Tag Archives: growth arc

An Assortment of Plotting Tips for You (Part Three)

Some more goodies for you–three more excerpts from the series of live trainings I did in October about plotting methods for both plotters and pantsers (From Premise to Plot: Easy Story Structure for Plotters and Pantsers).

Romance brainstorming questions, illustrated with a romance story’s inciting incident:

Weaving multiple inciting incidents together in a multi-plotline story:

How to turn plot events into specific scenes that move your story forward:

Of course, we covered so much more in From Premise to Plot, which ended up generating more than 9 hours of video training!

If you missed it and would like to learn more about the replays (and how you can get them), go here: http://jvz1.com/c/257231/184347

An Assortment of Plotting Tips for You (Part Two)

Yesterday, I shared some excerpts from a series of live trainings I did in October about plotting methods for both plotters and pantsers (From Premise to Plot: Easy Story Structure for Plotters and Pantsers).

The result was more than 9 hours of video, covering an array of plotting techniques for all types of writers, both organic writers (pantsers) and outliners who love traditional story structure (plotters).

Here are some more excerpts from this training with you.

A couple of the “rules of thumb” for escalating conflict in fiction (applies to both outliners and intuitive writers, but each of you will use them a little differently):

How understanding power shifts in traditional plot structure can help organic or intuitive writers:

Why romance fiction is so tricky to do well:

Of course, we covered so much more in From Premise to Plot!

If you missed it and would like to learn more about the replays (and how you can get them), go here:  http://jvz1.com/c/257231/184347

An Assortment of Plotting Tips for You (Part One)

In October, I taught a series of live trainings on plotting methods for both plotters and pantsers (From Premise to Plot: Easy Story Structure for Plotters and Pantsers).

It was a ton of fun, and so many of you who attended asked great questions that spurred me to add extra content beyond what I’d planned.

The result was more than 9 hours of video, covering an array of plotting techniques for all types of writers, both organic writers (pantsers) and outliners who love traditional story structure (plotters).

I’d like to share some excerpts from this training with you.

Functional definitions of “plot” and “plot point” (it’s not the same ones you learned in your high school English class):

Brainstorming questions for plotting, using the first pinch point as an example:

Plotters vs. pantsers – why you shouldn’t think of it as a “versus”:

Of course, we covered so much more in From Premise to Plot!

If you missed it and would like to learn more about the replays (and how you can get them), go here:  http://jvz1.com/c/257231/184347

Character Arc, Part 2: Building Your Character’s Internal Arc

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization, to help you build your character’s growth arc, starting with the flaw or wound, the defining traumatic event, and the stabilizing belief. Mapping your character’s growth arc before you start writing makes it easier to figure out your plot!


The character growth arc is about moving the character from one trait or state of mind to another.

  • From greed to generosity.
  • From hating himself to loving himself.
  • From helpless to powerful.
  • From believing that people who are different are wrong and deserving of scorn to believing that people who are different should be respected and learned from.

If you can’t state you character’s growth arc in “from ____ to ____” format, you might have a problem.

The growth arc starts with the flaw or wound you chose for your character in lesson five. It ends with the character having transformed the flaw into a more positive trait or having healed the wound and no longer feeling like they need to engage in the protective behaviors associated with that wound.

The Structure of the Growth Arc

The basic structure of the growth arc is:

  1. Character has a flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.
  2. Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect (this is usually the inciting incident).
  3. This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.
  4. These problems create internal and external conflict for the character.
  5. The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.
  6. This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.
  7. This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.
  8. A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

The character might go through multiple iterations of steps 4-6 before they finally get to step 7.

Let’s apply this structure to Steve, the greedy stockbroker from yesterday’s post.

Step 1: Character has flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.

Steve has worked his way out of poverty and is now making half a million dollars each year as a result of his savvy investment skills. He put his sisters through college, and he’s now able to give his wife and daughter everything they could possibly want. His greed has driven him to become one of the best on Wall Street and to constantly seek to improve his skills so that he can amass even more wealth.

There’s not a whole lot of incentive for Steve to change right now, is there? Sure, he’d like to spend more time with his wife and kid, but he feels it’s more important to keep making money so that he doesn’t have to worry about his ability to take care of them. He hates that he doesn’t see his family enough, but he can’t stop pushing himself to make more money.

Remember from the example in yesterday’s post—his trauma is that his mother died of cancer because the family couldn’t afford health insurance, and Steve feels that it was his responsibility to take care of her. As a result of that trauma he acquired the unconscious belief that being poor means he’s doomed to lose the people he loves. So now he’s faced with the choice making money to protect his loved ones vs. spending time with his loved ones but risking losing them because he failed to make enough money to protect them.

Step 2: Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect.

Steve is offered a sketchy investment with a huge potential return. He knows he shouldn’t make this investment, and that his wife wouldn’t approve, but the money he’s expecting to make will put his daughter through grad school at Princeton. He justifies the bad decision by telling himself that he’s doing it for her. At this point in time, he doesn’t even recognize that his focus on making money is protecting him from his fear of losing the people he loves.

Step 3: This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.

Oh no, the con artist who convinced Steve to invest ran off with the money and left Steve with a paper trail and an FBI investigation! It turns out that the investment was a Ponzi scheme, and hundreds of retired folks have been bilked of their life savings. All the evidence left behind by the con artist frames Steve as the ringleader.

Step 4: These problems create internal and external conflicts for the character.

For the first time in his life, Steve’s greed isn’t helping him, it’s hurting him. He’s lost his job at the investment firm. He’s humiliated by the news stories trashing him. His friends won’t have anything to do with him. Worst of all, his wife is furious—she can’t believe he would endanger their future like this.

Steve feels terrible. But his intentions were good, he rationalizes. He didn’t mean any harm. He was just looking out for his daughter.

And he’s got connections—he can fix this, right? This is just a temporary glitch, and soon he’ll be trading on the stock market again.

Steve holds back some crucial details about his interactions with the con artist who set him up, because those details would also lead the FBI to the one secret bank account that they haven’t found yet. And Steve’s going to need the money in that account to invest and make back his fortune once he gets out of this mess. His greed is still in full swing.

Step 5: The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.

Steve’s not blaming his greed for getting him into this mess—he blames the con artist. And his solution to his current predicament? He arranges a meeting with one of the few friends who’s still talking to him, and through that friend, attempts to bribe the prosecuting attorney to make a mistake that would allow Steve to get off on a technicality.

Guess how that works out?

Meanwhile Steve’s assets have been seized, his wife and daughter have been forced to move in with friends, and jail time looks like a sure thing. No one believes Steve’s “not guilty” plea, not even his lawyer.

Step 6: This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.

Sitting alone in his jail cell after a demoralizing talk with his lawyer, Steve gets a call from his wife:  she wants a divorce. It finally hits him that he’s been wrong all this time. Money hasn’t protected him from losing his loved ones—not only that, but his greedy pursuit of money has caused Steve to lose his loved ones.

Step 7: This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.

Steve decides that from here on out, he’s going to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him. He may have lost his family to greed, but he can try to help the people who lost their life savings to the con artist.

Steve calls his lawyer back and asks him to arrange a meeting with the FBI. He divulges the information that leads the FBI to his last remaining stash of money—as well as to the con artist. The real villain is caught, the stolen money is handed over to the authorities to be returned to the con artist’s victims, and Steve is offered a community service sentence in exchange for his help in catching the con artist.

Step 8: A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

Steve reunites with his wife, swearing that he’s giving up his job as a stockbroker and begging forgiveness for his mistake.

She forgives him, and together they use the money that was returned to them—the money that Steve gave the con artist months ago—to start a foundation that pays for cancer treatment for those who can’t afford it, which they name after Steve’s mother. Now that Steve is freed from the crippling belief that he should have been able to prevent his mother’s death, he’s free to address that personal tragedy in a meaningful way: by helping others who are in the same situation that killed his mother.

Notice that he’s also demonstrating the new trait of generosity—which is the opposite of the flaw he started with.

Which characters need growth arcs?

