Every now and then I get an email that says something along the lines of “I just picked up your book, [insert title of eighth or ninth book in series], and loved it so much I went back and got all the other ones in the series.”
I love these emails, because they tell me I’m accomplishing one of my goals: to make sure each book stands on its own well enough to provide a satisfying read and potentially draw people into the rest of the series. These emails are a great reassurance to me. My instincts were right, and paying attention to this sort of thing while writing an open-ended, ongoing series really is important.
Making sure each book stands alone well enough to tell a complete and satisfying story is important to me, not just for the sake of aesthetics, but because every book might be some readers’ first encounters with my writing. Some readers put out the effort to make sure they read a series in order. Some don’t. I don’t — generally, I’ll read whatever’s available, whether it’s part of a series, first or last book in a series, or whatever. (The first Bujold book I read was Mirror Dance, because it had just won the Hugo Award. Not only is this book set in the middle of the series, it’s in the middle of a three-book story arc. And I still loved it.)
This doesn’t mean I can’t have an ongoing storyline, and that the characters have to remain static. On the contrary, I think one of the attractions of a series is watching characters grow and develop. What I don’t do is try to explain everything that’s happened in the entire series in each new book. In a sense, I want to treat each book like the first book: what does the reader have to know about these people to understand the story I’m telling right now. Any backstory I provide is brief and topical. I don’t really think of it as backstory, but as character description, along with clothing and demeanor. This character wears a leather jacket and has a resident Victorian ghost (because of what happened in book #6, but the reader doesn’t need to know that much detail to understand the story right now).
A couple of anecdotes doesn’t make for a hard and fast rule about how to write a series, but my own experience is that some people will read the later books in a series first. Maybe they got book #8 as a gift, maybe it was the only book available. But each book I write in the series, I have to ask: How will this read to someone encountering the series for the first time? That thought has served me well, I think.
Once you’ve accepted the need for change and surrendered your current position and mental outlook, you’ve intellectually accepted the change. You then change your actionsk. As you change it affects you emotionally over time.
Emotional change can take years but you have to stick with it.
Change requires going through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five emotional stages.
DENIAL: there is no problem or need to change
ANGER: how dare someone, including me, say I’m not doing it right
BARGAINING: maybe if I can change some small things it will make a big difference
DEPRESSION: yes, I do really need to change the big things
ACCEPTANCE: which does lead to real change
These are also the editorial stages when the manuscript comes back from the publisher. There is no problem with the manuscript. How dare you say there is something wrong with the manuscript? Maybe there are some problems, but certainly not as much as you list in the editorial letter. Damn, I’ve got a lot of work to do. I do it.
I try to go through all five stages before opening the FedEx package (note how they never FedEx checks).
Train For Change
The military is very big on training because it wants to change people from civilians into soldiers. The goal of Special Forces training is to change regular soldiers into elite warriors. You can use some of the Special Forces training templates to achieve sustained change in your writing, in your career and any facet of your life.
The history of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) goes back to the formation of Delta Force, and before that back to the British SAS (Special Air Service, from which I get the motto: Who Dares Wins). SFAS was created in an attempt to learn from history and others who’d already done what Special Forces needed to do, to avoid reinventing the wheel.
According to official doctrine, SFAS tests an applicant’s supporting skills, leadership, physical fitness, motivation and ability to cope with stress. This is done through over-land movements, psychological tests, physical fitness tests, swim test, runs, obstacle courses, small unit tactics exercises, land navigation exercises and individual and team problem solving.
Aspiring Special Forces soldiers coming to the course are advised that their mind is their best weapon. That being physically fit isn’t going to get them through. Applicants should be prepared for anything.
In this type of training, expectations are unclear. There are unknown variables and standards. This places students under stress—as you’ve already learned, an excellent evaluation technique to see if someone can be successful. I’ve seen students become so frustrated that they quit. This also happens to many writers as they try to negotiate the insane maze of publishing. No one can make you quit, except yourself.
There’s none of the harassment or false stress that’s used in many training situations. Once you’ve been through a getting screamed in your face training environment, the second time you experience it, the effect is almost ludicrous. In the same way, as you spend more and more time in publishing you can weather rejection and misfortune more easily. That’s not to say they don’t sting, but you soldier on. When you are testing the elite the stress has to be real. Focus on the times in your life when the stress was real and examine your actions.
The publishing business is full of unknowns, so the more you understand the way stress affects your ability to make decisions, the more you will be able to navigate through all the choices and make the necessary changes and adjustments to your overall plan.
