Tag Archives: Characters

Drives and Goals

(This is another lightly edited Twitter writing craft thread which I’m posting on my blog for reference and so people can find it more easily. I hope it’s helpful!)

When I’m shaping a character arc for a book, I try to pay attention to both drives and goals. It’s crucial for a character to have both, and I often have to remind myself that they’re not the same.

A drive is a deep, underlying need that pushes or pulls the character through the whole story. It’s often the core motivating force of their arc.

It’s frequently a more abstract (but compelling!) thing, like seeking acceptance, recognition, love, atonement, justice, etc.

A goal is something more specific, like saving their little brother, defeating the bad guy, getting their crush to invite them to the ball, retrieving the lost artifact, etc. It’s what the character consciously & concretely wants to do and is taking actions to try to accomplish.

Goals operate at a large and small level. You’ve got big book-long or even series-long ones (defeat Voldemort), but also wee little scene-level ones (don’t get caught by Filch before you get back to Gryffindor common room).

Goals can and do change, while drives don’t unless something really dramatic happens to fundamentally change the character. A drive change is a big deal and a major character turning point.

A fair chunk of your character’s goals will be all tangled up with their drive.

Many goals will be a direct and clear result of a drive. Like, my drive is to protect my family, so I’m going to have to defeat the dark lord because he’s threatening them.

But sometimes goals and drives conflict. Like, my goal is to become a master swordswoman because that’s what my mom wants, but my drive is to find acceptance and I tried theater and the cast is my new family and I can’t do both and WHAT DO I DO?!

Or a character might think they want to find the powerful artifact to destroy it so no evil can use it, but really their drive for glory and recognition is pushing them to take it for themselves and they just haven’t acknowledged it yet.

I’ve found that when I fool myself into thinking a drive counts as a goal, the character will lack agency.

(Hmm, what’s her goal? Gaining public recognition after a life of being overlooked! NOPE. That’s a drive. Her concrete plans for steps to get recognition are goals.)

Conversely, if a character has goals but no underlying drives, their arc lacks heart.

(Especially watch out for this with villains! She wants to conquer the world, sure, but WHY? What inner forces push or pull her to do this?)

Conflict is all about drives and goals smashing up against each other, internally or externally. Those conflicts drive your story.

Story is just character in motion. Drives are what put your character in motion; goals give that motion a vector.

And then everything crashes into everything else and makes beautiful explosions!


Let’s Talk Agency

Every first draft I’ve ever written has had agency problems. Which sounds like a bunch of guys in suits with dark glasses should be pulling up in a black van and hustling my draft into the back, but it’s nowhere near that exciting. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of exciting.

Agency is, basically, your character’s ability to affect the plot in pursuit of their goals. It’s something I think a lot of writers struggle with, and I think it can be especially difficult in fantasy because a lot of our favorite tropes steal agency from the main character. Fantasy tends to have the plot kicked off by a villain doing Bad Things, and often that villain continues to drive the plot forward doing More Bad Things, and all our character can do is run around putting out fires and trying frantically to stop Yet More Bad Things from occurring.

This feels pretty natural, right? For me, at least, when I first come up with a plot, it’s often a series of nasty surprises the characters must deal with. I love the “OH SHIT!” moments SO MUCH, and I often build my plot around those to some degree—and they can turn out to be some of the most intense moments in the book. But there are some problems that come with lack of agency.

One of the most important is that it undermines character. Moments of choice are vital to defining character; but if I’m too busy dodging assassins and following prophecies as if they were cake recipes, I’m not making any important decisions. Having goals and motivations is also central to character, but if all my goals are created for me by the villain (stay alive, save my friends, protect the village, etc), they don’t illuminate much about who I am, and what inner drives propel me forward.

