Pen on a contract with text: The Promise of Character Development

Within the writing community, there are just as many articles (if not more) about developing great characters as there are about creating interesting plots. We see blog posts debating how likable a character needs to be to interest a reader, other posts sharing techniques for evoking reader empathy, and still other posts instructing us on methods for showing a character’s emotional arc, etc., etc.

We know as readers that even the best-plotted book will suffer if the protagonist isn’t at least compelling. So as writers, we do everything we can to make readers invested in our characters in some way.

An invested reader is a happy reader, right?

Well, maybe not. Let’s take a look at the other side of character development.

The Danger of Out-of-Character Behavior

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how our genre promises certain elements to readers. And if our genre alone creates expectations in readers, it’s a safe bet that our characters do as well.

As we develop our characters, we establish expectations in the minds of our readers for how that character will act and react in the future. Readers sense their intelligence, what they value or fear, their moral code, etc.

Those expectations are important to understand because insults like “Too Stupid To Live” are more likely when our characterization is broken. We don’t usually see that insult flung at characters who do stupid things in character.

Instead, protests are more likely when a character acts in a stupid way that’s out of character. Readers know they’re acting that way simply because the author needed them to, and a puppet isn’t a full-fledged character worthy of respect.

As readers, we hate to be disappointed by characters, to have our faith in them destroyed. When we think they can and should do better, we can feel betrayed.

That’s not to say characters can’t act in ways that might seem out of character. However, just as in real life, we’re more likely to understand—and maybe even forgive—if we know the reasons for the out-of-character behavior.

Even if we disagree with a character’s choices, we can accept their decisions if we understand their motivations. But if motivation is lacking, the entire plot point feels forced, and readers will rightly blame the writer.

Example: The Comic Version of Captain America

Yesterday, Twitter flew with countless tweets lambasting Nick Spencer, the Marvel writer of the Captain America comics, for the latest reboot of the series. In what seems to be the ultimate click-bait quest for money, he decided that Captain America was really a Hydra agent and had been so all along.

For those who aren’t familiar with the character or the Marvel world in comics or the movies (which thankfully, are not related worlds), the Captain America character was created in the World War II era by two Jewish artists with the express purpose of punching Hitler in the face (which was, in fact, the iconic image of the first issue). In Marvel’s world, Hydra is the evil organization associated with Hitler and Nazism.

So this writer decided to throw out 70 years worth of Nazi-fighting character development and turn this character into a lifelong double agent. Just. Because.

Readers Have to Believe the Story and Characters Matter

The only defenders of this character direction with Captain America were those making excuses like “Well, it’s the comics. We know it’ll all be undone in the future.”

Whether this horrible character idea is undone in a future comic issue with a reveal of him being a triple agent or it lasts until the next series reboot in a couple of years, there’s a problem with this defense.

For one thing, not only did this character reboot disrespect the intention of the original creators, but it also insults those who were affected by the Holocaust. Unlike most comics, Captain America’s backstory is grounded in the real world.

Real victims and survivors are now being told that their hero hates them. Talk about a betrayal.

Nick Spencer and the Marvel editor are both coming out with inflammatory quotes along the lines of:

“We want to push that button. … You should feel uneasy about the fact that everything you know and love about Steve Rogers can be upended.” (source)

“We knew it would be like slapping people in the face.” (source)

“While he couldn’t have predicted the magnitude of the response (or the #SayNoToHYDRACap hashtag), Spencer says outrage is exactly what he wanted.” (source)

They knew full well that this move would insult and hurt readers. And they didn’t care.

That brings us to the second problem with the “eh, it’ll be undone in the future” defense.

Even when we know that a romance will end happily or a mystery will end with a solution, we still need the fiction of the possibility of failure to make us care about the story. Without that fiction, a story becomes an emotionless analysis of how the author chose to reach the ending this time.

To suggest that none of the story matters is a great way to force readers into becoming un-invested in our story and our characters. We need them to care or else they won’t read.

Writers Have to Earn the Reader’s Trust to Veer Off-Track

Nick Spencer and the Marvel editor are both also telling readers that they’ll just have to wait and see:

“To say it’s a gimmick implies that it’s done heedlessly just to shock. The proof is always going to be in the execution. So you’ll have to read the rest of the story to see.” (source)

To a certain extent, this point is true. Whenever we write, we have to convince the reader that we’ll deliver a story worth reading.

We’re absolutely allowed to create plot twists and deliver angst, but readers have to trust that we’re capable of pulling it off. They have to believe that there will be a payoff and that it will be worth it.