Not all characters need a growth arc—if every single person in your story changed like this, the story would feel like a mess. But unless you’re writing fiction that’s completely plot-driven, your protagonist probably needs one. You might want to give your antagonist a growth arc that either contrasts with or parallels with the protagonist’s arc, for thematic purposes. Depending on the story you’re telling, you may decide that one or more other characters would benefit from a growth arc. It’s a judgment call with every character other than your protagonist.


Ready for NaNoWriMo? If you’ve got your character arc but are still struggling with your plot,
The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance can help you figure out what happens at each step of your story.

Character Arc, Part 1: Flaws, Wounds, and the Defining Traumatic Event

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my class, Dynamic Characterization, to help you flesh out your characters for NaNoWriMo.


In order for a character to grow during the story (i.e. have a character arc), she needs either a flaw that she’ll overcome or a wound that she’ll manage to heal by the end of the story.

Flaws

A flaw is a negative personality trait—a trait that causes the character to have a poorer experience of life and that interferes with her ability to become the best possible version of herself. The character may or may not be aware that the trait is negative, and in fact, may actually view this trait as a positive thing.

For storytelling purposes, a flaw is usually a) rooted in a trauma that the character has experienced in the past and b) stabilized by a belief that the character formed in reaction to that trauma.

For example, let’s say our hero, Steve, is a stockbroker and his flaw is greed. Why is he greedy?

Steve grew up in an economically-depressed Midwestern town. His mother’s disability check wasn’t quite enough to keep Steve and his two sisters fed and clothed. Steve worked two part-time under-the-table jobs, starting when he was in fifth grade, but in spite of all his hard work, there was never enough money. And when his mother died of cancer—undiagnosed until it was far too late to treat because she couldn’t afford to see a doctor—he swore he would do whatever it took to get rich. He blamed lack of money, specifically his own inability to earn enough to buy his mother medical insurance, for his mother’s death.

The trauma of his mother’s death caused Steve to form a belief: If I don’t have enough money, I’ll lose the people I love.

Logically, we understand it wasn’t Steve’s fault that his mother died. Teenager Steve wasn’t in a position to hold down a full-time job in order to get his mother medical benefits. It wasn’t Steve’s decision to save money by skipping doctor visits. But Steve is a smart, responsible, loving son who’s been forced to be the “man of the trailer” from a very young age, and to him, it feels like he should have been able to save his mother.

As long as Steve believes that poverty = losing loved ones, he won’t be able to stop being greedy. The second he quits earning money, that terrible fear of losing his sisters and the other people he loves is going to rear its ugly head.

In order to change, Steve is going to have re-examine that childhood trauma and reinterpret the misguided belief that he formed as a result of it.

If we were writing Steve’s story, we might decide that Steve needs to recognize that the local factory where his mother was exposed to carcinogenic is to blame for his mother’s death—and that instead of making millions, his real goal should be to expose the factory’s coverup of its employee’s higher-than-normal cancer rates.

Or we might decide that Steve needs to come to accept that his mother made so many sacrifices because she loved him, and to respect her choice to sacrifice herself for her children. Instead of making millions, maybe his goal should be to honor her sacrifice by doing something meaningful with his life. It depends on what kind of story we’d like to tell about Steve.

But whatever kind of story we put Steve in, he’s going to have to change the belief that stabilizes his flaw before he can fix the flaw itself.

Wounds

A wound is damage to the character’s psyche caused by a trauma that the character has experienced and that hasn’t yet healed. The character’s problems or limitations arise from her need to protect that wound.

For example, let’s say that Harriet slept with her high-school sweetheart Mike and got pregnant at the age of 16. She was so head-over-heels in love with him that she was sure he’d want to marry her as soon as she told him about the baby. But not only did Mike laugh in her face, he told everyone at school what a slut she was and claimed that she was lying about the baby being his. All of Harriet’s friends abandoned her, and she dropped out of school to become a single mother.

You can see how this trauma might cause Harriet to come to the conclusion that Mike is a scumbag. If he was a football player, Harriet might generalize and decide that all football players are scumbags. But Harriet was a tender-hearted teenager in the throes of her first love when Mike humiliated her—the belief she formed as a result of this horrible experience was: All men are scumbags who’ll destroy you as soon as you fall in love with them.

