A Little Sympathy Goes a Long Way

So you’ve got a plot all written down or perhaps it’s on a jumble of index cards or floating aimlessly in your head. Now what?

In my earlier post about plot I noted that characters are the driving force behind any story. There is more to a character than simply giving a certain personality type a physical form and letting it run amuck in your plot. That may perhaps get the story moving, but it won’t keep the reader overly interested.

The biggest thing about characters is that they need to be engaging. A reader has to actually care about these people and their lives despite that fact that they are not real people. It may seem simple at first. Make a character, design how they look, give them a name, a little history, and then throw them into a dangerous situation. Instant drama. But that does not mean that the reader will care. Indeed, there are quite a few characters that you could lob off a limb and I would care less. In fact, I might even be pleased that your protagonist just died because I have no desire to care for them.

It becomes infinitely more complicated when you design a character that is actually meant to be hated. How do you create a character that a reader is supposed to hate and yet make them engaging as an individual and not another cut out villain? The greatest key I have found is sympathy. You have to make that character sympathetic.

Now, this does not mean the character needs to have a change of heart; by all means no, make them as vile as you desire. The key is making them hated, but making it so that a person can understand why they are so awful; why perhaps you can pity and care for their past self, but loath what they have become. This in the end all ties into history and motivation.

What does your character desire? Why do they desire it? How did this come to occur?

For me the most profound moment of this was my character Anhur. Firstly, his original name was Vincent. In a world where most people had foreign based names or names that were entirely made up he was right off the bat plain with only that. Since his older brother had an Egyptian name I decided to follow suit with Anhur and give him a name change. Then came his purpose; his motivation. Anhur was designed, simply put, to create tension and frankly to move along certain plot points. Sure, he had a general history and a personality, but he was horrifically flat. I could make him as much as a brat as I pleased, but it had no meaning to it; no substance.

I hated him. He was boring and I did not find much enjoyment in writing him. No main member of the cast should be a chore to write and even small characters should not be a pain. I clearly recall being in my last home when this occurred to me. I was going through my afternoon routine, winding down from work, and suddenly I just needed to change him. I needed to tear out everything but the foundation and just rework his history, his motivation, and his personality.

Oh he’s still a brat all right, and you still hate him, but now you understand him. You can see where he is coming from and you can sympathize with who he was. Suddenly everything about him made far more sense. It was amazing how just altering his childhood development suddenly made everything fall into place. His personality, motivation, and future all were lain out so easily after that.

The ultimate joy was perhaps when receiving feedback from my good friend who is the first to read my novel for me. The way she swung between hating him and feeling sorry for him and then being angry that she felt sorry for him was both hilarious and pleasing. All because I had given a reason for him to be sympathized with there was suddenly so much more emotion, depth, and ‘interaction’ of sorts between the reader and this character.

So, when you begin to write, set time aside to work on developing your characters. You will find it a more rewarding and enjoyable task to write once you do.


Plotting – The Basics

So you are at work, in the car, or making dinner when suddenly an idea strikes you. It could be something simple as “wouldn’t it be neat if” or something more complex like an entire concept for a fictional nation. Maybe you start with a character idea or perhaps just a system of magic or technology. The real question from here is, now what?

Now comes the hard part, development. Any idea can build into the story, but whether or not it is successful all hinges on the development. Characters need to be made and named, worlds need to be built, and systems need to be set up to allow this idea to flow into something that not only makes sense, but captures a reader’s interest and keeps it.

But firstly, everyone writes differently. What may work for some may not work for others. This is an insight into how I write, so take it with a grain of salt. You may find that how I develop my stories just is not your cup of tea. =) Hopefully though you will learn something at least.

Now back to that idea of yours. For me, ideas tend to strike at odd times, but usually when music is involved. Often it’s the song that I am listening to when I first think of an idea that tends to shape it. Outside of characters, the biggest challenge will be plot. You are going to have to figure out where you are start, where you are ending, and that lovely part that will make up the core of your book, the in between.

