Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

Bodybuilding for wimpy characters May 18, 2010

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 6:02 pm
Tags: , , ,

It’s official. Both my hero and heroine are Too Stupid To Live.

My hero is inconsistent. An example- he says he doesn’t want anything to do with the heroine, then goes around to her place to check she’s all right and invites her to his house for dinner. He falls straight back into his old pattern of being there for the heroine. Except where it’s all too obvious I’ve thought “But there’s no conflict!” and made him suddenly resist her.

The heroine is weak and wimpy. She is supposed to be a successful business woman, who’s made it on her own despite being a single mother. She sure doesn’t seem like that reading the story. She doesn’t make decisions and go for things, she just reacts to what is happening. And yes, she’s in a difficult situation that’s just turned her safe organised life upside down. Her old best friend and one time lover, who may or may not be the father of her seven year old son, has just reappeared in her life. He’s demanding she go back to her childhood home town, as her mother, who disowned her when she announced her pregnancy, is ill, maybe seriously.

But she needs to be stronger, feistier, have goals of her own and not get pushed around by other people’s needs and wants. She was a victim of her mother’s perfectionism growing up. She was a victim when she fell pregnant aged twenty and dropped out of uni. She stopped being a victim the minute she decided to keep her baby, survive on her own no matter what anyone else wanted her to do. (So deciding to run away and hide from her best friend Lock wasn’t the smartest idea, but she was young and dealing with some big emotional issues, and she was afraid he would reject her as her mother had done.) Anyway, she can’t be a victim now. She needs to find the emotional equivalent of a Bullworker, to turn her from an emotional 90 pound wimpy weakling into a strong independent woman worth loving, worth a great relationship.

I was on eHarlequin buying books and I saw this quote from MIRA author Robyn Carr –

“I’m naturally drawn to strong, capable female characters, and when I begin a story I ask myself, ‘What is she up against?’ I try to write about issues that every woman faces at some point in her life, without ever losing sight of the basic sense of humor that helps us all through hard times.”

That’s what I need to know. What is Cady up against? What does she want to happen? (Given that once the inciting event occurs, having things the same as they were is not an option, no matter how much she wants it.) What plans does she make for dealing with this? How does she regroup when things go wrong? How do her strengths help and hinder her?

I’m getting some of the answers. Her goal isn’t and can’t be just to get back to having things how they were before the story started. The most important thing of all for her is making a good life for her son Josh. He not only doesn’t have a father in his life, he doesn’t have grandparents either. Maybe he’s been commenting on that, even getting teased by other kids at school. So when Lock erupts back into her life, she may not want anything to do with him, but she could decide her goal is to mend the damaged relationship with her mother. Not for her sake, or her mother’s sake, but for Josh’s sake. As I wrote, I had the sense that things with her Mum were working out too quickly.  This goal can’t come easily. So she’s struggling to reestablish the broken relationship with her mother, at the same time she and Lock are struggling not to reestablish their own broken relationship.Meanwhile, Lock is getting to know the boy who may be his son, and come to terms with his emotions about that. There’s a lot going on there, a lot to pull them together and a lot to push them apart. The conflict with Lock, and with her mother, is the Bullworker that brings out Cady’s strength. The big weakness of my first draft is the lack of conflict, which comes from the characters not having meaningful goals.

Okay, it’s a good place to begin the rewrite. I can see what I need now, the first few scenes are falling into place. Not much of the first draft will survive into the second draft, but that’s okay. It was the “getting to know the characters” draft. Now the real story starts!

Edited to add- make sure you read Les Edgerton’s reply below- it’s a writing tutorial in itself!

