Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Characters: Character Consistency and Driving Forces

Characters, Part 12: Character Consistency and Driving Forces

Do you ever read a book or watch a movie and completely lose your shit when the brilliant, tough heroine suddenly forgets how to take care of herself when a big strong man is around? Or when your favourite cold as ice villain does something so stupid it’s not just inconsistent, it’s like she had a full frontal lobotomy between scenes? Characters need to be consistent, or readers are left feeling annoyed and betrayed.

In most cases, the cause of character inconsistency comes down to three major causes:

1. The writer disrespects the character.

Disrespect for a character often betrays blind spots in our own prejudices. EG: You are more likely to disrespect a character's agency and personality if you are more likely to disrespect a real person from the same group. If you have a low opinion of lawyers, you may be more likely to forget your lawyer characters has an MBA from Harvard and have her do something stupid. If you think bikers are all criminals, you might not think anything of the having the Harley loving, leather jacket wearing father flirt with a teenage waitress.

Because our own views and values are very difficult to change and we are often blind to them, we can be very resistant to feedback when we are told we are treating these types of characters unfairly. Admitting we are being prejudice to the character means admitting we are being prejudice to those people in real life.

This is usually the problem in all cases where a female character is being used to motivate a male character. EG: The love interest is kidnapped.

2. The writer is struggling to resolve a plot point or conflict and sacrifices character to fix it.

This is probably the most common reason for main characters inconsistencies. It's those points in the synopsis where you write 'major twist happens here' or 'somehow they escape'. Those plot elements you are struggling with when you plan, which, surprise surprise, you are still struggling with when you try and write. Because you never got around to planning them in the first place. Or, if you are a pantser, it will just be the scenes you find yourself a bit stuck on. You're looking for a solution. Any solution. And if after hours, days or even weeks of block you come up with some idea you're going to run with it. Even if it means one of the characters does something contradictory.

Don't let yourself end up in this situation. Figure out difficult plot points before you write. It will save you a lot of re-writes if you realise you have written yourself into a need to scrap a lot of the material. Also, when you are really struggling, having a writer's group or a close knit circle of writer friends can really help. Let them see your outline. Ask for their feedback and advice. Sometimes all you need is another perspective.

3. The writer is oblivious to the inconsistency, because they are so wrapped up in the character's perspective.

I've seen this problem in my writing group. We love our characters. We know their deepest darkest hopes and fears. We empathise with them so deeply, sometimes we are oblivious to their faults. As in, sometimes they can be raging, bullying assholes and we are oblivious because we are so deep in their POV that we don't notice what they are doing to other characters.

This is where you need to be objective. And listen to your critique partners without getting defensive. If they think your main character is an asshole or a bully and you are deeply wounded because you think she is PERFECT, you may be empathising too deeply. You have to reverse the situations. Imagine if your villain (or someone you hate) was doing the same thing, saying the same thing, to your best friend. If suddenly it's not so cute/cool/understandable, sorry, your main character is a jerk.

How To Avoid Character Inconsistencies:

Remember your character may change throughout the book. It helps if you know what their arc is going to be. Where they start and where they end up. What statements they believe at the beginning, that they will disagree with at the end. Know their turning points. Let them experience those turning points fully. However to fix author error:

Question yourself. Listen to your feedback crew. Go back to your character profiles and go through the book several times, asking yourself if your characters' actions clearly reflect the intentions you had for them. Sometimes characters take on a life of their own and that is okay, as long as they're consistent and it's not clear you were fighting them the whole way.

Be aware of your own prejudices, both the positive and the negative. Read your own work with an impartial eye.

Driving Forces: The Tail Wagging The Dog?

I talked about this in earlier chapters, but often people bring up the concept of 'character driven' VS 'plot driven'. Are your characters driving the plot or reacting to the events around them? I think you need both elements, but some writers will swear black and blue one method is superior to the other. The truth is everyone is right. Different genres tend to have different focuses.

Romance is often very heavily character driven. Most of the conflict is interpersonal. Thrillers and action are very plot driven, it is the events, rather than the characters, that are driving the story forward. In any story you are going to have a strike a balance between the two, but where that balance is will depend on your target audience.

