26 Jan

Every Book Can Get Better: Getting to Know Your Protagonist

Posted in Conferences, Craft, Process, Writing

Putting Fire in Your Fiction, a craft session taught by Donald Maass, helped me reevaluate how I think about my characters.  This session focused on what makes fiction great and how we can apply that to our own novels.  Not surprisingly, it all comes down to building great characters, most especially your protagonist.
According to Maass, there are 3 basic types of protagonists: the Everyman, the Hero/Heroine and the Dark Protagonist.  I had heard similar categories mentioned in writing workshops so this concept was not entirely new to me.  What was new, however, was Maass’ approach for getting to know your protagonist, depending on the category.
The obvious thing would be to figure out who the character is, right?  Actually, what Maass had us do in this session was the exact opposite.  For each category of protagonist, he had us look at who the character could be, not necessarily who the character is.

1) Everyman: Instead of focusing on how “normal” or ordinary this character is, try to figure out what makes this character inspiring.
2) Hero/Heroine: Sure, this character is extraordinary… maybe even superhuman, but what makes him or her human? 
3) Dark Protagonist: This character is wounded/lost/condemned to suffer but how can he or she find hope?

We’ve all heard writing teachers tell us that our protagonist needs to change, but rarely do they ever tell us how.  Maass’ lecture taught me that character development comes down to one simple principle: whatever category your protagonist falls into, the challenge is to make the reader realize that the character could be something that’s the flip-side of who the character actually is.  In other words, the ordinary character needs to have the potential to do something extraordinary, the superhuman character must become at least a little bit human and the condemned character must discover a glimmer of hope.

But wait, it gets better.  Instead of making us think only about our characters, Maass showed us how to get to know our characters by drawing from our own experiences.  He had a whole series of questions he asked us to answer about ourselves and our experiences depending on what category our protagonist fell into.  Essentially, the question lists came down to this:

  • For the Everyman think of someone who inspires you.  Try to tease apart what it is that makes that person inspiring and they give that trait to your protagonist (even if it’s just a small slice of that trait).
  • For the Hero/Heroine make note of ways in which you are fallible and human.  Try to give some of that to your protagonist.
  • For the Dark Protagonist consider ways you can feel compassion for that character.  How can he or she find redemption?

Sometimes it’s scary when our characters turn around and do the opposite of what we want them to do.  I know when that happens to me, it seriously makes me question my sanity.  But the truth is, when our characters misbehave or surprise us, that’s when we know that they’re becoming real.

Update: for more on Donald Maass’ session Putting Fire in Your Fiction, check out this post at All About Them Words.  In her post, Ghenet shares some tips from Maass on how you can draw on your experiences to make flat scenes come to life.


19 Jan

Let’s Talk Tense

Posted in Craft, DIY MFA, Writing

Last week we talked about Point of View so I thought this week it would make sense to talk about verb tense and how that affects the viewpoint choices we make.  The choices are pretty simple and there are only 2: past and present.  (Yes, there’s also future tense, but, really, have you ever seen an entire short story or novel written only in future tense?  If you have, please post in the comments and you will make my day.)

When it comes to tense in fiction writing, there’s one essential “rule” to remember: be consistent.  If you decide you want to write in present tense, stay in the present.  If you choose the past tense, stay in the past.

But how do you choose the verb tense to begin with?  The best way is to understand the benefits and limitations of both, then decide which one serves your story best.  Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you choose.

Present Tense
  • Immediacy – You feel like you’re right there with the main character.
  • Suspense –  This is especially important if your story is one where the POV character is in peril.  If the story is in present tense, the reader won’t know until the end if the POV character survives.
  • It Can Sound a Little Unnatural Let’s face it, present tense is relatively new in the world of fiction writing.  Our ears are more used to hearing stories told in past tense (e.g. “Once upon a time there was a…”)  This is not to say that all present tense sounds weird, but for some writers, it may not come as naturally and could end up sounding hokey or gimmicky.  The trick here is practice, practice, practice.
Past Tense
  • Distance – The narrator has more distance from the events in the story it because they happened in the past.  This gives the narrator some perspective about those events and allows the narrator to have some hindsight.
  • Location in Time Using the past tense, you also need to consider where the narrator is telling the story from.  (This is especially important if you’re using 1st person.)  Is the narrator an old man looking back on his early life?  Is she telling the story just after having lived it?  Depending on where the narrator is NOW, it can effect how he or she tells the story.
  • Less Suspense If you’re writing in 1st person or 3rd person limited and it’s past tense, the implication is that the POV character has lived to tell the tale.  In most stories, this is probably not a problem and won’t kill much of your suspense, but if your novel is all about whether or not the POV character survives, then past tense could lessen the suspense.

Choose wisely.  Be consistent.  And don’t tear the fabric of the space-time continuum.


12 Jan

Point of View: A Cheat Sheet

Posted in Craft, Writing

When starting a new project, one of the big decisions you have to make is which point of view (POV) you’re going to use.  Here’s a cheat sheet to help you choose.

First person is when the narrator is a character in the story.

First Person
This is when the main character is the person telling the story.  In other words, this is the “I” narrator.  Examples: Holden from Catcher in the Rye or Katniss from The Hunger Games.

First Person Peripheral
This is when the narrator is a supporting character in the story, not the main character.  This is still the “I” narrator, but now the narrator is not the protagonist.  Example: Nick from The Great Gatsby (Gatsby is the protagonist).

Third person is when the narrator is NOT a character in the story.

Third Person Limited
Third person is the “he/she/it” narrator.  Limited means that the POV is limited to just one character.  This means that the narrator only knows what that character knows, only sees what that character sees.  Examples: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (where the story follows Scrooge at all times–even scenes that Scrooge would not be privy too we see through his eyes as he travels with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future).  The Book of Three (first book of the Prydain Chronicles) where the narrator follows the protagonist Taran.

Third Person Multiple
Again, we’re in the “he/she/it” category, but now the narrator can follow multiple characters in the story.  The challenge with this POV is making sure your reader knows when you’re switching from one character to another.  A good way to make the switch is to use chapter breaks or section breaks to signal a new POV.  Example: The High King (which is the final book of the Prydain Chronicles) where the narrator follows several characters in the story, including Taran.

Third Person Omniscient
This one still uses a “he/she/it” narration but now the narrator knows EVERYTHING in the story.  The narrator isn’t limited by what the POV character knows.  It’s sort of like the narrator is god, hence the term “omniscient.”  This type of POV was very popular back in the day but has recently become less popular (some people feel like it’s a little old-fashioned).  Still, some excellent books use this narrator.  Examples: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Third Person Objective
Just like the omniscient narrator can get into any character’s head, the objective narrator gets into NO ONE’s mind.  This means the objective narrator can only relate information that is easily visible (character’s words and actions).  This narrator can’t tell us about the character’s thoughts or feelings because it doesn’t know.  It’s kind of like watching a movie, where the only information you get is what you can see or hear.  This POV is very tough to sustain for long pieces which is why the only example I can find is a short story: Raymond Carver’s Little Things.

Other POV Choices

Second Person
This is the “you” narrator.  “You go to the store and realize you forgot your wallet… etc.”  Like objective POV, the second person is hard to sustain so there are very few novels written in second person.  This POV is more popular for short stories.  In fact, the first story I ever published is in the second person (which is weird because I think it’s the only story I’ve ever done in second person).  Anyway, if you’re curious, it’s here.

Unreliable First Person
This is when you have a first person narrator but you can’t trust him/her for any number of reasons. Maybe the character is a very young child who doesn’t really understand what’s happening in the story.  Or perhaps the character is insane.  Or better yet, the character could be perfectly sane but also a pathological liar so you can’t believe what she says.  Example:  The Tell-tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe.