Character type profiling is regularly used by Special Forces and law enforcement; a fact that has been repeatedly fictionalized in pop culture books, movies and television. A profiler examines the results of an action and works backwards, trying to come up with the character type that would perform such an act.
When Special Forces was founded, a list of character traits for the type of person needed to operate in this elite unit was drawn up based on experiences in guerilla warfare and covert operations in World War II. Then they went and looked for those types of people.
John Douglas (Mindhunter) was one of the founders of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, which specializes in profiling. A key to profiling is that it shows that people have character traits that dictate their actions. This is understandable because most of what we do is habit. Also, the brain doesn’t start from scratch in every situation—we have imprinted stereotypes that shape our actions. We consciously control very little of our day-to-day life and decision-making.
John Douglas and the other founders of the Behavioral Science branch of the FBI began their study of profiling by going to prisons and interviewing every living serial killer, to see what type of person was capable of doing such horrible acts. Patterns were identified in the killers’ backgrounds, their thought processes, the way they conducted their crimes, etc. In the same manner, you can study patterns in your and others’ daily lives.
You can determine which of your life patterns are positive, and which are negative, then work on getting rid of the negative ones, and replace them with positive ones.
By profiling yourself, you can make more conscious choices, rather than react emotionally and out of blind habit.
Additionally, a common complaint among writers is: Where do I find the time to write? Profiling can help solve this.
An exercise you can do on your own
For the next 24 hours, write down everything you do. Simply list every action without comment and how much time you spend on each. Let the list sit for several days. Then look at the list with an open mind. Describe what kind of writer would do these things?
Then answer these questions
Is this the kind of writer I want to be?
Are these the things I really want to be spending my time doing?
Are my actions going to support my strategic and supporting goals?
Am I using my time most efficiently?
When is there time to write in all of this?”
“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” John Dryden.
Oooo, this post is late this morning, but I have a good writers reason. Or at least, a good language lover’s reason. I went with my friend Jenny last night to see Cyrano de Bergerac at Dallas’s Shakespeare in the Park.
It seemed like plays were the only things I really enjoyed reading in High School literature. Maybe because they were short. (My other favorites were all short, too–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Pride and Prejudice…) But I distinctly remember Rostand’s play, despite my teacher’s best effort to drain the joy out of it by over-analysis, like everything else.
CYRANO Magnificent, My nose!…You pug, you knob, you button-head, Know that I glory in this nose of mine, For a great nose indicates a great man – Genial, courteous, intellectual, Virile, courageous – as I am – and such As you – poor wretch – will never dare to be Even in imagination. (I. 336-342)
Yes, there are important character study moments, and commentary, and historical references, and what Rostand has to say about the politics of artistic patronage and Cyrano’s refusal of it.
CYRANO So, when I win some triumph, by some chance, Render no share to Caesar – in a word, I am too proud to be a parasite, And if my nature wants the germ that grows Towering to heaven like the mountain pine, Or like the oak, sheltering multitudes – I stand, not high it may be – but alone! (II. 428-434)
But really, I loved Cyrano because he was one of my first literary crushes. That scene in the first act where he rattles off all the different ways one might have described his nose if one had any creativity? Genius. But really? It’s the scene in Act iii in the garden that really does it.
Your name is like a golden bell Hung in my heart; and when I think of you I tremble, and the bell swings and rings – “Roxane!” …(III. 300-316)
Roxanne is an idiot, of course. I find her infuriating (and undeserving of Cyrano’s devotion), and I have no sympathy for her as a character, only for the actress who has to try and make her likable. She’s really quite clever, except in love. Even after she falls in love with Christian’s (really Cyrano’s) letters and declares she would love him even if he were hideous (as Cyrano considers himself), this is never tested. And in fact, she continues to cling that that false vision of perfect love (beautiful AND eloquent) like a plaster saint. Which might make her a better drawn character than I’d ever given her credit for, but still an idiot.
How could you hear someone say THIS to you, and EVER mistake the sound of his voice for any other’s?
Yes, that is Love – that wind Of terrible and jealous beauty, blowing Over me – that dark fire, that music… Yet Love seeketh not his own! Dear, you may take My happiness to make you happier, Even though you never know I gave it you – Only let me hear sometimes, all alone, The distant laughter of your joy!…(III.316-323)
Looking up these quotes, I came across an essay comparing Dr. House (of the TV show) to Cyrano, in his wit, his arrogance and self-loathing, and his damn-the-consequences challenge of authority. I think that’s dead accurate, and it makes me realize that I wouldn’t much like to LIVE with Cyrano.
