writers' advice weblog

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Characterization

re: Blasting Best Friend Stereotypes

in Characterization/General fiction by

Dear Editor…

Some readers say my main character’s best friend is a stereotype of best friends. She’s supposed to help her friend and that’s what she does. It’s not like this is her story. I’m frustrated. Can you help?

Sincerely,
Anonymous

Dear Anonymous…

Ah yes, the bestie stereotype. There are a few of them, like the boy-crazy pal to your blossoming-flower protagonist. Try this: Imagine sidelining your protagonist and giving Bestie the ball. It’s her book now. Write scenes with her as the lead. What new traits, interests, flaws, and goals would she reveal when it’s all on her shoulders? If she’s not revealing any, push her harder. Ask her questions with no right answer and see which shade of gray she picks. Move her to a new scenario, or even to someone else’s book. Write a pitch for a novel about her and her problems. Apply what you learn to your original story. Let her motives and distractions show up. People tend to be self-interested, so besties shouldn’t be all about the protagonist. Bestie would still reflect, amplify, or provoke your protagonist, but a separate life would be evident. She’ll be a richer, unique character—and her contribution to your star’s arc will be stronger.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Re: Not Feeling the Love

in Characterization/Romance Novels by

Dear Editor…

There’s a romance in my novel. An early reader said she’s not rooting for the couple like she thinks she should and I know that’s bad (obviously), but I don’t know what to do about it. Help?

Sincerely,
R.

Dear R….

Ask the reader if she’d root for the individual characters. After all, if we’d root for Jess no matter what Jess’s problem is, and we’d root for Chris no matter what Chris’s problem is, then we’d probably root for Jess and Chris as a couple. Help us know each character beyond looks, job/school status, and key problem. We’d learn those on a first date. What would we discover on the second date? The sixth? That’s the stuff to reveal as the story rolls out. What are their habits? What topics provoke/calm them? How would their reactions to others differ if you change the others’ gender, politics, class, ethnicity, etc? What fears/hopes do they have besides the Main Goal? What would they not want revealed? What would they yearn to share? Flesh out characters with action that reveals moods, opinions, judgments. When we know two individuals well (the good and bad) we’re intrigued to see how they interact as a couple—and we care about the outcome.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Page Time for Adult Villains in YA Fiction?

in Characterization/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Here’s a problem I’d like your advice on. I understand wanting to keep my YA novel from a younger perspective, but my villains are adults. I hate flat villains so I wanted to give some back story. How much time do I spend on the adult antagonist?

Thank you,
Oldies But Baddies

Dear Oldies But Baddies…

Bring on the adult antagonists, and let them have their page time! One of my favorite books, The Golden Compass, does this well. (Readers, your favs?) The key to finding your screen time balance: This is a young protagonist’s story, written for young people to read, so commit yourself to putting the focus on your teen characters, always. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking backstory will deepen your antagonists. In fact, being stingy with info about motivations and circumstances can enhance the mystery of your bad guys and their nefarious deeds, making us wonder about them. As we wonder, tease us with blips of insight, show them emoting, give them non-stereotypical traits and behaviors, and reveal both their strengths and flaws. I’ve got a big essay about crafting rich antagonists here. Be frugal with upfront backstory, and make the most of the screen time you grant them.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Good Characters, Bad Hook-Ups

in Characterization/Romance Novels by

Dear Editor…

I’ve got a romance in my novel, but beta readers tell me they don’t care enough when the couple gets together. They like the characters themselves, though. Suggestions?

R.

Dear R….

