Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 3: Character Above All Else

justine covington, eight ladies writing, chuck wendig, terriblemindsTwo weeks ago, I introduced the five common mistakes writers make in their first few pages, which Chuck Wendig originally posted on his blog, terribleminds. He identified these mistakes after critiquing several writers’ WIPs while at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference. I then applied #1: The First Page is Vital  and #2: You’re Totally Overwriting to my WIP.

This week is #3: Character Above All Else.

Your characters are the most vital thing to your story. Without them, you have no story. Yes, plot is important…so is show-don’t-tell, not headhopping, and lots of other things. But none of that technical stuff is worth anything if your reader doesn’t love your characters from the get-go.

In his post, Chuck said, “Your story must connect us to character immediately.” Not in 10 pages. Or even 5. Like, immediately. Page ONE. We should be tethered to them right away. Readers want to CARE about the characters; they want to feel an emotional connection — even feel the emotion — of the characters. As Chuck says, “Hit me in my heartbucket.”

So how does one do that? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about since I first read Chuck’s post. I’ve actually been dreading this week, because things like not overwriting and hooking the reader on the first page seem a bit easier to figure out, but there’s a lot of je ne sais quoi when it comes to characters. What might appeal to one person might not appeal to another. What IS it that connects us to a character?

Some ideas I’ve had include showing a character’s weakness or strength, creating mystery, or presenting the character with a challenge. However, this is merely a technical approach to characters on the first page and decidedly not the full sum of what we must include.

Ideas aside, I tried to embrace what Chuck said and create connection between my character and the reader.

Here’s where I left off in Week 1, after my first revision of my first page:

Susannah stood in what used to be her father’s study, her heart racing. Gone were the intricately carved bookcases and her father’s beloved book collection. In its place was an assortment of stuffed animals, fierce-looking creatures with teeth bared and claws out. However, it wasn’t the changes to the study that made her heart race. It was the long, white gown on the dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the room.

Susannah stared at the dress, offering up silent prayers that it was for a ball, then turned to her uncle and guardian, Jackson Humphries.

     “What is this? A welcome-home gift?” She laughed nervously.

     “Of sorts.” He smiled, but his gray eyes glinted steel. “You’ll wear it three weeks hence.”

The blood drained from Susannah’s face and she had to grab onto the back of a nearby chair for support. White dress. Three weeks. Oh my Lord, he’s marrying me off.

What does this scene reveal about Susannah? What is there to draw the reader in? Not much. She’s anxious because she realizes her uncle is going to marry her off. But where’s the connection? Why should the reader care? I don’t have anything in this first page that reveals Susannah’s soul, and I don’t think the reader will be drawn in if we do not bare our character’s souls to the world. They are “real” people in our little story worlds. We should imagine that they have the same fears, desires, loves, and dislikes that we do. We have to think of them as complex individuals and write them that way, not as tropes to be splattered upon the page.

So, taking all of that into account, here’s my revision:

Susannah stood, speechless, in what used to be her father’s study. Out of habit, she fingered the small, gold watch she wore to remember her mother, but it was thoughts of her father that caused her stomach to clench. Gone were the intricately carved bookcases and her father’s beloved book collection. In its place was an assortment of animals, fierce-looking creatures that had been shot and stuffed, with teeth bared and claws out.

The changes to the study, however jarring, were not what left Susannah without words. It was the long, white gown on the dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the room. Susannah stared at the dress and tried to breathe despite the heavy weight that pressed against her chest. She offered up a silent prayer that it was for a ball, then turned to her uncle and guardian, Jackson Humphries.

     “What is this? A welcome-home gift?” A small, strangled laugh escaped her throat.

     “Of sorts.” He smiled, but his gray eyes glinted steel. “You’ll wear it three weeks hence.”

The blood drained from Susannah’s face and she had to grab onto the back of a nearby chair for support. White dress. Three weeks. Oh my Lord, he’s marrying me off.

A scant second later, another thought, much more firm and resolute, filled Susannah’s head. Cheeks burning, she released the chair, squared her shoulders, and returned her uncle’s gaze measure for measure. In a strong, unwavering voice, Susannah issued a two-word challenge.

“Make me.”

I think what I’ve done is an improvement (feel free to disagree). In my honest opinion, I think the last paragraph is what gives us a measure of Susannah’s character. Yes, her uncle is planning to marry her off, but she stands up to him and says, “Make me.” The rest of the intro shows Susannah reacting, rather than acting, as one would expect were they put on-the-spot as she was. But it’s her challenge that I think (hope!) makes the reader invested in her.

