Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 32 comments
In How to Write a D@mn Good Novel, James N. Frey says many plots lack integrity because the author doesn't have her characters acting at their maximum capacity.

What does he mean exactly? When a character hits a problem, some roadblock keeping him from his goal, he should do everything in his power to reach the goal. Characters who become easily stymied by their problems lose readers' sympathies and their desires and drives won't seem particularly compelling.

The Harvard-educated investigator, for example, won't just sit around wringing her hands when she doesn't immediately understand something--she'll make use of all the intellectual tools at her disposal to research and probe. Likewise, even the "cannon fodder" expendable characters should go to a lot of trouble to avoid dying, unless the author has characterized them as suicidal or deeply stupid or proven some motivation for a death wish. "Maximum capacity" will, of course, vary from character to character. A nine-year-old protagonist in a middle grade adventure will have fewer resources than the Navy SEAL/brain surgeon in a techno-thriller. The trick is to know one's characters thoroughly.

In every scene, Frey says your character's actions and reactions have to pass the "would s/he really ____ ?" test. Does the action/reaction fit her personality? Is he making full use of his personal resources, know-how, experiences? These lines of questioning can open up plot to intriguing new possibilities.

For those unfamiliar with the term "Mary Sue," see THIS Wikipedia article. Worried your character might be a Mary Sue? Try THIS "Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test."

How might "maximum capacity" make your plots more compelling? In what circumstances do you think Frey's "rule" might not be the best way to go?

32 comments:

  1. Wow...that Mary Sue test is...wow.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I tend to keep my characters too safe. They need to take a few risks, put themselves on the line. Jump! So, good advice. I'll work on it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Interesting idea, and I agree with it. However, what if there's some character flaw preventing the character from acting at maximum capacity? For example, fear or lack of self-confidence may make the character feel like he/she isn't as capable as he/she really is. In this case, the character would have to overcome an inner battle before dealing with the outer one.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post! That's something to keep in mind - staying true to the character and making them fight for what they want. I always get annoyed when characters in novels seem like they are giving up or else just totally clueless.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've gotta take the "Mary Sue" test. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hmmm....very interesting! Thank you for the great post and the links are much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think this is great advice. My MC gets into situations where she has to do unexpected stuff - but it still has to be believable that she could step outside her norm and do it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great post! This is exactly what I've been trying to work on recently with my MCs, along with their voice. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Karen: The test seems particularly hard on the tropes of UF and Paranormal. The test makers work from an assumption that wish fulfillment makes for a less resonant story.

    Sandra: I think flaws can and should work into the mix--adding some inner conflict. Mary-Sue-ness can also happen when maximum capacity is too close to omnipotence.

    Lisa: Being temporarily stymied is OK I think, if your character does keep trying to move ahead with a goal or switches goals. You're right that wimps and quitters don't often make very good protagonists (except maybe in certain humor genres).

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is a great post, Laurel. I'll have to check out that test! You should read Susan's post today at Ink Spells. Great minds... :-)

    http://ink-spells.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  11. Mary: Without risk, the story runs into the danger of low stakes and lessened investment for your reader. Readers care about those who face challenges and obstacles.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Angela: It's a bit long, but quite eye opening!

    Jamie: hope it stimulates your thinking about how character and plot intersect.

    Tara: Take time to develop your character's temperament and skills, and your readers will buy into what actions she takes later.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Kelly: Glad this idea looks useful.

    Shannon: I shall go take a look. The funny thing is I wasn't feeling well last night, so I just revised an old post from 9/09, back when I had like five followers.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Another fascinating post, Laurel. And that litmus test is sure comprehensive! some day when I have time......;)

    ReplyDelete
  15. I agree that characters need to be pushed outside their comfort zones and really strive - but that needs to be tempered by the fact that "real characters" are also believable characters. Real characters make mistakes, have flaws, don't always "go to the max" when they should. But overly wimpy characters are equally uncompelling! The last thing I want is to shout at the character, "Just do IT already!" when they are hemming and hawing. But I think Frey is right that we tend to err on protecting our characters too much. Almost like they are real people! :)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Good advice. Definitely need to have my characters pass that test.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Great post!

    I think that there are instances when characters shouldn't do their best to solve a problem; when the issue's too small to be of any real significance, or when it's not something they'd normally try to solve.

    I'll have to check out that test.