She’ll cling to that belief as long as she’s carrying around the hurt that Mike inflicted on her, because that belief protects her from being hurt in the same way again. If she doesn’t date, she can’t fall in love, and if she doesn’t fall in love, she can’t be destroyed by someone she cares about.

Flaws and Wounds Shape Your Story

A character’s flaw or wound gives rise to specific behaviors. Given the choice between spending the evening with his wife and daughter or researching a new investment opportunity, Steve is going to choose the opportunity, because he believes that he’s risking losing them both if he doesn’t make more money.

A character’s flaw or wound also gives rise to internal conflict. Given the choice between a legal investment with the potential to make a 10% return and a sketchy investment with the potential to make a 50% return, which do you think Steve will pick? Will he go with the safe investment, because he doesn’t want to risk his ability to support his wife and daughter? Or will he give into the temptation to invest in something questionable, because every dollar he brings in makes him feel like his wife and daughter are safer?

That would be a big dilemma for him, wouldn’t it?

When you understand the relationship between a character’s flaw or wound, the trauma that caused it, and the belief that resulted from it, you start to see how your character arc is going to work. Want to make Steve less greedy or get Harriet to go on a date? You’ve got to put them in situations where they’ll encounter evidence that their stabilizing belief is wrong.

Maybe Steve will make that sketchy investment and get caught—and when he does, he starts to see that money isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be able to protect his family. In the aftermath of his arrest, his wife might have a stress-induced heart attack or his daughter might be bullied by her classmates at the ultra-expensive prep school she goes to. The more Steve tries to buy his way out of trouble, the more problems he creates for himself and his family.

What if Harriet is accused of a crime she didn’t commit? Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe she was framed. It looks like she’s going to jail, unless she cooperates with the homicide detective who believes she’s innocent. We’ll want to make this homicide detective the opposite of Mike, the kind of guy who has a chance of proving to Harriet that not all men are scumbags. No matter how hostile Harriet is to Mike, he’s determined to see justice done.

At the beginning of your story, the belief that is stabilizing the character’s flaw or wound is working for him/her. At first Steve’s greed seems like a positive thing—it’s helped him work his way out of total poverty and send his younger sisters to college. It’s helped him win his wife and to give his daughter every benefit that a parent could give a child. It’s pushed him to become one of the savviest stockbrokers in the history of the market.

Likewise, Harriet’s wound has helped her become the strong, independent woman she is today. She’s never relied on a man for anything, and she’s single-handedly raised her daughter, with whom she’s very close. She knows how to fix a leaky sink, how to make a delicious meal from beans and rice and veggies she grows in pots on her apartment balcony, and how to do her own taxes. She’s worked her way up from the mailroom to middle management—she had no choice but to learn quickly so that she could get a job that paid well enough to give her daughter the opportunities Harriet never had.

So when Steve and Harriet are put into situations that trigger their flaw or wound and challenge their stabilizing belief, they’re going to hate it. They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep these dysfunctional beliefs that seem to be making their lives better.


Come back tomorrow to see how to turn a flaw or wound into a character arc!

Interview and Contest at The Author’s Journal

The lovely Paula Millhouse interviews me on her blog, The Author’s Journal, about the evolution of the plot-as-you-go romance story blueprint and how this approach to writing can help both plotters and pantsers:

http://tinyurl.com/mu3f6dy

One lucky commenter will win a free copy of The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance, just in time for NaNoWriMo!

Creating Your Character’s Dominant Impression

In an earlier post, I talked in depth about dynamic characterization. Now I’d like to show you how to use dynamic characterization to create a character’s dominant impression.

A character’s dominant impression is the way you’d describe the character if you had to sum him/her up in a single phrase—just the bare essentials. The things you’d mention briefly in the back cover blurb.

For example:

  • thief with trust issues
  • space marine with a strict code of honor
  • ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people

Don’t try to cram every last detail into your dominant impression statement—focus on capturing the big picture. Here’s a simple process for homing in on the two most important things about your character:

  1. Identify the character’s primary role in the story. This role will be relevant to the external arc, the role or trait related to the story goal. (thief, space marine, ruthless mobster)
  1. Identify the character’s main trait or issue. This issue or trait will be relevant to the internal arc, which supports the theme of the story. (distrustful, strict code of honor, protective of those who are weaker)

A properly constructed dominant impression statement not only describes your character in a nutshell, but it also lets the reader know what kind of story they’re going to be reading.