Our plot twists and out-of-character moments have to make logical sense to the reader—or we have to sell readers on our ability to have it make sense in the end. They have to buy the zig we’re trying to sell them when they wanted the zag.

So far, the opinion—even from those who have read the issue and aren’t just commenting on the outcry—is that the execution is lacking. Captain America’s character is no longer based in the same character at all.

So what was the point? Money? Publicity?

Understanding the “Contract” between Writers and Readers

From our cover and blurb to our opening pages and characters, we’re constantly creating expectations—promises of what readers will find on our pages. Character development can’t be ignored without justification if it breaks that promise.

Shock for shock’s sake and blatant manipulation of readers isn’t something readers have to put up with. Creators can’t take for granted that readers will stick around to see the payoff if they haven’t established trust in advance.

As far as readers can tell here, the writer simply broke the “contract” of promises and expectations with the reader for reasons that have nothing to do with logical storytelling or character development.

Dismantling the Essence Destroys Readers’ Investment

This character choice, no matter the expectation that it will be undone, fails to understand the importance of story and character essence. Even Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the (once again, I’ll say thankfully unrelated) movies, knew better than this:

As I’ve mentioned before about story as well as about characters, we can change plot events around and still maintain the same story and characters. There’s still an essence to each of those—recognizing what they each represent—that remains even as details change.

If we do our job well as writers, the essence of our story and characters is what will resonate with readers. If we fail to understand what those resonance points are, we might allow our story to be workshopped, critiqued, or edited to death.

Or in the case of Nick Spencer, we might throw away everything about the character that’s resonated with readers for 70 years just for short-term publicity.

In response to the outrage, Nick says:

“They’re emotionally invested, which is good.” (source)

But that misses the message of most of the complaints. If we break the contract with readers, they cut off their investment. They close the book, throw it against the wall, write hateful reviews, or put us on their Never Buy Again list.

As Jessica Plummer states in this excellent article about how the “temporary” nature of the storyline only makes the decision worse, not better:

“Let me be very clear: I don’t care if this gets undone next year, next month, next week. I know it’s clickbait disguised as storytelling. I am not angry because omg how dare you ruin Steve Rogers forever.

I am angry because how dare you use eleven million deaths as clickbait.

I am angry because Steve Rogers’s Jewish creators literally fought in a war against the organization Marvel has made him a part of to grab headlines. …

How little must we matter. … The people who need him. The people whose history and suffering and hope, as we stood on the brink of annihilation, gave you your weekly entertainment and your fun thought experiment, 75 years later.

I hope it was worth it, Marvel.”

Readers “Own” the Story and Characters Too

Once we publish a story, readers take partial ownership. They form relationships to the story and characters. They imagine what happens after the story ends. Etc., etc.

We’ve seen with George Lucas and the Star Wars “Han shot first” controversy that fans will simply ignore creators if they think the creators are screwing up the story or characters. And just as George is butt of jokes now, a good portion of the audience will permanently lose respect for the creators.

This disrespect happened to me with an author I read as a teen and young adult. I was tearing through every story in one science fiction icon’s catalog until he threw away an important aspect of a character (the fact that the protagonist was married) just so he could start writing the character having hookups with aliens.

No mention of divorce. No explanation for the wife’s (a previously important character) disappearance. The fact was just ignored. I never read that author again because the character no longer felt “real” to me. The author had broken the fiction, and I lost all respect.

At this point, thousands of people are actively hoping that Nick Spencer can’t pull it off because they’re that pissed. As Sasha said, the damage is done.

Personally, I’m imagining a fan fiction story where Chris Evans and/or Captain America punch the people behind this storytelling decision in the face. *smile*

What Can We Learn from This Story Failure?

Some of the take-away lessons from this Twitter-storm are:

  • pay attention to character development and what aspects of the character resonate with readers
  • recognize that character development builds a contract of expectations and promises with readers
  • understand that we have earn the trust of the reader to be able to do justice to our story and characters
  • ensure that any time we include out-of-character behavior, the reasons are either logical or motivated
  • be extra careful with any twists that disrespect and/or hurt readers or that dismantle the resonances of a story or character
  • be super-duper, extra-special careful with twists that might cause readers to become un-invested in our story or characters
  • accept that even if we’ve earned readers’ trust, they have no obligation to stick around for the payoff

We’re all allowed to tell any kind of story we want, but if we want readers to stick around for the ride, we have to convince them it will be worth it. Nonsensical plot twists or illogical out-of-character behaviors simply to create conflict feels shallow and manipulative.