Whether your story stops at romantic kisses or goes further with explicit sex, you can score that satisfying physical scene by selling it long before it happens. One way to do this is to first build your case that these two need to be together—even if they don’t know it yet—and then deny them (and readers!) that togetherness. Attack that relationship. Use outside forces to shove the lovers apart when they crave nothing more than togetherness. Use misunderstandings to cause one or both lovers to pull away when readers crave nothing more than togetherness. Trigger the lovers’ fears so that they run away just when readers think they’re about to score togetherness. The anticipation will grow so excruciating that when they final get to hook up, the scene will seem to write itself. At that point, you won’t need to convince anybody of anything.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Re: How to Not Annoy Readers?

in Characterization/Creative Process/General fiction/Plot/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

I have a story idea: Two strangers’ lives tragically collide in a hit & run accident, leaving the DRIVER with haunting visions of the VICTIM. Driver’s visions of Victim become more desperate and her guilt more debilitating, so she decides to return to save Victim—and herself. My question: What do you think of this non-traditional structure: Book 1: Victim’s POV pre-crash; Book 2: Driver’s POV post crash; Book 3: Victim’s POV & resolution of Driver’s story. I worry about leaving Victim’s story in limbo for all of BOOK 2. Readers won’t know if the protagonist they just spent 100 pages with is dead or alive. Is that enthralling, or just plain irritating? I know I could do alternating POV chapters, but I don’t care for that style. Ideas?

Thanks!
Plotting Author

Dear Plotting Author…

The unknown fate could be cool. Try it! Your awareness of potential irritation means you’ll strive for a story that nails “enthralling.” I have two recommendations for your proposed structure: 1) Keep Victim present in Book 2. Not physically, but through Driver’s story. Perhaps this is a small town and after the crash Driver encounters people that readers met in Book 1. These people are doing business that somehow relates to Victim, none knowing Victim was in an accident. Perhaps Driver discovers a link to Victim, or a hint as to Victim’s identity. The point is to make Book 2 as much about Victim as it is about Driver. Don’t abandon Victim yourself. Keep her with us and even advance her story, building readers’ desire for her rescue beyond basic justice. Then the unknown fate isn’t gimmick but an essential contribution to both characters’ arcs. 2) In Book 1 Victim must have her own story of struggle substantial enough to carry the book to its cliffhanger. Victim’s plot and character arcs in Book 1 should then stoke Driver’s arcs in Book 2, with all arcs merging in Book 3. Like those ideas?

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Am I Locked into a Character’s Nickname Once I Use It?

in Characterization/General fiction by

Dear Editor…

When giving your character a nickname, should you use that after it’s introduced or can you go back and forth between names?

Sincerely,
H. S.

Dear H. S. …

I’m a big believer in consistency, which I think helps readers focus on what really matters in a story without distractions. Random name-switching is soaked in distraction potential. Once you introduce the nickname into the narration, stay with it. Now, if there’s a strong theme-, style-, or story-related justification for switching, okay, fine, do it—just make sure the switching contributes to the reading experience more than flusters it. Even devices intentionally deployed can hurt instead of enhance. If you want some elbow room on this, you’ve got it with the other characters, who can switch between the given name and nickname according to their personalities and relationship to your character, just as friends and family will do in real life. It all boils down to facilitating reader focus and enjoyment.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Writing a Romantic Scene for a Novel That’s Not Romance

in Characterization/Plot/Romance Novels/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I need your help! I’m writing a book, and I don’t know how to incorporate a romance scene without making the whole book a romance. It’s a YA Novel, and I don’t want to ruin the book.

Sincerely,
H.

Dear H.…

You’re trying to force a plot or character shift with an unearned moment of mushiness, and that won’t work. The fun of reading a romantic scene is feeling the emotional threads that author has been weaving between two characters finally tighten with satisfying resonance. The story hits an emotional peak, and it’s oh so lovely. Ahhhh. Without those emotional threads, no peak. Just dialogue lacking emotional underpinning and awkward touching. Ick. You don’t want to write that, and I don’t want to read it. What relationship shift is true to your characters? Their internal arcs and relationship arc haven’t been about attaining rewards found in romantic love. What’s their emotional need? Is their forced team-up finally shifting to true friendship? Are they revealing vulnerabilities to establish true trust? Identify why the characters you’ve written must connect emotionally at this moment, then write that peak. You’ll enjoy that scene, as will we.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Confused About Diversity

in Characterization/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I heard a panel at a recent conference say I had to be of a particular race to write about it, but at the same conference a different panel said I don’t have to be of a particular race to have those characters. I happen to have characters from three different countries in my middle grade fantasy WIP. Now I’m confused and questioning my WIP. Help?