For this reason, lack of agency also sabotages the story’s through line. The main character’s pursuit of their goals is the thread running through the entire story, the current that pulls the reader inexorably onward and keeps them turning pages. If our hero doesn’t have personally significant goals to actively pursue, and is just reacting to a series of events—no matter how exciting—the story falls flat between those events. Like, WOW, thank goodness we escaped those assassins! Now we’ll, uh, sit around drinking tea and talking about what a close call that was and how we wish we knew who was trying to kill us until the NEXT exciting surprise happens, I guess. (My first drafts are often SUPER GUILTY of this.) This drops the tension on the floor, leaving the reader with nothing to draw them onward.

So, okay, agency is important! How do you check whether your main character has it? Ask yourself these three questions, both in general and on a scene-by-scene level:

Does the character have a personally important goal (with something at stake and serious consequences if they fail to attain it)? This doesn’t even have to have anything directly to do with the main plot. Maybe the main plot is to defeat the dark lord, but what our hero really wants is to find her missing sister, or for her parents to finally accept her, or to show the world that her invisibility device can WORK, dammit, so they’ll never laugh at her again.

Are they taking actions to pursue that goal? We need to see them doing stuff to try to get what they want, and not just sitting on their hands hoping someone will hand it to them, or letting some mentor figure drag them along the path to victory.

Are the actions they’re taking having an effect on the plot? This doesn’t need to be the effect the character intends, mind you. Their plans can go horribly wrong, thereby saving you from a premature happy ending on page 75. Unexpected twists can derail or reroute their efforts, or their actions could even make things worse because they didn’t understand the true situation. But things should be different because they tried.

If you realize your character lacks agency in some or all of your book, don’t despair! Not only can you fix this, but fixing it often will take your book to the next level.

For instance, let’s say you have a plot point where your character gets captured. How the heck can getting captured be a result of them pursuing their goals? Well, maybe instead of getting captured when they’re jumped by kidnappers while walking down the street, they get captured when they’re in the midst of sneaking into the castle of Count Sardonico, looking for murder evidence, and WHOOPS he’s unexpectedly ready for them! Or someone in the party HAD to try to steal the thing behind the magical alarm wards, or there was this clue about your MC’s missing sister that she HAD to check out even though there were guards patrolling that area, etc…make it character-driven, so the choices your characters make are important. (Just make certain those choices are relatable and not plain old stupid. No one likes that guy who throws himself on the enemy’s swords because DRAMA.)

Or let’s say you need to drop a big stunning information bomb on your characters. (Your missing sister IS the dark lord! There is a traitor among you! Your entire world was MADE OF CHEESE all along!) Instead of having some mysterious figure swoop in and announce this, or having them stumble across the crucial info, have them obtain it in a hands-on way while pursuing their goals (even if it’s not the info they thought they were getting). Maybe they actively go spy on the bad guys to overhear their plans, or retrieve the ancient world-cheese artifact from antiquities smugglers, or trick the info out of the Dark Lord’s sinisterly charming lieutenant at a fancy party. It’s cooler if they have to work for it.

Some of my favorite moments in my own books have come from a realization that I needed to increase agency. It’s hard to give specific examples without getting spoilery…But for instance, there’s an, uh, decision Amalia makes at a party around the end of Chapter 4 in The Defiant Heir which has a huge effect on the course of the book. In my very first partial exploratory draft, this was a decision her mother made for her. But I quickly realized that it would be SO MUCH COOLER if she made it herself, and that one change made the entire book SO MUCH BETTER.

Obviously the antagonist’s actions are also still important, and it’s okay for our heroes to be caught completely flat-footed sometimes. But overall, it’s important to make sure our main characters are propelling the plot forward, not being dragged limply through it. Sometimes they may accidentally roll their Sisyphus boulder off a cliff instead of up the mountain (oops), or it may slip in their grasp and run them over as it tumbles back down the hill, but they need to keep trying. If Sisyphus takes a nap, the tension is gone, and we put down the story.

 


Writing Female Characters

I’ve now had a few variants on the question, “How do you write such strong female characters?” This always makes me blink a bit, because you know, they don’t ask people “How do you write such strong male characters?”

BUT! It occurred to me that maybe I should actually answer this question in a blog post. Because I’m sure there are many writers out there (guys and otherwise) who would really, honestly like to do right by the fictional women in their writing lives, but aren’t sure how.