Readers don’t have to stick around, and they don’t have to respect our choices. We need to have respect for the reader too. *smile*

Had you heard about this controversy yesterday? What did you think about it? What the riskiest twist you’ve ever tried to pull off in your stories? Were you successful? Can you think of any other lessons we can take away from this situation?

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Gold medal with text: Contests for Published Authors: Are They Worth It?

So… Remember how I mentioned last week that my book Treasured Claim was a double finalist in two contests? Let’s add two more finals to that list. *boggles*

I received a call—an actual phone call!—from…someone? (I was too flabbergasted to catch the name) with RWA‘s huge Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter (also known fondly as FF&P). She told me—along with some other things that promptly fell out of my overwhelmed brain—that Treasured Claim is a double finalist in the Fantasy and Best First Book categories of their prestigious Prism Awards.

Wow! That’s six finals for my debut in three contests! In just the past week! (Not to mention Ironclad Devotion‘s final last week too.)

I guess Elaina, my dragon-shifter heroine, and Alex, my modern knight-in-shining-armor hero, are connecting with judges. *grin*

Those characters changed my life, and whether I win or not, I’ll always be grateful for the doors this story opened for me in my writing, my voice, my series, and my career:

  • I discovered my writing voice with Elaina because hers was so strong that I learned the difference between author voice and character voice.
  • I wrote the first 30K words of Treasured Claim in less than two weeks (when I was “supposed” to be writing a different story), teaching me that chasing the shiny new idea isn’t always a bad thing. *smile*
  • I learned that I wrote better by the seat of my pants and forever left plotting behind, as those 30K words (and all the rest of the story) erupted from my brain without a plan.
  • I formed the basic worldbuilding blocks of my Mythos Legacy series because I had so much fun with the story that I didn’t want to go back to that abandoned one (yet…all in good time).

So today seems like a good time to touch upon the contest arena for published books. *smile*

How Contest Goals Differ over Our Career

Starting with Contests for Unpublished Writers

I’ve written before about some of the goals we might have when entering a contest for unpublished authors. In general, contests for unpublished authors are designed to help writers along their publishing journey, such as providing feedback or an “in” with an agent or editor.

In that old post, I shared some of the elements I took into consideration before entering unpublished contests:

  • Receiving Feedback: Does the contest encourage their judges to give feedback with their scores? How many first-round judges do they use?
  • Final Judge: Is the final judge (agent or editor) someone I’d like to have look at my work?
  • Prestige: Is the contest one I’ve heard of, or does it have a “name brand” sponsor?
  • Category Breakdown: Does the contest have a category that matches my story?
  • Ease of Entry: Is the contest easy to enter, with PayPal and electronic entry?

In another post, I shared other issues to watch out for:

  • high entry fees
  • small print about rights to our story
  • scoring sheets that don’t weigh the right story elements
  • entry length that doesn’t capture our best opening hook
  • requiring (and judging) a synopsis
  • judged based on a popularity contest

How Our Goals Might Progress over Our Unpublished Journey

  • We might use the feedback or our contest scores as benchmarks to track our progress as a writer.
  • We might hope to skip the query process by getting our work in front of a favored agent or editor as the final judge.
  • A precious few unpublished contests have enough prestige to attract agents who approach finalists or winners to submit their work.

Contesting as a Published Author

Once we’re published, our goals for contests will likely change again. Published-author contests are generally not set up to help writers improve their writing or find an agent or editor. Instead, contests for published authors are designed to reward writers for publishing achievements.

Where the unpublished contests are forward-looking—craft improvement and career shortcuts—the published contests tend to be backward-looking—recognizing greatness in an existing book.

That forward vs. backward issue makes sense. An unpublished book isn’t set in stone, so suggestions for improvement are welcome. Published books, on the other hand, aren’t looking to make changes.

Keeping those differences in mind, let’s take a closer look at contests for published authors…

What to Watch Out for in Contests for Published Authors

Some of the same pros and cons we talked about with unpublished contests still apply, with a slightly different focus:

  • Judging: Who’s judging our work?

Rather than focusing on the final judge, we might look for a certain type of judge. Do we want our work judged by readers or authors? Librarians or an expert panel (do we know who these experts are)?

Do we want to avoid the “popularity contest” style of “judging,” where we have to convince our friends and contacts to vote for us?

My Perspective: I mostly focused on contests that were judged by readers, book bloggers, and librarians. I always avoid popularity contests like the plague. *smile*

  • Prestige and/or Prizes: What’s in it for us?

Some published-author contests include significant prizes, everything from cash to guaranteed professional reviews or other legitimate publicity, etc. Other contests offer only “exposure type” prizes.

