can do this, so will everyone else.


Andi Sherwood said...

Can I just tell you guys again that you rock!

Great blog... Actually made me think about my first novel which I have shelved for a while.

Thank you!

Heather B. Moore said...

Yeah, I have three shelved. Maybe someday I'll dust them off :)

Josi said...

The principle of antagonism, that's awesome, and so true. It's still dang hard to beat your characters with a stick sometimes. very good advice.