(Good) Reasons for Combining Characters

And, no, combining characters so you can finish up sooner with the Secondary Characters exercise in Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, does not count as a good reason.

Still…that’s when I ended up doing it.

I’ve been working for a while now on the Secondary Characters exercise in the workbook. Maass only requires that you do the exercise for a couple of characters, but I’ve been pushing myself to do it for all of them–all the ones I know at this point, anyway. And I was down to what I thought was the last one–a resident of Hull-House that, up till now, has been only that–a resident. Not anyone with a distinct personality or goal, just someone who linked my MC to the settlement house and popped up whenever I needed someone to do a Hull-House function. In fact, this character has been sort of multiple-personality up till now, because I hadn’t focused in on her yet as one person. Coherence? Continuity? Not so much.

As I started working on her exercise, I realized I was possibly getting her mixed up with another character–a visiting nurse. Who, no, I hadn’t done the exercise for yet, because I forgot about her. Or was thinking about her as a very minor character. As I started to think about the primary trait for the resident, I said to myself, “Self, you can’t use that trait. That’s the trait of the nurse.”


What if the visiting nurse is the resident. Of course, this took me off on some all-too fascinating research about connections between the Visiting Nurse program in Chicago, started–yes–by Hull-House and Jane Addams (seriously, what wasn’t started by those people?!), and about the nurse who did live there for a while, and the visiting nurse who didn’t live there but had a station at Hull-House from which she managed operations, and Dr. Harriet Rice, one of the first black women doctors, who lived at Hull-House for a while…and on and on and on.  Good times.

Did I find a concrete, absolutely 100% certain answer. No. Did I find enough to tell me that I can take the idea of a visiting nurse as a resident as a possibility, a likelihood, that I can write into the story. Which means, yes, I can combine the two characters?

But should I?

I’m thinking yes. Why? What are the good reasons?

  • One less storyline/arc to develop and, more importantly, to weave through the story. Which means one less path to weave into my MC’s story, and one less path for my readers to have to keep track of.
  • Giving this one character the qualities I was going to distribute among two means, I think, more layers and depth for one person, rather than two characters who would be uninteresting, flat.
  • Crowding up a character’s life makes things more busy, more complicated. For this story in particular, that’s a good thing–because everyone involved in Hull-House did have a busy, complicated life. If she’s got so much to do that she’s running around like the proverbial headless chicken, well…that’s realism. And, hopefully, engaging.

What about you? Have you got a couple of characters who are thin on the page? W ho don’t have enough to do, who only show up once and haven’t told you when they want to show up again? Is it possible for you to combine then? What will it add to your story, even as it takes away one of the bodies on the stage, one of those names you sweated over? Good idea or bad?

Here’s to writing progress, however it comes!


Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven

Warning: This post may be a bit rambly and confusing.

It’s one of those where I’m going to be thinking as I type, trying to figure out a few things. I can’t tell you yet whether the post will end with a conclusion or a questions. Or a dozen questions. Oh, well. Feel free to come along for the ride.

As a reader, I’m all about character–in terms of WHY I’m in the book. I love to lose myself in personalities–the people who are quirky, angry, effervescent, stuck, free, stubborn, searching…you name it. And I love to see all these personalities come into contact with each other: interaction and conflict. The dynamics of any mix you want to throw together on the page–that’s what I want to read about.

Which means that, as a reader, I want the plot done really well. I do NOT want to be aware of it. I don’t want something so convoluted and tricky that I get caught up in WHAT is happening and pulled away from WHO it’s happening to. Yes, of course, I’ve read strongly plotted books, and I’ve loved them–I can admire the author, and I get caught up in a great story, just like anyone else. But…if I have to pick, I’d rather get caught up in the characters.

I think this is one reason I like mysteries. I know–here’s the rambly, confusing part. Mysteries ARE plot, right? But, in general, the basics of that plot are steps I know: Murder or some other crime occurs. Detective takes on case. Detective hunts down clues, bugs people, eavesdrops and breaks into necessary buildings. Detective gets close, gets beat up or shot at, wonders despairingly if this is THE case that will finally stump her. Detective gets the last piece of the puzzle, adds it all up, and catches the bad guy. Detective probably solves or moves to a new place on some personal problem as well. Yes, I’m being tongue-in-cheek here, because a good detective story is much more than these parts, but you know what I mean. If the author is a strong writer, you’re watching and thinking about the specific details of a plot you know, not working to follow the pattern of the plot.

