Friday, February 22, 2008

Challenging Your Characters

See the Barbie Lady post for some changes, not that it fixes anything.  

Onward, or rather backward, to Radcon 5.

At 10:00am on Saturday, after a great breakfast provided for the pros by Radcon (thank you!) I met with Bruce Taylor, Steve Libbey, Deborah Fredericks, Kay Kenyon and a roomful of participants to discuss battering characters and then sending them to Charybis and the Scylla.  BTW, if better links than the ones I provided exist, let me know!  

Some highlights:

The conflicts you throw at your character should arise organically.  It's much less interesting to throw rocks at your character.  I learned that throwing rocks is a common plot-flaw term, similar to plot ninjas from Nano.  It's all fun and games when you're trying to get through that first draft, but ultimately it's more interesting if the plot develops as a natural result of the character interactions with each other and the environment.

Which brings us to a related subject--there's a back and forth that often develops between the protagonist and antagonist.  Both need to have their say in the argument.  It's no fun if the hero picks on a villain that has an insupportable position, and it's equally no fun if the villain always gets the last word and makes everyone else look stupid.  Readers like a good horse race.  If it's obvious who will win and they do, or worse, obvious who should win but the hand of Gawd comes down and either squishes the obvious winner or helps along the loser, you'll end up with a lot of unhappy customers.

Victory should carry a price.  If it doesn't cost anything, it isn't worth anything.  On the other hand if everyone dies (and there were many audience comments about how they hated it if a character dies very early in the book, especially the first pov character, or if helpless beings like animals and children suffer and/or die unless you are very careful not to make it horrible or play it all out on screen--remember, this is supposed to be entertaining) the reader reaction is often 'why did I bother reading this?'  Great authors can pull it off.  As a first time author, I'm holding off on that sort of thing.  I may never go there, unless the idea demands it, and maybe not even then.

Most writers know that there has to be enough challenge and risk to make things interesting, but it's possible to go too far.  The result is a battered character who either is unable to act or save themselves anymore, which requires a rescue, or they become unrealistic, boring or laughable as they shrug off calamities that would drive a hurricane gawd to its knees.  

I believe it was Deby Fredericks who made the stair-climbing motions that helped illustrate the next point.  The action should build (organically, as previously mentioned) so that the stakes become higher and character reactions to each others' maneuvers become more desperate and/or more heavy-handed as they try to solve their problems.  At the climax, someone is going to fall down the stairs.  The higher you build them, the bigger the ouch at the bottom.

There was at least one more point but it's not springing to mind.  Hopefully you'll feel inspired to hop in and make additions in the comments.  It was a great panel.  I learned a lot, and had a lot of fun.  It doesn't get better than that.  Well, okay, chocolate might have made it better.

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