Thursday, December 15, 2016

In my previous post in this series, "Fleshing out a thin story: thin characterization," I discussed the ways in which manuscripts drafted hastily, such as during NaNoWriMo, can have some areas of underwriting that need to be fleshed out in revision.

Today's post on underwritten conflict is related, because you first need to have developed characters before you can fully suss out the many potential forms of conflict in your story.  Conflict in fiction involves more than just the surface problem that drives the plot. It also involves interpersonal conflict between characters, not only the hero and antagonist, but also the hero and other often well-meaning allies who block him/her in some way. And further, to develop the hero's inner arc, your story must also involve internal conflict between some of the hero's own desires, be they aspriational, like a desire to love and be loved, or protective, such as a desire to never be made to look a fool. (Both are typically tied in some way to the hero's wound.)

I would argue that to have a compelling plot--that is, a surface problem that appropriately fits these characters, that challenges their particular moral and psychological issues--it's helpful to approach conflict from the inside out. That is, you first develop the hero's internal conflict, then from there it will be clearer what kinds of other conflicts s/he'd naturally get into. Who would push her buttons? How would he respond to the antagonist's goading or to sudden perilous circumstances? I cover this idea pretty extensively in that previous post on thin characterization, so I'll merely point you there once again.

Plot conflicts


Once you've got your hero's inner world established, consider how to bring to the fore the inner arc. What kinds of annoying people and circumstances will most challenge the hero's key weakness?

Another key question: how can I make things worse for my hero? Be wary, however, of just throwing random problems at your characters, or your story will become unintentionally comical. (Farce is the resulting genre when every possible thing that could ever go wrong does...and then gets worse and worse and worse, essentially to make the point that life is a big joke. Ha.)

So how can you make things worse in a way that enhances the story?
  • Block the hero's progress toward a goal with small inconveniences that would naturally happen in his/her environment: weather changes, injuries, illness. equipment failure, uncooperative underlings, punishing authority figures, family crises, work deadlines 
  • Add a "ticking clock"--some sort of deadline that adds urgency.
  • Undermine the hero by shaking his/her confidence or applying pressures that will make him/her behave badly--make a mistake, do something mean, defy his/her own inner rules.
  • Create a hardship that forces the hero to learn a new skill or build relationships that will be needed later.
  • Add complications to an existing problem, or raise the stakes of failing to solve it.

Interpersonal conflict


Many underwritten stories limit the interpersonal conflict to an antagonist character or two, while everyone else seems to get along pretty well. This is not only unrealistic, it's also a hugely missed opportunity to portray the rich depths of your characters and their relationships.

Because no matter how loving and dedicated people are to one another, they will come into conflict about little irritating habits, differences in taste or opinion, and personal goals. Two wholly good characters can easily squabble about the best method of doing good and when and for whom. How they squabble reveals a great deal about them.

In addition to allies who scuffle with the hero, consider adding in other characters who act as forces of antagonism in addition to, or even in place of a single arch-villain. I describe eight different kinds of "everyday antagonists" who can join your story, or perhaps be recruited from your existing ranks of characters.

Perhaps you have some interpersonal conflict, but it isn't quite well working yet. Many underwritten stories suffer from "jumping conflict" in which characters are calm or simpatico one moment, then inexplicably shouting at each other the next.

Granted, there are some people with extremely short fuses. They're perpetually angry and fly into a rage with little provocation. But those types are usually pretty easy to spot. They exhibit signs of being short fused in how they carry themselves and their tone of voice. If such a character exists in your fictional world, be sure to make those warning signs clear from the moment you introduce the character. Otherwise, his fits of rage will seem simply melodramatic, and he'll be a caricature rather than a character.

Most characters have longer fuses. They shift from calm to angry in gradual stages--slow burn. Negotiation or conflict avoidance should be more common than out-and-out fights. And when those fights do occur, they need to be appropriately paced. How?


  • Have the characters in conflict chip away at one another.
  • Have one try to back off or refuse to rise to the bait.
  • Repeatedly provoke a character with other, exterior conflicts so that she's ripe to burst with a little more pressure. 
  • Establish a trait such as worry or paranoia, so that his response to this trigger seems reasonable.