Knowing what your target audience wants and expects is half the battle. Which is why it is wise to read broadly in your chosen genre, particularly looking at contemporary best sellers. Contemporary failures are fantastic learning tools too. Learning what not to do is arguably more important than learning what to do. If you didn't already have a sense of what was good, you probably wouldn't be a writer. It's more likely you are lacking experience in what's truly bad.

Conclusion of the Character Series!

And that concludes the character series. Finally. After over a year. Look, I got there in the end, people. If you have any suggestions for new series or blog posts, please let me know in the comments. I'm always happy to oblige.

You can read the characters series from the start, here:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Characters: Villains

Everyone Thinks They Are The Hero (Particularly The Villain)

No one thinks they are the bad guy. There are bad people in the world, but they don't wake up thinking they are bad people. Oddly, I know a lot of lovely people who, due to depression and mental illness, do wake up thinking they are bad people. However the more you are out there, affecting other people, changing the world around you, the more confident you have to be in your motives and justifications.

Racists genuinely believe there is a conspiracy against them. They actually believe they are protecting their families and defending their nation when they harass and beat innocent women and children. Paedophiles genuinely believe children want to be in a relationship with them, or that they won't remember the abuse. The worst things you or I can imagine a person doing, someone has an excuse and justification for.

To write a villain well, you have to know what lies they tell themselves. You have to know how they justify their beliefs and actions. You probably don't agree with them, but you have to understand. Because if you don't know and believe, the reader won't either.

Everyone Antagonises Someone

You are the antagonist in someone's life. Right now, someone thinks of you as a villain (or just an asshole). Even if you work very hard to be nice to everyone, your gender, your race, your age or your political beliefs mean there are people who disapprove of you, people who think YOU are what is wrong with the world. Hopefully, you are also someone's hero too.

The hero in your story will be someone's villain too. Most likely, your hero will be your villain's antagonist.

When developing your villain, it helps to come at them from a place of empathy. Realising that there are people who hate you too, realising that everyone in the world is both hero and villain, allows you to see from the villain's point of view easier. No doubt you see yourself as a hero, or, at least, not a villain. But to someone you are. Your villain in your story will probably feel the same way you do. Or, at least, have comparable excuses to your own: Those people who dislike me are wrong. They don't understand me. They wouldn't feel that way if they knew me or if they were in my situation. I'm doing what has to be done. I can't help being this way.

Yeah, you and everyone else, buddy.

Resonance And Empathy

I think we empathise with the best villains. We don’t agree with them, but we still empathize with some aspect of their motivations or back story. Remember the most powerful stories make us feel things strongly, but abject terror is virtually impossible to maintain over long periods. You can’t rely on your villain making people feel afraid for long periods, they have to invoke other emotions too.

Resonance in villains can be powerful, if done correctly. You’re not trying to ‘copy’ someone else’s work, you’re trying to invoke echoes of the same feeling, the same excitement and passion as when they read or watched something else they loved, and also make them feel like they are in familiar territory.

Its why we us comparisons so much when recommending books, movies and games. If you loved X you will also love Y. Resonance is the reason.

When I was planning a YA novel recently and began doing the character profiles, I asked some of my teenage friends who their favourite villains were. I made a list and sorted them into archetypes. There were clear preferences. Teenage girls have a type, apparently. Which was fantastic, because I knew exactly what sort of villain I had to write to appeal to them most.

What Makes A Villain Compelling?

Villains are compelling if they feel threatening to the reader and the reader should want to know more about them. The more intense these two feelings are, the more compelling a villain will be.

I have talked about villains needing to be more powerful and have more resources than the hero many times. It's hard to be scared of someone who is less capable than we are. However to make them both compelling and more interesting to learn about, it's time to go back to the profile.

Your villain's motives are going to make them interesting. They need to have a good reason for what they do. They have to want something, a lot. They have to be driven by a powerful need. The villain themselves doesn't always have to be completely aware of this, but it should be clear to the reader. It's even better if the reader empathises with the motives, if not the method.

What if the villain is getting revenge for the death of his child? We would all feel that compulsion, even if we didn't act on it. Maybe some of us would act on it, but maybe this villain is so driven by his need for revenge, he is willing to kill innocent people, maybe even other people's children, to achieve it.

