How We Write: Character Rules!

Most every writer’s heard of scene and sequel. Jack Bickham’s Elements of Fiction Writing is some of the best instruction on novel structure out there. But he, and I today, aren’t merely talking about plot. The key is to apply structure principles to your characters every step of the way. Because, as Robert McKee tells us, plot IS character.

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I’ve studied with both these masters. Bickham, in addition to devouring his books, I bought a workshop series from and wish I’d had the chance to hear him in person before his death. McKee, who isn’t dead but some who attended the three-day scriptwriting seminar attended most likely wished him so, was worth the money and travel expense ten times over, given what I walked away from his course better understanding about the real source of good writing.

It’s character.All the plot rules, setting rules, structure rules, symbol rules, and any other thing that someone’s tried to make you think is most important to story, is actually about CHARACTER. Because your story is about character. Each scene and its sequel, each element and act and conflict and motivation… It’s all about character.

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Readers want the journey. They want to feel and see everything the protagonist does, and they want to believe so closely that your story becomes theirs. For most writers, the magic of that moment where the reader’s imagination takes over and your words disappear into their new reality of the book, takes a lot of intentional work to accomplish.

It’s what I work most on in my novels, and most with as other writer come to me for freelance editorial input.How do we plan and organize and create a story so seamlessly, that the reader never sees the blood and sweat and, yes, tears, that go into the journey the briefly share with us? The answer to that question, when I’m asked, is always this: it differs from book to book.

You can study Bickham or McKee or Crusie or Mayer or any number of other great craft teachers out there. You can work with a writing coach or freelance editor like me and get our thoughts on what you’re doing. But in the end, you have to want that character’s journey for yourself, you have to life their life for them while you’re creating it, to the extreme–to the extent that every action and reaction and thought and plan and mistake and recalculation and, finally, growth comes from an organic place that will resonate as real with your reader.

Bottom line, I see too many manuscripts (published and not published), where the emphasis is on the external journey, while the character and the reader’s simply along for the ride. By and large, these authors are asking themselves and others why their work isn’t going further and doing better.

My answer: Character Rules! Particularly in fast-moving, heavily plotted stories like suspense and thrillers and so much of the contemporary fantasy out there.If what you’re plotting doesn’t make sense in the context of your character’s world and psychology, it won’t make sense to the reader (editor/agent). Not enough to hook him/her and drive the desire to read and buy more of what you’ve created.

Cultivating Character Logo

Which means, what, exactly? You just knew we’d meander back to the subject of revision yet again, right?

When it’s all said and done and you think you have a completed draft of the book, it’s time to go back to the beginning and look at the whole thing again. From ONLY the character’s standpoint. Internal goals and motivation and conflict. External choices, scene and sequel, and how they reveal the character and his/her goals, motivation and conflict. Escalating internal tension and how it drives the external plot, and just as importantly how it is driven by the external plot.

These are the most important revisions of your process. In my personal work, it’s the most important planning of my process. I teach how to think through the character arcs of your work long before you begin the actual writing. McKee suggests that you do the same, BTW, but I don’t like to brag.And if you don’t, no worries. It’s a valuable exercise at the revision stage, too–just be aware that if you do this right, you’ll most likely be looking at a hell of a lot of revision work once your done, to a draft that you thought was just fine as-is.

How do I know this? From working with countless authors over the years, and with my own projects. The reason I spend so much time of planning character with my novels and when I’m working with other writers and theirs, is because it can save so much time on the back-end, because you haven’t plotted/written yourself into dead ends that don’t make sense for your character. That eventuality is much easier to deal with and rework in the planning stages, than in rewrites.

This was supposed to be a short How We Write Wednesday post. Sigh… I should have picked a craft subject I feel less passion for. Not that I can think of one I couldn’t rant on and on about, considering how much I love the analytical side of the art we create.

So, shortcut for the day. CHARACTER RULES!Spend your time wisely and don’t rush through or gloss over the character you’re developing into a story. Trust me, any additional time you spend making them as real and their emotions and thoughts as seamless and realistic as possible will be well spent.

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3 Responses to “How We Write: Character Rules!”

  1. This may be why I prefer romance: Because I’m in the read for the character arc. I am relying on the author for a Happily Ever After, but what’s going to hold my interest is how the characters have to earn it not by slaying the external dragons–that’s secondary, and will grow out of the character arc–but the internal ones. Great post!

  2. So true. I took a course with Laurie Schnebly Campbell about plotting via motivation — a great experience. Motivation drives the arcs and the plot. Now if only I could summon up the patience to work most of it out up front… I tend to plunge in and then do substantial revisions. So inefficient–sigh.

  3. TOTALLY understand, Barbara. I actually worked out a method and taught myself to work out the character arc ahead of time, at least as much of it as I could before I began creating/drafting. Will still working out the specifics, but I think I’ll be teaching my “Plotting Through Character” method at GRW’s April One-Day Workshop this year: Tanya Michaels and Berta Platas and I are speaking…

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