Thursday, December 20, 2018
Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
Synopsis Series: Part 5
Welcome back! This week we continue with character profiles and how to set them up so you create characters readers never forget. You can re-read last weeks post, with the full profile template here.
Starting With Your Villain
One of the most unforgivable mistakes I see amateur writers making is 1) not having a villain, 2) not having a well thought out villain or 3) having a villain who only appears at the end of the book.
Your villain is as, if not more, important than your hero. Why? Because your villain drives the action of the plot. And more importantly, your hero is only as brave as the conflicts they face. The more evil and dangerous your villain, the braver and more impressive your hero is. A villain we never see, and know nothing about, isn’t scary, so by contrast, your hero isn’t very impressive.
This is why I tell writers I am mentoring to start with their villain profile, not their main character. Your villain will be driving the plot, creating stakes and tension. So their motives, strengths, weaknesses, goals and growth arc all need to come first.
I will note, some novels do not have traditional villains. That is to say, the villain may not be a person. Villain is just anther word for antagonist though and every story has to have some form of antagonist. So look for yours and see how it can be expanded.
In romance, particularly short romances, the ‘villain’ is often the love interest themselves. They are the antagonists to the protagonist. However there should always be another conflict in romance that makes the love interest the antagonist. Some sort of conflicting interest or belief. Longer romance titles will often have another villain, or even two or three. Someone the couple must work together to overcome and defeat.
In The Grey (2011) starring Liam Neeson, there are three main antagonists. First, there is the weather, which brings down the plane and is a constant and unrelenting threat. There is the terrain itself, both an obstacle and a threat in its own right. And there is the pack of wolves, given a face in the form of the alpha wolf, which Neeson’s character develops deep hostile recognition with, as the movie progresses.
These antagonists are introduced early and in escalating conflicts. Talk of wolves and the storm happens before the plane takes off, we see the wolves before they attack and several times throughout the movie. If the only time we saw them was at the very end of the movie, in the final showdown, there would be no emotional tension in the viewer. Anticipation and development build to the climax, giving it impact.
Regardless of what your villain is, person, love interest or force of nature, they still need to be fully developed, introduced early and build up in escalating conflicts.
So as you go forward in this post, don’t think about filling in these sections of a profile for your main character, think about filling them in for your villain FIRST. Save that plucky little hero for second.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Here’s a writing element that some people just understand innately, and some people never learn and just continue to fail at for years, never understanding why their work isn’t popular or doesn’t sell.
Characters need to have a strength and a weakness, and in the course of the novel, their weakness needs to cause them to fail, and then has to be overcome, and their strength has to be tested to breaking point.
These elements need to happen in critical turning points of your novel, such as the climax.
Now, you are either saying to yourself ‘that makes sense’ or ‘what the hell are you talking about, Jake?’. That will tell you which group of people you belong to.
So when you are listing your characters strengths and weaknesses, don’t just write an inert list. Write how they are critical to the plot. If your character’s strength is that they are brave, there must be a scene where you push them so hard that bravery cracks, and they are afraid. If their weakness is greed, there has to be a scene where they give into that greed and betray what matters to them. Then, later on, there must be a scene where they overcome that greed and make the right choice.
The exception here is villains and books with sad/bittersweet endings. What separates your hero from your villain is usually that second look at their weakness. Where your hero makes the right choice, and chooses love and equality and righteousness, your villain chooses power, and greed and selfishness. That is their downfall. Your villain should also easily overcome the testing of their strength.
Your villain must always be strong and powerful. Much, much more powerful than your hero. Otherwise, your hero is just a bully.
Desires and Barriers
Both your hero and your villain’s desires are the meat of the plot. So if you don’t know what they are, you don’t really have a plot. In Harry Potter, Tom Riddle and Harry Potter were both denied love, acceptance and a family. Tom Riddle became Voldemort, seeking power and revenge—a revenge he unfairly directed at a minority. Harry came to Hogwarts seeking the family he had lost, but takes a different route to Tom, choosing friends, protecting others and standing up for the weak. In the end Voledemort dies and Harry lives and gets his new family.
Your hero and villain’s desires have to be in conflict with each other. They don’t have to want the same thing, but their desires have to be incompatible. This is what puts them at odds with one and other, and forces them to confront each other.
It is important to remember your reader will always care less than your character. So your character has to care about their goal more than anything else. They have to be willing to sacrifice everything for it. There is nothing entertaining about a character who is too cool to care. Because if your character doesn’t care, why does the reader? What are they reading for, if it doesn’t even matter to the main character and its their life?
So your hero and villain both need to want something so badly they are willing to die for it. Or, at least, make big sacrifices. And their desires need to contradict one and other. It is okay if your character starts wanting one thing, and then switches to the main thing very early in the book.
For example, Katniss doesn’t want to be a part of the hunger games, but she wants her sister Prim to be safe even more. For the rest of the series she is torn between those two desires. Her desire to stay alive, and her even more pressing desire to keep those she loves alive.