Sincerely,
Confused About Diversity

Dear Confused About Diversity…

Other writers who don’t consider their lives “diverse” have also told me they want to contribute to diversity in children’s lit but are confused about how to do so in actual practice. I believe that, regardless of genre, to write a character that feels authentic you must understand how that character perceives, reacts to, and interacts with their world. Some people say that means you must’ve lived within the culture to write about it. I agree with that if your protagonist’s race/culture is a driving theme in your story. At the least, writers of those stories should have some immersive experience or deep research that allows them to write from a place of understanding beyond obvious assumptions, stereotypes, and reliance on shout-outs about foods and traditions to signal race/culture. If race/culture isn’t a driving theme, there’s room to diversify your cast if they’re individuals first and foremost; if they exist as representatives of a culture—tokens, if you will—then you’re likely walking the wrong side of the line. For more, I like SLJ’s brief intro to this list of diverse YA fiction and WeNeedDiverseBooks.org.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Is It MG Fiction If the Character Ages Into His 20s?

in Characterization/Narrative Voice/New Adult Fiction/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I am writing a manuscript that starts with the MC at 7 yearrs old. He soon turns 9, then 11, then 15, and so on. The novel ends with him in his mid-20s. The voice starts out young and I want to pitch it as MG, but at the very end of the book, he does sound more mature (with slight, gradual changes throughout as the story moves along). Is it wrong to label this as MG? Should I make the voice mature from the beginning to avoid the changes at all? Am I doing something wrong?? I’m so confused! Help!!

Thank you!
Mary

Dear Mary…

This is more a question of audience than voice. You want to pitch the story as middle grade fiction, but how many middle graders want to read about a mid-20-year-old? Or a 15-, 18-, 20-, 22-year-old? Will the take-away from the protagonist’s long character arc resonate more with a tween or an adult? He’s living through several developmental stages, each with a distinct sensibility and concerns. Crossover readers aged 18-44 do read MG, but they aren’t the primary readership. I suspect this story is better crafted for the adult or new adult markets, with grown readers in mind. You can start with that youthful MC, but it’s worth experimenting with an opening that allows readers to meet and connect with the older protagonist first. A flashback approach could show his younger self. Or, you could start with that 7-year-old and a more mature voice, hinting that there’s an older presence looking back. Your first step, though, is to definitively identify your target reader. Answer this: If you sat at a table and started telling this story, who would be sitting on the other side of that table?

Happy writing!
The Editor

WRITING NEW ADULT FICTION Launch Week, Day 2: Manipulating New Adult Characters

in Characterization/New Adult Fiction/Plot/WNAF Virtual Book Launch by

Dear Readers…

It’s Day 2 of Writing New Adult Fiction Launch Week! Today, a “Free Chapter Critique” giveaway and tips for manipulating new adults with their own universal traits.

Thanks for joining me!
The Editor

*Scroll down to enter today’s “Free First Chapter Critique” giveaway. Congratulations to yesterday’s winner, Kari Palm.

Yesterday I pointed out some social, emotional, and circumstantial traits of new adulthood. There are many great ways to manipulate your NA characters using those insights. Here are five:

  1. Force your new adult characters to reject or accept their childhoods. They’re no longer defined by their family’s circumstances or the fallout from parents’ decisions. They’ve got a clean slate—or so they think. Inside, they’re still lugging baggage, and that baggage needs to be handled. A variation of this has characters working through the scars of a tough teen experience, such as a physical attack.
  2. Make your protagonists question their self-reliance. They craved independence, but now that they have it, can they handle it? Perhaps threaten parental input—or yank it away if your young people use their parents as a crutch.
  3. Embrace the complications of forging a new social circle. In a way, your new adults are picking a new “family.” Don’t give them a cast of ideal choices.
  4. Make money an issue. Financial stress can be harsh, especially when you’re new to financial independence. “In YA the characters may be working at Starbucks for extra pocket money, whereas NA characters have to make money to survive, so the stresses on the characters are much greater. They can’t just blow it off.”—Agent Stacey Donaghy (quoted from Writing New Adult Fiction)
  5. Explore mental issues. Sadly, this is an age range in which many mental issues are triggered or come to fruition amid the stress. Mental and social issues are a part of our collective literary landscape, as themes and contributing to conflict and impacting both the internal and external journeys of characters. It’s an option, if not for your protagonist then for the people in her life who she may have to support with her newfound strengths and wisdoms.