But that’s the thing about literary crushes. They’re captured in a crystalline moment that highlights their heroic brilliance, and their fatal flaw is heartrending and tragic. In the frame of a book or a play, there’s only the night of literary passion, and not the morning after of “God! Just talk about your feelings already!”
So why go all High School Lit Class on a blog about genre fiction? Because Shakespeare and Rostand weren’t writing literary masterpieces at the time. They were as populist as any of us on this blog, but they pushed their characters outside of the bell curve of the ordinary, and made them endure.
Heroic brilliance. Tragic flaw. A touch of melodrama and an ounce of wit and a gallon of courage. That’s my Kryptonite in a literary crush. What’s yours?
One key to having a great protagonist is their arc of change throughout the story. As I’ve mentioned before, if you take your protagonist as she is at the beginning of the book and thrust her into the climactic scene, she should lose to the antagonist. A key portion of the story is her growth into a person, that by the climactic scene can defeat the antagonist.
Change isn’t just thinking differently, but the 1st step of change is to think differently. As a writer, though, you must show change, not just say change has occurred.
Change requires three things to happen . .
1. Moment of Enlightenment
2. Make a decision
3. Implement Sustained Action
Moment Of Enlightenment
The character experiences something they never experienced before. Or they experience something they’ve experienced before, but it affects them differently than ever before for some reason. The MOE is basically the classic ‘’light bulb going on’. However, by itself, an MOE is not change, just a momentary awareness. Denial often blocks MOEs. Angers stops MOEs when it is actually an indicator of an MOE. Bargaining dilutes MOEs.
Because of the Moment of Enlightenment, the character makes a decision. Remember, it is not necessarily a good decision and often, in fiction, it appears to be a foolish or poor decision. Was Frodo particularly smart to make the decision at Rivendell to continue as the Ring Bearer?
The character is then either:
Stuck with the decision (externally imposed change) or
Sticks with the decision (internally motivated change)
Still, by itself, a decision is not change, just a fleeting commitment. Again, bargaining can dilute a decision. And depression can cause a character to give up on a decision.
Because of the decision, the character changes their behavior. The changed behavior is sustained long enough to become habit. As noted under profiling, most of what we do is habit. Thus to change themselves, our character must change their habits. In the military, this is called training. Sustained action leads to change.
The Emotional Stages Of Change
(Also known as the editorial process)
These are the stages your character will go through as they walk the path of change:
Denial: There is no problem and no need to change. Things are fine the way they are.
Anger: How dare someone say I need to change? Maybe you need to change.
Bargaining: Okay, maybe I need to change some, but not as much as you seem to think I do.
Depression: Crap. Yes, I really need to change.
Acceptance: I’ve changed. Acceptance is not easy—the character’s reality has changed.
How Do We Know When A Character Has Changed?
We see it. They act differently.
1. The Verdict Moment of Enlightenment. Paul Newman is a down and out lawyer who is just supposed to settle the only case he has. He’s on his way to the settlement meeting with the archdiocese and stops to take some photos of his “client”. It’s the first time he’s ever seen her, since the sister actually hired him for the case.
Showing change: Early in the movie Charlotte Rampling meets Paul Newman in a bar. They become lovers. Unknown to him, she is working for the other side. At the end of the movie, this is the resolution.
Instead of inventing from scratch or using people you know, you can use templates that professionals have developed. There are three ones I suggest considering: Profiling; Archetypes; Myers-Briggs.
Profiling: Was invented by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit to track serial killers. They went and interview every living serial killer in jail and recorded their traits and started seeing patterns. I book I recommend is John Douglas’s MINDHUNTER where he describes how they did this.
The key is that you can profile anyone, including your characters, particularly your protagonist and antagonist. Remember, 99% of what people do is habit. Now habit can be very boring and you rarely put it in the book (ever notice the day to day things that characters never seem to do in a novel?). But by knowing your characters’ profile, you can begin to predict their behavior so they’ll act ‘naturally’. Habits are behavior patterns.
Profilers examine results and work backward, much like an author might want characters to do certain things, so we see what results we want, and develop a character that will give us those results. This is one way to develop characters, especially if you are writing a story where the plot might be bigger than the characters such as a thriller.
Some things you might play with: What is your protagonist’s profile for a normal day? What is your antagonist’s profile for a norm day?
Archetypes– Gender Differences
I find archetypes useful for looking at gender differences. The same types of person are listed side by side, but notice how they have different labels. There is a difference between men and women and you can use this to your advantage as a writer.
Seductress Bad boy
Spunky kid Best friend
Free spirit Charmer
Waif Lost soul
Many of you have probably taken the Myers-Briggs. It was developed in 1943 during World War II when there was a need to slot people in certain jobs that fit them. It’s not a test, but an indicator, so there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ labels.
