Tag Archives: plotting

Five Reasons to Fully Develop Your Characters

Characters. Can’t live with ’em, can’t write a book without ’em.

In my post about needing Pantsers Anonymous earlier this week, I mentioned that I’d written 60% of my first draft before realising that I didn’t know nearly enough about my protagonist. Not good, right? A few people suggested some great methods for developing characters either before or during writing, and everyone agreed that getting to know your characters is vitally important.

So I got to thinking: How is it that I thought I knew my protagonist, when I really didn’t? How is it that I thought I knew about his motivations, when all I really had was a rough idea that he wanted to be better, stronger, smarter, and more heroic?

That’s when I realised that I had developed his character. To a point. I’d just only concentrated on developing him from the point that interesting things started happening to him.But a fully developed character is so much more than that. A fully developed character is one that we know backwards, forwards and inside out. We may not (and probably shouldn’t) include his/her entire backstory in our writing, but we need to know it.

Here’s why.

1. Because cardboard cut-outs are 2-dimensional.

“Tell me about your character.”

“He’s a taxi driver in New York.”

Surprisingly, that does tell me a fair bit about your character. It tells me his gender, occupation, and location. It paints him as someone who’s seen lots of weird stuff, and probably has nerves of steel. It tells me he’s an adult, and that he probably has a fair bit of life experience. If you add in a couple of descriptive words like ‘grizzled’ or ‘surly’ or ‘dodgy’, I have a pretty good mental image of him. If I had any visual arts skills at all, I could probably draw you a picture of him.

But that’s all it would be: a picture. A 2-dimensional rendering. Because the character has no depth. He has no life outside of taxi driving. He has no goals and no motivations. So he picks up a fare and gets pulled into a situation where he’s got a wounded angel in the back seat and is being chased by blood-thirsty demons intent on destroying the sole creature who can save the world from eternal damnation, you have absolutely no idea how he’ll react.

But develop his character a little more, and suddenly you have a guy who studied comparative religion and philosophy at college, before stumbling across the identities of a number of New York based members of the Illumaniti. He had to go into hiding to save his life, and is working as a taxi driver to earn enough money to keep investigating a secret plot to use demonic powers to control government officials.

Try drawing that on a piece of cardboard!

2. Because he says tomah-to and she says tomay-to.

I was chatting to a friend earlier in the week, and she told me about a book she’s reading at the moment (which will remain nameless). In this particular book, there are two POV characters who narrate the story in alternating chapters. It’s a fairly common method of presenting multiple POVs these days, especially in romance-flavoured books. But my friend isn’t enjoying the structure at all. Why? Because she can never remember which character is narrating at a give time. Their voices are exactly the same.

Regardless of whether you’re writing in 1st or 3rd person, and whether you’ve got one or multiple POVs in your novel, each character should have a distinct voice. You usually shouldn’t need dialogue tags to identify if it’s John or Mary talking. And when you’re dealing with internal dialogue? There should be no question whose head you’re in.

The best way to ensure your characters have distinct voices is to give them distinct personalities, backgrounds, goals, beliefs, and values. And that means spending the time on character development.

3. Because you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

Imagine a teenage boy is standing in front of you. He’s wearing a waiter’s uniform and his name tag says his name is Freddy. He has a gold ring on his left ring finger. His hair is short and neat, and he smiles when he takes your order. But there’s something slightly haunted about his eyes.

Imagine this boy grew up in Manhattan, living in an old brownstone house in Carnegie Hill. His father was a banker, and his mother volunteered for various charities.

Now imagine he grew up in Brooklyn, in a crappy tenement in Cypress Hill. He doesn’t know who his father was, and his mother did whatever it took for her son to go to school and have a better life than she did.

In both bases, the superficial description is the same. But the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking? The moment he has to make a difficult moral choice? That’s when you’ll notice the difference. Because when the chips are down and the stakes are high, the circumstances of his childhood, and the values imparted to him by his parents, will matter.

4. Because the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

No one has an idyllic childhood, then wakes up one day and decides to be a serial killer.

Well, maybe that happens in real life. I don’t know. But in fiction, things have to make sense. In fiction, a cause must come before an effect. In fiction, that serial killer was tortured, tormented and/or abused as a child. Because if she wasn’t, readers won’t buy it.

Every insecurity, ever internal conflict, ever moral dilemma, every hard choice that your character needs to make is only difficult because of something that happened in her past. And if you don’t know anything about her past… Well, how can you possibly figure out what she’s going to do in the future? You’re trying to write an effect without a cause. That doesn’t mean you need to know the cause first — in many cases, it’s easier to work out a character’s past based on what she’s doing in the present. But the trick is to do that consistently. If chapter seven sees her too scared to go into the basement because her step-mother used to lock her in the dark when she was bad, don’t have her willingly going into series of tunnels in chapter three.

5. Because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Even the villain. The villain in your story probably doesn’t think of himself as a villain. He may be doing villainous things, but he probably thinks that he’s doing them for good reasons. So, if everyone is the hero of their own story, does that mean they all want the same thing?

No. For some people, “winning” means being safe. For others, “winning” means being famous or rich. For still others, “winning” means finding love. (We won’t go into what Charlie Sheen thinks winning means.)

If your hero is going to win the day, you’d better know what he thinks “winning” is all about. Because the guy who desperately wants to find love is probably not going to feel very satisfied if he triumphs over evil, and his reward is a modelling contract.

When do you develop your characters — before or during the writing process? Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to do it effectively?


Filed under Writing

Pantsers Anonymous

Hi, my name is Jo and I’m a Pantser.

I’ve been a Pantser for as long as I can remember. When I have an idea for a new story, I just sit down and write. Sometimes I know a little about the world I’m creating or the main character or the plot. But not often. I just figure it out as I go.

By the time I’m finished the first chapter, I’ve usually got a handle on the main characters. By the time I’ve hit the first conflict, I’ve generally figured out how the book will end. By the time I’m a third of the way through, I need to stop and write a brief outline for the rest of the book.

I’ve tried outlining before I start. I’ve tried creating files on characters and settings and plot points. But it just doesn’t work for me. It robs me of inspiration and makes me feel empty inside. So I long ago resigned myself to being a Pantser.

There’s plenty of us around. All of us writing by the seat of our pants and discovering the plot twists and turns as they happen. It’s exciting, really.

Most of the time.


But sometimes…

Sometimes it’s frustrating.

I recently had the opportunity to have the first three chapters of my WIP (Work in Progress) read by a published author whom I greatly respect. She offered to read my pages and send me some notes with her thoughts and feedback. Of course, I took her up on the offer. (Who wouldn’t?)

After a couple of weeks, I got her feedback. I read it several times. I went away and thought about it. Then I read it again.

I’m incredibly grateful to her for taking the time out of her schedule to read my still-in-its-early-stages draft and send me her thoughts. Incredibly grateful.

Especially because she complimented me on the scene I felt was strongest.

And also because she pointed out the flaws that I secretly feared (but knew) were on the page.

Her feedback went something like this:

  • I like the world you’ve created.
  • The sidekick character is terrific.
  • The protagonist is too bland.
  • It’s a very long run-up before it gets interesting. [Jo’s favourite scene]  is terrific and unusual. I don’t think the stuff up to then earns its place and it’s very explainy.

Now, I already pretty much knew that the first couple of chapters would be shortened and turned into a single chapter during revisions. So no problem there. As a pantser, the first couple of chapters of a first draft are really more about me getting into the story than anything else.

But the point about my protagonist being bland… Well.

Well, I really knew that already.

I started thinking more about him, and about how to bring his personality on to the page in a bigger way,. And I had a sudden realisation. An epiphany, if you will. I knew nothing about my protagonist.

Apparently he sprung into being, fully formed, at about the same time he developed magic powers. I had no clue who he was, deep down, what his values were, or what motivated him. So I’ve put my writing on pause to concentrate on developing my protagonist. And that, in turn, has led me to finally decide on the setting for my story.

Right now, I’m researching a setting, exploring the backstory of my main character, and immersing myself more fully into the world of my imagination. I’ve got notes galore on things I’ll have to change during revisions (which I’m really looking forward to). But first, I need to finish the research and write the remainder of my first draft.

Like I said, sometimes it’s frustrating to be a pantser. It’s crazy to write 60% of a novel without knowing where it’s set, or having any idea of the main character’s motivations.


But on the other hand…

I kind of like this kind of crazy.

Do you plot your novels first, or are you a member of Pantsers Anonymous? Have you been in a similar situation?


Filed under Writing

BWF: The Unpredictable Plotter

Last weekend I was thrilled to attend the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I attended four workshops over three days, talked to established authors, beginning writers and everyone in between,  and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself fully in the art and craft of writing.

The first workshop I attended was The Unpredictable Plotter with Toni Jordan. This workshop was definitely a highlight of the Festival for me. I’d been a little concerned that a six hour workshop would drag, but I needn’t have worried. Toni was engaging, enthusiastic, and interesting throughout the session. By the time it finished, I was ready to sign on for another six hours.