Many published authors enter contests to provide “social proof” to potential readers that our story is worth reading. However, while a few contests are familiar to readers, the vast majority are not, so it’s hard to say how much even a win would help our sales.

My Perspective: I looked at the list of finalists from the previous year to see if big-name, traditionally published authors (or their publishers) considered the contest worthwhile. The contests I entered were often a Who’s Who for my genre.

  • Focus of Contest: Is the contest a good match for our work?

Some contests are open only to traditionally published books, some focus on self-published books, and some are open to both. Some contests are open to books of any copyright date, and others are open only to books copyrighted in the previous year. These differences might affect the contest’s prestige as well.

In addition to eligibility issues, some contests don’t have differentiated categories, so some genres (which tend to be looked down upon) might not fair well with judges. Like in unpublished contests, our story isn’t likely to do well if it doesn’t match one of the contest’s categories. That said, if there are more than a dozen categories, chances are the contest is a scam (see below).

My Perspective: I looked for contests open to both traditionally published and self-published books, figuring those would have more competition (and perhaps prestige).

  • Entry Requirements: How do we enter, and what does it cost?

There are countless award scams targeting indie authors. Many contests focus on making money off our entry fees. In contrast, some contests are free to enter (but might include rights issues in the small print).

Entry can also be complicated at the published-author level, as we might need to submit a PDF or ebook file, which could easily be uploaded to pirate sites. Or we might need to mail in autographed print copies (which obviously adds to the expense).

  • Small Print: Is the sponsor trustworthy?

Some contests include a rights grab, such as wanting to include our work in unpaid anthologies. Some don’t instill trust for controlling access to our ebook files. Etc., etc.

Depending on our situation, we might look for contests with certain prizes, or we might focus on high-prestige awards. We might look for “open” contests or ones specific to new indie books. We might enter contests to fulfill our dreams or hold off self-doubt, or we might want to create an Award-Winning Author brand.

There’s no right or wrong answer. But just like with unpublished contests, if we have a better idea of our goals, we’ll know what to look out for and what contests to avoid. *smile*

As a reader, do you pay attention to any awards for published books? If so, which ones? If you’ve entered a published-author contest, what did you look for in the contest? Were you happy with your choice, and if not, why not? Can you think of any other tips to watch out for or insights into any of these contest traits?

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What’s Your Validation?

by Jami Gold on May 19, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Darts on a dartboard bullseye with text: What Makes Us Feel Validated?

Writers are often a neurotic, self-doubting lot. We doubt whether we’re telling the right story, whether we can do our idea justice, whether that sentence needs a comma or not. *smile*

That doubting continues over our writing journey, and many of us hope for validation as a means of overcoming that doubt. We hope to get an agent or a traditional publisher. We hope to win contests. And we hope for lots of readers, sales, and good reviews.

Of course, we never want to think about how that validation is only temporary. We might find an agent who doesn’t reject us, but we’re not likely to get an offer of a book deal from every publisher they submit our work to. We might receive a positive review, but we’ll likely receive a negative review eventually as well. And we might have a well-received book, but the blinking cursor taunts us with writing the followup.

That temporary nature of validation doesn’t stop most of us from wanting it however. The best we can do is try to create a healthy relationship with our validation desires. *smile*

My Journey to “Validation”

When I first started writing, I mostly just wanted assurance that I didn’t suck. Many can probably relate.

Of course, my first encounter with an editor (on a “submit a paragraph for feedback in a future post” editors’ blog) did the opposite. I learned I really did suck. *grin*

As the years and experience built up under my belt, I learned to appreciate the wins as they came. Others will be quick enough to bring us down if we let them.

First, I won a blog-submission contest. But that didn’t lead to anything with the sponsoring agent.

Years of query rejections followed. But at the same time, my contest scores improved. Lesson: we win some; we lose some.

How Much Validation Do We Need?

By the time I’d won multiple contests with Treasured Claim—to ensure the first win wasn’t fluke, of course—I’d reached the point that I no longer needed validation from an agent to have faith in my story. My long road to publication was no longer about my writing, but about my query (which sucked) and my genre (which was considered “dead” by the powers that be).

Multiple contest wins were the validation I needed to feel ready to self-publish instead of waiting for a good-enough traditional publishing deal. …And then I spent the next year revising and editing (despite those contest wins) to make sure I was really ready to debut.

Because still, even after all that, I worried. *smile*

Is It All Good? Or Just Partially Good?

My worries were legitimate because, after all, pre-publication contests typically judge a story based on only the first few chapters. Plenty of stories do well in those contests yet never manage to get a publishing deal because the rest of the story doesn’t hold up. I had no idea how my story would compare.

