Characters Done Right: Rock and a Hard Place

For my twin post today with Rachel from Undivinelight, we’re looking at protagonists we love. Let me say, first, that this was a tough one for me. There are so many characters that I love for any number of reasons. I love Harry Potter. I love Katniss Everdeen. I love Artemis Fowl and Jackie Faber and so many others that I don’t think I could ever name them all, let alone try to rank them. But my greatest literary love has to be Keladry of Mindelan from Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet.

The thing about Kel–and the way that Pierce writes her–is this: she has to make hard choices. Several times throughout the books, the thing that Kel wants most (to win her shield; to be respected; to help in the fighting; to protect the people she cares about) is placed diametrically opposed to her morals and her sense of duty. To get one, she has to go against the other.

And, to Pierce’s credit, Kel honestly struggles with her decisions. For example, when her maid is kidnapped, Kel knows that it’s her responsibility as a noble to rescue her. But doing so means that she’ll miss her examinations, and that all the years of work she’s put in up to this point will be moot. But Lalasa needs her, so she does what she has to.

What makes this successful to me is that, even though it’s hard–both for Kel and for the reader–to see her push her dream aside, that inner conflict breathes life into the story. It makes Kel nuanced and complex. And it’s that tension, those rock and a hard place decisions, that make me love this series so much.

Query Letters #5: The Pitch- Catch

Okay, now for the final piece of the query pitch puzzle. This next bit is what I call the catch. Put simply, the catch is one to three sentences that tell the reader what’s at stake for the protagonist, both the physical and the emotional. What I mean by this is twofold.

First of all, what does the character stand to lose? What happens if they fail whatever they’ve set out to do? Do they lose a competition? Will a lot of people get hurt? Simple enough, right?

The second part is a little more complicated. External tension is good, but a dynamic story also has internal tension for the main character, competing wants or needs. What emotional turmoil will the character have to go through to complete their goal? Does winning the competition mean losing their best friend? Does chasing their dreams mean disappointing their parents? Have they vowed to never take another life but find themselves in a kill-or-be-killed situation?

Let’s have a look at our two example pitches and how they did it.

STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother messing things up. Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl. Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.

I really like this example especially because the catch is so understated. It’s just that one sentence, twelve words. Wayne challenges Diggy’s view of family and his priorities. At some point in the story, he’s going to have to square that.

THE MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame. When a failed mission lands Kyra in the Palace dungeons, she faces an impossible decision. If she cooperates with the authorities against the Guild, James will kill her family, but if Kyra does nothing, she’ll see Forge overrun by Demon Riders. As the city falls into chaos, Kyra uncovers a secret from her past – a forgotten link to the barbarian invaders that will test Kyra’s loyalties and ultimately challenge the limits of her humanity.

This one is buried in there a little bit, but I like it because it combines the physical and the emotional catch. Her loyalty to the guild and the safety of her family are placed at opposition, and Kyra then has to make a difficult choice.

Now you try! What physical and emotional stakes are there for your characters?

Seasons of Words

I meant to put this up on Thursday before I went out of town, buuut I didn’t quite have as much time as I thought. For my (belated) twin post with Rachel from undivinelight, I’m talking about seasons. Specifically which season I most enjoy setting my stories in.

Like Rachel, thematically I like the idea of setting a story in times of transition, especially from one season to another. Or the main times of change, autumn and spring themselves. I find I don’t always actually do that, though. Despite how beautiful I find those times, or how well they’d work on a meta level, almost every story I’ve ever made a concentrated attempt at starts in the winter.

I honestly have no idea why this is. I hate winter. I hate the cold. And there’s only so many ways to describe the beautifully glistening frost or the dreary gray slush before it starts to get old. My best guess is that I gravitate toward that season because it adds an extra conflict for the characters. Two of my three stories deal extensively with travel and put the protagonists in situations where they’ll have to fend for themselves outdoors and forage for food and shelter. So setting they have the added external struggle just to get by. The third has a very ill protagonist whose already frail health declines further in the cold.

Query Letters #4: The Pitch – Conflict

The next part of the pitch is the conflict, essential in a strong query. These next two to four sentences are kind of tricky. This is the part of the pitch that sets up what, exactly, your protagonist is going to be fighting for or against or trying to accomplish.