My first book is a mystery. I loved writing it. Because–guess what? As a writer, plot is not my strength. (Anyone else see a connection here?) When I wasn’t sure where to go next, what to make happen, I’d look at the suspects and think about who my MC needed to investigate next. I’d think about the last clue and see where my hero needed to follow it. Had he been open and direct in his last attempt to solve the crime? Maybe it was time for some sneakiness. Because I knew that basic plot of the mystery, I was able to play with voice and humor and adventure and an irritating sidekick.

Of course, that book hasn’t sold.

This new book, the YA historical, is so different. It’s going to be one of those other books–the ones with characters you love and love to hate. It’s going to be one where the personalities clash, where the people struggle with trying to make their relationship work and pretty much fail, and all those conflicts along the way.

Do you see how dull that paragraph sounds? That’s because, yes, without plot, character is…meh. And see that last phrase…”all those conflicts?” Yeah, tell me about those conflicts.

No, really, please. Tell me about those conflicts. Give me some plot, will you?

I always hear that, in a character-driven novel, the actions and problems arise out of…yes, you got it: character. What a character will do in any given situation comes from that character’s personality. Yes, those things I love so much as a reader. But in terms of writing about them–well, it feels so much more like guesswork. When I was writing the mystery, I could say to myself: “Self, MC needs to find out about Bad-Guy #3.” Then self would go off and write  about MC “finding out,” making sure MC did that in his own special way.

In this character-driven book, I’m more like, “Self: MC needs to….???????!!!!!!!??????!!!!!!” With a few $*(%#*(#%))#@# thrown in for good measure.

Obviously, the idea of a plot-driven book as a separate thing from a character-driven book is some kind of joke.

Because, yes, we all really know it. Plot and character are so NOT separate issues. The plot does depend on who your hero and your bad guys and your sidekicks are. And the character does completely depend on what happens in this particular story about these particular people. And clearly, just because I’m not writing a mystery, and it’s not obvious that this MC has to go follow that guy down the alley and listen in on his conversation with the elephant trainer–I still need that plot to help figure out my characters.

I guess the conclusion (yay!) is that I have some more learning to do. I guess each book we take on, if we’re lucky, makes that demand on us–to push past the stage of the writing craft we’ve made it to so far, to stretch ourselves to take on the next thing we need to figure out. As tough as this is, as frustrating as it can be, I think it’s also where some of our hope has to lie. If there is more we can do, more craft we can practice, then our writing can get stronger. Better.

So here’s to plot and character. And, appropriately enough for a Monday, here’s to all the torture and agony they cause us!

Characters: When Do You Listen & When Do You Give a Little Push?

I’ve got this protagonist.

Well, actually, I don’t yet. She’s a good kid, she’s trying to be active, and, overall, I think she’s a likeable hero. The thing is, she isn’t coming onto the page–YET!–as I want her to.

She’s a little young. And a little naive. Which might be okay, if I were writing a middle-grade novel. Okay, the naive still wouldn’t be okay, not for me, but she could be a little less aware at the start of the story, a little less–yes, I’ll say the word: edgy. But I’m writing YA: She’s sixteen years old, and she’s not feeling like the sixteen-year-old I want to see on the page.

The key words in that last sentence are, I think, “I want.”

I have a vision for this story. It’s changed since I started the book. In my first first draft (yes, I consider that I’m on my second first draft, and you don’t want to argue with me), I pictured my hero, at the end of the book, really coming into her own–eyes being forced open and taking a huge step into growth and commitment. Then, when I realized I was working on two books, and that I had to pick the one I wanted to tell now, that hero changed for me. At least in my head. She became someone who was already more used to living a certain way, in a world that had constraints for her–constraints she’d learned to work around, constraints she’d developed a pattern to deal with. She became someone for whom–because of a big event at the start of those books–the constraints tightened, to the degree that she couldn’t work around them anymore, to the point where she and the constraints are headed for a big confrontation.

I think this hero is who my character, not just me, wants to be. But she hasn’t yet come through and told me that, or talked to me about how that makes her act, what choices it makes her face and take, what voice (and that’s the biggie) she should be telling her story in.