Yet now as a self-published author, the most validation I can usually hope for is a great review here and an email from a reader there. I have fewer options for finding contest-style validation, as there aren’t as many respected contests for published books.

(Notice I said respected contests. Plenty of “contests” go after the self-published-author crowd and seem mostly to be in the business of making money off entrance fees from self-published authors desperate for validation. *sigh*)

However, I did find a few published-book contests that have been respected for a while and now also accept self-published books. Even there, I was picky.

When I was a pre-published author, I looked for contests that used agents and editors (that I wanted to work with) for their final judges. But that’s usually irrelevant once we’re published.

Instead, published contests tend to fall into three categories. Some are judged by other authors, some are judged by a panel of “experts,” and some are judged by a segment of the reading community—readers, review bloggers, librarians, etc.

I decided to focus on the last option. I figured that it no longer mattered what most other authors thought (or “experts” for that matter). I’d rather know what the reader community thought.

Back in January, I entered a couple of contests open to romance books published in 2015. These contests had been around for decades and used readers and librarians for judges. And then I promptly forgot about entering because I’ve had endless health issues this year, and I don’t have time to obsess over contests anymore. *smile*

Will They Like Our Work?

We all know that writing is subjective. Not every reader will like our story.

With random readers, we can (probably) accept that truth, even though it might hurt with bad reviews. But in a contest, each reader is a judge, and we’ll only do well if every reader likes our work.

Contests are, by their very nature, a crap shoot. All 3-5 or whatever judges might love our work, or maybe all but one will love it—dooming our score.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that truth when we don’t final in a contest. Not finaling in a contest might mean nothing—other than that reading is subjective. But finaling… *smile*

Finaling means something. Finaling means that all those reader-judges liked our work, so our work is at least good enough to not trigger a dislike from several readers.

That essence of “meaning something” is true of most kinds of validation. Not being validated doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative about our work.

Our work can be great and still not appeal to agents or editors. It can still not find an audience in the over-saturated marketplace. And it can still not inspire readers to leave glowing reviews despite how much they enjoyed our story. None of that is necessarily a reflection on our work.

However, when we do get validation, that’s always going to feel meaningful. That means we overcame all the subjective, market craziness to connect with someone. And that’s awesome.

My Newest Validation…until Next Week *grin*

So when I received the news this week that my debut, Treasured Claim, wasn’t just a finalist, but a double finalist, in not just one, but two contests? And that Ironclad Devotion (the third book in the series) also finaled?

Two contests—five finals? Squee!

Treasured Claim Book Cover

Treasured Claim is a double finalist in the 2016 Booksellers’ Best Awards (sponsored by Greater Detroit RWA):

  • Paranormal Romance category
  • Best First Book

Treasured Claim is also a double finalist in the 2016 National Reader’s Choice Awards (sponsored by Oklahoma RWA):

  • Paranormal Romance category
  • Best First Book

Ironclad Devotion cover

Ironclad Devotion is a finalist in the 2016 National Reader’s Choice Awards (sponsored by Oklahoma RWA):

  • Paranormal Romance category

So that means it’s not just my debut’s opening chapters that were good enough for contests. The whole book is good enough. And not just that book, but another one I’ve written too. And my writing is not just good enough for other authors, but also enjoyable to non-author readers and librarians.

Yeah, I can’t lie. That kind of validation feels good. Really good. *smile*

How Important Is Validation?

I don’t know how long this good feeling will last, but I’ll hold onto it while I can. Validation might not be necessary, but we all like receiving it, even (or maybe, especially) when it’s hard to come by.

There’s always another rejection or negative review waiting around the corner because that’s life. Our journey doesn’t end at a destination.

We’ll probably never get the sense that “we’ve arrived.” There’s always a new challenge or a new speed bump to overcome.

I like that aspect of writing—that we can always improve. But it’s nice to see milestones of progress along the way too. *smile*

How important is validation to you? Where do you get your validation? What type of validation means the most to you? What type of validation would you like to receive that you haven’t gotten yet?

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Plot Obstacles & Character Agency

by Jami Gold on May 17, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Stick figure in a maze with text: What Do Your Characters Choose?

I’ve said many times that I love when my readers ask questions in the comments. Questions here or on social media often make for fantastic post ideas, and they save me from having to think of a topic. *smile*

Today, we have a question from Ashley that gets at the heart of strong, proactive characters, especially in how that applies to literary fiction rather than genre fiction.

