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Ask Your Characters: How To Develop Character-Driven Plot Points

So NaNoWriMo has come and gone again, and after a much deserved break (from writing, at least – I’m really behind in my list of submissions), I’m looking at rewriting my novel. It always seems that no matter how much I plot and plan, no matter how many outlines I create, I don’t discover the ‘real’ story until I’m done with my first draft.

Now, more informed about my characters and their world, I’m starting to create a second outline that’s almost unrecognizable from the one I had when at the beginning of NaNoWriMo. This time, I want to really make sure I put my characters through hell – all for the sake of the story, of course.

In her writing guide, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected, Jessica Page Morrell asks us, “What is the worst thing that can happen to your characters? There is your plot point.”

It’s a valid statement, but I’d like to qualify it a bit. After all, there are leagues and leagues of awful things that are way too outlandish for your story – Their entire family could be suddenly eaten by a school of flying hammerhead sharks, for example, or a distant cousin might go crazy and hold them hostage at gun point. Heck, a giant comet could hit the Earth (or whatever planet they’re on) and wipe out the entire population. These events would all be pretty traumatic to live through, but (probably) have nothing to do with your plot. At best, over-the-top, unrelated plot points like these are marks of an inexperienced writer; at worst, they’re just plain cop-outs.

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So let me amend Morrell’s statement : A plot point is the worst thing that can happen relative to the story and characters.

But what does that mean? It means that your characters’ desires, loves, and fears should drive and dictate your plot.

To really make your characters suffer (you’re starting to enjoy this a little, aren’t you?), you’ll need to know a few things about them first. Here are the questions I answered last night to help myself decide if my plot was sufficiently excruciating for my characters:

  • What does your character (think they) want the most, and why can’t they have it?

Let them think they’re going to have it, and then take it away from them. Make them work for it, suffer for it. Maybe they’ll achieve their goal in the end, but maybe they won’t. Certainly don’t make it easy on them.

Another way to think about this question is, what drives your character and acts as a catalyst for their actions?

  • Who/what do they love most?

Another way to think of this question is what does the character have to lose? It is your job to separate the character from this person/thing, or to put this person/thing in jeopardy.

Sometimes the character will realize how important this love is to them –they know what they have to lose. More often, they are so blinded by their desire for the thing named in question 1 that they don’t realize it until their love is taken away. Often, they lose the thing they love in pursuit of their desire.

  • What is their fatal character flaw?

First of all, every character has flaws. Flaws are what makes realistic, 3D characters. Flaws are what make our characters compelling.

Common flaws include things like pride, vanity, anger, lack of self-control, etc.

Often it’s this flaw that makes them pursue whatever it is they want in question 1, and they lose whatever they love in question 2 in that pursuit.

For example, in Hamlet, the title character wants revenge for his father’s murder. Thinking about it consumes him. Finally he loses his love, Ophelia, first to madness, than to death. If he hadn’t been so preoccupied in his schemes, he might have saved her.

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Often, it’s this character flaw that gets them into trouble in the first place, like the common man, whose CF is anger, who insults a king, and is forced to go on a dangerous quest in order to save his own life.

  •  What are they afraid of? What is their biggest fear?

List all their fears and phobias, from the psychological (example: fear of abandonment, fear of not being in control, etc), to the physical (afraid of bodily harm to themselves or a loved one), and finally, the trivial (spiders, snakes, etc.)

Make them face and overcome these fears as often as possible. Remember – Indiana Jones was more afraid of snakes than of death!

  • What is the best thing that could happen to them?

Never, under any circumstances, let this thing happen – at least not until the end of the story. And maybe not even then.

  • Relative to the above answers, what are the worst things that could happen to them? List (at least) five.

These are your plot points.

Not all of the above answers will play an equal role in the plot – it all depends on the specific story in question.

It’s also important to note that the answers to these questions might (and should) change throughout the story. The thief who wanted nothing more in Act 1 than to steal enough food to stay alive might realize in Act 2 that he’s the only one who can save the kingdom from an evil King. Characters’ priorities will shift, just like they do for real-life people. It’s important to re-assess these questions whenever you feel your protagonist (or antagonist) has undergone some character growth.

Answer the above questions for all your protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters. Make a note whenever one character’s interests conflict with another. Play up these conflicts in your writing.

I hope this post helped you choose compelling, character-driven plot points! So what tips and tricks do you have for plotting out your story? Let me know in the comments!

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So You Wanna Start a Blog: 7 Questions to Answer First

Have you always wanted to start a blog, but don’t know where to start? Here are seven questions you should answer before publishing your first post!

  1. Why do you want to start a blog?

Maybe you want to practice your writing or keep a daily log chronicling the events of your life. Maybe you’re a professional who wants to expand your customer base or connect with others in your field. Or maybe you think a blog will help you keep in touch with far-flung family members.

It’s important to know what you want out of your blog so you can have a clear idea from the start what the content of your blog will be. Which leads us to our second (and most important)  question…

  1. What will you blog about?

Many blogs feature content on an array of topics – think the Huffington Post. However, the fledgling blogger should consider choosing a general theme. A theme will help you build a reader base of people who are interested in the things you blog about. A blog with no theme confuses possible readers – think about it: a reader who’s drawn in by your post about delicious crock-pot recipes might be turned off of your blog if your next post is about how cute your cat looks dressed as a bumble bee.

If you’re planning on writing a web journal, or blogging specifically to stay in touch with friends and family, you, lucky person, don’t have to think very hard about your theme. Your theme is you.