All five of these manipulation strategies are, at their cores, about rocking your new adults’ stability. Remember, new adulthood is a time of change, with just about every element of their lives in some sort of transition. Good or bad, change is stressful, and stress leads to high emotions and conflict and bad decisions. Regardless of the genre you’re writing, if you wrap all that stress in your NA characters’ heightened emotions and then tie that up in a puffy bow of high expectations for an “ideal new adult experience,” you’re looking at a fiction gold mine. Mine it to the hilt!

Use the Rafflecopter form below to enter today’s “Free 1st 20 Pages Critique” giveaway. NA, YA, Adult… any fiction WIP is okay. (And you’re still eligible for the Friday Full MS edit giveaway, too.) Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Re: What Do They Mean, ‘Not Literary Enough’?

in Characterization/Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

What does it mean if an agent says your MG historical novel, due to the concept, needs to be more literary? Is that referring to the choice of language and sentence structure?

Sincerely,
P.

Dear P….

The “literary” versus “commercial” distinction runs deeper than vocab and sentence structure, so elevating the language won’t address the agent’s concern. I suspect your concept promises rich exploration of themes or sociocultural issues, while the story itself is action- and dialogue-driven, having the effect of skimming the surface of those themes or issues. I hear the agent calling for richer layering, with more nuanced character work as you explore how sociocultural elements of the era affect your character and, thus, her interactions with others. Does your protagonist act and react to others in discomfiting ways that force everyone to question or defend worldviews beyond the event at hand? Consider To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a child’s fear of the bogeyman plays out against the larger canvas of a town’s railroading of a black man. As the characters confront the overt theme of racism, they also struggle with universal themes of courage, class, gender, and compassion. Layers. Literary. Above all, rich storytelling that mines the era for more than its events. Is your story layered? Should it be?

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How to Balance High Action with Deep Characterization

in Characterization/General fiction/Plot by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a teen thriller, filled with lots of action. Beta readers say I’ve got the action but that the characters aren’t interacting enough. I don’t really know what they mean, since the protagonist and her protector are in every scene together. They talk all the time! Ideas? Can you recommend some books that do it right?

Thanks,
T. E. S.

Dear T. E. S….

It may be that all their chatter is plot-related fact delivery, backstory delivery, or action-steeped stuff like, “Run! … Is he gone? … We’re safe.” That doesn’t do much to deepen characterizations. Give characters something to talk about and bond/conflict over that isn’t directly related to the plot. Then, to make sure that Something doesn’t feel random and unconnected, work it into the resolution of the story. Kenneth Oppel’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book Airborn balances high action and character interaction. His characters both bond and clash over social class and gender inequality, constantly stumbling over their internalized prejudices even as they both sincerely reject those prejudices. These issues have nothing to do with the pirate raids that make up the major action, yet they create characterization opportunities and eventually factor into how the characters work together to escape the pirates. What say you, Readers? What are your favorite books that balance high action and character interaction?

The Editor

re: What To Do When Your Story Feels “Rushed”

in Characterization/General fiction by

Dear Editor…

My readers are pretty unanimous in their love for my characters, but some say the story feels rushed. I don’t know what to do with this feedback. Any advice?

Thanks,
Anon.

Dear Anon….