So here are some handy, friendly tips to help you!

(Disclaimer: This is by no means definitive, opinions may vary, I’m sure I’m missing stuff, etc. This is only a start, and you don’t have to follow every one of these rules all the time. But I like bullet lists, so here you go!)

The 50% Rule:

  • Make 50% of your characters women. This might sound crazy, but is actually how it works in the real world! (And you may be shocked if you stop and think about the overwhelming proportion of movies and books in which this is not remotely the case.)
  • Carry that 50% through to all levels of narrative importance. Main characters: 50% female. Random passerby: 50% female. Etc.
  • Also carry that 50% through all different roles/jobs/etc. Military and political leaders? 50% female. Caring parents, innocent victims? 50% male. Good guys and bad guys? 50% each. Obviously you don’t need to hit exactly 50% all the time—that would be weird—but shoot for it, roughly speaking. If all your generals are guys and all your hapless murder victims are girls, that kind of perpetuates a really creepy narrative.

Great! Just by following the 50% rule, you are already so, so far ahead of so, so many books out there. (Including, to be clear, many I absolutely love.)

Also, I should add that nonbinary characters are extremely awesome to include, too.

Treat Characters Equally:

  • Make your female characters as competent as your male characters. And make them stay as competent as your male characters. Nothing is more disappointing than doing a character intro where a woman seems to be a badass and then she’s just kidnapping bait for the rest of the story. (Glares bitterly at certain anime and also a certain Robin Hood movie)
  • Avoid sexualizing your female characters more than your male characters. (Sure, if your POV is a horny hetero dude, he’s going to be seeing the world through a certain lens, but think about how your female characters are presenting themselves to the world, and make sure your lens as a writer is more objective than your character’s, if that makes sense.)
  • Make sure you have important female characters who have their own role in the story, besides “Mother figure” or “Love interest.” Don’t always define women by their relationship to men.
  • Make sure most or all of your female characters’ backstories and character arcs would work equally well if they had no reproductive equipment. One grows weary of reading womb-and-vagina-based backstories all the time.
  • Relatedly, avoid including rape or sexual assault as a cheap plot device. Murder works just as well to show how bad your villain is or to give your hero a reason to want vengeance. Maybe they could even murder the hero’s male best friend rather than his childhood sweetheart!
  • Avoid sexy=evil (I mean, let’s face it, evil is sexy, but that’s very different than sexiness being a sign of evil). Also avoid pretty=good (and its nasty corollary, ugly=evil). This is not at all to say you can’t have sexy evil people or pretty good people, but make sure it’s not, like, a hard and fast rule in your universe, and that the relationship between appearance and alignment does not come off as causational.
  • Basically, just write your female characters as people. If you could gender swap the character and the story would still work, you’re probably doing a good job.
  • Remember to let your guys be sensitive and caregivers and fashion-conscious and so forth, too, and to portray “softer” male characters in a positive light!

If you’ve written stuff that breaks some or all of these rules, don’t feel bad. These stereotypes have been around a long time, and it’s hard to weed them out of your own brain. Honestly, MOST SFF breaks these rules, including many of my favorite books. (Though not all SFF! A great example of a recent book written by a male author which is fantastic about following these rules is Stephen Aryan’s MAGEBORN, for instance.)

I would loooooove to see more new books that really treat female (and enby!) characters with the same seriousness they treat male characters. If you would, too, perhaps consider these tips as a non-exhaustive starting point to being part of the solution.

GO FORTH AND WRITE AWESOME LADIES!


Don’t Drop That Line

You know what I wish I’d figured out earlier in my writing journey? The importance of through lines.

Take right now. I’m working on a revision of THE DEFIANT HEIR (Book 2 of Swords & Fire). I got about two-thirds done with a first draft, then realized I needed to go back and revise before I wrote the last third where everything comes together. Why? Because the Everything that needed to come together was pointing all over the place, like a pile of dropped sticks, rather than forming a bunch of lines converging inevitably toward the climax. And I had a whole section of the book that was kind of just sketched in, with caution tape strung around it saying “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.”