Try to be as specific to your story as possible; these are the things that are going to provide the meat of the novel. This is the part that separates Harry Potter from Star Wars from Eragon. On the surface, they’re all about orphans growing up to stop a tyrant. But Eragon never had to deal with a mysterious substance that could turn the drinker immortal, and Harry Potter’s misadventures at Hogwarts never involved a superweapon capable of destroying entire worlds.

Here’s a look at how the people we’ve been following did it:

STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother messing things up. Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl.

THE MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame.

What about your novel? In two to four sentences, what in specific does your protagonist have to struggle against? What are they trying to accomplish, and what’s in the way?

Five Things: I Love in a Romance

I’m a sucker for a good romance in my reading and writing. Unfortunately, I’m also a bit picky about exactly what constitutes “good.” So, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are the top five things I like to see if my fictional relationships!

  1. Respect. I know, it seems obvious, but especially in YA (which is most of what I like to read and write) there’s been a rash of love interests that treat the protagonist in… less than respectful terms, often being rude, overbearing, or even blatantly abusive. I very much prefer my romances with a heavy helping of respect for the other’s wishes, their dreams, their autonomy, even if they don’t always get along. Heck, even if it’s grudgingly given. Especially when the author is using–
  2. A slow build. Maybe it’s my own life experience bleeding in, or maybe it’s that a long line of insta-love stories have left a bad taste in my mouth, but I like my romances to start lukewarm and grow to be something more through the course of the story. Maybe they start off as friends, co-workers, strangers, rivals, but in any case, if the romance is an important part of the story, I want it to feel like a journey, like they’re growing and changing. Especially if the protagonist is young.
  3. Distinct personalities. I don’t like my romantic pairings to read like they’re the same person, just split in two. I don’t particularly enjoy it when characters are treated like a unit, as if being married or engaged or even just having casual sex means that they’ve lost their right to be their own person. I’ve seen it happen entirely too many times that an otherwise interesting character becomes completely bland as soon as they enter a relationship. Or that a character’s sole defining feature is who they go to bed with. That’s why a lot of my favorite stories are the ones that feature characters who retain their quirks and their own separate ideals and goals even after landing the man or woman of their dreams. This goes hand in hand with–
  4. Disagreements. Yes, even big ones. It lends a sense of realism to their relationship. No matter how strong the pairing, people fight. It happens. It’s part of being alive and part of being in love. It provides tension and makes the story more interesting to follow, especially if it’s not just the romantic interests but the entire cast. No two characters should ever be in complete agreement 100% of the time. It’s seeing the characters work through the bad times that makes me believe in the good, makes me feel like they’ve earned it.
  5. CONSENT. Nothing ruins a book faster for me than consent being overridden or ignored. I don’t care if it’s supposed to be edgy or even if the writer thinks it’s sweet. There’s nothing romantic to me about sneaking a kiss while your love interest is asleep unless they’re already in a committed, consensual relationship.I enjoy it when characters talk about their boundaries; I enjoy it when those boundaries are tested but not crossed. Not just in the bedroom, but also when it comes to other physical or social boundaries. If character A had a rough childhood and doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s creepy for me if B goes and rifles through their things, looking for old diaries. This goes back to the point about respect. If there is none, to me it’s not a romance.

I suppose most of these points would actually fit for almost any relationship, not just the romantic ones. But the added dimensions that they bring to a fictional romance make it feel more alive to me. In the end, anything that brings that sort of warmth and realism to the page is a win for me!

Be sure to also check out my sister-blog, written by Rachel Serbicki!

Query Letters #3: The Pitch – Catalyst

Last time, I talked about character, who your protagonist is at the start of the story and the world they live in. Now, though, the pitch has to address the catalyst.

Superstar agent Kristin Nelson defines the catalyst as the one single plot event that sets the rest of the story in motion. This is the thing that breaks your main character’s status quo and lets everything else unfold. Every novel has one, though some are easier to find than others.

The Hunger Games really begins with Katniss’s sister Prim being selected as tribute. This prompts Katniss to volunteer in her place. Harry Potter starts when his parents are murdered (you could probably make an argument for other events, too, but looking specifically at the events of book one, this fits). Divergent begins when Tris’s tests come back abnormal.

So, how do you clearly communicate your catalyst in your pitch? Here’s how the couple of authors we’ve been looking at did it:

For STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother messing things up.