Epistolary (or other) Form
Epistolary is when the story is told in letters.  There are many forms that work similarly to epistolary forms, like journal form or a story told through emails, etc.  Mostly these forms work like the first person because the main character in the story is often the one writing the letters/journal/etc.  The difference is that the story is limited even further because of the form.  For example, people don’t usually write dialogue in their letters, so if you want to use dialogue in epistolary form, you’ll have to find a way around that.

In the end, POV is all about consistency.  Whatever form you decide on, it’s important to let the reader know what the “rules” are for your story and then stick to them.

Edit: Added and corrected a few examples.


20 Nov


Posted in Brain Boot Camp, Craft, Process, Writing

Here’s the ugly truth:  No writer exists in a void.  All writing is influenced by what has come before.  There is no such thing as utterly, completely unique because writing exists within a context.

In a world that’s always screaming for the Next New Thing, how do we writers reconcile that with the scary truth that there’s really no such thing as new?  Here are a few things I learned as I completed my WIP draft.

1)  Write what you love, not what the market “wants.”  I used to work in the toy industry and it always boggled my mind that we had to predict what kids would “want” not now but a year from now.  We could spend a whole year developing a product only to discover at the end of it all that the trend was over.  The same is true for writing.  If you’re working on your project because the genre or topic are a big hit now and you want to jump on the bandwagon, chances are you’ll be disappointed.  But if you’re working on this book because you love the subject and the characters, then no matter what happens, it’s win-win.

2)  Context isn’t something to be afraid of.  Think of it as a “safety net.”  In the product development world, companies love to create extensions of popular product lines.  After all, a good chunk of the development legwork has already been done in the first version, customers recognize the brand and there’s already a built-in market for it.

Think of books that came before yours as a similar “safety net” to your project.  Study the books–both the successful ones and the less so–and think about what made them work or not work.  Think about what you can do to differentiate your project from what has come before, but still keep it within the context.

3)  Find partners in crime.  One of my favorite things to do is go to conferences!  I love meeting other writers, learning about the craft and hearing new information about the business.  This January 2011 I’ll be attending the Writer’s Digest and SCBWI conferences, both in NYC.  If you’ve signed up for either of these, let me know in the comments!  I love connecting with new writer friends.

The way I see it, you never know who you’ll meet at one of these things.  It could be a new critique partner or beta reader, it could be someone you’ll collaborate with some day, it could be a future mentor or someone you might mentor yourself.  The key is to be open to possibilities.

4)  Ideas are not books.  Books are books.  In his memoir, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell talks about the distinction between the idea and execution.  Every time I start getting down about how un-unique my ideas are, I reread his chapter on plot where he discusses this subject.  His main point is this: sure, an idea might be shiny and new, but an idea does not make a book unique.  What makes a book unique is how the writer implements the idea.  An example:

Take the Harry Potter series–many people marvel at J.K. Rowling’s originality. “How did she come up with such a unique idea?” they wonder.  As if all it takes to create a fantastic book (or series of books) is one extraordinary idea.  Because when you have the fun flashy idea then the book just writes itself.  Ha!

I don’t know about you, but I find this outlook to be rather belittling to the writer; it’s almost as if the writing doesn’t matter.  But as we all know, Harry Potter is about much more than just one sparkly idea.  These books are what they are because the author wrote them.  That same concept in the hands of any other writer would have turned out to be completely different.

5)  Ideas are like subways: any minute now there will be another one.  When I worked in toy development, our department had a attitude that boiled down to this: “If a competitor wants to steal our idea, let it.  We’ll have an even better one in five minutes anyway.”  The minute you think of your idea as one link in a long chain of great ideas, then that one idea doesn’t seem all that ground-breaking anymore.  If you coddle and protect your idea like it’s something precious and priceless, you run the risk of getting too attached and taking the project too seriously.  Have confidence that another better idea is always just a brainstorm away and that even if someone does “borrow” your concept, they’ll never be able to execute it like you will.

Now go out there and do something wild and crazy and unique!


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