Consistent positive response to the characters tells me you’ve developed your character arcs well, so the events in the plot are probably well chosen and executed, and your characterization must be strong to engender such loyalty. I suspect your storytelling is heavy on dialogue and action but lacks depth that makes readers feel fully satisfied when they reach “The End.” It’s the difference between a sweet dessert and a rich one—both are yummy, but only the latter has you walking away from the table feeling full. You can enrich your story by doing a world-building revision pass. I don’t mean dropping in a bunch of setting descriptions to slow the reading. Rather, work in setting details with language that conveys an atmosphere, have the characters act upon and react to props unique to the spirit of that place, and include smells and textures that engage readers’ senses. This enriches the reading experience, making it feel full instead of breezy.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: What’s the Beef with Third Person Objective POV?

in Characterization/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’ve always liked the idea of writing in 3rd person objective, which never describes characters’ thought or feeling in favor of a cinematic feel. I’m planning to use it for my multiple-quest YA, but considering I’ve never seen a YA novel written in this POV, and that it’s not mentioned in your Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies, I wonder if it’s generally despised by readers/agents/editors.

Thanks for your thoughts on this,
Harry

Dear Harry…

YA readers in particular yearn to connect emotionally with characters. Hence the prevalence of first person (“I”) POV in YA fiction. Third person limited also lets us in on the thoughts and heart of a character. Third person omniscient can drop us into anyone and everyone’s heart and mind. But third person objective stays outside all characters, leaving readers to interpret character moods and thoughts from the action and dialogue. To avoid flat, emotionless storytelling that fails to engage readers, your “show, don’t tell” craftwork needs to fire on all cylinders. If you do pick this POV, use settings with features and props that characters can react to or act upon in truly revealing ways. Imagine two teens arguing, then one storming out a door. Now imagine that teen yanking the doorknob only to have it rip out in her hand. Does she sigh and rest her head on the door? Turn and make up? Kick the freakin’ door down? Force behavior that reveals emotion.

Happy writing!
The Editor

 

re: Resources for Richer Characters, Plots, Voice, Dialogue

in Characterization/Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Plot by

Dear Readers…

Two things floated to the top of the Internet this week that you might find useful for beefing up characters, plot, voice, and dialogue, so The Editor is featuring them today: “Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys” and The Editor’s FREE webinar “Four Fixes for a ‘Flat’ Story”. Read on for descriptions and links…

“Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys”The Editor’s guest post on the great Cynsations blog, which is featuring and tweeting “best of” guest posts while host Cynthia Leitich Smith is on summer hiatus.  Excerpt: “Some antagonists seem perfectly nice when you first meet them. They can have very obvious moral centers. They might even be friends with the protagonist—or would be, under different circumstances. But in the circumstances you devise to get and keep your story rocking, that character provokes your protagonist, challenges him or throws roadblocks in his path or pushes him into situations of actual physical peril. The antagonist causes wonderful, juicy conflict even if he still seems inherently nice otherwise…. How can you make your antagonist believably sympathetic? Here are five ways…”

“Four Fixes for a ‘Flat’ Story” webinar w/ The Editor & Katie Davis – This 1.5-hr webinar covers four ways to fix your story when an editor tells you, “I couldn’t get into the story…. The story feels flat…. The voice isn’t distinct…. The dialogue doesn’t sound natural.” It was created as the grand finale for The Editor’s Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies Blog Tour but you can still view the full webinar (free) on Youtube.

re: Help! Unromantic Me Can’t Write Romantic Scenes

in Characterization/General fiction/Romance Novels/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m trying to write a romantic scene for a YA novel that I’m writing but I’m the most unromantic person I’ve ever met. Do you have any advice as to how I can get over my unromanticness and write good romance scenes?

Sincerely,
Taylor

Dear Taylor…

Freeze! Put the flowers down. Back away from that box of chocolates. This isn’t about you, it’s about the characters. A great romantic scene grows out of the characters’ emotional connection with each other across all preceding scenes. Ask yourself what each character needs emotionally, then find ways for the other character to satisfy the need. Work this into each shared scene until, finally, a situation arises that brings that need to a climax. That’s when the romance rolls out. A girl who feels epically misunderstood will go weak in the knees when a boy shows that he knows her. Maybe he reads to her from her favorite book when she’s sad. The sound of his voice as it embodies her beloved characters is a turn-on. The way he holds the book in his hands—those gentle yet firm hands she so wants to hold her—is a turn-on. The way he trips over words yet plods onward shows his vulnerability … and is a turn-on. She can’t help it, she reaches out and makes the physical connection. Build up from emotional to physical and your characters (and readers!) will be putty in your hands.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: The Secret to Writing Dystopian Fiction?

in Characterization/Creative Process by

Dear Editor…

I’m attempting to find a good how-to article on book on how to get started on writing a dystopian novel. Any suggestions??