In the comments of my last post about plot obstacles and how to make sure our obstacles aren’t too easy or too hard, Ashley asked:

“I’m curious – it seems like this would apply primarily to genre fiction, not necessarily literary fiction. (I’m thinking of a classic or two where off the top of my head I can’t think of ANY obstacles. A character could make choices which don’t necessarily count as an obstacle, like choosing between two suitors.) Would you agree with that at all?”

My regular readers here know that I’m a genre girl and don’t consider myself an expert on literary fiction. But that’s also a great question, so I’m going to take a stab at coming up with an answer. *smile*

Stereotypes of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction definitely comes with the baggage of stereotypes. “Navel gazing.” No plot. Authors too in love with their own voice. Dense. Pretentious. Etc., etc.

However, there are all kinds of literary fiction stories. While some don’t have much of a plot, others do. Many classic stories are lumped in with literary fiction—even though they probably would have been considered genre fiction at the time of their release.

But to answer Ashley’s question, let’s focus on the type of literary fiction that doesn’t seem to have many things happening…

What Is a Plot Event or Plot Obstacle?

I emphasized the word “things” in that previous paragraph because that’s how we tend to think of plot events, especially in the genre world. Plot events and obstacles are often tangible things that get in the way of our protagonist’s goals:

  • the protagonist’s car runs out of gas
  • our character has been kidnapped
  • a clue is lost or being sought
  • an authority assigns a new goal
  • another character steals the goal from the protagonist

The possibilities are endless. But in each of those examples, something is tangibly happening to the character, so it’s easy to identify the event as part of the plot.

However, the ties between plot and characters matter. With each of those (or any other tangible plot event), the character is faced with a choice of how to react. Those same reactions occur with non-tangible plot events too.

Reactions are, in fact, a huge element of how plot reveals characters or their struggle, as we’ve discussed before with how plot isn’t the same as story.

As Ashley observed, even in literary fiction, characters are usually (with some exceptions) still faced with making choices. So something is still triggering those choices.

What Plot Looks Like: Genre vs. Literary Fiction

In genre fiction, the events and obstacles that force change might seem more energetic or powerful than the character’s resultant choice. Characters might be forced to make choices with a (sometimes literal) ticking clock cornering them into a decision point.

On the other hand, in literary fiction, the events and obstacles that force change—through a character’s choices—might be really, really quiet. *smile*

A literary fiction character might not seem forced into a decision at all, as the story gradually nudges them into a situation where they internally feel the need to change. (Imagine a situation where the character simply can’t deny their unhappiness anymore.)

Either way, change (usually) happens, and those changes are triggered by tangible or non-tangible events and obstacles. That’s the essence of plot that applies to most stories, genre or literary.

Obstacles Force Action

So another way to think of plot—and specifically plot obstacles—is to think of those triggers that goad our characters into action. Whether those moments are big (explosions!) or small (a scent reminding a character of their childhood dreams), there will usually be a cause for our character’s actions.

The exceptions to this perspective—and there are some within the halls of literary fiction—are when our characters don’t make choices. There’s a difference between change and choice, and that difference is important to understand for both literary fiction and some genre series.

In genre fiction, those choices might be whether the character should cut the red or the green wire on the bomb. Those choices exist even in some genre series where characters don’t change at all.

Similarly, the literary fiction exceptions are far fewer than we might think because choice is the focus—not necessarily change. In literary fiction where the characters don’t change, those choices might entail the character deciding to ignore the “call to adventure,” succumb to the fear of the unknown, suppress their dreams, etc. Those choices are action—even if the characters don’t change.

What’s Character Agency & How Does It Relate?

Agents and editors often talk about how characters need to be active (or proactive) rather than reactive or passive. New writers often struggle with what that means:

Should characters cause their own problems? Is the plot not allowed to happen to them?

Another term for this concept is character agency.

  • Characters without agency are author props. They’re puppets to the plot.
  • Characters with agency create the sense that they’re responsible for the story in some way.

Chuck Wendig shares his explanation (as always with Chuck’s work, language at that link):

“Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.”

Given that description, we can see that some genre stories will have characters with stronger agency than the characters of some literary stories. Genre characters are more likely to take actions the push the plot into a different direction.

However, literary characters have agency as well. Especially if we can recognize how most literary characters do make choices, and those choices do affect the story—even if that means the story remains in the same direction, following them in Podunk, Wherever rather than to a Parisian adventure.

Why Are Characters with Agency Important?

Character agency is important for all characters, but especially for certain types that typically suffer from a lack of agency, such as “strong female characters,” secondary characters, diverse characters, and even antagonists.

