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WHY YOUR STORY SUCKS: It’s Your Characters

Some days you face the page and you spin gold. Others you sit down and you write crap. Knowing the difference is what you need to get good at.

Monday was one of those crap days. I suspected it while I was writing but my fears weren’t confirmed until I read it back Tuesday.

Let’s figure it out together.

One of the reasons I was resisting getting back to Legend of the Looking Glass was that I had stopped at a bad place. The next scene to write was a scene that I didn’t really know what it needed to be. I knew the shape of most scenes, but not that one.

After arriving in Wonderland, complications ensue, and Ice finally gets to meet with Rabbit. She has questions that need to be answered. It’s kind of exposition-driven and it’s an important scene to set things in motion.

I just really didn’t know what to do with it. I knew where the scene ended and where it began, sure, but what happened in between? No clue. So I did the only sensible thing and let other priorities keep me from the keyboard. For something like six weeks. Oh, resistance.

When I finally did sit down to face the page, I ploughed through. I figured out what needed to be said and had people say it. I let Ice know where she was and what was needed of her. It was long (5-pages!) and it was completely meh. There’s no room for meh.

My brain and I reasoned that at least it was done. We’ll move on and figure out how to fix it later like any other troubled scene. It was second draft’s problem.

Only…

I was still resisting. The next scenes weren’t coming either.

The problem was that I’d lost sight of my characters. Partially because I’d resisted for so long, partially because I’d never defined them properly.

I knew how Ice acted when stress levels are high, like they were for the first fifteen action-filled pages. But now that things were a bit calmer? *shrug* I knew my other two leads, Rabbit and Kat, but only in broad strokes.

That needed to be fixed.

It's probably your characters?

The kind of sign you’re likely to find in Wonderland.

My old notes came out and I re-read everything I’d written. About the characters. About the story. All of it. I’m not big on detailed character outlines. You don’t always need to know where so-and-so went to school or who their first kiss was. I do write background on each character. But mostly as it relates to their part in the story and the backstory that gets them there. I do details later if needed.

But that’s me. No matter the level you take your character building to, when it comes down to it, it’s mostly abstract. Your character’s favourite colour won’t tell you how they’ll react if somebody pulls a gun on them.

Here’s a trick I picked up to really understand my characters. Define them. Like a dictionary. I choose three strong adjectives that represent them, then I break each down into a couple synonyms to flesh it out. The thesaurus is your friend, here.

What you have now is the difference between knowing a character used to be into espionage and wet works, and knowing that a character is meticulous and steadfast. These adjectives are words you can carry with you through every action, interaction, and line of dialogue in the story.

Here’s the definition for Ice:

ICE = curious, guarded, good-natured.
Curious expands into interested and questioning.
Guarded expands into cagey, cautious, and suspicious.
Good-natured expands into kind-hearted, easy going, and gentle.

There were other adjectives I could have chosen for the definition but fewer makes it easier to keep focus. Three for main characters is good. Less for secondary ones.

The reason I chose to make those the words for Ice was because I liked contrasting guarded with good-natured. Those are her two conflicting sides. She leans towards kind-hearted by nature but life experience has taught her to be guarded in order to survive. Internal conflict is good. Curious is important because it’s a character trait I held over from her namesake in Alice in Wonderland.

Defining Kat and Rabbit, I ended up with:

  • RABBIT = meticulous, whole-hearted, and steadfast.
  • KAT = wild, fierce, open.

Now that I knew who these people were, I was excited again. So breaking one of my cardinal rules, I went back and rewrote the scene that had been giving me trouble.

Lo and behold. It was better.

No surprise there. I was now building the scene out of character instead of what needed to be said (or what needed to happen). I was able to ask–and get answers to–how the characters would interact, what they would be doing, how they would get information across (that dreaded exposition,  which I cut down to bare minimums). Not only is the scene shorter and stronger now, I found a really fun character moment I wouldn’t have otherwise.

More importantly, my resistance was gone. The next scenes are done and I’m excited to get back to work once I post this.

Try it for your characters.  If you can’t do it, you probably don’t know them as well as you should.

KAT

You remember the squirt in the red dress? We call her the Bloody Queen.

Rabbit takes Kat by the shoulders. Most upset.

RABBIT

You let the queen know Ice is here?

KAT

What was I supposed to do? Make her invisible?

ICE

Hey. Focus you two.

Define your characters and your story will be better for it.