Tag Archives: character development

Creating Suspense and Sustaining Tension, Part 1

At the wonderful Creative Ink writing festival I sat on panels on creating tension and suspense.  I have been thinking ever since about ways to accomplish these.  And, from the point of view of time management for writers, if we can create suspense and sustain tension as we plot and draft, then we save a crazy amount of hours on revisions.

First, it’s worth taking the time to develop a protagonist the reader will care deeply about. We’ve heard of the Monkeysphere — the theory that humans can only keep a certain number of people close to their hearts.  Along with family members and friends, we appear to have  room for fictional characters as well. Right, Netflix?

To develop engaging characters, it’s worth taking the time to list flaws and balancing strengths.  I see so many flawed protagonists in our subs box, but few of them achieve the balance that helps the reader take them to their hearts. Balance involves developing

  • inner and outer longings.
  • kindnesses and sacrifices.
  • falls and redemptions.

Look at the extraordinarily flawed and engaging Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  She’s not all flaws; in fact, her ferocious loyalty, physical strength, and world-beating intellect balance all the imperfections that make us love her.  Looking at my submissions inbox, it seems that there’s a lot of great work on developing flaws in characters, but not much attention to the strengths, as if somehow strengths were old-fashioned.

Once we create that engaging character, half our work in sustaining tension is done for us as the readers bring their own anxiety for the protagonist to the page.  The stakes, depending on our genre, may be survival, love and belonging, power, or freedom. These same stakes resonate with us all, through a character readers can believe in and take for our own.

I hope you’ll have another brilliant writing week.  Cheers, Mel.

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Character Growth and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

We’ve been reading a lot of story submissions and contest entries at Pulp Literature this past week. You writers are doing so many things well.

detaildragon'seggsAgain and again I see examples of strength in developing characters, and one of the ways you’re doing it is setting up the character for growth by establishing flaws and problems at the start. And, as a counterpoint to this, showing us hints of the hero’s inner strength and goodness at the same time. Continue reading Character Growth and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Crafting Supporting Characters: Robert Sawyer and GRR Martin Show How It’s Done

I’m a great admirer of authors who make exceptional use of supporting characters.  A cast of extras is fun to write, of course.  And supporting characters can say with charm, or the complete lack of it, what the character wouldn’t.  But their magic goes deeper than that. Here are three steps farther than snappy dialogue…Sawyer cropped

1. We should hear a supporting character state the theme of the story early on, as in Robert Sawyer’s brilliant “Fallen Angel”, where the father tells his daughter Angela that there was nothing to fear. “We’ll be so high up we’ll catch God’s eye.’’ But she does fear, and the story turns on her fear and what she does because of it.

2.  Supporting characters force the protagonist to show the readers his heroic qualities in contrast with their less heroic aspects. They make sure we don’t miss the hero’s flaws, either. Take a look at the many Brothers who have taken the Black on the Wall in Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Their leader Jon Snow is so remarkably steadfast and true that it takes an army of supporting characters to bring out his weaknesses.

3. Supporting characters at their best force the protagonist – and antagonist – to make choices they would not have faced on their own, no matter how stubborn or brave they might be.  I was just re-reading (for about the fiftieth time since I got it in my stocking at fourteen) Bel Kaufman’s amazing Up the Down Staircase. There’s not a character in there that doesn’t force young teacher Sylvia Barrett to make agonizing choices.  That’s pretty rare craft in a book told through notes, letters, memos, and scribbles on the backboard.

What can your supporting characters do for your protagonist?

 Robert Sawyer. Fallen Angel. Pulp Literature Press, Issue 7. Vancouver, 2014.

GRR Martin. A Game of Thrones. Bantam, 1996.

Bel Kaufman. Up the Down Staircase. Avon Books, New York. 1964.small singer copy

 

 

Standoffs and Battle Scenes: Thanks for the Tip, Rob Edwards

“Standoffs keep the story going”. –Rob Edwards

Mind you, I do love a good fight. Battles in books are supreme acts of creative imagination.  The best are exquisitely described and as gripping as a hand around my throat.  When they’re over, satisfied and smiling as long as the hero won, I put the book down.  I think, Wow.

By contrast, standoffs offer your main character a chance at multiple dilemmas, so that he or she is not choosing between a paltry two options. Yes-or-no has its place, but if used continually binary storytelling makes me want to throw the book across the room.  With standoffs, you don’t simply have have fight-or-retreat.  As Donald Maas* explained in an excellent workshop, a stand-off can make your character believably do what he would never do, going a long way in few words towards explaining how character development works throughout a story.

Standoffs … yes. Rob Edwards has it nailed. Standoffs are about struggles towards exchanges of power.  Everything changes, but nothing is resolved.  I turn the page.  I think, What now?

I’m devouring CJ Sansom’s new Lamentation and, along with some ripsnorting fight scenes, there’s a fantastic standoff between Henry VIII and the hunchbacked lawyer sleuth Matthew Shardlake. Grand.

*If you ever get a chance at the Surrey International Writers Conference or anywhere else in the world, I recommend you attend Donald Maass’s powerful, inspiring and entertaining workshops.