Friday, August 09, 2013

Beware the character who ...

Beware the character who becomes so real you feel they've trusted you to be their scribe.

Does that describe any of the characters you're bringing to life now or have languishing on your hard drive?

I've been reading a lot of writing books recently. What I've discovered is this is my particular stumbling block: writing about a character rather than writing a story about a character.

Such characters can be fun to write for. They can be fun to share brain space with. But their story won't be compelling unless the reader is continually wondering, "How will they get out of this pickle? And how will they master all these obstacles to get what they really want?"

A story is a vehicle for the Lead character. And the Lead is a vehicle for the story. Each will push the other to become the vehicle they need. If the Lead is the Queen's wizard but the story can be told more effectively by a girl who scrubs the castle floors that's who the Lead will become. If the story goal is to defeat the Queen's enemy but the Lead can grow most by slowly realizing the Queen isn't who the Lead wants her to be, the story can change to make that happen.

Which is all obvious until a character sets up camp in your brain and whispers, "You love me. I'm a great character. You need to tell my story. I promise. You'll love it."

You want to believe them! You do love them. But often, despite their promises, such characters only react to what life throws at them. They're buffeted in a boat by currents, rocks, other boaters, reacting to stay in the boat, but no sense of progress since they don't know what they want. This "story" could go on forever. Or until you abandon it because it's not going anywhere.

What a story needs is a water-phobic scholar feverishly rowing towards the derelict ship where her arrogant brother is trapped with a ticking bomb as sharks, ninja pirate assassins and her once-best friend tries to stop her.

Or not. But even a character driven story will have passion driving your character towards a destination.

Write-me! characters can be great fun to write for. If one is nagging you, go ahead and write. There's loads of writing craft to polish while writing for them. It can be satisfying. As long as you don't expect a story to come of it.

So how can you tell if a character will tell a great story? (Next: Characters with stories to tell.)

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