To recap:

  • Connect the reader to your character immediately
  • Make the reader care
  • You have to do this on page one, not page five or ten
  • Help the reader connect emotionally to your character, ASAP
  • “Hit me in my heartbucket.”

What ideas do you have to help your readers connect to your characters?

7 thoughts on “Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 3: Character Above All Else

  1. I love the “make me”! Outstanding!

    I’m so lame, though. How do I know when to put some emotion on the page? When my critique partners wave their arms around and say, “Put some emotion on the page!”

  2. Oh, that “Make me!” was a surprise! Can’t wait to see more!

    I agree with Kay that “emotions on the page” is tough. In tight third or first person POVs, the character almost has to stop still in order to take stock of what s/he is feeling and get those emotions on the page. In a go-go-go action book, I think the character often has to hide those feelings in order to do what needs to get done. Perhaps the character doesn’t even know his/her own feelings. But the writer has to know them, and let them show through in tics or tells, I guess.

    This whole scene is a real gut-punch to Susannah, and it’s got emotion on the page. I particularly like how you show her parents are dead without saying, “Oh, oh, woe! I am a poor little orphan, pounded down by the world!” I hate that in a book. Susannah has woe, but she doesn’t wallow in it — and in just a few paragraphs, you show she’s not pounded down, either. She’s just begun to fight!

    • So here’s the funny thing…after I wrote this, I tried to fit it into my current first scene and I basically concluded that I have to rewrite the entire thing. Still, if it makes it tighter, gets emotion on the page, etc., then I’m all for it.

      I completely agree with you re: having to take an “action” break in order to analyze feelings (er, get emotion on the page). This is why I don’t think I could ever write first person. It’s too close. I’m having a hard enough time with close 3rd!

  3. ‘Hit me in my heartbucket.’ Exactly, and so hard to do.

    Like Kay and Michaeline, I iove the sentiment of ‘Make me,” but the actual words strike me as too contemporary. However feisty and free-spirited S is, she’s a lady and I think she’d use more formal language to tell uncle to take a hike.

    What I get of S’s character from the scene: she is smart, strong and bold – she figures out what uncle’s up to in the blink of an eye, decides she’s not going to play along, and takes immediate action. I like her! It sets up an expectation in me that she’s going to be direct and confrontational for the rest of the book, which would work perfectly as a foil for uncle and Nate, both of whom are spies, deep and subtle.

    In terms of ‘make me care,’ the first version worked better for me, because the POV is closer so I felt more directly connected to S. ‘Out of habit, she fingered the small, gold watch she wore to remember her mother,’ sounds as though someone is telling S’s story, which feels more distant.

    I love S’s mother’s watch – as Michaeline said, it’s a great way to show that she’s an orphan without her indulging in any ‘woe is me’ behavior. I think you could make even more of it – instead of it being a habit and a memento, it could be the talisman she reaches for to comfort and reassure herself in a moment of extreme stress. That would make me care about her more. And as a bonus, S reaching for her mother’s watch becomes a very personal ‘tell’ that you can use again later in the book and the reader will remember.

    Connecting to the character immedaitely – I think I’d do this even more strongly if S had a goal when she went into that meeting with uncle (maybe that now she has the chance to find out why he dragged her home). She’s making mental notes and waiting to see what uncle does, so I’m waiting to see what she does. When she reacts to uncle (powerfully, which is perfect), then I’m with her.

    Sorry this comment is so long. I went for a haircut this morning and spent most of the time thinking about your post. Thank you! 🙂

    • Jilly, you’re right on so many counts. The language of “make me” is wrong (I struggled with that for awhile then just gave up), the watch should be a talisman. Susannah does have a goal going into the meeting (prior to “avoiding marriage,” which is a negative goal), I just need to figure out how to get it in there. As I said up above, the entire first scene needs to be rewritten now. Still, I’m glad there’s a bit more punch to this one. Thanks for your feedback, it’s always welcome!

      • I love the idea of the watch. I had a mental image of gentlemen with fob watches tucked into pockets with chains dangling, but I never thought of Regency ladies carrying a watch until I read your scene. I was intrigued so I googled it. Wow. Those things were beautiful, and great way to show that she’s an heiress and her mother was loaded.

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