Character discussion will be saved for another time, but they are going to be the driver’s of your plot. These characters are going to need to have goals and they are going to need to have challenges. Perhaps they are one in the same, but they are going to build the tension that you are going to need for a memorable climax. Never be afraid to throw your characters into tough situations and even more so do not be afraid to have them fail. The most relatable characters are the ones that are not godlike.

A classic plot line gradually slopes up until you hit the climax where it then sharply tapers down into a resolution, but it does not always need to be this way. Some stories have multiple mini-climaxes before the grand finale. I often think of these as plot twists. You build towards the climax, a set path ahead for your characters when suddenly the unexpected happens and you rip the ground out from under them. While the characters flounder, recover, and perhaps come to terms it turns into a mini-resolution phase before you begin the tension build again.

But whatever you do, make the plot twists make sense! Do not throw in surprise merely for the sake of it. Often times you will confuse the reader and wind up with those pesky plot holes that everyone loathes and loves to pick at. Do not be afraid to hide things either. When I write I never reveal everything all at once. From the world, to character history, to villains, and evil plots I like to keep things under wraps. I give out little teasers and slowly give the reader insight. It tends to get rather boring when you do nothing but explain everything to the reader. Lease some up to their imagination and let everything out piece by piece. They will not need to know the absolute intricate workings of your evil crime lord organization the second you first mention it.

I generally start with a character. I think of where he, or she, has come from and what their major conflict is. Most times this conflict ends up some how relating or revolving around another, my second main character. It is their dynamic that usually ends up shaping my plot line. I start off with one character, then a second and from there decide on their relationship and what I want it to be. The start of the plot is the building of a connection between these two. It can be love, it can be friendship, or it can be hatred, but the importance to me is to establish that bond of sorts. For me this is generally what is known as the exposition. I use the start of the story to establish the bond and the world it takes place in. Then comes the fun part.

From there we need a catalyst. If the characters are enemies perhaps one catches a key lead on where to find or how to destroy the other and the big hunt begins. For lovers perhaps there is a moment that turns them against one another or drives them a part (willingly or not). Whatever this catalyst is it needs to be interesting and it needs to be the beginning of a chain of events. Even if it’s something as simple as a meeting, it needs to start the rise to the climax (Or climaxes if you are so inclined… Pun not intended.)

And do not be afraid for a character to have a change of heart. This concept is often called a turn around. Perhaps the character fails or maybe he faces a great betrayal that crushes any hope he has of reaching that lofty goal. That is perfectly fine. The key is finding a way to get that character willing to give it a second try. Or perhaps a third or a fourth. The important thing is to just make sure you never stop the tension for too long. You will need to reach that climax somehow and if you allow it all to fall back to the level of the exposition you will never get there.

Eventually though, you keep building that tension and you hit the climax. The climax, the main one, needs to be the single most important event. This needs to be the big be all end all conflict, the moment where something big changes. Perhaps it is the topple of a government or a major figure, or if you are writing romance maybe it’s the major fight between lovers that makes them finally realize that what they have is over. It needs to change the characters in some way; a realization needs to be made.

From this realization comes a resolution. Something needs to be learned. This is usually where that falling action portion comes in. Your main characters are now faced with learning to have to cope (or perhaps reveling) in this change or lesson. With my characters it is often a case of learning how to live life again. Something has happened and they’ve now spent months or even years chasing after a resolution, but in order to get to it they must overcome one last insurmountable hurdle. In the end they do, but now nothing is the same.

Wrapping up the end is always the hardest part for me. It’s a mixture of not wanting the story to end and being scared not to end it perfectly. For me, the end always needs to have meaning and it needs to make you feel. Not everything is perfect in my endings. The world is still messed up, the characters don’t live happily ever after, but the key is that they have begun to move on. That at least is how I like to end, but you may be entirely different and that’s okay! The key is to make the ending memorable. It should mean something to you.

And truly, that is the heart of it. Your writing should mean something to you from start to finish. And that is where we shall pick up again next time.