One of the toughest sells–possibly the toughest sell–in the romance world is the unsympathetic heroine. By “unsympathetic” I don’t mean a heroine who lacks sympathy for the other characters–although she may. I’m referring to the literary definition of sympathetic: A sympathetic character is a fictional character in a story whom the writer expects the reader to identify with and care about, if not admire. (Wikipedia)
When I began work on The Demon Wore Stilettos, my upcoming novel about an author who sells her soul to Satan to make the New York Times bestseller list, I wanted to give her a possible way out, so I devised a clause in her deal with the devil that says if she performs an act of total altruism between the time she signs the contract and the day her soul falls due, she’s off the hook. (You will be unsurprised to learn that Hell has a very narrow definition of what constitutes altruism.)
This setup means the external plot arc is about Megan’s efforts to do something Hell deems perfectly selfless. Logically, this means her internal character arc is along learning to be less self-centered.
I was surprised to see a romantic vignette this morning on Japanese TV.
A cute young salaryman was getting coffee, when a rich woman spilled a cup of latte all over him. I came in just at the point when she said, “You have some time. Let me buy you a suit.”
The young man was shocked, but persuaded to go to the suit shop. She picked several for him to try on, and like a Ken doll, he dressed and submitted himself for review. “This is fine,” he said about the first one, not caring. She sent him back to the dressing room.
“I’m a little embarrassed; this is a bit flashy,” he said. He came out in a subtly striped suit with a definitely striped dress shirt and patterned tie combination – it worked, but was not conservative. “Next,” said the woman.
Today, I thought I’d flip that and talk about plot peeves–the things that annoy and frustrate me in stories.
(Hold onto your umbrellas, kids, cause I’ve got a lot of them.
No. 1. Failure to show the climactic moment. No, I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, calls the “obligatory scene,” the scene the author has spent 300+ pages making you anticipate and is therefore obliged to show you.
It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness. The best example I can think of is an episode from the show Elementary (Season 6, Episode 12) called “Meet Your Maker” where Holmes and Watson are asked to locate a missing woman who was a financial dominatrix. (Hard to explain. If you want to know, you’ll have to watch it.) After 40-ish minutes of various plot twists and surprises, they locate the missing woman, who has been kidnapped and forced to craft untraceable guns (because of her sideline as a toymaker). Unfortunately, by the time the show reached this point, all those twists and turns had eaten up all the show’s runtime. The writers chose to skip the “freeing the captive toymaker from the bad guys” scene and jumped to the denouement where everyone was congratulating each other. What the hell? Continue reading →
A couple of weeks ago we talked about a technique used in manufacturing problem-solving that can be adapted to fiction writing, the fishbone diagram.
Another Six Sigma technique that can be adapted for fiction-writing is Five Why’s. With this technique, the problem solver attempts to get to the root of the problem by asking “why?” five times in succession. This technique is used to avoid declaring victory before really drilling down to the fundamental issue.
Manufacturing situation: a customer rejects a print order because it’s flawed.
Why is it flawed? Because the press wasn’t set up properly.
Why wasn’t the press set up properly? Because the operator set it up wrong.
Why did the operator set it up wrong? Because he wasn’t properly trained.
Why wasn’t he properly trained? Because that part of the training program was discontinued.
Why was that part of the training discontinued? As a cost-saving measure.
If you stopped after your second “why?” you would assume the pressman was at fault, when in fact the root cause is a policy issue.
(Note: Five Why’s is particularly useful, in my experience, when you want to actually solve a problem, rather than just find someone to blame it on.)
In fiction writing, I find this technique really useful when I’m trying to dig down into my characters’ motivations. For example: Continue reading →
Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in romance–the physical torturing of characters–the heroines, in particular.
This may have always been the case and I just hadn’t noticed, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it because:
a) my imagination is vivid enough that it’s very unpleasant to read
b) Much like our bodies are constructed from what we eat, I think our psyches are constructed from what we ingest in the form of entertainment and
c) It’s lazy writing.
In my books, my characters undergo a fair amount of psychological torture (and some random, cartoonish physical torture if Satan’s feeling especially cranky) but I draw the line at detailed depictions of physical torture.
As I said, I just don’t like to read this kind of stuff. I also don’t watch movies with graphic violence. I saw the move Seven years ago and it took me weeks to stop flashing on the various gory scenes.
