Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Characters who draw your reader in

It's been two weeks since my intensive week at my MFA residency. I like to write blogs on things I've learned because it helps reinforce the knowledge for me and hopefully gives you something to work with as well. As Jonathan Mayberry said in his workshop, "Writers need to help each other out." That is the goal of this blog. To pass on what I learn, so that we can all make our writing stronger.
I sat in a great workshop given by Randall Silvis, novelist and character writer. The following is from my notes on the workshop:
The reader wants characters they can relate to, identify with and care about. How do you get that? By creating a character who is inherently dramatic. They should have traits, motivations and contradictions that invite drama. They should stand out with a distinctive voice by taking interesting actions, making interesting choices based on their motivations. The events of your story should grow out of the character's choices and actions.
There should be external and internal conflict. The external conflict drives the story while the internal conflict drives the character and the character drives the external conflict. Think of it as the circle of life for your story.
How can we fashion conflict? By identifying the characters needs or desires, then identifying the tasks or goals the character has to fulfill their needs, finally identify and create the obstacles to their goals. (Work from the least dramatic to the most dramatic as you build your story.)
Take a moment to do this little exercise with your current main character (or any character you're working with.) Answer the following:
1) what is their external need?
2) what is their external task?
3) what is their internal need?
4) What is their internal task?
How are these different, exciting and dramatic for readers of your genre? What kinds of obstacles can you use in your plot to block them from fulfilling their needs or completing their tasks?
Here's my example:
Toni Ryder's external need is to build a successful gluten-free bakery business. Her external task is to drum up business, create customers, bake goods. What blocks her from doing this? She set up her bakery in her home town of OilTop Kansas, where wheat farming is a big part of the community. She must convince the community and the wheat farmers her bakery is not a threat to their livelihood. The biggest block to her task-a man is murdered on her doorstep. All kinds of things happen after that in a cascade of trouble that block her need to build a successful business.
Toni Ryder's internal need is to find her place in her hometown and fit into the community she has recently returned to after her mother's death. Her task is to create relationships with people she once abandoned as too small-minded, and to build a family and a web of support for her internal needs. What blocks her is her own feelings of rebelling against the community. After all she did pick a wheat town to build her anti-wheat bakery. Then there is her struggle to accept her "unconventional" over-sized family and the characters that are related to her. Her struggle to date after a nasty divorce. Her own lack of confidence in her choice of males. Her grief at the death of her mother and her unwillingness to make the home her mother left her her very own.
Do you find her dramatic? Does she stand out? Can you identify with her?
I'll leave you with a final quote:
"I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope." Stanley Elkin


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I’m so glad you attend these workshops so I can learn from them! ) I’ve printed this off for future reference. Thanks.

Linda Kage said...

Great quote. Now I'm going to have to go back and make sure I'm writing about people at the end of their rope!!

Toni sounds like she has a lot to deal with. I would definitley like to read about her and find out if the town reforms her to their way, if she conforms then to hers, or if they both compromise and get along.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane, thanks! I liked this little exercise. It is short but powerful, don't you think?

Hi Linda, I know- I went back and checked my characters as well. Thanks, re: Toni. I hope to send the book to my agent the end of the week. I'll keep you posted.

~Sia McKye~ said...

The workshop does sound intensive. I think the biggest lesson I have had to learn about writing is while I like peace and smoothness in my life, those qualities don't make a book interesting.

Like your reminder, Nan, "The external conflict drives the story while the internal conflict drives the character and the character drives the external conflict. Think of it as the circle of life for your story."

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia,

I agree, I don't like conflict in real life, either, but have to figure out conflict for my characters. poor characters. Cheers~