And, frankly, I’ve gotten a bit tired of waiting for her to do that. I think it’s time for me to do a little bit of forcing my vision onto the character.

This goes against a lot of what we hear writers talking about–those exploratory drafts in which the characters (hopefully, ideally) talk themselves onto the page in fits and spurts, those brainstorming sessions where we sit with a clean sheet of paper and listen to our characters, to what they have to say about themselves. It goes against that really hard thing to be: patient.

And yet. Maybe we have to give our characters some help. I swear, every now & then, I do hear the voice of this older, more aware hero in my head. I see her in glimpses–with a bit more attitude in her shoulders, a bit more tension in her face, a bit more of that here-we-go-again feeling in her heart. Maybe it’s not her. Maybe it’s that the work to bring her out, to let her out, is a new skill for me, one I haven’t yet developed as strongly as I need to. In my last book, the hero pretty much rolled onto the page–it was a lighter book, with humor, and my hero’s flip, impatient, cocky words came easily. Okay, maybe not easily, but compared to this book? Oh, yeah.

So maybe this is a craft thing for me. Maybe the hero of this WIP is in there, for real, just waiting for me to find the key and open things up. Maybe she wants me to push.

Well, I think she’s going to get it.

I’m working this week on letters to my protagonist and my antagonist, a la Susan Taylor Brown’s technique. I’m also going to just take some notes on attitude, on voice, on the “normal” world that both these characters are living in when the book opens. I don’t know how much of this will get into the draft I’m working on, but I’m hoping doing this work will at least get rid of the floundering feeling I’m having as I write –that sensation that, sure, I’m writing structured scenes with some setting and conflict, but that I have no clue what their base is, where they fit into the bigger world I’m creating.

How much do you listen and how much do you direct, or choreograph, your characters? When do they talk freely, and what do you do when they’re closed down and incommunicado? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Writing Lessons from Tiffany Aching

Okay, Tiffany Aching isn’t Steven Tyler. But if we’re learning anything from Jo Knowles’ “unintentional blog series” about Tyler, it’s that writing advice comes where you find it. And, probably, most people would agree that Terry Pratchett would be right up there with authors we could all learn from.

BTW, if you didn’t know who Tiffany Aching is without that Wikipedia link, stop reading this post , go out to the bookstore or get online, and buy yourself a copy of The Wee Free Men. If you’re smart, you’ll just buy the whole series now and save yourself the extra gas and shipping charges. And then be prepared to spend the next few days laughing hysterically, having moments of philosophical clarity, and pretty much bowing down to the genius that is Pratchett.


Tiffany Aching is a witch. Not your typical witch, unless you’re talking typical to Discworld. She’s a witch for many reasons–the first and foremost probably being that she chooses to be one. Another reason, though, is that Tiffany has First and Second Thoughts. Occasionally, she has Third Thoughts, but when that happens her Second Thoughts step in and say, “Let’s all calm down, please, because this is quite a small head.”  (She’s only nine years old.) Tiffany’s thoughts let her see things more clearly than other people; they let her stand outside herself and observe what’s really going on, separated from her own feelings at the moment. It’s a powerful ability, better, in my opinion, than all the magic the wizards at Unseen University can do.

So where does the writing lesson come in? Here: To really use these thoughts, to really see past all the illusion and even all the things she’d like to believe, Tiffany has to be still. She has to, as another witch tells her early in the book, “open your eyes…and then open your eyes again.” She has to look.

I’m a bit stuck on my picture book revision. I’m at the point where I really have to get closer to the dynamic/relationship/conflict between my young hero and the other character. Which means–yes, here we go again–really figuring out what each of them wants and what that want makes them do. Once again: goal+action. You’d think I’d have it down by now.

All weekend, I was busy with weekend stuff, but I thought maybe I could let the problem bubble away in the back of my mind and see what that back-of-my-mind came up with. The internet is full of writing articles and blogs about people getting brainstorms in the shower or while they’re cooking dinner or just before they go to sleep. Well, I occasionally get this happening to me, but not all that often. For whatever reason, when my brain is showering or cooking or drifting into unconsciousness, it is pretty busy doing just that. The membrane between front and back seems to be relatively non-porous.

Apparently, when I want to figure out a story problem, I have to–yes, you’re getting it–I have to be still. Like Tiffany.

