Pushing Characters and What Makes a Good Story

Working Writers posted a link to this article today, and I thought I’d give my two cents on the topic.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent: What the Fiction Editor Looks For, Part I

Rachelle lists a series of items that writers fail to include in their stories/books/etc. that leaves the reader feeling like something’s off. That’s perhaps the only way to describe a novel that just doesn’t that pizzazz that other novels do. Most of the items here are ones you typically see like giving your protagonist a goal and that characters need to be consistent. But then she mentions a few that had me nodding intently. And just for the record, I don’t nod intently at everything.

Make sure relationships ring true. Is there a reason for characters to be with each other? Can we see and feel their connection?

A very important piece here, but also very difficult to pinpoint. A writer needs to know how relationships work in order to write about them. If every secondary character is treated the same, then this will surely lead to a boring book. Or if they don’t get mad at someone who they should be angry with, that’s another dead-end route. Thinking back on films, I could think of several where the characters just didn’t ring true, the relationships were too trite, or the audience just wasn’t involved enough to care. But here are a few that come to mind when I think of believable character relationships:

the-thing-movie-posterthe-others-movie-posterchangeling*

Once you establish a point of view in a scene, be careful to avoid pulling the story out of the POV you’re writing from.

Oh, an ailment I know all too well! And it drives me crazy when I’m going back to edit. It happens more often when I’m frequently interrupted during writing, or I reach a writer’s block.

Push your protagonist to their limits and BEYOND. When they think things can’t get any worse for them—make it worse! Ask your characters to stretch beyond themselves, beyond what they thought they could do.

This is one that really stuck with me when I read it. Especially one of the corollary comments:

 

Andrew said…
RE what Sarah Thomas wrote, above –
Not wanting to push characters because we may not want to face something parallel that’s happening to us, for real –
Wow. That’s huge. I know it’s happened to me.

Very true, Andrew. One scene in particular occurred in Suzie’s Nightmare and I found it so distasteful, so difficult to write, that I put off writing it for days. It was an extended hospital scene and Suzie was witnessing it for the first time. You can imagine the kind of emotional turmoil that goes on inside a character in that situation, and you can probably guess at how difficult it was for me to write it. But this was something that Suzie needed to experience too, so I buckled down and wrote it. It was exhausting, but I think the finished scene exudes that same stomach-knot feeling that I tend to associate with hospitals.

Not that every story or novel you write needs to go through such a difficult scene, but I think that having some kind of exhilarating or memorable experience for the protagonist is important for the reader to become immersed in them. If the image is so finely imprinted on your mind, then your job is to try to imprint a similar image for your readers. Like Stephen King explains:

Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop it think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists . . . and all the time  it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation. (Stephen King, On Writing)

Couldn’t have said it better!

* I did a review of Changeling a while back over here if you’re curious. Yes, I love horror, action, science fiction, and dramas. Hence the weird conglomeration of films!

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One thought on “Pushing Characters and What Makes a Good Story

  1. Wow, this is one of the more helpful blog posts I’ve read about writing and characters. Right now I’m struggling with showing character growth in my novel, but I am definitely going to have to keep in mind pushing my character and her relationships with everyone around her as I work on this in my final drafts. Thank you for sharing such an insightful post.

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