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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It’s All About the Characters

Please welcome guest blogger Susan Meier

Next month I’ll be giving one of my favorite, most popular workshops, JOURNEY STEPS, TAKING THE TRAIN TO SOMEWHERE. This workshop thoroughly deals with plotting. Just between us, I give away some of my best secrets for coming up with interesting, fun, innovative twists, turns and back story, as well as some great ideas for just plain making sure you have “enough” story!

The implicit thread that runs through the workshop, though, is that everything that has to do with plot always relates back to character.

What do I mean?

Simply put, characters take the steps that become the “journey” that is your plot. And there are two things that impact those steps. First, the beliefs they’ve created in their pasts will guide decisions they make. Second, every step your character takes has to be properly motivated.

So even though you think plotting is all about action, maybe external conflict or situations…the truth is…all those steps are really about the people who are taking them.

Let’s borrow some info from my workshop MAMA ALWAYS LIKED YOU BETTER THAN ME…Mining your characters’ pasts to find a real conflict.

Just as your characters need friends and family, jobs and neighbors, because no one lives in a vacuum, they also can’t be “hatched” in scene one of your book. They were babies, children and teenagers before they became adults. They’ve had successes and failures. These successes and failures produced core beliefs – beliefs about themselves, other people and life in general – that ultimately become a ‘shorthand’ for decision making.

For example…

When you turned twenty-one, if you went out with your friends and got extremely drunk and had a hangover the next morning, nine chances out of ten you formed some core beliefs about drinking alcohol. One of them might have even been it’s not worth a hangover to drink. So when you go to a bar or out to dinner with friends, you don’t have to pause and ponder…Hum…should I have a drink or should I get a cola? Your subconscious does not want to have another hangover and you order the cola. You don’t have to think it through. You simply order.

The same is true with your characters. Things that have happened to them in the past have created core beliefs designed to avoid pain or gain pleasure. If a hero has always had bad luck dating rich girls, he’ll probably stay away from them. If a heroine was left at the altar by a playboy, (as mine was in MILLIONAIRE DAD, NANNY NEEDED) you can bet your bottom dollar she’s not going to want to date a playboy. Which means, if one strolls into her life, no matter how good looking or sweet, she’s going to be wary.

Some core beliefs come from comparisons. Things your characters see happening in the lives of their friends will also cause them to form beliefs. If the hero’s parents had a terrible marriage, he may form the belief that marriage is bad, or a trap, or for fools.

Your characters’ beliefs should be formed the same way.

The bottom line is there’s always a reason for everything your character believes. Especially for the belief that forms the basis of the internal conflict because the internal conflict is what drives the plot.

No one decides to spend his or her life without companionship without a good, solid reason. Yet most of us create heroes who don’t want anything to do with the lovely heroines thrown in their paths. There has to be a reason he’s made this choice. Otherwise, if he growls at our lovely heroine for no reason, readers begin to form some unhappy beliefs about him – like he’s a grouch! Or not attractive. Or not appealing.

Think it through…

If you’ve created a hero in his thirties, who has never married, he’s got to be the unluckiest guy in the world – never to have met a girl he wanted to marry – or he’s got a core belief that prevents him from marrying. And there’s a reason for that core belief. He might have been hurt. His dad could have been unfaithful – making him wonder about himself. He might have seen three or four awful marriages of his friends. Or maybe he just plain thinks being single is fun – but why? Did somebody show him marriage wasn’t fun? Does he see it as a trap? Even if he’s having such a good time that he doesn’t want the party to end – that means he sees marriage as the end of the party! LOL What makes him believe that?

Creating characters strong enough or tortured enough or in desperate need enough to drive an entire plot isn’t just a matter of knowing who their first grade teachers were or what they like or breakfast. It’s more a matter of knowing what happened to them, what situations “formed” the belief systems that made them the people they are on page one of your book, and how will those systems work or fail when faced with both the terrible trouble and the hero or heroine!

So don’t just create a light, cute sketch of a past for your characters. Dig deep. Give your characters pasts that will give you fodder for your plot!

Susan Meier is the author of 40 books for Harlequin and Silhouette and one of Guideposts' Grace Chapel Inn series books, The Kindness of Strangers. Her books have been finalists for Reviewers Choice Awards, National Reader's Choice Awards and Cataromance.com Reviewer's Choice Awards and nominated for Romantic Times awards. They have been published in over twenty countries, touching the hearts of readers of many cultures and ethnicities.

Susan loves to teach as much as she loves to write. Journey Steps, Taking the Train to Somewhere! is one of her most requested workshops. Her article “How to Write a Category Romance” appeared in 2003 Writer’s Digest Novel and Short Story Markets. Susan also gives online workshops for various groups and her articles regularly appear in RWA chapter newsletters.

Her newest release is MAID IN MONTANA, Harlequin Romance (June 2009. Her next release, just in time for Christmas is: THE MAGIC OF A FAMILY CHRISTMAS, Harlequin Romance coming November 2009.

With her little foster son Harry to care for, Christmas suddenly sparkles again for secretary Wendy Winston. The only fly in the ointment is Cullen Barrington. He's her boss, yet insists on playing the part of Scrooge. When they are stranded together in an ice storm, Wendy sets about showing them just how magical a family Christmas can be.

Journey Steps, Taking the Train to Somewhere runs April 5, 2010 through May 2, 2010


Lisa Kessler said...

Great blog!!! :)

As a reader I hate it when characters make decisions that are more plot points because they're not supported by the character's past.

It's very important to know "why" they're the way they are and how they're going to change by the end of the book... :)

Thanks for sharing!

Lisa :)

Susan said...

Thanks, Lisa!

That's one of the reasons I knew I had to work out a system that would prevent me from making that mistake!

Or a system that would allow to easily direct a story!