Thanks!
Karen

Dear Karen…

“Dystopian” is the word of the week, with The Hunger Games movie setting records and dystopian novels making trumpeted debuts (Lissa Price’s Starters) and landing on the bestseller lists, as did Jeff Hirsch’s debut The Eleventh Plague. Jeff was a Guest Editor here recently addressing fears that dystopian was “over.” Read that, then visit The League of Extraordinary Writers, a blog by 10 writers immersed in the craft and news of the genre. But don’t focus on learning to “write dystopian.” Learn to write strong characters. Dystopian fiction is distinguished by characters who embody the quest to understand humanity. They live in societies that have morphed to emphasize humanity’s ugliest aspects, with the setting usually embodying this mindset. The dystopian hero recognizes the faults of his world and acts on this realization in a way that affects his world and makes readers believe that humanity’s strengths will ultimately triumph. Or at least have hopes of doing so. That’s the bottom line: hope. Strive to write characters who are rich enough to shoulder this literary burden, and read widely in the genre so you won’t write cliches but rather offer a fresh take on this noble quest.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Multiple Character Quests

in Characterization/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m new to writing and currently working on a YA book.  I have three main characters in my book that will be going on different quests.  How should I handle each quest in one book or should they each have a book of there own – meeting up at the end?  Thanks for you help!

Kathi

Dear Kathi…

Not one to take the easy path, eh? Try some tactics authors use when they have two protagonists with separate storylines for much of the book: 1) Give the characters equal screen time, with their chapters appearing in a regular sequence. 2) Keep the chapters short so readers won’t think you’ve abandoned a character for too long. 3) Transition out of one character’s chapter and into another with a common element. For example, end a chapter with Character A climbing onto a bus with resolve, and start the next chapter with Character B climbing down from her treehouse with resolve. This will create a sense of continuity. You don’t want readers feeling like you’re jumping from character to character.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Girl Writes Boy . . . Bad Idea?

in Characterization/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I write both non-fiction picture books and boy-centric middle grade novels. I publish the non-fiction under my full name, but should I consider using initials for the novels, since I’m not the same gender as the MC? Will it matter to the reader?

Thank you for your thoughts on this!
Alison

Dear Alison…

Plenty of ladies write male narratives, and vice versa. Don’t sweat that—not for MG fiction, anyway. Now, if you were a guy writing a female lead in a romance for adult women… but that’s another marketplace altogether. Don’t hide your gender. The protagonist for my 1st person MG novel Big Mouth is a boy, and my very girly name is emblazoned across the cover. If anything, the question “Can a girl write a convincing boy?” is great fodder for discussion when I’m presenting to classes. Many people advocate writing what you don’t know. Just confirm that your character’s sensibility is convincingly male by having some fellas read your manuscript. They’ll let you now if your dude’s choices or judgments are too girly.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Do I “Flesh Out” Characters?

in Characterization by

Dear Editor…

I’m getting feedback to flesh out characters in my story. What does this mean and how can I do it in my story?

Sincerely,
Wendy

Dear Wendy…

Your characters probably read like cardboard cutouts, doing expected things in expected scenarios. The fix is deliciously mean: Deny them the things they expect! When you shove characters out of their comfort zones, they do unexpected things and grow more complex in the process. Got a cliché girly girl who jumps into her car after school and races to her room for a good cry when someone hurts her feelings? Slash her tires and force her to walk home—in the rain no less . . . and then make sure no one’s home to let her in. How will she respond to being stuck outside after a day like that? Will she find humor in Murphy’s Law, or will she bash her way through a window? Either way, we’ll get a look at her mettle. She won’t be a cardboard cutout just going through the motions. She’ll be going through the emotions—and deepening as a result.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Clueless About Character Arcs

in Characterization by

Dear Editor…

I say I have a character arc, but editors say I don’t. Clearly I’m clueless about something. Help!

