Too Much Depth


If you’ve ever taken a class (or gone to a workshop, or browsed online articles) for writing advice, you’ve been subjected to the Laws of Character Development.

§ 18(2) art. 12: Thou shalt not have cardboard characters.

§ 327 art. 96: All characters shall have motivation for their actions.

§ 843 art. 2: No character is to ever have the name Bob, Bella, Mary Sue, or Vagastagnakor — unless it is a means of making their lives utterly traumatic or to bring the joy of irony to the reader.

No amount of awesome plot can make up for lack of character depth. No depth means no motivation, no sympathy, no interest.

Okay, I don’t need to repeat what innumerable others have already said. I’ll be hitting this topic from the opposite side of the field.

Some character-building worksheets go into excruciating detail. They want you to know your protagonist’s favorite brand of cereal, or what flavor gum they carry in their backpack. And while this is nice for discovering little attributes that you never would have considered otherwise, it can also lead you down a dangerous road of over-developing your character. Is knowing that Bridget likes watermelon bubble gum important to anything in the story? Is there even any reason why she should prefer watermelon over every other flavor?

Sometimes too much development, and hence too much depth, can actually… tangle up the story.

This is exactly what happened to me, even though at the time I wasn’t even consciously developing Bridget’s character. I had her strengths and her weaknesses; I had her flaws, her ticks, her dreams and hopes and fears. Her backstory grew organically from these; I realized only after finishing the second draft of Ciphers that I’d been hinting at a milestone event in her past all along.

As soon as this revelation occurred, however, certain actions of hers that didn’t stem from how this event changed her stopped making sense. I found myself thinking, “Why would she do this? True, I gave her this character trait early on, and it’s not like this trait and that one (the one influenced by that major event) are mutually exclusive in real people…”

Ah, in real people.

Real people are seldom defined by a single event in their lives; we take in millions of little influences every day, from friends, family, strangers, and celebrities. A thirty-second ad on TV can be the difference between going out and ordering in, as well as every little thing we’re exposed to as a result of that decision. Sometimes these little things define us more than the big things. At the very least they define us just as much.

Fictional characters don’t have the luxury of experiencing a ton of little things off-screen, or even on-screen really. So they can only be defined by the milestones: big achievements, big failures, traumatic events, the most influential people around them, like parents. And because we have this limitation, our view of them must be appropriately limited so as not to confuse the readers.

And trust me, if your character has a certain personality trait, there had better be a good reason for it — even if that reason is never fully revealed to the reader. As long as the author knows the character’s backstory, the readers will find hints to it in the writing, and they’ll still be able to feel like they can relate to the character.

But the character’s backstory, motives, and actions must be coherent. And coherency is easy to lose when you start bringing out personality traits that don’t fit in with the defining event of their lives, or vice versa. It can also disappear fast when there are too many defining events squeezed in, making for a set of traits that you may as well have chosen by throwing darts. Now, keep in mind that you can have multiple events if they all contribute, as a group, to a single set of traits. Or a secondary event sealing in the character a trait which the first one had only set to budding.

So here are some new entries for that law book:

1) All major personality traits and motivations should be coherent with the character’s backstory.

2) Backstory should consist of one or two defining events.

3) Multiple events should serve only to reinforce the same set of resulting traits or motivations.

 

Thoughts? Questions? Rebuttals? Give me your words in the comments section!

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Ciphers Update and the Importance of Character Motivation


Where have I been lately? Just the usual: recovering from pneumonia, getting shuttled all over Cheollanamdo for Chuseok, sinking to my knees in Korean mudflats in search of snails to fry up in their shells, chatting with my host mom’s good-looking 27-year-old brother, watching the family pull bee larvae out of their honeycomb and eat them, getting ready to move this afternoon…

I am a horrible blogger. XD

But I’m trying not to be a horrible novelist. Once again, it is Friday afternoon and I find myself at Cafe Vill, working on Ciphers. I have just under two months until my self-appointed deadline of a query-ready manuscript, and while I haven’t been able to work on the novel half as much as I would have liked, I still have hope that I can actually make this deadline. Especially now that I’ve wizened up and remembered I have Writerly Tricks up my sleeve!

In a nutshell, my lack of productivity has been more due to being overwhelmed than anything. At first I thought the last six or so chapters of the book would need a horrendous amount of rewriting. I figured out a way to avoid that (which also happens to strengthen the villain’s character a lot) but have still been procrastinating because…

Monday: Ugh. Really? I’m too tired for so much thinking today. I’ll do it tomorrow.

Tuesday: Four classes. In a row. Sorry, novel.

Wednesday: What novel?

Thursday: Zzzzz…

Friday: Hey, I think I got this! Blog time!

I know, I know. But I promise this post is going somewhere!

Because there was a scene in there I REALLY couldn’t stand, in which one character used a kind of emotional hypnosis (“psychic persuasion”) to make another character do something. It was random, illogical, and — I realized — a total cheat. I was just avoiding letting the hypnotized character be responsible for his own actions, because I didn’t have a good reason why he would actually choose them.

In other words, I’d completely overlooked that character’s motivation.

And I couldn’t figure out a motivation strong enough to make him do what was necessary.