For example, a damsel waiting to be the “prize” for the hero when she’s rescued from a castle tower doesn’t have agency, but neither does a mustache-twirling villain who’s being evil just because the story needs an antagonist.

When we’re writing diverse characters, we want to ensure they have agency too. No one’s impressed by diversity when the characters are simply stereotypes and caricatures that are puppets to the plot.

No matter what, we usually want to avoid passive and reactive characters—those without agency—who go with the flow, make no decisions, and don’t affect the story because they’re always one step behind. Many ancient Greek and some Shakespeare stories revel in this exploration of fate and our inability to affect events, and fittingly, the characters in those stories are puppets and not well-rounded.

Unless we’re following that model, any character beyond a nameless spear-carrier should have their own reasons for their decisions, not just because we, as the author, need them to react a certain way. If we want three-dimensional characters, we have to ensure they have agency through their choices, and once we understand how obstacles trigger or get in the way of our character’s choices, we’ll have a better grasp of how to make sure our characters don’t suffer from being too passive.

In genre fiction, we can ensure our characters are creating the plot by reacting and making decisions that change the story’s direction. In literary fiction, even if they’re constantly reacting to the curve balls the antagonist (or life) throws at them, if their reactions then affect the story in some way, they won’t be completely passive, which might be enough. *smile*

Do you disagree with my take on literary fiction and the differences in expectation from genre fiction? Does it make sense how character choices can help define plot events and obstacles, even for literary fiction? Do you struggle with the concept of character agency, or does this explanation help? Do you notice when characters don’t have agency?

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Hurdle obstacle with text: The Right Obstacles for Our Story

Many plot events in our story act as obstacles for our characters to overcome. The obstacles might be big or small—or anything in between.

Or maybe they seem small yet have big consequences later. For example, a character could get stuck at a railroad crossing and end up late for an interview, costing them the job.

Last week, we talked about how the plot is not our story. We can change plot events around and not necessarily change the main premise of our story.

The plot event holding up our character from their job interview could be a slow-moving train, sleeping through their alarm, running out of gas, etc. No matter what, they’re missing their interview, and that’s what matters for the story.

That’s why I cringe when I see authors grasp at different plot events in an attempt to fix their story. Sure, sometimes the original obstacle didn’t fit the story (an alien abduction made our character late for the interview!), but too often, the part of the story that’s broken isn’t the obstacle itself—but the storytelling around the obstacle.

Let’s take a closer look at the balance we have to find with plot obstacles to make sure they’re not too easy or too hard, but just right. *smile*

The Purpose of Plot Obstacles

Plot events serve many functions in our stories. As we discussed last week, the plot often reveals our characters or their struggle.

At the most basic, stories are about characters striving for a goal. Obstacles prevent our story from being:

They wanted X. They got X. The End.

That structure might work for flash fiction, but we need more for a full story. *smile*

The many purposes of obstacles include:

  • Force characters to zig, zag, adapt, struggle, and overcome before they reach their goal.
  • Add uncertainty to the question of whether the character will succeed at reaching their goal.
  • Create tension for readers, as they want to know if the character is successful.
  • Trigger consequences for the characters with additional plot events/obstacles.
  • Reveal characters—strengths, weaknesses, traits, etc.—through how they react to obstacles.
  • Cause setbacks that increase the stakes.
  • Provide opportunities to gather resources for the next step of the plot.
  • Force hard choices or sacrifices from the characters before they can overcome the obstacle.

And those are just the purposes I can think of off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more we could come up with. *smile*

The Dangers of Too-Easy Plot Obstacles

Plot obstacles are too easy when they don’t fulfill any of those purposes. They don’t make our characters struggle. There are no consequences. They don’t increase the stakes. They don’t reveal our characters. Etc., etc.

In many cases, having too easy of obstacles is no better than having no obstacles in our story at all. In fact, it might even be worse.

If we build up a situation in a reader’s mind so they expect the obstacle to be big—setbacks, sacrifices, negative consequences, etc.—and the obstacle is overcome without any trouble, readers won’t just be bored. They’ll be disappointed.

In a way, readers are bloodthirsty. They want to see conflict and struggle and difficulties.

Readers want the cost of overcoming a problem to be expensive. The stakes in a story are the consequences of failure. Without failure or consequences, there are no stakes. Without a struggle or stakes, the victory of overcoming the obstacle is cheap and hollow.