For THE MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes.
Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.

In both cases, the protagonist’s life changes when someone new enters the picture and shakes things up. Your catalyst doesn’t have to be the introduction of a new person. It could be a death, the arrival of a letter, the outbreak of a war. In one to two sentences, what happens to shake your protagonist’s world and get the story rolling?

Five Things: That Stall My Writing

Even with as much as I love writing, both the process and the end result, sometimes the going gets a little rocky. Try though I may, there are some things that can knock me off the course of a story, both within the narrative and outside of it.

 

  1. Reading. For all that reading is my inspiration fuel, sometimes it has the exact opposite effect. A good book might take a pin to my self-esteem (more on that in a minute) or else get me so drawn into the world the author created that I lose interest in my own and fixate on theirs. When this happens, usually the only way that I can pull myself out of it is to remind myself what I love about my current project, to try to make it shiny and exciting again.
  2. Feeling lost. Sometimes an unforeseen plot problem or lack of direction sends me flailing at the page. It’s usually a thing that I can work through if I glue myself to my chair and keep putting one word after another. It’s a trudge to do, but in general I can drag myself along until I get my footing again. I usually end up cutting all of the writing that I do this way, but at least it gets me to where I need to be to keep on.
  3. Not having time/being tired. I know I’m guilty of coming home from work, being tired, and going, “Nope, not writing tonight.” Sometimes I really just do not have the spoons to deal with the day I’ve had, or I legitimately have too much going on in my day to carve out time to write. But even when I can’t actively make time to sit down and put words on the screen, I try to at least do something pertaining to the story. Maybe I look up a new resource link or try to puzzle out what needs to happen in the next scene. Just something small that will keep my brain on the work that needs done instead of shifting it completely to the back burner.
  4. Getting bitten by a new project. There are few things that will lure me away from a draft in progress quicker than getting an idea for something new and shiny. My brain always tries to convince me that it would be more fun/more salable/easier than what I’m currently doing, so why not change directions? Just for a minute? It won’t take long, just a month or two, and the old draft will be just where I left it. It’s a constant fight, but it’s usually one that I can win if I just doggedly drag my way through my current draft. Eventually I fall in love with it again, and the shine wears off of the interloper.
  5. Self-doubt. Very little will cripple me faster. I look at a story, and all I see are the flaws and the time I’ve wasted trying to fix them. Anything I try inevitably makes it worse, because obviously nothing I’m doing is worth going to fix the trash I’ve written and I’d better just quit now. There’s… actually very little that can pull me out of the hate-everything spiral. It usually takes some time and distance and some helpful encouragement from my writing friends and my wife. After that, I can usually come back with a clear head and more objective view.

 

Be sure to also read the sister post by Rachel Serbicki at her blog!

Query Letters #2: The Pitch – Character

I tend to think of pitches in what I call the four Cs: character; catalyst; conflict, and the catch. I tend to treat each part as its own mini-paragraph (remember what I said about breaking things into small bits of two to three sentences? This is where we’ll start to put that into practice).

Part one of the pitch: character. This one is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin—-a few sentences to introduce the reader to your protagonist, their voice, and their world. You want to set up the sort of story that the reader can expect and the kind of personality your character has.

For example, the first paragraph of Rebecca Petruck’s query for STEERING TOWARD NORMAL reads:

Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.

What do these three sentences tell you about the story? It’s probably contemporary (she mentions high school) and set in a rural area (farmers, steers, tractors, the use of ‘Pop’ for his dad). Diggy himself seems to be easy-going (he’s content; he daydreams). He may be shy and a little withdrawn (he used to be teased, and there’s no mention of close friends, just the girl he likes from afar).

To look at another, here’s the opening of Livia Blackburne’s query for THE MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes.

In just these two sentences Livia sets up her character and her world. Kyra’s a thief, brazen, unapologetic, and probably rather arrogant when it comes to her skills (locked doors are an invitation; she chooses the most well-guarded homes). This is probably a fantasy story (the town’s name is Forge), and though no indication is given yet for the age group it may be meant for, the voice sounds like it would lean toward Young Adult.

Now you try. In just two to three sentences, introduce me to your character and your world. Don’t worry about wordcount just yet; we’ll trim it down to size later.

Happy writing!