I’m a big fan of Dick Francis’s novels, especially the ones set in the world of horse racing, but one almost universal component of his books is that at some point the hero gets tortured. I always skipped those parts. Continue reading →
On Sunday, Jilly talked about the class we’re taking, Inside Out: Crafting Your Character’s Emotional Conflict, with award-winning author Linnea Sinclair.*
One of the things that makes me such a slow writer is because it generally takes me 100 or more painfully typed pages to know my characters well enough to understand what they’ll do in any given situation. Up to that point (and sometimes, as with my current WIP, even longer) I head off in wrong directions and follow blind alleys and generally wander in the wilderness while I get to know them.
It’s not an efficient process.
Now Ms. Sinclair has given me a tool to (I really hope) shortcut that painful process–the Enneagram (pronounced any-a-gram). According to the Integrative 9 website, the Enneagram is an archetypal framework that offers in-depth insight to individuals, groups and collectives. Put more simply, it’s a psychological test that categorizes people into 9 different groups based on personality/character factors. Continue reading →
Let’s talk about unlikeable protagonists. A few weeks ago, Jeanne did. I thought about what she said, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with her. Since then, I’ve seen Can You Ever Forgive Me?
For those of you who don’t go to the movies or haven’t seen this one yet, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the life of biographer Lee Israel, who reaches a dead end in her writing career after her agent rejects her latest project. Out of money and desperate to meet her rent and take her cat to the vet, the movie shows Israel first forging letters from famous, dead actors and writers and then stealing such letters from public libraries and research institutions and selling those, as well.
Movie-wise, I thought Melissa McCarthy did a terrific job playing Israel.
I’d really, really like to find a different form of address for the gentlewomen in my WIP, especially my heroine.
Lately I’ve been working on a sequence of set piece scenes toward the end of the book. The setting is a fantasy world, historical, before the invention of guns. Horses ‘n swords. Vaguely Tudor-ish, with a few creative liberties taken. The action takes place at the most important event in the city’s calendar. Everyone who’s anyone is present: royalty, aristocracy, military, and a lucky few gentlefolk. All the guests are addressed formally, even (especially!) when they’re hurling deadly insults at one another.
The problem is my heroine, Alexis Doe. She’s 25. Unmarried, but old enough to be a wife and mother. Of no acknowledged family (her name indicates she’s illegitimate), but invited as a guest of the Princess Dowager, scary and powerful grandmother of the Crown Prince. Alexis has no title, but her connections would carry a certain level of cachet and she would be addressed with respect. As far as I can see, she would be called Mistress Doe.
I did a fair amount of reading around, looking for possibilities, and I found a fascinating article describing research done by Dr Amy Erickson at the University of Cambridge (click here to read more about Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of titles).
This scene from Moonstruck packs a punch because we know these characters’ backstories.
In last week’s post, I nattered on about Lisa Cron’s message that backstory is the decoder ring for any story we write. This week, let’s take the discussion one step further. Let’s talk about putting some of that glorious backstory you’re creating into your current WIP.
Gasp! Egads! Not the Dreaded Backstory!
Before you go running for the exits, hear me (channeling Lisa) out. As the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius as well as a long-time writing coach and teacher, Lisa has researched lots of brain science to back up her theory that not only do we need to create our characters’ backstories for our own authorial edification, but also for reader enlightenment and, ultimately, bonding with our characters. Our brains use story to explore different aspects and possibilities of the wider world so we can learn lessons from those experiences without putting ourselves in harm’s way. (Lisa puts it much more elegantly in her books, and really, you should be reading her books!) And because our brains are incredibly efficient machines, they will use the same techniques to decipher fictional stories as they do real-life events.
Let’s think about that in the context of character for a minute. Think back to meeting someone important in your life, for example, your significant other or your best friend. Continue reading →
Portals of the Past, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco CA
Last week, when sharing some of the great wisdom imparted to me during the early November Writers Unboxed UnConference, I discussed the importance of theme as the heart of your book. This week, I’m going to discuss another essential element of your story: the decoder ring. Heart and a decoder ring. Makes sense, right? Er, perhaps I need to elaborate.
As Lisa Cron said many times during her workshops at the UnConference, when it comes to the story you are writing – the story your main character is telling – the character’s past is the decoder ring to the story. Quoting William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” OK, he wasn’t talking about your story or mine, in that case, but the famous line has been applied to the craft of writing by many writing teachers.
So how does this idea of the character’s past being part of the present-day story jibe with the admonition to stay in the now and not bog down your book with the dreaded backstory? Paraphrasing Lisa Cron, it’s not backstory that’s the problem; it’s poor usage of backstory. In fact, she argues, we not only want the pertinent parts of your characters’ backstories, we need them to understand who the characters are and why they react and behave the way they do. But how do you include backstory without throwing the reader (or the contest judge, in Jilly’s case) out of the story? Continue reading →