For example…

“Space marine with a strict code of honor” implies that there will be spaceships, battles, aliens, cool weapons, and a good guy who’ll be sorely tempted to do the wrong thing.

“Thief with trust issues” suggests that there will be a heist, an object precious enough to be worth stealing, a character whose backstory includes a betrayal, and a second character who may or may not be trustworthy.

“Ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people” hints at an ambiguous character with a gray morality, a story about loyalty, crimes committed, police evaded, and perhaps a bittersweet ending where justice may or may not have been done.

Once you’ve nailed down a character’s dominant impression, the next step is to figure out how you’re going to demonstrate it to the reader. How are we going to do it? Using those character expression elements, what can we tell about our space marine without knowing anything else about him?

Dialogue: He probably has the habit of saying ma’am or sir when addressing a stranger or an authority figure. He’ll use military slang that civilians wouldn’t get. If he’s been fighting against or alongside aliens, he’s sure to have picked up some words from their language. Some of those will undoubtedly be alien swear words.

Since he has that strict code of honor, he’d never promise anything unless he’s sure he could keep that promise.

Actions (voluntary and involuntary): If he’s been fighting recently on a high-gravity world, we might show him making an effort to move in a relaxed way as he adjusts to being back in normal gravity. Or if he’s just left a low-gravity world, we might see him working harder to take actions that would normally be effortless.

Does his hand unconsciously move to his weapon holster when he’s threatened, even if he’s off-duty and unarmed?

If he’s used to being cooped up in a ship or on a space station, does he get vertigo when he gets planetside? Does he try to cope with the vertigo by squinting, or focusing on a point straight ahead of him, or rubbing his eyes a lot, or leaning against things whenever possible?

Body Language: He might unconsciously snap to attention when encountering an authority figure, or stand at “parade rest” during conversations.

He can probably tell if a person has military training or not just from the way they move.

Thoughts and Feelings: Does he revel in the fact that he’s on leave, or does he miss the structured days and clear rules that he’s used to when on duty?

Does he compare the food he eats at his favorite hole-in-the-wall diner with military rations and grumble that civilians don’t know how good they’ve got it?

Does he have any resentment toward the civilians he risks his life to protect? Is he proud of the fact that he makes their safe lives possible?

Does he believe that the war he’s been fighting is for a just cause, or is soldiering just a job he does because he’s good at it?

Having experienced other aliens’ cultures, he’ll have opinions about them. Have these other cultures opened his mind to other ways of doing things and made him critical of some elements of human culture? Or did they reinforce his belief that the human way is the best way?

What are the tenets that make up the code of honor that he follows? How about:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Military personnel tend to get vaccinations for all sorts of diseases that a civilian wouldn’t be exposed to. Is his arm sore from his most recent round of shots? Has he had any health problems as a result of being overvaccinated?

Does the future government put chips in soldiers so that their bodies can be tracked at all times (and retrieved in the event of death)? If so, can he tell the chip is there? Does it have side effects? Does he do anything to interfere with its functioning? Or worry about being under surveillance?

Habits: Does he polish his boots? Clean his weapons every night whether he’s used them or not? Sleep in four hour increments so it’ll be easier to adjust to taking watches when he goes back on duty? Does he own more than he can fit in his rucksack?

Do the space marines issue any sort of pharmaceuticals to their troops to enhance strength, speed, alertness, perception, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, protect against radiation, etc? If so, is he dependent on any of them, or can he stop taking them when he’s on leave? Does he experience any side effects from them? Does he go through withdrawal if he misses a dose?

Has he learned to be a light sleeper? Or to take combat naps whenever he’s got five minutes of free time? Does he tend to dream about past missions or dead comrades when he sleeps?

Does he do hundreds of pushups and situps on his off-days, to stay in shape, or is he blissfully happy to skip a day physical exertion?