    ReplyDelete
  18. That is so good! It's true, especially in a novel, that your characters have to be (and act) larger than life, do all they can do or the reader won't get behind them and support them.

    Love it.
    CD

    ReplyDelete
  19. Tricia: It is a bit on the long side, though some sections are genre-specific and skippable.

    Michelle: Thanks. Hope it stimulates your thinking.

    Susan: It's interesting that the "Mary Sue" phenomenon can be applied both to wimpy characters and those who are too perfect. I thought your post covered some great reasons to be sure to temper power with weakness so characters aren't stereotypes.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I must go check out this Mary Sue thing. I'm a little concerned about one of my characters. It's not that she doesn't act, but her actions might not be what the reader thinks she should do. Thanks for sharing this!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Colene: hope it proves useful to you.

    GE: I think Frey is specifically addressing those moments when a character would at least try *something* to overcome obstacles to something they desire very much. Indeed some obstacles aren't the character's to handle and doing so could derail the plot.

    Clairssa: That idea that characters a just a little more than ordinary can be useful when one is tempted to protect them--but it can stray into the wish-fulfillment version of Mary Sue. It's a tough balance to strike at times.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Susan: I thought I understood the whole Mary Sue phenom before I saw that test. It goes after both too wimpy AND too talented characters. The test makers seem to me to have no patience at all with the tropes of paranormal romance--"chosen one," oddball names, superpowers, unusual appearance, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  23. @Laurel I think you have to be a little careful with the Mary Sue generalization (like any sweeping definition, especially one with so many requirements). It is undeniably true that Mary Sue characters exist, just like any stereotype. But just because your character may have a "Mary Sue" type characteristic doesn't make them an egregious thing that must be banished from the face of the earth (I think the authors of the test even say this).

    Ex:
    Question 1.e. Does your character's name ...
    Involve a noun or verb not usually used as a name, spelled normally or not?


    Tally - MC in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. Um, that's a verb (and a noun) normally not used as a name. It's a FANTASTIC name. Also a best selling series.

    Question 54: Does your character have the ability to shapeshift?

    Never mind that this rules out any story about werewolves, but Modo from The Dark Deeps is a a shape shifting quasimodo character in a steampunk setting. TOTALLY original, fun, and one of the most sympathetic characters I've seen in a while.

    So.

    The Mary Sue phenom is real, but also a trope itself. There is nothing new under the sun, just new ways to do it. Find the new, fresh twist on your characters, and you won't have to worry about the list of things you "can't" do. You'll be making your own rules.

    My 2 cents. :)

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thanks. I'm working on this now with my MCs. I will check out the links.
    Have a great day!

    ReplyDelete
  25. Wow I love this! Maximum capacity. So important! I can't tell you how many times I've rolled my eyes at a book: "Right, like they'd really do that."

    Now I have to go find out about Mary Sue.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Good point. I started to take the Mary Sue test and pooped out around question 12. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  27. This post explains what I have been trying to do throughout my edits. Love it! I agree with everything except for one part. My characters may not go to maximum capacity right away...in fact, them trying to get back there right after they are hit when an obstacle may form the backbone of my plot. But I agree that overall, every action should reflect the character.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Susan: I think you're right that some of these things they call "mary sue" qualities are pretty typical tropes in some genres. I think this link needs its own post tomorrow! The discussion can then continue. I loves me a good discussion.

    Christine: the link may or may not be helpful, but I hope Frey's concept is. Readers most enjoy resourceful characters who try things, even if their attempts fail.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Janet: trying and failing is better than not trying at all in the fictional world. Let your characters be as resourceful as they're able.

    Holly: it is a lenghty test, and it's generating a lot of controversy! I'll be posting more on it Thursday.

    Saumya: "maximum capacity" doesn't mean they'll always succeed, but that they'll try what skills they do have when facing obstacles. And you're right that to make an obstacle seem more powerful, sometimes the characters need to spend time being daunted or delayed before making more attempts to overcome it.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I love this post. It is so important to allpy high stakes and risk or the writing flatlines.

    We can believe we know our characters well through brainstorming, interviews, etc, but really it comes down to action, and whether they are true to themselves in what they do.

    Angela @ the Bookshelf Muse

    ReplyDelete
  31. Angela: I think you're right that interviews with characters, for example, will only take you so far. Putting them in action and seeing what they do is more eye-opening. I like using the "reel it" technique I mentioned last week for this: run a film clip in your mind.

    ReplyDelete