I’d love to share everything I learned from Toni during those six hours. I really, really would. But sadly that’s impossible. Because even if I did type out all 3000 words (roughly) of my notes, it still wouldn’t be” everything”. If it worked that way, we’d all just buy the book of the workshop rather than attend workshops at all. It’s as much the interaction between the participants and the teacher that makes a workshop great as it is the information presented.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to share anything. Here are my Top 5 learnings from Toni Jordan’s The Unpredictable Plotter.

1. Everybody Plots

I’ve talked before and Plotters and Pantsers. If you’re not sure what the difference is, it’s fairly simple. A Plotter is someone who plots the entirety of their novel before they start writing their manuscript. A Pantser is someone who prefers to write by the seat of their pants and see where the story and the characters take them.

The question I’ve always had is: So, how does a Pantser (like me) make sure to hit all the important parts of a plot? And Toni had an answer. One that is simple and elegant.

Everybody plots. The difference is not in the process, but in the timing.

  • Plotters do their plotting first, and have limited rewrites after their first draft is done.
  • Pantsers write their first draft, and then do their plotting and rearrange/change the draft as necessary. (This means they may need more rewrites, and will need to develop the ability to be honest and objective about their own work.)

2. Conflict Makes Interesting Characters

When we started talking about characters, Toni said something that really resonated with me:

The biggest problem people face with designing a plot is that they’ve got a protagonist that’s so boring you can’t make anything interesting happen to them.

We’ve all heard a million times that conflict makes interesting stories, but this is the first time that I’ve ever really considered that conflict is also what makes interesting characters. And not just a superficial conflict, either. The greatest protagonists have three levels of conflict:

  • Internal Conflict
  • Interpersonal Conflict
  • Physical Conflict

While the options for each of these are endless, you’ll often find that they conform to a number of styles of conflict. These include, but aren’t limted to:

  • Internal Conflict: Self-doubt, Feelings of inferiority, Fear, Guilt, etc.
  • Interpersonal Conflict: Sidekick, Friends, Family members, Romantic interest, etc.
  • Physical Conflict: Villains and enemies, Nature, Disease, Social Custom, Weather, etc.

3. The Pebble That Starts the Avalanche

Anyone who has read a book on the craft of writing will understand what is meant by the term ‘Inciting Incident’. The Inciting Incident is usually described as the dynamic event that starts the story rolling. For example: In crime fiction, the Inciting Incident is often the moment where the body is discovered — without that event, the story wouldn’t take place. We’re always told to put the Inciting Incident as close to the beginning of the story as possible and Toni actually expressed this in a way that finally (finally!) made sense to me:

The Inciting Incident should be as close to the beginning of the story as possible, where the reader has enough information to understand it.

The other point that really struck me is that the Inciting Incident doesn’t need to be a dramatic event. It doesn’t even need to be something that stands out. The Inciting Incident is simply the pebble that starts the avalanche. It is the first thing that happens to start the story, after which point there is no backing out. And that first pebble may be much more subtle than you’d expect.

4. Mirror, Mirror

Have you ever considered the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the story Climax? Yeah, me neither. At least, not until it was mentioned in this workshop. But if you take note in books and movies that resonate with you — those stories that feel complete and encapsulated — you’ll notice that there is a relationship.

One way to create that effect is to mirror an aspect of the Inciting Incident in the Climax. The aspect you choose will be unique to your story, but find something. Perhaps the same characters are present, or the scenes take place in the same location or the same time of day, or there’s a recurring symbol or item.

5. Being Unpredictable

The way to create an unputdownable novel is to make sure that one scene leads inexorably to the next, while simultaneously creating unexpected twists and turns. As an author, the first thing that occurs to you when you’re writing is probably going to be the first thing that occurs to the reader at the same point. So it’s a good idea to mix it up with something different.

Toni asked us to think of a particular scene in our WIP and then write a list of 20 different things that could happen in the very next scene. Admittedly, many of those 20 things were silly, but scattered amongst them were some really interesting ideas. I can definitely envision myself using this technique next time I’m stuck with what to do next.

About Toni Jordan:

Toni Jordan’s debut novel, Addition, was shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferies Award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009, and has been published in sixteen countries. It is currently being adapted for film. Her new novel, Nine Days, is an ambitious and triumphantly realised piece of historical fiction about family, sacrifice, and love. Set in the working class suburb of Richmond, Melbourne, one the eve of war in 1939, Toni has harnessed all the spiky wit, compassion and lust for life that drew readers in droves to Addition and Fall Girl.

In real life, Toni is warm, friendly, and a great teacher. I highly encourage you to sign up for one of her classes or workshops if you have the chance.

Have you ever done a workshop on plotting? Do these points resonate with you?


Filed under Writing