Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, September 09, 2014 5 comments
In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey says many plots lack integrity because the author doesn't have her characters acting at their maximum capacity.

Photo credit: ManicMorFF from morguefile.com 
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 ten-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.

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?

5 comments:

  1. Really great advice-- a lot to think about! Thanks for sharing =)

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    1. I think it is a great question to make sure our characters aren't the "too dumb to live" types who take unnecessary risks, or fail to use very obvious resources.

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  2. That's good stuff! Maximum capacity. Need to definitely check out my current draft :)

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    1. I think it's a great concept to protect you from creating Mary Sue types (for whom everything comes easily) and "too dumb to live" types who don't really try to resolve problems in a manner that fits their skills and gifts.

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  3. This is a great piece of writing advice. I think I'll apply it tomorrow. Thanks!

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