Tag Archives: Characters

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.


On Letting Characters Be Smart

Last night I was reading a good book, quite absorbed as it ramped up toward the climax, when certain telltale signs began to appear.

“Aaaand here’s the part where we fail to share crucial information for no good reason,” I thought. And sure enough, there it was.

Now, this was a great book I really enjoyed, and it wasn’t so glaring a failure of motivation that it spoiled things for me. But it got me thinking about all the classic cases of authors making characters do dumb things to drive the plot along: not sharing important information, making bad decisions, trusting people who are obviously evil, not figuring out things that are glaringly obvious to the reader… all writing sins of which I’m not innocent, mind you, and easy traps to fall into.

Of course, characters can and should do dumb things when it makes sense for them to do so. If characters never made mistakes or bad choices, what would we write about? But their errors need to spring from the character’s particular flaws or the forces that drive them—or at least from a plausible moment of confusion, panic, or weakness. Not solely from the author’s desire to push the plot in a certain direction.

The thing is, most of the time The Dumb isn’t even necessary. In the book I was reading last night, the character really didn’t need to hold back the key information to make the plot work. The problems she was facing were big enough that the people she could have told couldn’t have fixed them, and the plot could have played out pretty much the same. There was no reason not to let her be smart.

Some of my favorite books feature characters who are smarter than me about the plot. THE WESTING GAME is one of the most awesome middle grade books of all time, and part of the reason I loved it as a kid and love it now is that Turtle is razor-sharp smart. Sherlock Holmes also regularly figures out things before the reader does, and it certainly never hurt his appeal.

There’s plenty that can go wrong to thwart even a character who’s being smart. By all means, throw obstacles into their paths to keep them from sharing that crucial secret. Put pressures on them that force them to make choices they know they’ll regret. Let their own drives and beliefs blind them to the truth. But when your character is being oblivious or doing something less than brilliant, ask yourself these two questions:

Is this decision coming from the character, or from my plot outline?

What would happen if they did the smart thing instead?

I’ve been surprised at the interesting directions the latter question can take me. Sometimes I can even land my characters in more trouble than they’d find by plunging ahead on the Path of Dumb I’d originally laid out for them.


Writing Secondary Characters from the Inside Out

My growth as a writer consists largely of “Well, DUH!” moments, where I realize in a blazing epiphany something super obvious I should have known all along. My latest is about writing secondary characters, and I’d like to share it with you. (I can’t say that without hearing a folk guitar intro in the background, so feel free to imagine one.)

Here it is in a nutshell: Write supporting characters from the inside, not the outside.

For years, I’ve been trying to take to heart the advice that characters other than the main character should have stuff going on, too — that they could each be the hero of their own story. For all major support characters (love interests, villains, BFFs, etc), I generally have sections in my notes where I plot out their arc, figure out their goals and flaws and fears, and all that good stuff. I thought that was enough, and sometimes I got good results that way. But other times, no matter how good a character’s arc looked on paper, I couldn’t make them come to life in the story.

I have one particular character in the book I’ve been revising who gave me a hell of a time. I couldn’t get him to work. I redesigned him completely several times, gave him more plot and more interesting relationships with other characters, and rewrote his scenes over and over. But each time I sent a new draft to beta readers, every single one of them unerringly singled him out as the weakest character — and they were right.

So I tried something I hadn’t done before. I tried to inhabit him as if he were the main character. While I was folding laundry, or in the shower, or driving to the store, I ran scenes in my head with him as the viewpoint character, letting him drive the scene. Thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, making his choices.

It helped immensely. I went back and rewrote everything the character said or did. I don’t know yet if he’s where he needs to be… but he’s finally a Real Boy to me now. He can talk and argue with the other characters on his own in my head, while before if I had him in a scene he was just filling the purpose I needed filled or providing a backboard for another character to bounce off.

I’m now in the early planning stages for a new book, and I’m trying the same thing with each of the major characters. For instance, there’s an antagonistic character who I originally envisioned as a flat minor villain (flavor: Ambitious Sociopath Vanilla). But then I tried really treating her like the hero of her own story — not just making notes about her arc, but getting inside her head and writing some of her story in my imagination. I wound up with a far better understanding of why she’s doing what she’s doing, and she expanded in much more interesting dimensions, becoming more human and tragic (if still ultimately a villain).

I have no idea why I wasn’t doing this before. It seems like a no brainer, right? But for many of my supporting characters, I was writing them from the outside, with no idea what their inner headspace was really like. Writing for the effect they’d have on the scene, or the interactions they’d have with the main character, rather than inhabiting them and driving their actions from inside their thoughts and feelings.

Let’s just say a more immersive approach is working better for me so far. Well, DUH.


On Tearing Down Walls

I grew up wanting to see more girls with swords on book covers. When I find one, it still makes me feel all warm and happy inside (especially if she’s wearing sufficient clothing, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). It means I have a place in stories — a place I want, and a place I can be proud of. And a place in stories can carve you out a place in the real world, very directly. If you see female warriors, astronauts, and scientists in books and movies and games, you’re far less likely to question that they can exist.

I didn’t have to grow up wanting to see more people with my skin color on book covers. But lots of kids do. We need to change that, now more than ever.

The news lately has made it too horribly, tragically clear what happens when we see our fellow human beings as Other. We need to get all colors of faces on book covers, in movies, in games. And not just as the Token Black Guy on the team of 6 or even the Hero’s Best Friend… and certainly not just as the criminal, the thug, or the villain’s non-speaking lieutenant. We need diverse heroes, scientists, magicians, love interests, teachers — characters you want to invite into your living room. Characters you’d trust to watch your kids or save your planet.

We have to carve out that space in our stories. A safe, trusted, awesome space for all our friends and family in this wide world with its rainbow of people colors. Because what people see in stories, they will expect in reality.

Our imagination is our greatest power. Use yours. Create stories, art, and games that embrace and empower all kinds of people, diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and more. Your kings, gods, heroes, and scholars don’t need to be white straight dudes. They can be, but there are a lot of other options out there. And by using one of them, you can make someone feel happy and included. You can open a door that might have been closed otherwise. You can help show people raised in prejudice a wider world.

Who knows? You might even save a life.