Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Know What You Fear: Using Phobias to Characterize

Fear is a motivator.  It motivates us to action and, just as often, to inaction.  Either way, the resulting choices have consequences, and consequences are integral to plot.

Think about your protagonist.  What is she afraid of?  Why does she fear it?  Knowing what she fears can give you ideas for backstory, help you define motives, and -- most importantly -- provide opportunities to give your protagonist inner conflict.

Conflicted characters are interesting.  We want to know what they'll do when confronted with fear and worry about whether they'll survive that confrontation.  You want to make your readers worry.  That means you've done your job right and awakened sympathy for your character.

Fear can also be used to create irony.  For instance, what if your protagonist has peladophobia -- an irrational fear of bald people?  Any ideas about what your antagonist should look like?  Here are a few hints: Lex Luthor.  Patrick Stewart.  Kojak.  All right, you're smart enough that you already got my dumb point.

The history behind your protagonist's fear can add interest to your story.  Consider this example from someone's very nonfictional life.  A young girl was walking down her neighborhood street when a large truck pulled up next to her and its bearded occupants tried to get her in the cab.  Years later she still suffers from pogonophobia -- a fear of beards -- and won't let her husband grow facial hair. 

I have several phobias of my own.  Some can be traced to specific events (Like that vicious spider attack!) while others seem to have come with me as an unfortunate package deal.  Regardless of their origins, they affect my choices.  In many instances, they also define my personality.

You don't have to name your character's phobia.  In fact, unless it's a very common one like claustrophobia, it's probably better if you don't.  The important thing is to show it through events and reactions.  Let it lurk inside your protagonist, paralyzing him at the worst possible moments.  What do you have to be afraid of?  Give it a try.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Plot Points and Pacing and Getting Unstuck: A Guest Blog from the Word Nerd

So, Word Nerd, I'm on the fourth chapter / the middle / near the end of my project.  My main characters have been introduced, as has (have) the conflict (conflicts).  I had a great hook and started out with action; I threw in some tension, but now I'm trying to figure out where my characters go from here.

First of all *smacks you upside the head* why didn't you begin with some sort of outline, timeline, pace chart, or any other kind of meta-document?  And how many other unfinished projects do you have lying around because you didn't really plan?  Don't you see how you're shooting yourself in the foot?  Even if you've got 65,ooo of your targeted 80,000 words written, sit down and work up some sort of outline or timeline.  This will also help you with problems of continuity and logic your story may present.

Second:  Finish something.  Please.  Even if it absolutely sucks and will never see the light of day, finish something.  Proving to yourself that you have it in you to finish a project may just be the thing that spurs you on and leads to other successes.

If you began with an outline of some sort, are you "stuck" because you suddenly realized you wanted to take your story in an entirely new direction?  Go and create a new outline / timeline / meta-doc.

Have you given your characters enough to do?  Do they escape too easily from the dungeon, or does the Big Bad Evil send his mionions after them because they've stolen the Magic Thingie?  Make them work for their happy endings.

How's your pacing?  Good pacing consists of scenes where there will be action, tension, and even not much happening.  Action consist of, naturally, battles or pursuit.  Tension is where things or people are hiding or being hidden.  A girl disguised as a boy, a person in the wrong place at the wrong time witnessing a murder.  Don't discount the not much happening scenes and chapters, either.  This is where you do your world building and character development.  Make certain that you balance these.  You don't necessarily have to have an action chapter followed by a not-much-chapter followed by a tension chapter.  That would make your writing formulaic.  Do what the story calls for, but keep your audience in mind too.

For example:  We find out in the first chapter that a character's mother is dead.  There are brief mentions of her in subsequent chapters, but not big "reveals" until Chapter 8, when the character is in a tense situation and remembers her mother had diabetes and had to stick herself with lancets and give herself insulin injections.  Our protagonist remembers how frightening it was to see her mother do this, and she draws upon her mother's example of courage to bolster her own.  So we readers wonder if the mother's illness might have been the cause of her death.  Then it's not till Chapter 11 that we find out that the mother was actually killed in an auto accident by a drunk driver.  Don't "info-dump" or "frontload" on your readers.  give out the information a little at a time and in relevant situations.  This will help you avoid the "soggy middle."

Try stepping away (briefly!) from your project.  Go do something physical for awhile, watch a couple of "Bones" episodes or a soccer match.  Read something that makes you laugh--or cry.  Or just step away from the computer and do some writing by hand for awhile to break your normal routine.

Switch genres.  If your previous story was urban fantasy, try some historical fiction.

Some authors simply "write through" the block.  Use square brackets and tell your manuscript [I have no idea what happens here] and work on a scene where you do know what happens.

Take one of the characters and write a separate story or scene for them.  Even if it doesn't fit in your current project (and sometimes especially then), this will help develop them or give you new ideas for other stories.

And. . .save everything.  When you rewrite, squeezing the prose or removing irrelevant bits, place deleted scenes, characters or ideas in a "Rejects" or "Backburners" folder.  you never know when a deleted scene or character will suddenly come to life and either fit perfectly in your current creation or demand to be in its own story.

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