Friday, 24 July 2009

Plotting - It's all about Characters

Well miracles happen...the sun is shining this morning in Cornwall. Help yourself to coffee, tea and home made Irish Soda bread and pull up a chair in the sun. The garden is looking glorious.

Now most of you know I was at the RNA Conference in Penrith. This is an event I so look forward to as it feeds my writing soul - being with other writers, talking writing, talking books, wearing outrageous shoes and learning.

I have written up on my blog a few of the sessions so far but there was one given by the fabulous Jodi Thomas in the Sunday afternoon extras sessions that really made all the bells and whistles in my over worked brain go off. It was a session on 'plotting for success in your writing career'. She began by saying that 'it's all about the characters'. This point is also well stated over at the RNA's Blog by Amanda Grange on Thursday's post Character is King.

Now, I have read my share of 'how to' books and have the read 'ask the question what if'. It made sense but I never took the time to do the exercise. Jodi made us do the exercise then and there. So I am going to make you do the same. Pencils and paper ready please.

-Your character has to have a want or a need and we need to know it from the beginning and it has to be a basic down to the ground type of need
-think of the character...their flaw and their need have to go together -even if it is not revealed to the reader until the end (she gave the example of the hero who is search of a home but it doesn't come out that he is an orphan until the end)
-Every character trait has two sides. So if you have a gentle man which is good this could be a problem if he won't fight for anything

So with these key things in mind begin a sentence -

(Character's name) would have been perfect if he/she hadn't wanted/needed so (whatever it is) so bad...

Now for an example (my foolish one).

Archie would have been been perfect if he hadn't wanted to win the most medals in the world in swimming so bad.

Now throw down five 'what ifs' that would stop your character from achieving their goal - do it quick

So for Archie
-he hated water
-he was afraid of water
-he was allergic to chlorine
-he was wedding date was on the day of the world championships
-he breaks both legs in a car crash

If stuck with these then try writing them in 1st person:
-What if I am afraid of water?
-What if all my muscle seize up every time I see a pool?
-What if I'm my skin practically falls off every time I touch chlorine?
-What if the woman I love most in the world will not speak to me again if I change the wedding date?
-How can I cope with the fact that my career is shot because of some stupid drunk driver?

Now list five things your characters would never do?

Archie would never:
-never drink before a meet
-run naked through the village
-let a friend down

Now take on of them and make him do it or nearly do it. What drove him to that point?

Final thought - you've got to make your characters uncomfortable. Have you made yours really squirm? Let me know. I have found this exercise really useful in the revision process but I know it would really help me in the planning process which is an area I really need to focus on (then maybe revision might not be so hard!) If all goes to plan I should be posting my notes on the rest of Jodi's session next week on my blog.

P.S. While Jodi was flying home to Texas after being with us in Penrith she had a call from her editor who went from NY to Washington D.C. and picked up the National Readers Choice Award for two of Jodi's books. It's the first time an author has won in two categories. TWISTED CREEK won for best women’s fiction and TALL, DARK, AND TEXAN won for best Historical Romance. So pleased she was with the RNA in Penrith and not is DC - selfish I know but....


Flowerpot said...

Great post Liz. (And I'm glad it's shining over with you - we have a sudden deluge here in Falmouth!) I'm editing at the moment and working on the characters as we speak so will get myself another cuppa and get to work on those exercises - great timing!

Flowerpot said...

oh and brilliant news for Jodi!

Kate said...

Hi Liz and other Racers,
Thanks for posting that, and I love your examples! Really sad I missed Penrith – the exercise is one I am going to save for later, I think, as it’s quite an involved exercise and I want to give it time – reminds me a lot of the exercises in the Donald Maas books and I find those a great way to focus on elements of a work in progress.
I’ve been very absent of late, because of moving to Spain, but just wanted to pop in and say hello to the Racers and say that now I have broadband again, I plan to be a very dedicated Racer. I’ve just embarked on another one of my mad challenges, to try to write a first draft of a short YA novel in two weeks. I already know it’s not going to happen but it’s a good motivator for me, words on the page and all that.
Looking forward to reading other people’s responses.
Kate x

mulberry said...

Glad it's sunny there, very grey in Bedfordshire!
Excellent post Liz. I must try it out on the characters from the next story that I'm plotting out now. Really should go back to square one and try it on the characters from the WIP I'm editing. I'm still not convinced about the conflict...

ChrisH said...

Very timely, Liz as I have been going through a similar process using the Maas book for my WIP. Actually it stopped being a WIP because I'd misinterpreted my characters SO badly! I realised that I hadn't let go of my previous book's characters and had simply shoehorned them into a different physical shape!

My one note of caution about this exercise is although it's great to do quickly to limber up I would add that you have to make sure you are writing as truthfully as you can about your characters, thinking about their real needs and goals not just the ones you've given them. There's a danger, otherwise, that you end up shuffling dolls round a playhouse instead of creating credible characters.

Helen said...

Thanks Liz. This is a great exercise and one I'm going to have a go at later. I always worry my main character may be a little two dimensional and react to situations a little bit like myself, so this will help fleshing her out.

Calistro said...

That's a great exercise! I did the first part for all 4 of my characters and really had to think about it for my 4th character - which has just added a new element to his character for my novel, so thanks!

Will do the other parts of the exercise later although, off the top of my head I've already realised that 2 of my characters do things they'd never normally do and the reason they do is because they change/grow over the course of the novel - so I must have done something right!

Very useful exercise. Thank you!

Lucy Diamond said...

What a great post and how inspiring! Definitely one to file away for future use.

I am trying to cram in lots of evening writing at the moment before we go on holiday, loads of deadlines to meet so am having a bit of a nightmare! Still, at least the Big One - delivering my fourth novel - has been ticked off the list which is a great feeling.

Have a good weekend everyone x

Karen said...

Brilliant post, and I'll definitely be trying those exercises for my characters :o)

Like you said, I've read that sort of idea before but never properly tried it - I wouldn't be at all surprised if it throws up some interesting results!

Anonymous said...

I hope there's some soda bread left. I could do with some to soak up the wine I'm about to pour.

Thanks for all these fine reports on the RNA conference. I have to admit to brain overload, and I wasn't even there! Eventually I'll get around to re-reading and inwardly digesting all the good advice. I may have to take some of it with a pinch of proverbial though, as I suspect that some things are specific to the romantic fiction genre. I'm sure there's enough overlap for most of it though.

I don't have time to do the exercises now, as I've got a google of things to do before setting off for South Wales and the wh@c. I suspect I'll be all exercised out when I return from there, so it may be a while before I revisit these ones.

Good to see you back here, Kate.

Debs said...

Great post, and very useful for me, as I need to work on my characters and their wants/needs, etc.

I was lucky enough to be in a talk that Jodi did a couple of years ago at Penrith. Not only was she very inspiring, but also friendly and signed a copy of her book for me.

HelenMHunt said...

This is interesting. One of the concerns I have about my novel is that the MC doesn't have strong enough motivation. She tends to get caught up in things and her motivation often is just to get out of a situation not of her own making. I don't think this is strong enough and I think looking at this exercise could be really helpful in trying to work out something a bit more powerful. Thanks Liz.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Great post. I'll add the exercise to my folder of things to do :)

Fia said...

Thank you Liz. Very helpful.