Most of all, try to think creatively about complex emotional responses. Straight-up anger is easy to write, and we can get lazy. In most conflicts, several emotions are at war. The mom who has to pick up her drunk teenager from a party can be as much worried and afraid as angry. The bullied nerd desires acceptance as much as revenge.

Explore those layers of emotion, and conflicts will become more interesting and more tense.

In every instance where characters get into conflict, stop and consider the mixed emotions that might reasonably be in play. Remember that not every character is prone to fist-fights or verbal sparring. Some people, when at cross-purposes with others, use soft, more positive tools to achieve their aims--they  might flatter, plead, or joke. This, too, is dramatic. Story-moving.

In The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield uses the term "negotiation" to describe how most characters experience conflict. She defines it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."

Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants.

I find this a helpful concept, because "conflict" is a pretty wholly negative term, whereas negotiations are often a mixed bag, and frankly, mixed bags offer more interest and diversity. Instead of one-note characters in one-note plots, negotiation helps you build character complexity and plots with organic twists and turns.

The power plays of negotiation depend first on the kind of relationship characters have--whether based on hierarchy, intimacy and equality, or a mix--and second, with the way each character tends to relate to and use power. Some will approach wresting power using negative tools like attacking, blame-shifting, lying or threatening. Others will use positive tools like begging, making promises, or truth-telling. (For an deeper look at the tools of negotation, see "The Secret to Complex, Compelling Conflict")

Interior conflict in underwritten stories often goes hand in hand with an overall thinness of the character's inner world and representations of interiority, so I will tackle this issue in a future post.

Which area is trickier for you to write, plot conflicts or interpersonal conflicts?


Thursday, December 15, 2016 Laurel Garver
In my previous post in this series, "Fleshing out a thin story: thin characterization," I discussed the ways in which manuscripts drafted hastily, such as during NaNoWriMo, can have some areas of underwriting that need to be fleshed out in revision.

Today's post on underwritten conflict is related, because you first need to have developed characters before you can fully suss out the many potential forms of conflict in your story.  Conflict in fiction involves more than just the surface problem that drives the plot. It also involves interpersonal conflict between characters, not only the hero and antagonist, but also the hero and other often well-meaning allies who block him/her in some way. And further, to develop the hero's inner arc, your story must also involve internal conflict between some of the hero's own desires, be they aspriational, like a desire to love and be loved, or protective, such as a desire to never be made to look a fool. (Both are typically tied in some way to the hero's wound.)

I would argue that to have a compelling plot--that is, a surface problem that appropriately fits these characters, that challenges their particular moral and psychological issues--it's helpful to approach conflict from the inside out. That is, you first develop the hero's internal conflict, then from there it will be clearer what kinds of other conflicts s/he'd naturally get into. Who would push her buttons? How would he respond to the antagonist's goading or to sudden perilous circumstances? I cover this idea pretty extensively in that previous post on thin characterization, so I'll merely point you there once again.

Plot conflicts


Once you've got your hero's inner world established, consider how to bring to the fore the inner arc. What kinds of annoying people and circumstances will most challenge the hero's key weakness?

Another key question: how can I make things worse for my hero? Be wary, however, of just throwing random problems at your characters, or your story will become unintentionally comical. (Farce is the resulting genre when every possible thing that could ever go wrong does...and then gets worse and worse and worse, essentially to make the point that life is a big joke. Ha.)

So how can you make things worse in a way that enhances the story?
  • Block the hero's progress toward a goal with small inconveniences that would naturally happen in his/her environment: weather changes, injuries, illness. equipment failure, uncooperative underlings, punishing authority figures, family crises, work deadlines 
  • Add a "ticking clock"--some sort of deadline that adds urgency.
  • Undermine the hero by shaking his/her confidence or applying pressures that will make him/her behave badly--make a mistake, do something mean, defy his/her own inner rules.
  • Create a hardship that forces the hero to learn a new skill or build relationships that will be needed later.
  • Add complications to an existing problem, or raise the stakes of failing to solve it.