Thanks,
R.M.

Dear R.M.…

Your character’s transformation isn’t drastic enough. You need a more seriously flawed protagonist from the get-go— someone with oodles of room to grow. Don’t be timid with him. Even likeable, “normal” people are messed up and make decisions that blow. Make him muck things up quite steadily, even as he tries to fix whatever needs fixing. Only when he’s in dire straights will he be ready for the epiphany or idea that propels him to success and a new awareness about himself or the world. Test it: When he reaches The End, extract him from that last scene and drop him back onto Page 1. He should handle himself so well that you wouldn’t even have a story if this were the guy to really start it.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Ways to Stop Copying Characters?

in Characterization by

Dear Editor…

What do you suggest for younger writers with more limited experiential base when it comes to letting go of copying characters (i.e., Harry Potters, Wimpy Kid)?

Thanks,

K.

Dear K.…

Encourage the copying. In fact, tell Young Writer to pick three of his favorite characters. Then, get sneaky: Have the writer choose the strength of one of those characters, the flaw of another, and a physical feature or two of the third, and then list those items. He’s now looking at an amalgam of three characters—and thus a copy of none. Now have the child write down what Mr. Amalgam wants more than anything in the world, making him a full character complete with a goal to strive for, a flaw that hinders his efforts, a strength to help him overcome that flaw, and a look that’s all his own. Voila! A unique protagonist with shades of the writer’s favorite heroes, making the child more eager than ever to write his story.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Must a Murdering Dad Make Good by “The End”?

in Characterization/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

My protagonist’s father is convicted of murder. He also has a history of abuse. He’s found innocent of the murder, and promises a better life for his family. My critique group wants him rehabilitated. How can I resolve this and stay true to the time period when spousal abuse was sadly hidden or ignored?

Sincerely,

Maria

Dear Maria…

In teen fiction, your primary responsibility is to your teen protagonist. It’s her story, above all else, and your readers care about her struggle to overcome a situation, be it one at school, one at home, or one that involves a murderous, abusive parent. Your story must end with your protagonist finding a new maturity or understanding of herself and how she can live her life in full knowledge of her father’s crime(s). It’s not about a tidy ending, with Dad making good. Sometimes dads don’t make good. If being true to the story, the era, and the culture means that Dad shouldn’t get rehabilitated, then don’t force it for the sake of a pat ending. You want a satisfying ending, and that satisfaction will come from your protagonist’s emotional empowerment.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: How Many Characters Are Too Many in Chapter 1?

in Characterization/Openings/Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Is there a maximum number of characters to introduce in the first chapter of a MG grade or YA novel? I don’t want to introduce too many, but I have 8 characters PLUS a generic Mom, Dad, and two sisters. Does it make a diff if some of these 8 are name intros only?

Sincerely,

Carol

Dear Carol…

Twelve characters isn’t an opening chapter—it’s a party! And it’s overwhelming. No reader can keep that many new characters straight, especially when two thirds of them are just names. That’s a clear sign you’ve fallen victim to backstory, where you explain your protagonist’s life or describe her predicament in full. Don’t do that. Chapter One should focus on the protagonist, revealing her main concern and hinting at the journey or challenges ahead of her. You may do this with the help of a secondary character or two, but keep the number small, and have them acting upon or reacting to the protagonist, keeping the spotlight on her. There’s no official number of characters for the first chapter, but ‘fewer is better’ is a good rule of thumb. Next time, instead of writing a big ol’ party, imagine your readers at a big ol’ party. They wouldn’t get some voice-over delivering the history of every party-goer as they walk in the door. They’d meet a few of them, one or two at a time, one question-and-response at a time. At the end of the night, they’d go home with a solid feeling for two or maybe three people. Perfect. There’ll be plenty of parties for the folks they didn’t meet tonight—just as there are plenty of chapters in your book for the characters in the wings.

Happy writing!
The Editor

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