So this week, I’m scheduling time for stillness. I will take myself away from the computer. I will stretch out and close my eyes. I will open them to look at my characters. And then I will open them again.

I’m betting I actually get somewhere.

Houston, We Have a Problem.

I’m baaack! I had a wonderful time at the 2011 Pennwriters Conference, and I’m going to do a more complete post about it later this week. This morning, I’m going to talk about one of the revelations I had at one particular workshop, and what I’m going to do about it.

First, a quick reminder that today is the last day to enter my contest for the “best” revision metaphor. Leave a comment at last week’s post and join in the fun.

So..there were plenty of wonderful workshops at the conference, and I had time to drop in on a few. One was Ramona DeFelice Long’s “Four Truths of Character.” Ramona’s talk was great, and it got me thinking–as all the good classes do–about my own projects. Specifically, about Caro’s story. One of the things Ramona talked about was the character’s mission–another word for her goal. THE THING SHE WANTS. And I realized that I’ve been drifting around that question, not honing in on what it is that Caro is going after.

Now, I have some excuse, I know. There was that crazy first draft, at the end of which I realized I had two stories to write, not one. If I wasn’t clear, while I was drafting, what story I was supposed to be putting Caro in, it’s no wonder I wasn’t clear on what she wanted. So I’m not flagellating myself. Too much.

BUT…here’s the thing. I have this book-in-a-drawer. It’s a book I still love, and a book I have hopes of revising at some point down the line. And the longer I stay away from it, the longer I realize that perhaps the biggest revision point will be…wait for it: what the hero in that book really wants.

Light-bulb moment.

I wrote six drafts of that book, all without tightening the story enough around the hero’s goal/needs. And the result has been, I think, that I have a nice, well-written, funny book, with a big flaw that is now–because of that polishing–harder to revise away.

In other words, I don’t want to wait that long on Caro’s story to figure it out.  (Okay, and this is very possibly true for the picture book, too!)

So what am I going to do about it? Well, my first thought was that I needed some brainstorming time with my critique group. So I brought it up at yesterday’s meeting, thinking I’d just schedule 20 minutes or so at our next meeting. But, of course, because they are so amazing, that wasn’t good enough for them. One brilliant critique partner suggested that I could let them know about some missions/goals that I’ve seen in other YA books.

Another light bulb.

So here’s the plan. In the next couple of weeks, I will:

  • Pick a half-dozen of my favorite YA novels and reread at least the first chapter, but most likely up to the point where the inciting incident hits, since I think that incident is a microcosm of the story’s BIG PROBLEM.
  • Figure out what the hero wants at that moment, and see if I can come up with how that specific goal plays into the big story goal (which, I think, the hero doesn’t always know until later in the story).
  • See if, in the process, any more light bulbs go off.
  • Bring those goals and my own questions about Caro to my critique group for brainstorming

I’m also, I think, going to read Donald Maass’ The Breakout Novelist. I think Maass’ writing books may be the best I’ve found, for pushing me to actually think about character, instead of just typing away and seeing what comes.

Between Ramona, my critique partners, Donald, and me, I’m guessing Caro and I will get our mission. Or at least get a heck of a lot closer to it!

Cause: The All-Important WHY

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know I’m a plotter. I had to “pants” for a while on the first draft of this WIP, and it was not a happy place for me. Effective, yes, but not happy. So, of course, I’m in love with being back to plotting as I work on the second draft.

When I got started, I basically threw a bunch of scenes into Scrivener–things I knew needed to happen. And then I started filling in cards for them–my MC’s scene goal, the obstacles she’d face, and a few details that I wanted to weave in. I took a break from this story to get that picture-book revision done, but now I’m back and I’m trying to tie these scenes together with a bit more connectivity. In other words, I’m figuring out why one scene follows another. Why my character does things. What causes her actions.

I’m big on this when I critique–I tend to push people to really look at the character actions and connect them to the story, ground them in something specific that has actually happened. And I love the magic of staring at a scene in my own work, knowing I’m not there yet, and then…Flash! The lightbulb goes on, and I’ve got it.

It’s easy, when we write, to know the big stuff–the major plot points that will lead to the ending, that will build to the crisis and the character change. In between those plot points, though, is a lot of space. Yes, it can be maddeningly vast and intimidating, but it’s actually there for a reason. It’s where you build to each of those big events, where you layer in the smaller things that show us who your character is, that push her in new directions, and that–yes–cause the big things to happen.