Interpersonal conflict


Many underwritten stories limit the interpersonal conflict to an antagonist character or two, while everyone else seems to get along pretty well. This is not only unrealistic, it's also a hugely missed opportunity to portray the rich depths of your characters and their relationships.

Because no matter how loving and dedicated people are to one another, they will come into conflict about little irritating habits, differences in taste or opinion, and personal goals. Two wholly good characters can easily squabble about the best method of doing good and when and for whom. How they squabble reveals a great deal about them.

In addition to allies who scuffle with the hero, consider adding in other characters who act as forces of antagonism in addition to, or even in place of a single arch-villain. I describe eight different kinds of "everyday antagonists" who can join your story, or perhaps be recruited from your existing ranks of characters.

Perhaps you have some interpersonal conflict, but it isn't quite well working yet. Many underwritten stories suffer from "jumping conflict" in which characters are calm or simpatico one moment, then inexplicably shouting at each other the next.

Granted, there are some people with extremely short fuses. They're perpetually angry and fly into a rage with little provocation. But those types are usually pretty easy to spot. They exhibit signs of being short fused in how they carry themselves and their tone of voice. If such a character exists in your fictional world, be sure to make those warning signs clear from the moment you introduce the character. Otherwise, his fits of rage will seem simply melodramatic, and he'll be a caricature rather than a character.

Most characters have longer fuses. They shift from calm to angry in gradual stages--slow burn. Negotiation or conflict avoidance should be more common than out-and-out fights. And when those fights do occur, they need to be appropriately paced. How?


  • Have the characters in conflict chip away at one another.
  • Have one try to back off or refuse to rise to the bait.
  • Repeatedly provoke a character with other, exterior conflicts so that she's ripe to burst with a little more pressure. 
  • Establish a trait such as worry or paranoia, so that his response to this trigger seems reasonable.

Most of all, try to think creatively about complex emotional responses. Straight-up anger is easy to write, and we can get lazy. In most conflicts, several emotions are at war. The mom who has to pick up her drunk teenager from a party can be as much worried and afraid as angry. The bullied nerd desires acceptance as much as revenge.

Explore those layers of emotion, and conflicts will become more interesting and more tense.

In every instance where characters get into conflict, stop and consider the mixed emotions that might reasonably be in play. Remember that not every character is prone to fist-fights or verbal sparring. Some people, when at cross-purposes with others, use soft, more positive tools to achieve their aims--they  might flatter, plead, or joke. This, too, is dramatic. Story-moving.

In The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield uses the term "negotiation" to describe how most characters experience conflict. She defines it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."

Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants.

I find this a helpful concept, because "conflict" is a pretty wholly negative term, whereas negotiations are often a mixed bag, and frankly, mixed bags offer more interest and diversity. Instead of one-note characters in one-note plots, negotiation helps you build character complexity and plots with organic twists and turns.

The power plays of negotiation depend first on the kind of relationship characters have--whether based on hierarchy, intimacy and equality, or a mix--and second, with the way each character tends to relate to and use power. Some will approach wresting power using negative tools like attacking, blame-shifting, lying or threatening. Others will use positive tools like begging, making promises, or truth-telling. (For an deeper look at the tools of negotation, see "The Secret to Complex, Compelling Conflict")

Interior conflict in underwritten stories often goes hand in hand with an overall thinness of the character's inner world and representations of interiority, so I will tackle this issue in a future post.

Which area is trickier for you to write, plot conflicts or interpersonal conflicts?


Thursday, December 08, 2016

I hope to return to my series on expanding underwritten manuscripts in the coming weeks. But since I'm sick, and my family is as well (on and off for about seven weeks now. Not kidding.), I thought I'd address the problem at hand: writing when ill.
Photo by barterville on Morguefile

The idea of "touch it every day" when it comes to large writing projects seems sensible and exciting when you're in the bloom of health. When you have a pounding sinus headache, a fever and chills, it sounds like yet another source of unneeded guilt.

But when you get hit with one of these long, lingering illnesses that can wax and wane repeatedly over months, you can end up kissing goodbye a wonderful project that just totally stalls waiting you to be well enough to return to it.

So how do you keep up with writing when you really, in all honesty, CAN'T write?

1. Refill


I'd heard author Veronica Roth on her author blog compare a writer's mind to an ice cream maker. If you want to produce interesting flavors, you have to pour interesting ingredients into your vat. In other words, times of illness are times to sack out on the couch filling up with creative works--be they TV shows, films, YouTube videos, magazines, novels, reference works, or audio books.

Soak up settings that excite you or intrigue you with travel shows, foreign films, or back issues of National Geographic. If you're able, jot some notes on what strikes you about the setting and make a list of some aspects you could research further.

Hang out in the genre world you are writing, by watching TV shows and films or reading books in the genre. This will help you become more familiar with the tropes (expected elements) as well as cliches (overdone elements) in your genre, so that you can make your works stronger players in your genre.

Get some emotional comfort by returning to old familiar favorites. This can be a tremendous morale boost when you feel most down and discouraged about your poor health. Let these stories restore your faith in yourself and the world.

2. Analyze


While on the couch soaking in all these stories in films, TV shows and books, you can also learn quite a lot if you put on your analytical thinking cap.

Watch for instances of great pacing, plot, or characterization and consider what makes them work well. Ponder how you might make use of these observations to improve your own work.

Watch for instances of terrible pacing, rotten plots and unappealing characters. Consider why they don't work and consider how you can use this insight to avoid--or edit out--similar problems in your own work.

If you're able, jot down these observations, or leave yourself a short audio message to transcribe when you're feeling better.

3. Brainstorm


Many forms of brainstorming don't require quite as much mental or physical energy as drafting and revising do.

Jot quick notes on any of the following things: character traits, plot ideas, possible settings, cool details you could add, relationships and potential causes of tension. These could be electronic jots in a document that you can copy and paste into order later, note cards or post-its or pages in a journal.

Use the "reel it" method to visualize multiple ways a scene might play out.

Make messy mind maps--diagrams in which you jot words and draw connections using bubbles and arrows.

Make lists: of character's fears and pet peeves, of locales where scenes could take place, of possible false clues to plant in your mystery, of tech to research for your space-age setting, of songs to add to your prom-scene playlist. You get the idea.

Are you able to be creative when ill? Which of these ideas might you try?
Thursday, December 08, 2016 Laurel Garver
I hope to return to my series on expanding underwritten manuscripts in the coming weeks. But since I'm sick, and my family is as well (on and off for about seven weeks now. Not kidding.), I thought I'd address the problem at hand: writing when ill.
Photo by barterville on Morguefile

The idea of "touch it every day" when it comes to large writing projects seems sensible and exciting when you're in the bloom of health. When you have a pounding sinus headache, a fever and chills, it sounds like yet another source of unneeded guilt.

But when you get hit with one of these long, lingering illnesses that can wax and wane repeatedly over months, you can end up kissing goodbye a wonderful project that just totally stalls waiting you to be well enough to return to it.

So how do you keep up with writing when you really, in all honesty, CAN'T write?

1. Refill


I'd heard author Veronica Roth on her author blog compare a writer's mind to an ice cream maker. If you want to produce interesting flavors, you have to pour interesting ingredients into your vat. In other words, times of illness are times to sack out on the couch filling up with creative works--be they TV shows, films, YouTube videos, magazines, novels, reference works, or audio books.

Soak up settings that excite you or intrigue you with travel shows, foreign films, or back issues of National Geographic. If you're able, jot some notes on what strikes you about the setting and make a list of some aspects you could research further.

Hang out in the genre world you are writing, by watching TV shows and films or reading books in the genre. This will help you become more familiar with the tropes (expected elements) as well as cliches (overdone elements) in your genre, so that you can make your works stronger players in your genre.

Get some emotional comfort by returning to old familiar favorites. This can be a tremendous morale boost when you feel most down and discouraged about your poor health. Let these stories restore your faith in yourself and the world.

2. Analyze


While on the couch soaking in all these stories in films, TV shows and books, you can also learn quite a lot if you put on your analytical thinking cap.

Watch for instances of great pacing, plot, or characterization and consider what makes them work well. Ponder how you might make use of these observations to improve your own work.

Watch for instances of terrible pacing, rotten plots and unappealing characters. Consider why they don't work and consider how you can use this insight to avoid--or edit out--similar problems in your own work.

If you're able, jot down these observations, or leave yourself a short audio message to transcribe when you're feeling better.

3. Brainstorm


Many forms of brainstorming don't require quite as much mental or physical energy as drafting and revising do.

Jot quick notes on any of the following things: character traits, plot ideas, possible settings, cool details you could add, relationships and potential causes of tension. These could be electronic jots in a document that you can copy and paste into order later, note cards or post-its or pages in a journal.

Use the "reel it" method to visualize multiple ways a scene might play out.

Make messy mind maps--diagrams in which you jot words and draw connections using bubbles and arrows.

Make lists: of character's fears and pet peeves, of locales where scenes could take place, of possible false clues to plant in your mystery, of tech to research for your space-age setting, of songs to add to your prom-scene playlist. You get the idea.

Are you able to be creative when ill? Which of these ideas might you try?

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Photo by  jackileigh at morguefile.com
NaNoWriMonth has wrapped up for 2016, a time when many writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. On question that often pops up on Twitter near the end of November is whether "winning" NaNo (hitting the 50K goal) means you have a complete book.

Unless you write middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) or novellas, then likely, no you do not. You have either a very bloated beginning of a story, or you have a skeleton of a story that hits all the plot points you outlined, but lacks the musculature to stand on its own.

I've addressed a number of issues related to "overwriting" in a series of posts, so I will simply link them here:  (Part 1) Reining in tangents, (Part 2) Reducing grammatical bloat, (Part 3) Streamlining dialogue, (Part 4) Finding and eliminating "purple prose."

Today I'm going to begin a new series to address the second issue--the under-developed story, and how to begin better developing it.

Character underdevelopment


This is probably the chief problem with quickly written pieces--the characters don't yet feel real. The author hasn't yet spent enough time with them to have developed strong instincts about when they would impulsively act (and how) and when they'd pause and reflect (and upon what), The good news is, you can always fix this in revision. In fact, it very well may be best to wait until draft 2 to go deeper with your characters. Having the bones of the plot in place is like having a musical score calling for improvisation--you know the tempo and key, so you have some framework for riffing.

Even in published books,  I've seen some particular character under-development sins that need to be addressed in revision. If you want your NaNo project to succeed, here are some key characterization areas to tackle in your next draft.

Inner world

In underwritten stories, the character often has only one backstory wound that gets hammered on ad nauseum as the root of every problem. In revision, seek to develop other weaknesses, overreaching strengths, driving needs. You must connect with this inner world of your character in order to know what motivates their actions, and thus make their actions align with who they are and who they will become. I recommend Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters as a helpful resource to do this. I also have a lengthy character questionnaire that can help you better develop your characters' inner worlds. (My forthcoming book 1001 Evocative Prompts will have nearly double this number of character development questions. Stay tuned!)

Many underwritten stories focus only on a surface problem--some dilemma that gets the plot going-- and never address what Les Edgerton in Hooked calls a "story-worthy problem." By that he means the deeper psychological need that is challenged by the surface problem. For example, the need to feel competent. Worthy of love. Generous rather than grasping, or confident instead of fearful.

The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply. If you only work on the level of surface problem, you'll have a surface story. For more on emotional arcs, see "Don't forget the other journey, the other arc."

Keep in mind that inner drives, when matched well with the surface problem, will make your story far more compelling. It's somewhat an issue of putting the right character in a situation, and letting their inner world crash up against or be goaded by the surface problem. For more on this match-up, see "Compelling compulsions."

Voice

It takes time to get to know someone's speech patterns well enough to, say, predict their responses on quizzes or surveys. But to write convincing dialogue and inner monologues, you must know this about your character.

Character voice has three main elements:

Diction: How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament.

Associations: These “tip of the mind” thoughts tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. They can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. (See also "An Iceberg Approach to Demonstrating Character.")

Attitudes: These are value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected.

For more on character voice, see my guest post for C.M. Keller, "Elements of Voice."

Choices and changes


Related to those inner drives I'd mentioned above is how a character makes choices, how he or she behaves and reacts to certain events. In other words, the way character drives plot.

Choices must make sense to who a character is, both his temperament and aspirations, as well as his weaknesses and wounds. Too often, underwritten stories neglect to weave the character's emotional and moral inner world into the plot. Whenever your plot calls for your character to make a decision, consider how you can make implicit (through subtle hints) or explicit (in thought or speech) how s/he arrived at the decision based on upholding values, avoiding feared things, or succumbing to weaknesses.

Choices are also informed by the character's capacity. You will have a Mary Sue/Gary Stu if characters choose only to do what comes easily, and a "too stupid to live" character if his/her choices are illogical and go against the law of self-preservation for no reason (versus choosing to do something risky to help others  live and thrive). For more on capacity, see "A key question to keep character and plot in synch."

Change can often happen too quickly in an underwritten manuscript. It's helpful to become acquainted with some basic aspects of psychology to write convincing change.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one.

One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Rituals and community support are essential, as has been shown with 12-step programs.

Coming to a moment of realization, or "epiphany" is not enough to be convincing to readers; that never creates change in real life. Characters must go on to test and perfect what they've learned through some representative action at the story's end. See "Beyond closure: the key to creating satisfying story endings."

For more on creating convincing character change, see "Thoughts on motivation and change arcs."

Reactions and Pacing


This is one of the subtler aspects of characterization and storytelling--knowing when and how to have characters react to story events. When would they speak? What thoughts and feelings would be provoked by the event, and how would this person express them--in a bodily sensation, a thought, or a combination?

Underwritten stories almost always skip these moments altogether in order to keep a grip on the main plot thread. So in revision, you must step back and consider when your characters would naturally react, and at what length. The development work you did in the inner world and voice sections above should be a guide. And when anything new comes at your character, ask this essential question as an emotional pulse-check.

Underwritten stories also tend to have too-small emotional arcs. You begin with the character too far along in an arc or skip over steps, causing jumping conflict. I call this "the teaspoon problem" after Hermione Granger's comment that Ron Weasley has "the emotional range of a teaspoon." For more on expanding the range of your emotional arcs, see "Emotional arcs: the teaspoon problem."

If your characters are on the run, you must include scenes in which they rest, recuperate, and consider their ongoing strategy. No one believably goes and goes like the Energizer Bunny. Humans have human weaknesses. Capitalize on them in these moments to make your heroic characters relatable. They still get stiff muscles and hunger pangs, still need bloody wounds to be re-dressed, still need a few hours of sleep to avoid sleep-deprivation psychosis.

Which of these areas do you struggle with most?
Thursday, December 01, 2016 Laurel Garver
Photo by  jackileigh at morguefile.com
NaNoWriMonth has wrapped up for 2016, a time when many writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. On question that often pops up on Twitter near the end of November is whether "winning" NaNo (hitting the 50K goal) means you have a complete book.

Unless you write middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) or novellas, then likely, no you do not. You have either a very bloated beginning of a story, or you have a skeleton of a story that hits all the plot points you outlined, but lacks the musculature to stand on its own.

I've addressed a number of issues related to "overwriting" in a series of posts, so I will simply link them here:  (Part 1) Reining in tangents, (Part 2) Reducing grammatical bloat, (Part 3) Streamlining dialogue, (Part 4) Finding and eliminating "purple prose."

Today I'm going to begin a new series to address the second issue--the under-developed story, and how to begin better developing it.

Character underdevelopment


This is probably the chief problem with quickly written pieces--the characters don't yet feel real. The author hasn't yet spent enough time with them to have developed strong instincts about when they would impulsively act (and how) and when they'd pause and reflect (and upon what), The good news is, you can always fix this in revision. In fact, it very well may be best to wait until draft 2 to go deeper with your characters. Having the bones of the plot in place is like having a musical score calling for improvisation--you know the tempo and key, so you have some framework for riffing.

Even in published books,  I've seen some particular character under-development sins that need to be addressed in revision. If you want your NaNo project to succeed, here are some key characterization areas to tackle in your next draft.

Inner world

In underwritten stories, the character often has only one backstory wound that gets hammered on ad nauseum as the root of every problem. In revision, seek to develop other weaknesses, overreaching strengths, driving needs. You must connect with this inner world of your character in order to know what motivates their actions, and thus make their actions align with who they are and who they will become. I recommend Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters as a helpful resource to do this. I also have a lengthy character questionnaire that can help you better develop your characters' inner worlds. (My forthcoming book 1001 Evocative Prompts will have nearly double this number of character development questions. Stay tuned!)

Many underwritten stories focus only on a surface problem--some dilemma that gets the plot going-- and never address what Les Edgerton in Hooked calls a "story-worthy problem." By that he means the deeper psychological need that is challenged by the surface problem. For example, the need to feel competent. Worthy of love. Generous rather than grasping, or confident instead of fearful.

The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply. If you only work on the level of surface problem, you'll have a surface story. For more on emotional arcs, see "Don't forget the other journey, the other arc."

Keep in mind that inner drives, when matched well with the surface problem, will make your story far more compelling. It's somewhat an issue of putting the right character in a situation, and letting their inner world crash up against or be goaded by the surface problem. For more on this match-up, see "Compelling compulsions."

Voice

It takes time to get to know someone's speech patterns well enough to, say, predict their responses on quizzes or surveys. But to write convincing dialogue and inner monologues, you must know this about your character.

Character voice has three main elements:

Diction: How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament.

Associations: These “tip of the mind” thoughts tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. They can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. (See also "An Iceberg Approach to Demonstrating Character.")

Attitudes: These are value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected.

For more on character voice, see my guest post for C.M. Keller, "Elements of Voice."

Choices and changes


Related to those inner drives I'd mentioned above is how a character makes choices, how he or she behaves and reacts to certain events. In other words, the way character drives plot.

Choices must make sense to who a character is, both his temperament and aspirations, as well as his weaknesses and wounds. Too often, underwritten stories neglect to weave the character's emotional and moral inner world into the plot. Whenever your plot calls for your character to make a decision, consider how you can make implicit (through subtle hints) or explicit (in thought or speech) how s/he arrived at the decision based on upholding values, avoiding feared things, or succumbing to weaknesses.

Choices are also informed by the character's capacity. You will have a Mary Sue/Gary Stu if characters choose only to do what comes easily, and a "too stupid to live" character if his/her choices are illogical and go against the law of self-preservation for no reason (versus choosing to do something risky to help others  live and thrive). For more on capacity, see "A key question to keep character and plot in synch."

Change can often happen too quickly in an underwritten manuscript. It's helpful to become acquainted with some basic aspects of psychology to write convincing change.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one.

One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Rituals and community support are essential, as has been shown with 12-step programs.

Coming to a moment of realization, or "epiphany" is not enough to be convincing to readers; that never creates change in real life. Characters must go on to test and perfect what they've learned through some representative action at the story's end. See "Beyond closure: the key to creating satisfying story endings."

For more on creating convincing character change, see "Thoughts on motivation and change arcs."

Reactions and Pacing


This is one of the subtler aspects of characterization and storytelling--knowing when and how to have characters react to story events. When would they speak? What thoughts and feelings would be provoked by the event, and how would this person express them--in a bodily sensation, a thought, or a combination?

Underwritten stories almost always skip these moments altogether in order to keep a grip on the main plot thread. So in revision, you must step back and consider when your characters would naturally react, and at what length. The development work you did in the inner world and voice sections above should be a guide. And when anything new comes at your character, ask this essential question as an emotional pulse-check.

Underwritten stories also tend to have too-small emotional arcs. You begin with the character too far along in an arc or skip over steps, causing jumping conflict. I call this "the teaspoon problem" after Hermione Granger's comment that Ron Weasley has "the emotional range of a teaspoon." For more on expanding the range of your emotional arcs, see "Emotional arcs: the teaspoon problem."

If your characters are on the run, you must include scenes in which they rest, recuperate, and consider their ongoing strategy. No one believably goes and goes like the Energizer Bunny. Humans have human weaknesses. Capitalize on them in these moments to make your heroic characters relatable. They still get stiff muscles and hunger pangs, still need bloody wounds to be re-dressed, still need a few hours of sleep to avoid sleep-deprivation psychosis.

Which of these areas do you struggle with most?