Or perhaps consider a villain like Draco Malfoy. Here was a child who was raised to be a villain. Raised to be racist, violent and competitive. If he had been raised differently, perhaps he would have been a very different character. However he was driven to continue his cruel ways, because he was seeking his father's approval and wanted to feel a part of his family and their traditions. We can all empathise with that. We all want to feel accepted by our family, even if our family is terrible. To Harry, Draco seems like a powerful adversary. However as readers we can see, particularly in the earlier books, that he is just a little boy who has been raised terribly. That empathy allowed many readers to really enjoy Draco as a character, and I think many of us wanted a lot more for him.

Weaknesses and strengths (are still the same thing)

Remember when I said most weaknesses are also strengths? This applies to your villain too. Confidence becomes over-confidence. Leadership becomes pride. Beauty becomes vanity. Thwarted hope becomes bitterness. When you are considering their weaknesses and strengths, flip both. Which weaknesses do you want to also be strengths? Maybe they are old, but since people pay less attention to the elderly, it allows them to move around, unnoticed and underestimated. Maybe they're in a wheelchair, which allows them to sneak weapons through a metal detector? Maybe they are breathtakingly beautiful, but at a critical moment they shy away from a fire that would scar them, allowing the hero to get the upper hand?

Where a hero's weaknesses are designed to make them relatable to the reader, a villain's weaknesses are often designed to foil them at a critical moment. A hero overcomes her weaknesses, a villain succumbs to his.

Remember though, a villain is most effective when they seem to posses more resources than the hero. If you villain is ugly, weak, sick and unintelligent, it's not very impressive when your hero defeats him.

I think it is easier to get away with wish fulfilment in a villain than in a hero. The villain can be smarter, prettier, richer, more talented, wittier and all the things we wish we were. The villain, in short, can get away with being a bit of a Mary-Sue. Loki from the Marvel movies, played by Tom Hiddleston, leaps to mind. He is larger than life, effortlessly confident and bold, capable, sexy and evil in all the right ways. Could he be a protagonist? No, as much as many of us wish he could have his own movie. We may love Loki, but it is difficult to side with him when we've seen him kill innocent people, people who did nothing more than refuse to kneel for him.

If you are compelled to have that character who can do everything, is perfect and awesome and loved and impossible cool, make them your villain. It's what I do.

Relationships With Other Characters

A villain who exists in a void is a bit... boring. Seeing how villains interact with their families, their loved ones, their underlings, their superiors--it makes them much more interesting. A villain who can show compassion to the people she cares about causes a sort of cognitive dissonance. How can he love his own daughter so deeply, yet allow these other little girls to die? How can she run into the road to save a kitten, then torture another person to death in front of their family?

Its these relationships that allow you to show your villain's depth of character. That they are not just one dimensional evil entities. It allows you to make them human. Flawed and beautiful. It makes it easier for you to blur the moral lines.

However you villain will have other relationships too. Relationships with their other victims. Relationships with your hero. Relationships with themselves. Be aware of these. When you are planning your synopsis, map these out too. How they change, how they grow, how they fall apart.

Your villain is on the same journey as your hero, but when one rises, the other falls.

Failure And Darkest Moments

You villain's highest moment will probably be your hero's darkest moment. It is the moment it looks like the villain will win and is at his strongest, but the hero has failed and been abandoned by his friends. In contrast, your villain's darkest moment will be the climax, when all their success is ripped away from them as the hero triumphs.

Since the villain is the bad guy, he will likely end up defeated, possibly dead. In the case of series, sometimes he will live on, manage to escape and crawl away to lick his wounds and muster another offensive. But the story isn't over until the evil is vanquished somehow, unless you are going for a very unsatisfying ending.


The worst bad guys are the ones who just sit around, waiting for someone to stumble into them. Tell me what is worse:

            1. You're in a maze and you know there is a minotaur guarding the exit
            2. You're in a maze and you know the minotaur is hunting you as you desperately try and find the exit?

I know which one would scare me more. The minotaur with agency. The minotaur who is actively looking to hurt me, not just standing around, waiting for me to come to him. Your villain should be active. A threatening villain is always a few steps ahead, with your hero desperately trying to catch up (using her own agency, not just passively reacting).