There are four areas, with two possible orientations to each, equaling 16 character ‘types’. So this gives you a broad range of characters to put in your novel.
Block A Block B
Act first, think later? Think first, then act?
Feel deprived if cut off from Require time to get energized?
interacting with the outside world?
Tend to be motivated by the Tend to be internally motivated?
Get energized by groups? Groups drain your energy?
Block A Block B
Mentally live in the now? Mentally live in the future?
Use common sense for Use imagination innovative solutions?
Your memory focuses on detail Your memory focuses on patterns and context? and facts?
Don’t like guessing? Comfortable with guessing?
Block A Block B
Search for facts when making Focus on feelings when making a decision?
Notice work to be accomplished? Focus on people’s needs?
Tend to provide an objective Seek consensus and popular opinions?
Believe conflict is normal part Dislike conflict and avoid it?
Block A Block B
Plan detail before taking action? Are comfortable moving into action without a plan?
Focus on tasks and complete Like to multitask & can mix work with play?
them in order?
Keep ahead of deadlines to avoid Work best closer to deadlines?
stress and work optimally?
Field marshallSet targets, dates? Avoid commitments that might interfere with your freedom?
1A= Extrovert (E) 1B= Introvert (I)
2A= Sensing (S) 2B= intuition (N)
3A= Thinking T) 3C= Feeling (F)
4A= Judging (J) 4B= Perceiving (P)
INTP= Architect ESJF= Seller
ENTP= Inventor ISFJ= Convservator
INTJ= Scientist ESFP= Entertainer
ENTJ= Field Marshall ISFP= Artist
INFP= Questor ESTJ= Administrator
ENFP= Journalist ISTJ= Trustee
INFJ= Author ESTP= Promoter
ENJF= Pedagogue ISTP= Artisan
Extroversion vs. Introversion: This is how we view the world.
Extroverts are social. Introverts are territorial.
Extroverts prefer breadth and a wide variety of personal communications. Introverts prefer depth and one on one.
Extroverts tend to be externally motivated. Introverts tend to be internally motivated.
75% Extroverts 25% Introverts.
Intuition vs. Sensation: Innovative vs. Practical.
This is how we think. This is the greatest source of misunderstanding between people.
25% Intuitive 75% Sensation
Thinking vs. Feeling: The thinking part of our brain analyzes and decides in a detached manner.
The feeling part of our brain analyzes and decides in an attached manner.
Impersonal vs. personal.
This is how we make decision and act. Logic vs. emotion.
50% Thinking 50% Feeling but . . .More men are Thinking and more women are Feeling.
Judging vs. Perceiving. Closure vs. Open-ended.
This is how we approach our endeavors. Results or process?
50% Judging 50% Perceiving.
Looking at the above, what MB type is your protagonist?
Which is your antagonist?
How does this bring them into conflict? What will they agree on? What will they disagree on?
Also, consider what MB Type you are? This is something I get into in Warrior Writer as an author must understand what they’re capable of, and more importantly, what they aren’t capable of.
This is a summary article I did for the Novelists Inc Newsletter after last Years conference. I’m reprinting it here because I was asked to do a post about Conflict, and this is better than me trying to explain it myself.
In order to write create great characters and write compelling stories, we need to understand the psychology of our characters. It’s easy to think Goal, Motivation, Conflict, but in reality we know that creating memorable characters is not so easy. With that in mind I stepped into the conference room at the Tradewinds Island Grand and prepared for Dr. D.P. Lyles workshop The Psychology of Character Motivation-Understanding the Whys of Character Thought, Action and Dialogue.
Admittedly, I was worried that taking a workshop from a Dr. on the psychology of character motivation might be a bit too, oh I don’t know… school-ish for me. You know what I mean? I’ve never been one to read textbooks and I don’t have much love for big ten-dollar words. I like it when things are explained to me in a simple straightforward way. Dr. Lyle did even better than that – he used examples that made things crystal clear.
I’m going to jump right in with the recap here and start with his slide show. It looked a little like this….
Tough Guy ——————————————————– Whiner
Team Guy ——————————————————– Rebel
Artist ——————————————————– Dreamer
Smarty ——————————————————– Dummy
Blooming Rose ——————————————————– Wallflower
Grinder ——————————————————– Lazy Dog
Goody ——————————————————– Baddy
Believer ——————————————————– Doubter
For the workshop he used the character and story line of Silence of the Lambs for an example.
