Balancing Luck and Ability–Guest Post

Posted in for writers

Several moons ago, I was invited by the great Dan Koboldt to post an article on his blog. With his permission, I’ve pasted the contents below. Hope you enjoy!

This article’s going to be a bit different. Most scientists visit Dan’s blog with pet peeves about scientific blunders committed in fiction. The truth is, there’s nothing about statistics that’s interesting enough that folks would want to even attempt to write about it. Alas, statistics myths are confined to the media (where they tend to do the most damage). But, we can use some principals from stats (and a special flavor of statistics called Quantitative Psychology) to shed some light on how best to portray the people that populate our prose.

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The character travelbag

Posted in for writers, Writing

Photo courtesy of Fife Photography

Have you ever started packing your bags while sitting comfortably on the flight? How about after you arrive? Perhaps when you come home from your vacation?

Of course not! We pack before we leave.

Yet how many of us “pack our characters’ bags” post-hoc? Or after we’re 40K words in? Did you take half the book to decide your character mumbled to himself? Or that she has a deathly fear of pink orangutangs? Or maybe after we finish, someone says, “Halt, ye prolific penman! I’ve finished your novel and still couldn’t identify your MC out of an occupied phone booth!”

No matter how carefully the plot is woven, the characters need to hold their own. So, here’s four questions to ask of your MC to determine whether they have the necessary travel-gear to carry the plot to its destination:

1. What is my MC’s dominating characteristic? Is she shy? Is he extroverted? Is he insanely curious or a bumbling dolt? All MCs must have a defining characteristic and the more unique, the better!

2. What is the MC good at? (i.e., what are the MC’s resources?) Again, the more unique, the better. Is she strong? Is he good at reading emotions? Is he a talented Bassist? Can she break glass with her voice? Does he (as in Ready Player One) have an uncanny ability to remember obscure 80s references?

3. What is the MC’s weakness? Does she lose her temper? Does he have depression? Is she incapacitated by her fear of cold weather?

4. What does the character want? This, my friends, it what propels the plot forward. It is the character’s driving desire that alters the course of events. In The Maze Runner, it is Thomas’s yearning to figure out what is going on that leads to the trail of breadcrumbs that solves the mystery of the maze.

Let’s do an example. I like to start with #4 because it tends to make it easier to answer the first three. Suppose our MC is John and he really wants (#4) to build a Kite that will fly in the Kite Olympics (though explaining why he wants this always helps deepen character motivation). Alas, John cannot read so well (#3)–he tends to forget the beginning of a sentence by the time he gets to the end, which means he can’t scour the internet for tips and suggestions like his competitors can. But, John can think in multiple dimensions better than anyone else (#2). He can even think in five or six dimensions! Also he’s got the persistence of a toad crossing the Sahara (#1)–not only does he not get discouraged about obstacles, but they actually make him laugh. Now the plot can move forward with the MC at the focus. In the end, John overcomes his inability to read by coming up with a three-dimensional design that revolutionizing kite flying.

Notice how we’ve also made these traits unique. Lots of people can’t read, but John’s reading problem is unique (he forgets the beginning of the sentence before he gets to the end). Also, his strength is very unique (Ronald Fisher aside, can you think of anyone else who can think in 5+ dimensions?). And his persistence too is unique.

Hope this helps!

Motivating Characters: Make it Personal!

Posted in Writing

Here’s a formula I’m a big fan of (from Write Great Fiction: Character, Emotion, and Viewpoint):

backstory → personality/character traits → wanting something (motivation) → emotion (felt inside) → emotion (displayed outwardly)

I’ll focus on the first three (I’ll actually skip the “personality/character traits” to make things brief). A character yearns for something because of something that happened in the past. Harry Potter wants to defeat Valdemort because the dude killed his parents. Katniss wants to live because her family has already suffered the death of her father. Vin wants to defeat the Lord Ruler because her oppressed her people.

In one of my novels, The Great Ruv (of scribophile fame) said my antagonist wasn’t sufficiently motivated. My antagonist belonged to an evil organization and wanted to extinguish a rebellion because he hates war. Here’s how our conversation went:

Ruv: “Why does he want to avoid war?”

Me: “Umm…because it’s war?”

Ruv: “Not good enough. Why does he want to avoid war?”

Me: “Because war kills people.”

Ruv: “So? Why does your antagonist personally despise war?”

Me: “Because he is one of the few alive who actually has seen war.”

Ruv: “Better. But what has he seen that makes him despise it?”

Me: “The death of friends and family, I suppose.”

Ruv: “But everyone loses friends and family during wartime. Why does your antagonist personally suffer more than others? What about his losses drives him more than it would others who lost friends and family?”

Me: *silence*

It was enlightening. Ruv was absolutely correct–my antagonist wasn’t any different than the millions of others who had lost someone close to them. So here’s what I did (remember this is a war in the future): said antagonist was recruited to work for a think-tank just before the war broke out. His twin brother, on the other hand, was not so lucky. The twin was drafted. As war broke out, my antagonist made a brilliant discovery in genetics. This discovery caught like wildfire, but with disastrous consequences–his research was used to develop biological weapons. One nation used these weapons to kill the antagonist’s twin brother.

Now it’s personal. Akram, more than most, hates war because it killed his twin and it defiled his most important discovery and it used his gift to the world against him.

So…how can you make your characters’ motivations more personal? So Jim wants to stop a terrorist attack. Why? Because people will die. (Not good enough). Because his child goes to daycare at the building where the attack will take place. (Better). Because his child goes to daycare there, and the child just survived a heart transplant. (Even better, but more!) Because Jim’s only child that survived a heart transplant goes to daycare there, and the antagonist is a former combat buddy-gone rogue. (Almost there). Jim’s transplant surviving child will die unless Jim can stop his former combat buddy, using clues about their shared history as intelligence analysts of a branch that no longer exists. (Now we’re talking!)

To create believable, motivated characters, we must alter their backstory such that no other person in the world is as motivated to fill the role they fill.

Are your secondary characters making the cut?

Posted in Writing

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Alright folks, gameday is coming. The landscape crew has cut the grass in that fansy-pantsy zigzaggedy pattern, the concessions are stocked, and the cleaning crew have mopped up the vomit and spit (though, rest assured, the dried gum remains under the seats). Gameday is coming! Your team? Your cast of characters!

The question is, will your characters make the cut?

First, a little background. I’m a card-carrying (metaphorically speaking) member of the Ubergroup in Scribophile. As part of said Uberness, I often opt for the intense, brutal, butt-kicking, sweat-inducing Beta team. Each week, one novel is put to the test, with 4-6 fellow writers. Within a week, said novel is workshopped–ripped from the author’s bosom, put in a blender of criticism, and chopped and mixed, blended and minced until the author cries Onkel!

As part of this band of snarky scribblers, I noticed a trend–so many secondary characters do not interact with the plot. It’s as if the novelist said, “hmmm….I only have a protagonist and an antagonist. But the last book I read had 200 characters. Okay….I think I’ll just make up a bunch of names and stick them in somewhere. Yeah, that looks good!”

The end result? A cast of cardboard characters that don’t drastically alter the course of the novel. Let’s begin with an example:

Jim is an aspiring middle-finger model. Despite the protest of his mother, Cherie, he moves to Blanchard Prairie, WY (the Hollywood of middle-finger models) and auditions for America’s Got Anger. There he meets Lola Valentine and falls in love. While building a hog trough for his bride-to-be, he accidentally injures his hands when a pig steps on them. Now, he must rethink his aspirations or settle for love.

Let’s think about what characters are essential.

(1) Jim. Yes, since the story is about him.

(2) Cherie? So far, no. Though she protests his aspirations, she doesn’t significantly alter the plot. She could be removed, and the story would remain largely the same. So how do we fix this? We fix it by having characters do things that are essential to the plot. So, rather than Jim losing his hands in an accident, what if his psycho mother does it to him? Now we’re talking. After all, the loss of hands is an important plot point! If we can have a secondary character incite that plot point, then they become essential.

(3) Lola? Meh, not bad, I suppose. But so far, she’s barely making the cut. She’s cardboard. She doesn’t do much other than become a love interest. So how can we make her integral to the plot? Maybe Lola is the daughter of the producer of America’s Got Anger. Jim starts stalking her to get an “in” with the “big dawgs.” But, he ends up falling in love! As his relationship advances, he discovers from this debutante/insider that America’s Got Anger is just a cover for a baby-powder smuggling ring (those fiends!). But as Jim’s relationship progresses, Lola’s father grows a liking to Jim and offers him a seven minutes in the spotlight. It’s what Jim always wanted. Lola says it’s her or his career. Now, Jim must choose between love and morals, or between fame and villainy!

Now what would happen if Lola was removed? Well, Jim wouldn’t have an “in” to America’s Got Anger. He wouldn’t learn of the smuggling ring and he wouldn’t have injured his hand (because he wouldn’t have been making a hog trough). Basically, without Lola, the plot crumbles (or at least it does now).

So….here’s some questions/suggestions about secondary characters:

(1) How would the plot change if I removed this person?

(2) How can I make this person’s role more integral to the plot?

(3) Are some characters pulling more weight than they should?

(4) Should one of my secondary characters do something that someone else is doing?

(5) Is there some plot element you can add that is resolved (or complicated) by a secondary character, that only that secondary character can fill?

Think about some of your own favorite novels. How have secondary characters played major roles?


(1) Dobby was a secondary character, but ended up saving Harry Potter’s life in the end.

(2) Rue was a secondary character in Hunger Games, but became the MC’s ally, saving her life, and Rue’s death gave Katniss purpose that propelled her into the second book.

(3) Bean was a secondary character in Ender’s Game, but he gave Ender the idea on how to defeat the buggers. (And subsequently, he got his own series!)

So now, go back to your novels and ask that question–how are my secondary characters interacting with the plot? Are they significant enough that I can’t remove them?