A good tip I have heard from a lot of authors is: If you get stuck and don't know what happens next, ask yourself, what is your villain doing? Usually their goals and actions will serve to move the plot forward.

The Difference Between A Hero And A Villain

The key difference between the hero and the villain is at the critical juncture, the hero chooses to do the right thing and the villain chooses to do the wrong thing.

Voledemort and Harry had a lot in common. A rough start, a magical school, access to unnatural power. By the time they met, Voledemort was already past the point of redemption. However through the series, we learn about him as a child. Where his path branched, over and over and each time he chose the wrong one. Meanwhile, Harry chose goodness. Despite being an orphan, despite his abuse at the hands of his own family, he chose to protect others. To be brave. He didn't always get it right, but he tried to get it right. Tom Riddle did not.

If you're still wondering who you are a villain to, you should keep this distinction in mind. When you choose to do the right thing, the brave and compassionate thing, the unselfish and generous thing, you are being the hero.

And, well, none of us are the hero all the time.

NEXT WEEK, we look at character consistency and wrap up the character series.

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here:

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tag's Top 5 Tips For A Productive 2017

So we all know I am super productive and we know I love jumping on a good bandwagon. So here are my top 5 tips for a productive 2017:

1. Don't give up on things because they will take too long. The time will pass anyway.

Will saving to buy a house take too long? Will getting a degree take too long? Writing a novel? Getting to the top of a new career path? Learning to paint? It doesn't matter how long something will take, a year, ten, twenty, that time will pass. And at the end you can either have the thing you wanted or be a lot older and still not have it. Your choice.

2. Most of our goals feed into one or two bigger goals. What is your big goal in life?

In Angela Duckworth's 'Grit' she discusses goals and how most of our smaller goals feed into one or two major goals. It was suggested to her that we should all choose one main goal for our life and cull of anything that doesn't contribute to that one central focus.

Goals should be thought of as a pyramid, feeding upwards toward the primary goal. Let's say your primary goal is to be a world famous author. It would be the top of the pyramid. Writing many first drafts would be somewhere near the bottom, followed by editing them. Above that would be getting them published with a major publishing house. Above that would be selling a million copies and so on, as you get close to that primary goal of 'world famous author'.

Maybe you also think it would be cool to have a dog grooming business. However that would take time and effort away from your primary goal, while not contributing in any way. In 'Grit' Angela Duckworth says if we really want to achieve our primary goal, we should cull any projects that don't contribute to it.

When you know your main goal in life, deciding how to spend your time is suddenly very easy.

3. What do you wish you had started doing five years ago? What will you regret not doing now in ten years time?

Saving $100 a week?
Learning a new language?
Playing an instrument for half an hour a day?
Starting part time study?

If you had started saving $100 a week, five years ago, today you would have $26, 000. Which is what I paid for my half acre of land in Nanango. You could have mastered another language or racked up over 900 hours of practise on an instrument. You could be finished a part time degree.

Make a list of the things you wish you had started five years ago. Try and look forward. What will you regret not doing in five years? In ten years?

4. One thing today that will make tomorrow easier.

Every single day, I have a goal to do one thing that will make tomorrow easier. Usually its small things I am putting off. Paying bills, gardening, some mess that doesn't need to be cleaned up, but is messy all the same. After I have finished my primary objective for the day, I cross of one of these 'tomorrow' goals. There are times when I even run out.

Yes, there are times when everything in my house is clean, my bills are all paid and I have no projects sitting around waiting to be finished. Its real. It's possible. They are finite. With persistence and consistency, you can experience it too.

5. Life passes faster as we get older, because our experiences are less novel.

I read a psychology article recently (which I have no misplaced) that discussed that feeling we have that time passes more quickly as we get older. The reason, the author said, was because as adults we have more routine. We do less novel things.

Since I read that, I have tried to do something novel several times a week. I go somewhere I haven't been before, look in stores I've never been inside, try something new--be it a food or a skill. Even moving your furniture and decorations around helps. The first eight days of 2017 felt longer to me than entire months of 2016. It's really changed my life.

Also cucamelons are quite nice, eaten fresh off the vine.

Next week, we are back to the characters series, I promise!