Quirks: Do the space marines have a rivalry with another military branch? (I bet they do!) How does he feel about this rivalry—like he needs to defend the marines’ honor, or like it’s a stupid thing to fight over?

As a soldier, he’s going to know a lot more about weapons than the average civilian, and given a choice between two guns that might look identical to you and I, he would probably have a strong preference for one of them.

Maybe he has a hard time feeling safe even when he’s far away from the battlefield, and he improvises booby-traps or alarms to secure his room before bed each night.

In the process of traveling to strange new worlds, seeking out new life and killing it, he may also have acquired a taste for alien foods—maybe things that the average person wouldn’t even consider edible.

Clothing, Accessories and Grooming: He’d probably have a military cut (makes his helmet fit better and it’s easier to keep clean in unsanitary conditions). Does he let it get shaggy when he’s on leave, or does he prefer to keep it short?

No doubt he carries a military ID. Does it give him any special privileges? Or limit his access to anything?

How about footwear—does he feel naked unless he’s wearing combat boots? Or is he delighted to slip off the heavy clompers and put on some running shoes?

Does he wear fatigues even when he doesn’t have to? Or does he miss wearing street clothes? If he wears street clothes, do all his tee-shirts have military logos and slogans on them? If you saw him dressed normally when he’s on leave, would you be able to tell that he’s a marine by what he’s wearing?

Does he have a class ring or a unit ring? A promise ring from his girl back home?

Tools and Special Objects: He might feel uncomfortable unarmed, even in places where a civilian might feel safe, and have a permit to carry a weapon (concealed or openly).

Has he named his favorite gun?

What if the knife he always carries in his boot sheath belonged to his grandfather and his father?

Meaningful Locations: The military cemetery where both his grandfather and father were buried? The monument to the war his father died in? The small town where he grew up, and which he dreams of returning to once he’s ready to retire from the service?

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: If he’s new to the corps, he might be unscarred, and if he’s a sensitive soul, he might even feel guilty that he’s whole while some of his friends are scarred or maimed.

But if he’s seen any amount of action, he’s probably got at least one scar. How about we give him surgical scars on that wounded knee, and a cluster of small scars on his shoulder where he caught some shrapnel?

It’s also not uncommon for military men to have tattoos of some sort—how about we give him one that shows the space marines glyph, and another small one that he got along with the surviving members of his unit after a particularly dangerous mission?

Depending on what kind of future you think he might be from, our marine might also be genetically or cybernetically enhanced in some way. A bionic eye with night vision and the ability to see different types of radiation? A reinforced skeleton and accelerated healing, to make him harder to kill? Genetically-enhanced muscles to allow him to fight on a planet with gravity three times stronger than Earth’s? Gene therapy that makes him capable of traveling through hyperspace without the usual side effects?

Secrets: Out there on the battlefield, he’s probably seen some pretty awful things. Some of those awful things may have been done by his fellow soldiers. Some he might have done himself. He probably doesn’t want to talk about them. Or does he? Will he get drunk enough to tell a stranger at a bar that he saw an innocent village massacred by mistake? Or that the recently-decorated lieutenant who’s been on all the new feeds really isn’t a hero at all?

He knows what’s really happening on the ground, too—he knows which parts of the news reports are true and which are not. If the government isn’t giving the folks back home the whole story about the war, our hero has to choose between keeping his mouth shut or spilling the beans. If he spills the beans, he’s going to have to worry about repercussions.

Relationships: How close is he to the others in his unit? Has he lost touch with all his former civilian friends? Does he have a girl in every port? Or an alien girlfriend waiting for him back on her homeworld?

Also, how do civilians react to him? Does he get called jarhead? Does he get lectured by a pacifist while he’s trying to enjoy a cup of coffee? Are others afraid of him when they find out he’s a marine? Does he get treated with respect when he’s in uniform? Does he not talk about his job because there’s always some moron who asks him how many people/aliens he’s killed? Do shopkeepers thank him for his service when he shows his military ID for a discount? Does his little brother want to hear all about the battles he’s been in?