First we went over each line asking which side of the board Hannibal was on at the start of the book. Then again at the end of the book. Then we did Clarice, start and end of the book. Sometimes the character fell in the middle, but often it was closer to one side than the other.
See an example of the Clarice chart below.
Tough Guy —————————————-S————— Whiner
Team Guy –S—————————————————– Rebel
Artist ———————————————–S——– Dreamer
Smarty —————————————————S—- Dummy
Blooming Rose —————————————————-S— Wallflower
Grinder ———————————————S———- Lazy Dog
Goody —S—————————————————- Baddy
Believer –S—————————————————– Doubter
Now keep in mind I can’t remember exactly where Dr. Lyle put them, so these are my remembered interpretation.
Basically, at the start of SOTL Clarice was a rookie FBI agent who followed all the rules, did her job, and didn’t think much for herself or stand out from the crowd in any real way. But as the story changed, so did she. She learned, and grew and changed until at the end of the story she ignored procedure, and her own safety by going into the basement after Buffalo Bill (bad guy serial killer) to rescue the girl. At the end, her chart was drastically different than it was at the beginning. Everything changed. Clarice, and her belief system, were changed forever by the choices she’d made during the story.
Hannibal, however, changed very little throughout the story. The one thing that did change was essential though. That change was that at the beginning of the story Hannibal was simply the bad guy. Sure the way he killed was disgusting, and what he did (eating the victims) was gross, and we all knew he was evil, but that was pretty much the same at the end of the story. The change in him was brought on by Clarice. The change was that he grew to admire and care about her, and that added dimension not only made him human, it made him even more terrifying.
What we need to learn from these examples is that characters are people. People we create who grow and change as the story moves forward. And change is essential. Our characters come from our imagination, we give them names, jobs, desires and foibles. They have good traits and bad, they are not flat, or one dimensional – at least we don’t want them to be! We want them to be three-dimensional. In order to accomplish that they have to grow and change, the same way we do.
“Let them live. Let them breathe,” Dr.Lyle says when talking about character. “Then pressure them into changing.”
Why should we pressure them into change? Because people don’t change unless they have to. Pressure makes things move and people change.
Not to mention pressure creates tension, and tension makes for great storytelling. So, how do we create this pressure?
Dr. Lyle’s answer is “No win creates pressure.”
This is where we get into what the conflict zone is. Dr. Lyle says that when in the zone “characters have to chose A or B, and that choice will change them forever.” We as the authors build tension and pressure by showing what the character wins and what they lose with choice A. Then show the same with choice B. and by doing that we show that there is a win for the character in both options, and a loss for the character in both options as well. This is what makes the choice so difficult, and builds the pressure. That pressure can be stretched over months, or flash in seconds.
Again, Dr. Lyle gives us an example of it broken down into something simple so we can grasp the concept, and adapt it to our own stories.
His example is that of a woman with three children, at home, and the house gets on fire. She manages to get two of her three children out of the house before it becomes clear that she might not succeed if she goes in after the third.
This becomes the conflict zone with choice A or B.
Go in after the third child
WIN if she saves the child
LOSE if they both die and the 2 outside are orphaned.
Stay with the 2 outside.
WIN, she still has 2 children, and they have a mother.
LOSE: she loses the third child.
Both choices have a win and a lose side to it. So which does she chose?
“We are all trapped by who we are,” says Dr.Lyle. Meaning this is the type of pressure and conflict that changes your character. No matter what choice she makes, she will never be the same person she was. These are the types of conflicts we need to think about. We need to understand who our characters at the core, not just on the surface, in order to put them under pressure and create the changes in them that come with great characters and major storytelling. Once you’ve put your character into the conflict zone, and you’ve made it clear what the win/lose options of both choices are, you need to decide what choice you can you use best in your story.
There was also a bit of talk about how different it is when you’re writing a series. Series characters don’t need to, and really shouldn’t change so massively in each book. If you’re writing as series you can’t have them change so drastically in each story because then you risk losing your readers. Readers follow a series because they like the character. They want to see the character challenged physically and intellectually, they want to see his belief system challenged, but they love the characters the way they are, and don’t really want to see them change fundamentally in each story.
The final message of the workshop is that often we get too caught up in the writing. We need to take a step back, breath, and think. List all the options your character has, then make the right choice for the story-which is not always the right choice for the characters well being. Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons, and vice versa, and we need to think of our characters as people or there’s a chance they might become flat and one-dimensional.
This workshop was the second of the day for Dr. Lyle, and when it was over I was lucky enough to get a few minutes alone with him and my video camera for an on the spot interview. Take a peek.