Solution: revisit this. My own plotting technique. I almost kicked myself for forgetting about it. Even though it’s such a simple guideline, it’s really an awesome tool for me because, as a scatterbrained author, I need the organization. Using this template forces me to break complex plot lines into individual events, and then break the events down into five very simple parts: task, motivation, method, obstacles, outcome.

I won’t get into more detail because that’s what the linked post is all about. But I will say that using the guideline I spent all of five minutes on my motivation problem before figuring out what would finally get the character to move, and exactly how that would affect the outcome.

Five minutes. After hours of dithering and weeks of cringing at that scene thinking “this needs to change” and then marking it to work on later.

In conclusion, don’t forget the motivation!

A Plotting Technique: Cause and Effect in 5 Steps


Today’s been a long day and I refuse to look at anything having to do with work right now. I’ve also been meaning to post this technique I came up with for a while now — ergo, productivity without the brain damage. 🙂

I’ve mentioned a few times here that for Smoldering, I forced myself to complete an entire outline before writing any further than the second chapter. And oh, it has made writing so, so much easier. There were still some points, however, that until recently had been giving me trouble, and one in particular that had gotten too convoluted even in the outline. For more than a week, this one scene had me at a standstill every time I tried to write. And when you have as little writing time as I do, that can get very frustrating, very fast.

Eventually I realized that the problem was cause and effect — character motivation and subsequent actions.

But there were a few more components to it than that.

After playing around a little (while waiting during my lunch break for a student who never showed up), I finally settled on five key subjects that can be addressed, with quite beneficial results. They are:

Task
Motivation
Method
Obstacles
Outcome

Task is what the character is supposed to do, whether by their own volition or because of external forces. This can be a decision they have to make or an assignment they must complete; something trivial or something important; something that’s over in a second, or something that takes the whole book to accomplish. Let’s say, for instance, that my character Cipher’s task is to observe candidates for his organization’s new linguist position. It may be more intricate in reality, but this phrasing captures the heart of the task.

Next comes Motivation. Why does he want to do it? Even if he’s not thrilled about babysitting random people, if he at least attempts to complete the task then there is some reason for it. Maybe your character has no other choice: they’re being threatened, or controlled some other way. In this context, that still counts as Motivation. In Cipher’s case, going out into the world for any purpose gives him greater freedom than he normally has — and if there’s one main thing Cipher wants throughout the novel, it’s freedom.

Once we know the why, we can look at the how. Method is, along with Outcome, the most elastic variable in the set. It can refer to a physical method (“with a gun and a good poker face”), an attitude (“nonchalant on the surface, stomach in knots”), specific actions the character does (“charging in blindly, almost getting killed, and finally bluffing his way out”), or any combination there-of. Depending on what you already know of your plot, Method might take up a line or a page. I prefer to keep it simple, myself, but it’s really a matter of preference. Since I already know that Cipher is just reluctantly tagging along with his partner, for the write-up I just added that his  attitude is “serious yet sardonic,” as revealed by their interactions.

I haven’t come up with a Task yet that doesn’t have at least one Obstacle staring the character down. (I see this as a good thing, indicative of strong writing, but that’s another blog post altogether.) Again, Obstacle can be as little as a single, insignificant vexation or doubt, or as complex as a dozen potentially fatal trials, just as long as it fits the Task. Poor Cipher’s Obstacle is that he’s got a pair of crazy, murderous twin stalkers after him, and they find him.

Last, we consider the Outcome. If we take everything that’s come before, and everything we know about the character, what must inevitably happen? So Cipher craves freedom and is even willing to play babysitter for a taste of it, he’s humorless and a little mean and is terrified because he already knows who is trying to find him. On top of that, his stalkers pop up just when Cipher and his partner are about to make contact with a particular candidate.

So what does he do?

This is where you need to be particularly careful that you’re not just writing for the sake of plot. If the Outcome doesn’t naturally follow the other four variables AND your character’s personality, then scrap it and think of one that does. Once I had all of these things organized for myself it was really easy to see that this very thing was the reason my inner writer’s voice had shut down: the Outcome I was working toward just didn’t make sense when considering the Motivation, in particular.

Even if it needs to be fixed, Outcome is very flexible in terms of how you can write it. Because it’s so open-ended, I’ve used anything from the binary “pass/fail” to very specific conclusions. Also, the Outcome of one set, unless it is the final event in your book, should naturally feed into the Task of the next. In other words, “Cipher is forced to escape, dragging Bridget back to headquarters with him” as an Outcome will have its own consequences and thus will set in motion the next set with something like “Task: pass the linguist exam and get officially hired” for Bridget.

While any more on that would be a spoiler, here’s the main example in its entirety, as well as a not-as-spoilery one for Bridget.

Cipher
Task: observe and report on linguist candidates
Motivation: gets him out of the Hub (freedom)
Method: serious yet sardonic
Obstacles: the twins find him
Outcome: has to take Bridget back to the Hub

Bridget
Task: get an internship with an applied linguist
Motivation: proving herself (to herself)
Method: paper application, all-nighters
Obstacles: the deadline
Outcome: failure

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