Now let’s contemplate his code of honor. We don’t want to just tell the reader what is code is, we want to show him living by it. Here’s the basic tenets:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Polite to and protective of women. Ways we could show this:

  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being rude to him, and show him keeping his temper and treating her politely anyway.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman being treated disrespectfully, and show him intervening—perhaps criticizing the rude shopkeeper, or escorting her to a safe place so that the juvenile delinquents who were harassing her back off.
  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being physically abused or threatened, and show him stepping in to defend the woman.
  • Let him meet up with a bitchy ex-girlfriend, and show him resisting the urge to argue with her when she snipes at him.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman in need of help, and show him helping her even though it’s inconvenient for him.

Never throws the first punch. Put him in a situation where someone is threatening or taunting him, and let us see him try to resolve the conflict without fighting. Or put him in a situation where a suspicious character appears, and it would be convenient for him to take the potential troublemaker out of commission—but show our hero waiting until the trouble starts before he tackles the troublemaker.

Doesn’t tolerate bullies. Put him in a situation where he has to either ignore someone being bullied or intervene. Make it easy for him to walk away and tough to drive the bullies off. That way, when he stands up to the bullies on the weaker person’s behalf, we’ll know his actions came from his belief that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak.

Always backs up his buddies. Show one of his buddies doing something stupid or foolish or just plain wrong—and let us see our marine sticking around to extricate his buddy from the resulting difficult situation. Show him sacrificing something to get his friends out of trouble even—or especially—when they don’t deserve the help.

Notice that all of these are things that you can show through interior monologue, action and dialogue. They’re showable. We won’t need exposition to tell the reader how your hero is affected by being a space marine if we show even a quarter of the things we brainstormed here.

Sure, we could have just written down on a character worksheet that our space marine is chivalrous, loyal, and honorable. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as helpful in understanding how our space marine behaves.

Chivalrous is abstract. Polite to women suggests a range of specific behaviors that your character can perform.

Loyal is abstract. Willing to fight when one of his fellow soldiers gets drunk and mouths off to a group of civvies in a bar is something you can turn into a scene.

Honorable is abstract. Refuses to kill a non-combatant even when ordered to by a superior shows the reader where this space marine’s heart is when push comes to shove.

Still with me?

That was a lot, I know…but we did it one small step at a time, and you can build complex, multi-dimensional characters the same way.

And notice that we haven’t even looked yet at this character’s personality traits–all we’ve talked about so far are the ways this character has been shaped by his experience of being a solider in a futuristic setting. We still don’t know if he’s shy or sarcastic or philosophical or compassionate.

Now that you’ve seen how it works–I challenge to choose a character you’re developing for NaNoWriMo or a character from your work-in-progress, and create his/her dominant impression.


Want some help getting ready for NaNoWriMo? Check out The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance. Both of these workbooks contain a unique story blueprint and brainstorming prompts that show you how to plot your novel one day at a time and come out with a well-structured story.

What’s the difference between the two workbooks? The 30 Day Novel Success Journal is intended for a story with a single character growth arc. The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance results in a story where the two main characters have growth arcs as they fall in love with each other.

New Writing Resources Available on the Downloads Page

For everyone doing JulNoWriMo, if you’d like an easy way to track your word count, I’ve created a Progress Tracker chart (PDF download) that you can use to record your daily word count and total word count.

Progress Tracker for Writing a Novel in 30 Days

For readers of The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, I’ve created worksheets for all the brainstorming questions in PDF.  So if you’re reading the kindle version or listening to the audiobook (or even reading the paperback, but would rather write on a worksheet than in the book)–you can download everything through these links:

Pre-writing Worksheets and Resources (zipped file)

30 Days of Worksheets and Productivity Questions (zipped file)

The pre-writing worksheets contain all the brainstorming questions to help you figure out your plot, setting, and characters.

The resource PDF lists all the writing books and other resources I recommended in the book, in one handy shopping list file.

The 30 days of worksheets are the daily writing prompts that guide you through the story blueprint, to prod your muse into revealing possible directions your story could take next.

If you follow the story prompts, you’ll write a story that fits into three-act structure, follows the hero’s journey, and contains a character growth arc for your protagonist.