I didn’t have a clear through line.

A lot of definitions will describe the through line as a theme, idea, or goal that continues from the beginning to the end of a story. I personally find it more useful to think of the through line visually, as a pure structural element.

The scenes and events in a story are beads, and the through line is the thread that strings through them all to make a necklace. Without the through line, you just have a pile of beads. The through line is what makes it a story.

If your through line is working, every scene leads to the next in a natural progression of cause and effect. Your protagonist has a goal, and is driving the action toward that goal. The core conflict runs true at the heart of the story. There’s a clear emotional arc to the story, too, as well as a plot arc; everything bends toward the climax.

It’s all too easy to drop your through line. For instance, I know one way I often do it is when something unexpected happens to cause a plot turning point. That’s good! Yay surprises! But if now suddenly my characters are doing and feeling all new things that have nothing to do with everything they were doing and feeling before, it’s going to feel disjointed to the readers. Even if the new things are all exciting and cool, if we’ve dropped all the threads the readers were invested in and excited about, they may lose interest or feel lost. We need core elements of the story to continue, sticking with us through every zig and zag, propelling us through to the end.

Another common way to wind up with a dropped through line is when you have insufficient agency for your main character. They have to be the one threading that string through those beads. If they’re running around reacting to things that fate or the antagonist keeps throwing at them, without having driving goals of their own which they’re actively pursuing, there’s no clear thread to connect the events of the story and carry it forward…and the readers with it.

The through line gives the readers something to wonder about, to be excited about, to be emotionally invested in. It’s what keeps them turning pages to the end.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to define your through line in an explicit word or phrase or statement. Really, it’s a combination of things: core themes, your character’s emotional arc, the main plot arc, the central conflict, your character’s goal. It’s the heart AND the spine of the story.

But you should KNOW your through line. At a deep, instinctive level—and you should also be consciously aware of it. You should be able to trace its passage through your story.

In this particular revision, I realized I didn’t know my through line well enough. I had a bunch of events, and I saw how they lined up with cause and effect to create a story, but I needed to clarify my character’s motivation and goals and emotional arc to give those events life and purpose, and to bring them all together. Once I got a better understanding of my through line, suddenly all the pieces I’d been having trouble fleshing out or fully integrating came clear. A lot of the bits that were giving me trouble or that I didn’t have energy for suddenly seemed easy to tackle.

To map the path of your story, you need to know where it starts, and where it ends, and the lay of the land along the way. But just as much, you need to know who is walking that path, and why, and where they thought it was leading when they first set foot on it.

Your through line is Ariadne’s string, to guide your main character—and you, and your readers—through the Labyrinth. Lose it at your peril.


Justifiable Murder

One thing that bugs me as a reader (and I do realize this is a pet peeve that probably doesn’t bother lots of people) is when an author kills off a character and I get the feeling they did it solely to make things seem EXTRA DRAMATIC. As if they might get some kind of MY BOOK IS SERIOUS NOW badge because a named character died.

(Side note: It’s particularly annoying if the character clearly serves no purpose except to die tragically and make the main character sad. You know… when it’s like HERE IS MY BEST FRIEND/LITTLE BROTHER/INNOCENT RANDO I AM TRYING TO SAVE, WHO IS VERY SWEET AND NICE AND HAS NO PERSONALITY AT ALL BUT WOULDN’T IT BE TRAGIC IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO THEM.)

I was thinking about this while doing laundry, and wondering how exactly I would define the difference between deaths for angst value vs. earned, necessary deaths. And lo, into my head popped a perfect test to tell whether a death is story-driven, rather than “I want some more drama here”-driven. It’s simple (“well, duh,” even):

Does the death change the story?

And I don’t mean just “now our hero is sad” change. I mean plot change, with effects in suitable proportion to the importance of the character who died.

Look at the deaths (and whoa, large data sample) in A Song of Ice and Fire. When George R. R. Martin kills a major character, you nearly always go “Holy shit, that changes EVERYTHING!”