When a character succeeds without struggle, it’s like they “won” a “participation” trophy just for showing up in the story. We don’t respect those trophies in real life, so readers don’t respect them with our characters either. *smile*

Tips for Fixing a Too-Easy Obstacle

When faced with a too-easy obstacle, we have a few options for how to make it more difficult or something the characters have to work for. We can…:

  • take away the obvious solution as an option
  • give characters moral/ethical or other deeply held reasons for resisting compromise
  • create negative consequences (they can succeed, but there’s a cost)
  • make characters need help or additional resources to solve the problem
  • create choices between bad-and-worse options that must be decided to overcome the problem
  • make characters fail
  • give readers reasons to question whether success is possible
  • make the obstacle line up with a weakness of the character (or trigger their false belief, poke at their backstory wound, etc.)
  • force characters to have to sacrifice something to overcome the problem

The Dangers of Too-Difficult Plot Obstacles

With all of those problems listed above, it might be easy to think that the solution is to throw the biggest, baddest obstacles we can at our characters. And to some extent, that might work.

However, there’s a different danger we run into when our characters always fail. In short, they can look incompetent.

Let’s take the common story of a detective attempting to track down a murderer. Yes, we don’t want them to actually catch the murderer until the end of the story, but we need to give them some successes along the way too.

Our detective will look incompetent if they never get anything right, if they’re always making mistakes that let the murderer escape, or if they’re overlooking an obvious clue. Ditto for stories with spies who are always nearly getting caught, etc.

(Or think of the stories with protagonists who—in an effort to make them relatable—seem to have no strengths whatsoever and are nearly defined by their incompetence (often until some magical power is revealed at the last minute, which may as well be called a deus ex machina).)

When it comes to setbacks, there’s a big difference between problems that are caused by our character making a mistake and simple bad luck. A mistake they learn from is fine, but if they continue to make mistakes, they look sloppy.

Readers won’t root for incompetent characters (unless that’s the point of the story, such as in a parody). Readers want to root for characters who deserve success.

Tips for Fixing Too-Difficult Plot Obstacles

Our characters can (and should) fail sometimes, so we only need to worry about too-difficult obstacles when most of them fall into this category.

If we receive feedback that our character is unlikable, seems incompetent, unworthy or undeserving of respect, we might want to ensure that the character…:

  • isn’t responsible for every (or most) failure(s)
  • has successes too (even if they’re a step forward and a step back at the same time)
  • gets to show off some of their strengths or why they’re particularly suited to finding a solution
  • learns, grows, or gains resources for solving future problems

Aim for “Just Right”

We want our characters to be challenged, forced to make sacrifices, and their success to be in doubt. Yet we also want to show them as competent (or at least not completely incompetent) and deserving of success.

This middle ground requires a balance of successes that help advance the plot (and also often come with negative consequences and/or additional obstacles) and failures that keep readers guessing and maintain tension in the story.

With the right balance, our characters will look heroic for overcoming the obstacles despite odds that seem impossible. They’ll look strong for not letting their weaknesses hold them back. And they’ll look worthy of success after paying a price of hard choices and sacrifices.

In short, we’ll have a story that reveals a character and/or their struggle. And that’s the point of our plot, no matter what obstacles we choose. *smile*

Have you read stories where everything felt too easy? Or felt too difficult to be believable? What made it feel that way? Can you think of other purposes for plot obstacles? Do you have any other suggestions for how to fix issues with too-easy or too-hard of obstacles?

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Writing Feedback: Reaching Our Potential

May 10, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Whenever we send our work out into the world for feedback, we’re taking a risk. Depending on our levels of self-doubt, the feedback might roll off our back, inspire us to work harder and fix issues, or convince us that we should quit writing. How can we avoid destructive feedback and the temptation to quit?

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Self Publishing? What’s Your Plan to Keep Readers? — Part Three

May 5, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Links in the back of our book can lead to our other books or to a mailing list signup. But the internet is fluid and websites and pages change. How can we make sure our links won’t go bad?

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What’s the Difference between Plot and Story?

May 3, 2016 Writing Stuff
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When we first start off as writers, if someone asks us about our story, we might launch into an overview of our story’s plot. It’s easy to think the plot is what our story is about. But with few exceptions, story isn’t the same as plot.

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What Goes into Building a Movie in Our Mind?

April 28, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Sometimes as authors, we struggle to create a well-rounded world or characters that feel so real to readers that they experience a movie in their mind. Stories that feel like we can crawl in and inhabit them are often lauded as special, but why is it so hard to succeed in that goal?

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Brain Science: How Do You Imagine?

April 26, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Aphantasia is the term for when someone can’t imagine something in their mind–“mind blindness” or not having a “mind’s eye.” As writers, this perspective not only gives us all sorts of story and character ideas, but it can also raise many questions about the concept of imagination itself.

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