The actual blueprint is contained in the book, so if you haven’t read it, you can still use the daily prompts, although it might not be entirely clear why the questions fall in the order that they do. But they will still work.

The productivity questions are intended to be answered each day after your writing session, to give you greater insight into your creative process and help you eliminate the blocks that are slowing you down or stopping you from writing altogether.

Even if you haven’t read the book, you may still find the worksheets useful, and did I mention, it costs you nothing to try them because they’re free?  🙂

(If you want to read The 30 Day Novel Success Journal, you can get it in Paperback, Kindle, or Audiobook.)

Happy writing!

Lynn

Why Your Character Needs a Secret Identity

Secret identities—they’re not just for superheroes anymore.

The secret identities we’re familiar with from comic books represent extreme contrasts of personality. Wonder Woman conceals her wild Amazon powers in the buttoned-up persona of Diana Prince. Batman shrouds his vigilante anger in the glib playboy personality of Bruce Wayne. Superman hides his alien invincibility behind the role of mild-mannered, bespectacled Clark Kent.

(Although I never quite bought that last one…a pair of heavy-framed glasses do not a clever disguise make.)

Giving your hero or heroine a secret identity is a great way to add complexity and depth. But to make it believable, you’ll want to go with something a little bit subtler than you’d find in a comic book.

Let’s say your heroine, Alexis, is a lawyer who’s burning the candle at both ends to make partner…but she volunteers to teach disadvantaged children how to read on the weekends. To her coworkers, she’s the hotshot prosecutor who never loses a case. Her colleagues would be shocked to learn that, each Saturday morning, Alexis becomes the nice lady who helps Tommy sound out all the words in Where the Wild Things Are.

The key is to choose a secret identity that contrasts with the character’s primary role—something that demonstrates a contradiction in her personality. What’s the primary quality Alexis is displaying in her public identity? Ruthlessness. So we want to reveal the opposite quality in her secret identity: compassion.

Once you know the character’s secret identity, you need to find a way to reconcile it with her public identity. How can she be both ruthless and compassionate?

Maybe Alexis struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child, and was humiliated by a bad teacher for her poor reading skills.

Or maybe she was seen as a problem child by the principal, because her illiterate mother wasn’t able to write her an excuse note when she was sick or sign off on her progress reports.

You can probably think of a dozen other reasons a lawyer might volunteer to teach reading to children.

If we’re talking about a minor character, just giving them an interesting secret identity and reconciling it with their public identity is enough.

But for your main characters, you’ll want to go a step further: tie the secret identity to the character’s flaw or wound via a defining traumatic event.

What’s Alexis’ flaw? It has to be something that fits with both her public identity and her secret identity.

Let’s say you decided Alexis was dyslexic. What if she flunked fifth grade, and had to repeat it while all of her friends advanced to junior high? What if all of those so-called friends snubbed her while she repeated fifth grade and bullied her when she followed them to junior high a year later? What if all the rumors those bullies spread caused the boy of her dreams to publicly reject Alexis when she asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance?

You can see how Alexis might fall prey to the belief that she’ll never be good enough. And how she might swear that she will do whatever it takes to become good enough.

The negative belief is her flaw, and the vow she takes is how she compensates for that flaw. The reason she’s so aggressive in the courtroom and so competitive with her colleagues is because she’s desperately trying to prove to everyone (and herself) that she is good enough. She’s trying to prove that those ex-friends who bullied her were wrong.

At the same time that this flaw gives rise to her public identity, it also gives rise to her secret identity: Alexis knows how painful it is to be called “stupid” for not being able to read, and she can’t bear to stand by and watch it happen to others. The same experience that drives her to be ruthless at work also compels her to be compassionate to those she perceives as being like her.

To sum up, here’s a series of questions to help you create a great secret identity for any character:

1. What is this character’s public identity?

2.   What is the primary quality or trait that the character displays through their public identity?

3. What is the opposite quality or trait?

4. What kind of secret identity would exemplify that opposite quality or trait?

5. How can I reconcile the character’s public and secret identities?

6. How can I tie the character’s public and secret identities into his or her flaw via a defining traumatic event?