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10 Responses to “Bodybuilding for wimpy characters”

  1. Les Edgerton Says:

    I empathize with you! Been there, done that. If I may offer some suggestions… First, I think sometimes we get ourselves into trouble thinking in terms of “heroes” and “heroines” and “villains.” That kind of puts us into a black & white frame of mind and also can lead to characters who are cardboard and even cartoonish in nature, i.e., Snidely Whiplash vs Dudley Doright kinds of characters. I maintain a better way is to think in terms of protagonists and antagonists. The protagonist simply being the person who we experience the story through their persona and the antagonist simply the person whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist’s. A good example being in the movie Thelma & Louise. Thelma is the protagonist—it’s her story—and her antagonist is Hal the state trooper. He’s not a bad guy at all—in fact he’s the most decent guy in the story. Thelma’s goal is to escape being caught; Hal’s goal is to catch her. For her own good, as he sees it. The superficial “bad guys” are the jerks like Thelma’s husband Darryl, the trucker who represents the same kind of jerk, etc. They are all Snidely Whiplash kinds of characters, essentially one-dimensional. The very best kinds of stories aren’t morality plays, i.e., “good vs evil,” but actually, “good vs good” if one wants to ascribe morality to it. Those are truly complex stories in which both characters have honorable motives but those motives are counter to the other’s. This doesn’t mean the antagonist has to be good and it also doesn’t mean he/she has to be bad. That’s immaterial. All that matters is that the antagonist’s goals conflict with those of the protagonist’s.

    A story then becomes fairly simple. It begins with a protagonist who has had her world profoundly altered via the inciting incident, which is just something that happens to her that creates and/or reveals the story problem to him or her. In “real life” just as in fiction, the first thought is that the person wishes whatever happened hadn’t. That things be as they were. However, that’s impossible. The genie’s already out of the bottle. The next thing the protagonist wants is to return to as close as possible to that world. That’s also impossible, although s(he) doesn’t yet know it. It will take the struggle to reveal that to him/her.

    The other problem is many times writers create a plot that’s reactive. This (bad thing) happens to the protagonist, then this, and then this, ad infinitem. That creates an episodic story and there’s no market to such a story. Even the movie Indiana Jones appears, to the uninitiated, to be episodic, but it’s not. The obstacles have to be created by the antagonist in his quest for his goal and the protagonist has to come up against those obstracles as a result of his or her actions to resolve his/her problem. Virtually the only time the protagonist should be reactive is after the very first scene with the inciting incident. After all, this is a scene in which something happens to her. Thereafter, she has to become proactive on her own behalf to resolve her problem.

    Sorry to go on so long(!), but sometimes I feel as if writers create problems for their stories in terms of thinking in terms of “heroes” and “heroines” and “villains.” One more thought—a story’s strength is always determined by the strength of the antagonist and not the protagonist.

    I really enjoy your blog! Thought-provoking it always is.

  2. waitingforthecall Says:

    Wow! Don’t apologise for the long reply. There’s a lot of meat in there!

    Romance writers do tend to think in terms of hero and heroine, but more as a type of shorthand and hopefully not as stereotypes (at least if we want to see our stories published!). The protagonist/antagonist way of looking at doesn’t feel at first glance as if it will work comfortably when there are two major characters who get roughly equal POV time. The female lead isn’t clearly protagonist in many stories. I guess the protagonist in a modern romance is whichever of the lead characters has POV, and the antagonist is the other main character. Then they switch.

    Most romance stories won’t have a traditional “villain”, the main players’ own weaknesses, their character flaws and relationship blocks, as well as the other main character’s actions, are what stops them getting what they want. They are their own villains. My goal as a writer is to get my reader right inside both male and female lead characters’ minds, so she sees them grow and transform, overcoming their flaws to achieve the prize of a real and lasting relationship (that they were never looking for- the initial goal CANNOT be a relationship with the other lead character). And all those cynical reviewers who love to pan romance think it’s just about sex! Ideally, the male and female leads should be evenly matched, but as you say it’s the conflict both between and within them that brings out the characters’ strengths and pushes them to grow.

    My female lead is definitely reactive in first draft (and my male lead, too!). My biggest work in the next draft will be making both of them more decisive and proactive.

  3. Jinky Says:

    The good news is: you caught it and it can be fixed.

    Even better news: it’s probably an easier fix than you think.

    I think Les’s comments are right on the money. If there’s one thing that rounds out a character, for me, it’s moral ambiguity. The nurse who’s good at her job, but abuses prescription drugs; the wife and mother who loves her family but is having an affair; the anti-hero who steals from the rich and gives to the poor; the playboy millionaire-cum-masked vigilante. In order for me to appreciate when the character makes the right choice, I first have to believe they’re capable of making the wrong choice. And what’s more, these are the characters who are chock full of conflict, whether they like it or not.