Let’s take an example. Say you’re writing about a teenage boy–Clive–who is about to get his driver’s license. You know that, oddly enough, Clive doesn’t want to drive. So, he’s going to miss his driving test. Fine. Good. Plot point. If you’re one of those amazing people who can write scenes out of order, you write that scene. (If not, you put notes about it into a Scrivener note card!) Just as his dad is coming upstairs to get him for the appointment, Clive climbs out his bedroom window and down the rose trellis. Except the trellis breaks, and so does Clive’s arm. Dad’s truck is a stick-shift. Clive has successfully delayed the inevitable.


You can start with the general. Let’s say, really early in the book, Clive sees someone die in a horrible accident. Okay–there’s your big why–that’s the reason Clive doesn’t want to drive. But you can’t just let us know this and then, ten scenes later, pop Clive out his window. You have to do some set up. You need to show Clive trying to talk to his parents about not driving and getting no support. You need to show him in driver’s training failing dismally at parallel parking. You could, of course, throw in the ghost of the dead drive who makes Clive relive the crash over and over. You should probably let us know about that rose trellis before the big day, maybe show Clive using it safely when he sneaks out to ask his girlfriend to run away with him.

These are all good. You need to take it one step further, though. You need to determine the single, very specific story moment that sends Clive out that window. You can’t just have his worry build and build over scenes and then–on that day–out he goes. Something concrete has to propel him into action. Like…his dad coming upstairs and “jokingly” waving around the belt he hit Clive with when Clive was a little boy. Or his mom showing him the new wallet she bought him, with the space for his driver’s license, then telling him it’s time to go. Or his irritating sister singing “Little Deuce Coupe” over and over, as she dances back and forth outside his bedroom door and blocks his escape route.

Notice that the action-causing events aren’t always that big a deal, although–yeah–that belt could be pretty intense. These things act as a catalyst for the big action; they’re the match you drop onto the pile of gunpowder. Small, inexpensive, available…but absolutely necessary set things off.

They’re the whys.

Today, Character Definitely Comes Before Plot

When I finished the first draft of my WIP and after I did the happy dance, I decided I was going to do some major plotting before I started on Draft 2. I had spent enough time with that exploratory first draft and now I wanted structure. Big time.

So I opened Scrivener and I started tossing in scenes, and I was happily and busily adding cards to my corkboard.

Until…I wasn’t.

As happens all too frequently, I ran out of scenes–I ran out of ideas for scenes. When I hit this spot, I go back to character. My exploratory draft made me familiar with each of my characters in a sort of gray, blobby, nebulous way, but did not really put me in touch with what they want, why it matters, and–most important–what actions they’ll take to try and get there.

Today, I started working on the father character, someone I love a lot, but, no…don’t really understand. And I was drawing a blank, but taking a stab at who he might be and what his goal could possibly become, and I was only getting so far until…

I realized I was giving him a goal very similar to the goal of my MC’s would-be boyfriend. Oops. I almost gave up then, because you can’t have too characters with the same personalities and same needs, right? Wait…what if they start at the same point, but end up changing in very different ways–one much more successfully than the other? Then what you’ve got is…such a lovely word: CONTRAST! I mean we’re talking about the two men in the book, both of whose goals revolve around loving a woman (different women!), and we’re looking at one generation following the other and needing to do things very differently.

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

From here, things took off–this glimpse of similar goals with different paths led me deeper and deeper into who these men are, who they need to be, and which–if either–is going to succeed. Along with why. And guess what…

Character led to plot.

I’ve set up maybe a half-dozen more scenes this morning and moved at least that many more around on my corkboard, because–as one thing happens, it sets off another. And when that thing happens, it sends something else into a new spot. And so on and so on and so on….

This, to me, is one of the best cures for writer’s block, backing up to the who ARE these people and what the BLEEP do they want? Yes, it involves some fixed-and-dilated starting at the computer. Yes, it means resisting the impulse to pound your head against your keyboard. Eventually, though, the wall cracks, and a brick falls down and then another brick and, finally, the story starts to come.

And, of course, that brings on yet another dance of joy.

Here’s hoping the productivity fairy zings her wand over your writing space today!