If you take the death out, or swap in a different character to die instead, the story is completely different. You can’t do it. It wouldn’t make sense.

That is how you murder characters.

I’m totally using this as a test now myself anytime I’m thinking of killing off a character.


Powers Most Super

On a long car drive back from New York this weekend, my older daughter asked my husband and I what we thought were some of the coolest fictional powers we’d seen in books, TV, comics, etc. (This is, by the way, an awesome way to make about half an hour pass without noticing.)

The conversation segued to me giving a rundown of some of the powers the various major characters have in my WIP fantasy YA, along with a brief summary of each character’s core conflict (because for some of them, their powers are inseparable from their conflict). When I was done running through them, my younger daughter asked, “Wait, are you talking about your book, Mommy?”

Yes, I said, this is the book I’m working on now. Why?

“I thought it was a professional book!”

My husband and eldest made “Ouch!” noises, but hey, I take it as a compliment. 🙂

My takeaway from the larger conversation, however, is that a lot of the time what we thought was so cool about the fictional powers we liked best was not the power itself, but how the author handled it.

They had the characters using their powers in an intelligent way, coming up with clever applications to deal with tough situations. They had considered and shown the impact of that power on the character, the people around them, and on society at large. Or they had wound the character’s power into their own inner or external conflict in some way, making it a problem as much as a solution.

And that was what made it so interesting. Not the design of the power itself (and certainly not its apparent magnitude), but how it played out in the story.


Using Setting to Establish Character in the First Page

I’ve been working on a multi-POV novel lately, and I’ve had to introduce several new viewpoint characters. I’m discovering that one of my favorite ways to quickly immerse readers in each new character is through the setting.

The great thing about this trick is that your words can do double duty. When you introduce a new viewpoint character (right on the first page of the book, if your book only has one POV), you’re often also introducing a new setting. By showing the setting through the character’s eyes—showing their reactions to it, opinions of it, how it makes them feel—you can create a strong mood through setting while simultaneously revealing things about your character. You can ground your readers quickly and efficiently, right at the start of the book, giving them what they need to orient and immerse themselves.

For instance, let’s say your first scene is on a busy city street. Rather than describing your setting through tired, generic “city bustle” description, or by Googling the particular intersection in the exact city and faithfully noting real world details you could observe there, show us how your character feels about being there. What do they notice? What do they focus on?

A jaded city native heading to work might complain about annoying tourists jamming up sidewalk traffic, avoid a panhandler she sees on the same corner every morning, or weigh the benefits of grabbing a coffee and bagel against the risk of missing her train. She isn’t going to gawk at city landmarks or be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds—but this is a great chance to let us glimpse her routine (before you disrupt it forever, naturally). Is that routine sacred to her, and does she cherish the little fussy details of it, chafing at any disruption? Or is it frustrating, and is she glancing longingly at the planes overhead, wishing she were on her way to Hawaii?

A kid coming to the city for the first time with his parents might see totally different things. He could be focused on not letting his ice cream cone drip as he walks, or stare at bird poop on the arch of a street light, or be riveted by street performers or purse dogs. He might be excited to be in the city, trying to tug ahead of his parents and check everything out; or he might be nervous and overwhelmed, clinging close.

If you’re writing in 1st person or even a close 3rd person POV, you can give us snatches of their internal monologue, too—a character who’s critiquing the fashion choices of passerby is very different than one dreaming of how she’d sketch them, or thinking how easy they would be to kill. A character faced with a closed subway entrance might dither primly, cuss angrily, or accept it as yet another thing gone wrong in their pathetic life with a morose sigh.

Taking a moment to focus on setting can be a great way to establish character, voice, and setting all in a mere paragraph or so. It can vividly ground your reader and pull them into the story, rather than leaving them flailing around looking for handholds (a danger of starting with action or dialogue). You can even weave character goals through the setting, letting it be an obstacle or an aid to what the viewpoint character is trying to accomplish.

It’s worth focusing your character’s lenses on what’s around them on that first page, even if just for a moment. Give your reader a place to stand and let them see who’s standing there with them. Then take off running.