    I make this mistake A LOT, and I used to get really down about it. I would realize about halfway through that my characters were flat and just going through life all willy-nilly. And then I would cry because I sucked at writing and always would and I had might as well crawl in a hole and die because of it. I was in my twenties before I realized that sort of thing was an editing issue, not a writing issue, and I shouldn’t worry about it until I get to the end. Once I get to the end, I have a better idea of the story I should have been writing all along, and can make adjustments, insert red herrings, ratchet up conflict, etc., from there.

    The reason your characters are behaving like this is because you don’t know them well enough yet. And why should you? You’re practically on your first date, and you know how awkward those can be. The only thing you can do is throw some obstacles at it and try to keep the conversation going. Believe it or not, the more you write, the more you learn about these characters, who they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. So even if you ‘mess up’ you’re doing something right by employing the process of elimination.

    For what it’s worth, I prefer protagonist and deuteragonist over heroine/hero. Not because I’m a pretentious blowhard, but because ‘dueteragonist’ makes me giggle like I’m five and someone just said butt.

  4. waitingforthecall Says:

    Woot, Jinky, you’ve given me a new naughty word!  Deuteragonist- I almost completed an English lit major and I never heard that one before.

    Yeah, I’m not stressing about the lack of conflict. Well, I want some in there, but I’m not beating myself up and calling myself a crap writer over it (I already KNOW I’m a sucky writer, so no news there). The first draft was a journey of discovering my characters, a long car ride with a couple of strangers who felt like old friends by the end of the trip. I did no pre-writing before starting first draft, totally pantsed it, so it’s not surprising I didn’t have a clue who they were at the beginning. I’m getting close to knowing them well enough to start rewriting, I think.

  5. Romy Says:

    I’m definitely bookmarking this post and Les’ comment for future reference.

    Just to respond to your concern that the heroine is being reactive rather than proactive, perhaps have her make the decision to return home. Either in an attempt to put the past behind her or because she needs something she can only get there. Or maybe because Josh has been asking to meet his grandmother. This way she knows she’s going to have to face some tough situations, but she’s showing strength in facing them.

  6. Janet Says:

    “It begins with a protagonist who has had her world profoundly altered via the inciting incident, which is just something that happens to her that creates and/or reveals the story problem to him or her.”

    I can never decide if the heroine needs to have a goal in place and have already started pursuing it before the story begins, or if it’s best to have her goal come out of the inciting incident.

  7. waitingforthecall Says:

    Hi Janet! I think it depends entirely on the situation. The hero pursuing his goal can be the inciting event for the heroine, and her goal then comes from her decision on how to deal with that. Or the heroine pursuing her goal provides the inciting incident in itself. Maisey’s first two accepted stories work like that- and the heroine comes across a very feisty and determined right from page 1. If the heroine doesn’t create the inciting incident, it seems to me that she needs to respond to it in a strong and decisive way. My problem is my heroine is reacting to other people’s actions all the way through. Plus she cries!   What are you writing now?

  8. Janet Says:

    Thank you, Jane–that’s a great help and has given me plenty to think about.

    I’m at the outlining stage at the moment-which is why I’m so interested in character goals 🙂 My planned opening falls into the category of the hero’s pursuit of his goal becoming the h’s inciting incident. She has no goal until then, she’s just doing her job and in a bit of a rut.

    But I’m wondering if the story would have more conflict if I gave her a goal (which she’s working towards) before the inciting incident. And then have the hero’s goal upset/clash with her plans.

  9. e.lee Says:

    read the Les Edgerton post- its so true that we think too much in
    polarities- good/bad, round/flat etc…

    Sometimes you can take dictation from your characters- just sit and write down what they tell you about what they’d or wouldn’t do in a given situation

  10. waitingforthecall Says:

    Thanks for visiting. Yes, I love the times when I feels like dictation! I think we need to know our characetrs really well for it to work like that. I thought that was what was happening in my first draft for thsi story, but I read it back and “Hmmm…”


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