You can blog about something you’re already an expert in, OR you can blog about something you don’t know much about, but want to chronicle your experiences with. People who blog about things they already know tend to be professionals who want to use their blog to grow their client base, or who want to share their knowledge with others. A good example of this is Holly Lisle’s writing blog – she posts free writing workshops in the hopes that people will like them and choose to buy her other workshops and books.

There is one cardinal rule for your content: write about topics you like, and not what you think others will like. Fill a need. If you lament the fact that there’s not a blog dedicated to Indo-Chinese crock pot recipes, well, why not start one yourself?

  1. How often will you post?

Once a day or once a month? It’s up to you to plan your blog around your schedule. A good rule of thumb is to post 1-3 times a week – more often and people will start skipping over your posts (not good!); less often and people will forget about your blog altogether (even worse!).

Try to write content that is timeless so that older posts will continue draw people in. For example, a post about building fictional characters is more timeless than a post about Kim Kardashian’s butt – In a year, no one is going to care about how big her posterior is, and that post will no longer draw in new readers. Writers will always be searching for articles about fictional character building, meaning that post could still be attracting new (and possibly loyal) readers to your site five years from now.

  1. Who’s your target audience?

Are they your family? Are they professionals? How old are they? What are their interests? Are they male, female, or both?

It’s good to know the answers to these questions, so you can tailor your content, graphics, and language to your prospective readers.

  1. What will you name your blog?

Your blog name should be catchy, easy to spell, and as short as possible. It should also convey your blog’s theme. No one will visit your heavy metal blog if you name it kittensnthings.

If your main purpose in blogging is to promote your personal brand – if you’re a writer or performer, say – then your best bet is to use your name.

It’s also important to check to make sure your blog URL won’t accidentally spell something unintended. We have to take some wisdom from the (real life) pen salesman who thought buying the domain penisland.net was an awesome idea.

  1. Where will you host your blog?

The first thing to decide is, do you want to pay money for your own domain name, or have a free blog hosted on a website like WordPress.com or Blogspot?

I recommend that new bloggers begin with a free blog, so they can decide if they even like blogging before shelling out possibly hundreds of dollars for a domain they might end up not using. Because of this, I’m going to focus mainly on free blogs. I will say that buying your own domain does give you more control over your blog’s layout and URL. If you already have a built-in audience for your blog (Like if you’re a successful writer or performer, for example), it might be worthwhile for you to spring for a domain name.

I use wordpress.com, and I highly recommend it. Other popular blog hosting sites are blogspot.com and livejournal.com. The best part of starting out free is you have the option of upgrading later after your site has taken off – and you don’t have to worry about transferring your content or installing the WordPress software into your domain, like you would otherwise.

  1. What blogs will be in your network?

It’s important to have a list of blogs that you like that cover topics similar to yours. Comment on their posts. When you start posting yourself, give credit to blog posts that inspired you and link to blogs that support what you’re trying to say. If you really, really like a post by another blogger, you might even consider ‘reblogging’ it (posting it to your site saying where you got it) – with their permission, of course!

Not only is this good blogging etiquette, but they might one day link back to your blog, or turn their readers onto your site. WordPress has special software that notifies a blogger when another WordPress blogger has linked to one of their posts (It’s still a good idea to leave a comment saying you did so, though, with a link back to the relevant post.)

So, there you have it – there are my seven questions you need to answer before starting a blog. Have a question you’d like to add? Tell me in the comments!

 

NaNoPreMo: Useful Prewriting Resources

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These past few weeks, I’ve been searching for worksheets to include in the ‘Survival Kits’ I’ll be handing out at my library’s Write-ins. I’ve found so many amazing resources, and a lot of them are focused on plotting and prewriting. All of my write-ins will be taking place in November, when the time for prewriting has come and gone. So I thought I’d share my favorites here. Enjoy!

Young Writers’ Program Workbooks

These 89-page workbooks, which can be downloaded free (hard copies are available for purchase), may be geared towards teens and adolescents, but they’re valuable to the more mature novelist, as well. They cover everything from characterization to plot to making sure you write a book you’d actually enjoy reading yourself. Going through this entire workbook will ensure that you have something to write come November 1st.

Lori Writer’s ‘Fun and Useful NaNoWriMo’ Resources

From a link to a monthly NaNoWriMo comic to plot generators (useful for those who have absolutely no idea what to write about), LW has assembled an admirable list of six links that will help you prepare for your Novel Writing Adventure.

Writer’s Cheatsheet

Help with every novelling problem you can imagine literally crammed onto one double-sided printout.

How to Create a Book that Will Keep Readers Reading

A list of questions to answer while plotting your novel.

Genre Clichés to Avoid

Head over to Writing While the Rice Boils  (which has so many resources for writers, I highly recommend it) for this amazing list of clichés to avoid. There’s something there for every genre (I scrutinized the horror lists carefully), so check it out!

List of Writing Downloads

So many goodies here, from plot worksheets to lists of word ninjas. Very, Very useful.

Don't be like Jack. The #1 remedy for writer's block is knowing what you're going write beforehand.
Don’t be like Jack. The #1 remedy for writer’s block is knowing what you’re going write beforehand.

Thanks to all the blogs I borrowed these resources from: Writing While the Rice Boils, kkitts.net, Adventures In YA Publishing, Writerscheatsheet.comLori Writer, and The Young Writer’s Program . If you like what you’ve seen, visit their sites and give them some love! And feel free to add me as a writing NaNoWriMo Buddy here!

So what about you? Do you have any awesome prewriting resources hidden up your sleeve? Let us know in the comments. I’ll add them to the above list, and credit you!

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