Once you know what your hero and villain want, you need to know why they want it. What do they get? Why does it matter to them? The reason needs to be believable and understandable. Even if a reader doesn’t want that thing themselves, they have to understand why your characters would sacrifice their own lives to have it.
Next, you need clear and seemingly insurmountable barriers to having the thing. Again, this is where your hero and villain will tie together, they should, at least in part, be the barrier stopping each other from reaching their goal.
And finally, what is the cost if they fail? There should be an internal/personal cost, and an external/global cost. EG: If the main character can’t find the cure, his daughter will die (personal) and the disease will continue to kill millions (global). Global doesn’t have to mean ‘world wide’ by the way. It could just mean all the animals on the farm die, as long as that is a stake you can make the reader care about deeply.
Now we scroll back up the profile template to the growth arc. If you have done your strengths and weaknesses, and your character motivation and goals properly, this should be a breeze. Where does your character start, emotionally and physically, and where do they end up? How have they changed? What have they sacrificed?
They have either risen and overcome their challenges (hero) or sunk to depths they swore never to delve into (villain). They end the novel having made a great sacrifice to have come out victorious (hero), or their vice proved to be their downfall and they were defeated (villain).
The point of a growth arc is not just to know its there and working (though that its important), it is a tool that shows you how hard you need to press the point at different stages in your novel. If your character is reckless at the beginning, and becomes responsible during the story, then you know you need to play up their recklessness at the start, so there is a huge contrast at the end.
Contrast is the key word here. The bigger and clearer that difference is, beginning to end, the greater the sense of reader satisfaction will be.
Why does room description matter? I am guessing most of you don’t give a lot of thought to your character’s rooms. I am going to give you three room descriptions and I want you to read them carefully and think about what sort of people probably live in them.
The window was open, letting in sunlight and a sping breeze that billowed the lace curtains. The bed was old and iron, but painted white, the duvet was a patchwork of pink and cream roses. On the antique dresser, was a vase of cheery pink carnations, fresh from the garden and beside them, neatly placed hairbrushes and hand mirrors.
The stink of stale BO and dirty socks was oppressive. Dark posters of angry men with guitars were pealing off the walls, with one lone pin up model from a calender tacked to the wall beside the unmade bed. Clothes—mostly black—dominated the floor in uneven piles. A stack of CDs had cascaded off the messy desk and spilled across the floor, their prismatic, silver undersides the only source of color.
Toys. Toys everywhere. On the shelves, on the bed, spilling off the dresser onto the floor. The bedroom closet was open, stuffed to bursting with tiny, brightly colored clothes, and still more toys, leaking off the shelves and piled up under the clothes, making it impossible to close the closet door. In the middle of the room, a half empty sippy-cup of juice and the crusts of toast, cold and forgotten.
There is no trick here. I’m not going to say ‘Surprise! Room three belongs to a serial killer.’ Rather, I want you to see how you can tell readers about a character by showing them where and how they live. Giving characters a room that reflects their personality gives them an anchor in he reality you have created. It gives them a past. If there are toys on the floor, it implies in the past they were placed there, played with. Flowers were cut recently, outside, so the scene has a past, and expands beyond the room you see. Little details imply other details, and they give your writing a sense of realism. A good room description can do that for your character, as well as your writing.
Don’t ignore it. Just don’t make it too long either.
Twenty Facts Expanded
Twenty facts is more of a brainstorming process for me. If I am struggling to write a list of twenty facts about a character, I clearly don’t know them very well. So it would be hard to write them realistically, or convincingly. It also means they don’t have enough depth. Some characters I could write fifty facts without pause. Others, I may realize I am struggling to even write the first three or four facts.
Brainstorming facts about characters has often given me directions and ideas for the plot, or solved problems in the plot that I was struggling with before. At the very least, it gives me a few flavor elements to keep the characters feeling like people.
Which is more interesting?
1. “Do you want to get pizza?”
2. “Do you want to get pizza?”
“No anchovies, the smell makes me gag.” OR “No mushrooms, they give me the worst gas.”
Maybe this seems small, but perhaps later on, your main character is trying to stop their partner eating a poisoned dish, but can’t talk to them, so they put a little sign on it saying ‘contains mushrooms’.
Or maybe their partner accidentally eats mushrooms and the toxic smell gives them away, which is more interesting than having them just knock something over. Things that gives a sense of continuity through the plot are more satisfying than things that just happen in that scene.
Are You Ready To Rumble!?
I hope you understand not just what you need in a profile, but why. The why is more important. If you understand why, you can alter this character template to suit your own needs and the genre of your book. But if you don’t understand why, you’re going to struggle, even to use this template correctly.
I’m always happy to help though, so if you are struggling, hit me up at jakecorvus at gmail.com. And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at www.traditionalevolution.com. It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.
ALL CURRENT POSTS IN THIS SERIES:
1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire