We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Character

Last week, Roz Morris and I had the first of our four scheduled weekly editorial chats: Talking Plot. We’re running these chats here once a week throughout the month of April.

We had a fabulous time and covered all the basics of plot—Hook, Conflicts, Faux Resolution, and Climax—as well as event-vs-temporal structure, the biggest plot problem we see in client manuscripts, what stories are really about, and who originally said, “B’doing!”

And later in the comments. . .we got TIARAS.

Now please join us today for the second of these weekly editor chats: Talking Character.

Victoria: Roz, what’s your take on techniques for developing character, such as questionnaires?

Roz: Personally, I think all writers are different. We all need to get familiar with our characters somehow. For some, that will mean using exercises such as questionnaires, interviews and so on. Others will plunge into getting to know them as they act, perhaps writing scenes that will never be used, recreating their wedding list and what the most treasured items from it are. And of course, a lot more becomes apparent about a character once we’ve put them into the story and made them interact with other people, take action, make decisions and test them a bit.

I reckon there are few downsides to noodling around with a character before we start using them properly. Except for this—sometimes writers are tempted to shoehorn in everything that they have produced about a character, even where it may clutter. There’s a lot you might know about a character that no one else needs to know or see. But these facts help you write them with more certainty and authority.

Victoria: Yes—you’re talking about the 90% of the iceberg you can’t see, what Hemingway said gives it its dignity.

Roz: Dignity—and depth. Eee, he knew a thing or two.

Victoria: Good ole Hem.

You know, I find it’s almost always an issue of too much
exposition rather than too many telling details. It’s fascinating to learn about characters by watching them walk and talk, move and act and interact with others. This is how we learn real people in real life. They have a cow if anyone alters the time on the little china clock? They won’t eat butter on their scones? They can’t be in a room with someone wearing loud plaid? These details aren’t important enough to stop the story over, but when you use them as layering—drop them into scenes in passing, in the middle of the real action—they snap those scenes vividly to life, while implying the needs and drives inside the characters that fuel the plot.

Roz: I can’t stand loud plaid either. Can I go in a book?

Victoria: But of course! I will give you a jaunty little tamoshanter and make you speak with a Scottish accent.

Roz: Drop the details in—that’s so important. It’s similar to the way you should use research. Find out loads about your topic, setting, situation—and use it only when strictly necessary. Not a drop more or the reader will spot you’ve inflicted an info-dump on them.

Victoria: Information is essential to learn how to handle properly. That’s a layering issue, and layering really is the life breath of three-dimensional fiction. I’m always telling writers, “Get your butt out in the world and take copious notes on what’s there. That’s your telling details,” but when you have a lot of information you need to convey—from research, as you say—that’s even better! You’ve already taken your copious notes!

Now you can either use them the difficult way, by launching straight into your story without any further preparation and just trying to develop a hyper-sensitive nose for exactly when a detail needs to drop, or you can use them the easy way, by taking a long, long, looooong time to develop on paper and in your mind this entire world in which your characters move. Writing scenes you may never use, as you mentioned. Then when you do write the scenes your plot needs, those details will simply be apparent because you’re already living among them.

You know, Flannery O’Connor noted when these details surface organically they begin to take on resonance and become symbolic. Those are the details that eventually form the nuances of your Resolution. I always tell writers to spend a long, luxurious time getting to know their characters. Not just the details of their world, but identifying the conflicting needs that power them and extrapolate from there.

So what’s the single most important thing aspiring writers should know about character?

Roz: Use the plot to test the things the character doesn’t want to face. That makes the most compelling story. It’s the skeletons in the cupboard, the stuff they need to deal with and move on from. Perhaps it’s emotional baggage that’s making them choose the wrong type of boyfriend. The grudge that means they can’t forgive a particular kind of behaviour. The nasty fact they’ve been avoiding. It’s got to be something that’s holding them back or spoiling their lives.

Victoria: Internal conflict. Absolutely. Stories are about people in trouble, characters struggling to save themselves, and the best threats are always internal because those are the ones that are hardest to combat. “You I can walk away from. But me I’m stuck with.”

Roz: Yes, yes, yessity yes! And if they deal with it they will emerge different and free. Which will be extremely satisfying for the reader. Would we be making a simplistic generalisation to say that all truly satisfying stories are really about that question—the ‘me’ that the characters are stuck with? Their own worst enemy who they have to make their peace with? If they can’t achieve that peace, is that tragedy? Even if it’s not high tragedy, it certainly leaves a tragic note.

Victoria: Simplistic generalization? [laughing] You say that like it’s a bad thing!

It’s neither simple nor a generalization. It’s the truth. We read to experience the resolution of the protagonist’s worst nightmare, and we have to go through the nightmare to get to the release at the end. In fact, I’d go even further and say we’re reading not for the character’s release but for our own. Storytelling is the careful, powerful, professional construction of a catapult to fling a reader into space toward epiphany. We can’t create the reader’s epiphany—it depends in part upon the reader themself, so each epiphany is a tiny bit different. But a really well-built catapult will put the reader pretty much where the writer wants them to go.

Roz: I wrote about this in a post a short time ago. I work out the emotion I want for the final scene and angle everything towards it. I realised in all my work, even the novels that are only seeds in my head, my last scene would be ‘feels so good to be free’. In each book, the story is about what the character has to do to break into that state of freedom.

Victoria: Oooh. Brilliant plan. Sometimes I like to write the Resolutions, too—sometimes that’s the best reward for slogging through the writing of the rest of the novel! But sometimes I like walking that wildcat line where the reader’s experience of freedom has to be inside them rather than on the page.

I have a client who’s writing very dark, very detailed, very beautiful edgy literary fiction. His first novel ends on the protagonist facing death. He didn’t want to tell the reader whether the guy lives or dies—he said he wasn’t sure himself. So we designed that final paragraph, those final sentences, to make the last words a clue (just a clue!) to the protagonist’s Resolution—which is not about life or death, but about his internal struggle as
illuminated by the threat of death—leaving the reader to extrapolate their own Resolution from that.

It’s a gorgeous ending. It’s a hell of a novel!

Roz: I bet it is. An ending is emotional as much as eventful—a question of finding the point where the profoundest struggle has ended.

Talking Plot
Talking Prose
Talking Revision

Here’s your weekly question, guys: What’s the biggest struggle you’re facing with character in your novel?

27 thoughts on “We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Character

  1. Vivienne Grianger says:

    I deal with chronic illness, and recently decided to pile all that entails onto my poor suffering protagonist and her other strivings (Google “Spoon Theory” to arrive at a wonderful explanation of what it’s all about). While it clarified things in my novel wonderfully, now I’m having to be sure that her reactions, while of necessity like my own, aren’t my own. Fortunately, I have pretty good radar, and when it pings, I know something needs to change, or go …

    1. Victoria says:

      I wouldn’t worry too much about this, Vivienne. We all write the same character, in one form or another, into all the different protagonists. Look at Patricia Highsmith and her pair of men who meet in novel after novel to explore the monsters in their own and each others’ souls.

      Identify your protagonist’s driving need and counter-need, and whenever you come to a place where her reactions move her story forward, fall back on the interplay of those two needs to show you what she has to do.

      1. I ‘d add that your radar is excellently developed, Vivienne, if it has woken you up to think about such things. Sometimes you’ll need to change something, sometimes you won’t. But everything in a story, as Victoria says, needs a purpose.

  2. Jeffrey Russell says:

    My plot has a protagonist plus a main character. The story begins with the protagonist at the precipice of death, after a lifetime fighting internal conflicts and demons, all of which he has carefully kept hidden. The main character is his girlfriend, the love of his life, who suddenly and without warning of any kind, is forced to face the fact he has those demons. The story follows two paths to the same resolution – his and hers. His path has him still trying to fight the demons, but losing, one demon at a time, until he must face his worst one. Her path is one of discovery, trying to find out what demons he has.

    His path was the easier one to write. It’s emotional and gut wrenching, but very straightforward. One demon at a time, each worse than the one before, until he gets to the last one.

    Her path has been a struggle for me to write, though. She’s yanked out of her comfort zone of security and shyness. She has to figure out who her allies are, and who her enemies are. Each person to whom she looks for answers raise more questions and doubts. But – those are all ‘plot points’ that I have pretty much got a handle on.

    My problem is to show her gradual transformation from the shy follower into the confident woman who figures it out. And to show it effectively. And subtly. And logically. All the while maintaining the story’s flow. Seems like it shouldn’t be so hard since all the plot points are there, but I sure am struggling with it!

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes—you have a protagonist with very obvious driving needs, his demons, and a secondary main character whose driving needs are less obvious.

      Identify what she needs more than anything in the world (why is the scene with the woman who cares for her when she’s young so important?) and then identify what she needs equally powerfully but in opposition to that. The tension between those two needs are what fuel all her actions, including and culminating in her search for the core clue to her sweetheart’s recovery.

      1. Jeffrey Russell says:

        You know, Victoria, life was so much easier when I was young and all we had to do was sit around and identify all the world’s ills. We didn’t have to actually do anything about them. But now I’m older and people like YOU come along and say “You’re right! That does need to be fixed. Here’s what you need to do…”


        I’ll work on her a little more, and find out what else makes her tick. Just don’t say to me at the end “I told you so, Jeffrey!” LOL

        1. Victoria says:

          Have I yet? 🙂

        2. I’ll keep out of this as you don’t need another cook digging a spoon in. And because it sounds like between you this novel is in safe hands. Good luck, Jeffrey!

    2. Great post Vioctoria and Roz.
      Hi Jeffrey, I couldn’t do it myself either as I am not a good enough writer at that sort of thing. But if forced, e.g. in a class exercise this is how I would try.
      Show her meek follower character the first time the reader meets her; it’s important you do it then to establish this part of her character in the reader’s mind. Show it by her actions, not by her thoughts – be careful though you don’t want the reader to completely dismiss her at the beginning as a wet character. Maybe her thoughts could be the opposite of her actions so the reader sees an inner conflict.
      Then sometime into the the story, say a 1/4 in, you need a scene where she needs to finally understand that she has to change. Again show by actions where she needed to do something to save him or whatever but she doesn’t.
      Then about 3/4 of the way in, show that she has almost changed by her actions in an event but not with him. Get the reader thinking can she be this way with him?
      Finally in the denouement scene where her character arc has fully changed you can reveal an event to show that she has changed. Make sure he is involved so he can see the change also. And again, show by her actions but this time give her thoughts as doubts (a reversal) but obviously she succeeds. This last scene ought to be connected in some way to the opening scene where she first failed. This gives the plot a circularity which feels satisfying to the reader – you could set it in the same place, or it could be a similar event or some person or object could be important in both scenes.
      Sorry there’s not much specifics there but hope it sets you thinking and gives you an idea or two, or prompts others to disagree and give you something better..

      1. Jeffrey Russell says:

        Christopher, thanks for the advice. You made some good points. I’ve been concentrating on showing her growth and transformation gradually. Little by little, so that with each new obstacle she overcomes she grows a little more. The timing of all that has been my struggle. Trying to make sure she grows just the right amount each time so that at the climax she completes her growth and reaches her goal.

        But instead of all those little baby steps, I’m going to see about fewer steps, but larger ones. It does make a lot of sense to just fling her forward periodically. And it’ll probably make for better tension for the reader too. Not to mention being easier to write for me! So… thanks for your thoughts.

  3. My biggest struggle is that I want to change my character as I go through the novel. So I can’t start with a fully formed character. I usually use mind maps to design my characters rather than questionnaires, and I add to them as I go along. Not very logical but it appears to work for me. I posted on this;

    1. Victoria says:

      Christopher, we are all fully-formed characters at the beginning of our character arcs, and since our characters must be true to life that is true of them as well. The trick is to identify the ways in which those forms are insufficient to meet the demands of the story.

      Start with the two, overriding, conflict needs of your character: what do they need most in this world? and what need do they have that prevents them from satisfying it? Then as you track your character’s progress through their arc, you have that tension—need, counter-need—keeping you honest every step of the way.

      1. ‘We are all fully formed at the beginning of our character arcs…’ Victoria that is a brilliant observation. There’s a danger that because we as authors know our character needs to change, we might make them too dysfunctional, or even as Christopher says, wet. I’ve seen this time and again in manuscripts and have asked the author: ‘if this character is such a wuss/moron/nutjob/, how do they function in day-to-day life?’

  4. You and Roz delivered as promised!

    My character problem is similar in some ways to Jeffrey’s. My main character is the one who has to go through a major transformation and carry the story forward, but his journey introduces him to a love interest who is arguably turning out to be a more interesting character. I’ve even considered shifting the main character to be her rather than him, but that’s not how the story is structured at this point, and I’m reticent to write a female lead for my first fiction novel.

    One thing I’ve pretty much decided on is that I’m switching from first person POV to third. That will let me follow both characters, rather than introducing everything about the female lead from the male lead’s perspective. Plus, everything I’m reading says first person POV is difficult for novice novelists. It didn’t seem that way when I wrote act 1, but what do I know? Well, more all the time, but not much yet!

    BTW, step 5 of the Snowflake Method has me working through the story from the perspective of BOTH characters, and that has been illuminating. I haven’t tried any interview techniques yet, but I’ve written at least a thousand words on each character’s background, personality, and perspectives.

    1. Jeffrey Russell says:

      Daniel, to quote the great Yogi Berra, your post is “déjà vu all over again!” My first draft was first person from my protagonist’s POV. A third of the way through I introduced the love interest. She turned out to be more interesting than I’d anticipated. I finished that draft and sent it to Victoria and we both realized it didn’t work. So I wrote a second draft, in third person, from her POV. While better than the first draft it had lost too much of the power and tension of the first version, so Victoria suggested another version which combined the two, using a layering technique. She has a good post on it here: http://writerunboxed.com/2011/01/30/3-layers-of-layering-in-fiction/

      She also suggested using first person for the protagonist and third person for the love interest. I thought she was crazy! But, I ended up trying it and she was right on the money. I’m still struggling some getting the love interest just right, but I am confident it will work. I don’t know if Victoria has seen your MS, but if she has ask her about layering.

    2. Victoria says:

      Yes, looking at both perspectives is terrific stuff. You need to know these characters living through your story. You need to know them like the back of your hand.

      First-person narrative is difficult in that you must maintain a consistent character voice throughout the entire novel, and this can become an issue if you haven’t really spent much time developing your voice, much less a character’s.

      When you switch to third-person, though, be aware that it doesn’t give you unlimited license. If you use more than one POV, you’lll need to plan the pattern of switches from one to another, being aware at all times that you’re sending a message to the reader about both characters about each POV every time you do it.

      And it’s true—Jeffrey thought I was crazy. So far as I know, he still does. 🙂

      1. Jeffrey: Thank you for sharing. It’s fascinating how similar your experience was to what I’m going through now. I’m so new at this that I have no idea what is an unusual problem to have and what’s common to everyone. I checked out the article on layering. I must admit it mostly confused me at this point, but I believe it will make more sense if I read it again while I’m actively writing scenes (I’m mostly story planning at the moment).

        Victoria: You are right about voice. After many years, I’ve developed a definite voice in my non-fiction writing, but haven’t figured out the emotional texture of my fiction voice yet. I’m betting my current first-person voice comes off somewhat detached, although my wife assures me I’m quite capable of emotional writing. I guess the only way to work on my voice is to just keep writing!

        Thanks so much for your feedback, both of you.

        1. Victoria says:

          As it happens, Daniel, Roz & I are talking about voice next week, in Talking Prose. We’ll be giving you some pointers then!

        2. Daniel, welcome to the writers’ lab! So much of what we do with novels is experiment – is it better if it’s first person, if the MC is male, if the MC is much younger/older, if I switch the MC to that far more interesting character who popped up and hogged the stage.

          It sounds like you’re developing a feel for what should go in your book and a willingness to play with it all – and crucially, not to stick with the first idea that occurs to you.

          As for your fiction voice, don’t worry if it doesn’t come while you’re doing all this other work. You have a lot to concentrate on. There will be time when you are able to concentrate on that and give it proper attention.

          Best of luck!

        3. I look forward to the information on voice.

          As for “willingness to play with it all,” I think it’s a matter of being aware of the fact that I’m still figuring this all out. I know I’ll need to change things because I’m learning as I go. I want the best book possible out of this process, and that means being willing to *let it become* the best book possible.

          To quote Socrates: “All I know, is that I know nothing.”

  5. Erika Marks says:

    Oh boy, do I love these chats, ladies. This one was wonderful–so many juicy tidbits to chew on–thank you!
    Right now, my biggest challenge is how to make my main character (male) emotionally-reserved without being cold or unsympathetic. I have so little patience for the cliched “emotionally-unavailable” man who simply needs an understanding heart to love again. Bleech. Not this fellow. It’s tricky. Very, very tricky.

    1. Victoria says:

      Erika, use the intrinsic distinction between dialog and behavior. Give him emotionally-reserved dialog and body language. But show him behaving in sympathetic ways. Show him following his values even when it’s difficult. Show him being kind without being fussy. Show him displaying integrity in a situation where the other characters don’t know what to do or are crumbling to the temptation to take the easy way out.

      My grandfather was quiet and emotionally-reserved, but when he died the town barber told my husband, “He was the last of the old-fashioned gentlemen.” And I realized the way he lived his life was louder than the way he expressed himself.

      1. Exactly what I was going to prescribe. He might not say very much, but his behaviour will say a lot more than his words do.

        BTW, hello Erika – lovely to see you, as always! And good for you for examining this very interesting character type in a more real way.

      2. Erika Marks says:

        Wonderful advice, Victoria–thank you. And I love the anecdote about your grandfather.

        So looking forward to the next installment…

Comments are closed.