When Good People Do Bad Things, or How the West was NOT won

Recently finished a Western called The Valley of the Dry Bones by Arthur Henry Gooden (1945). I have never read any of Mr. Gooden’s other books, but The Valley Dry Bones began with an amazing protagonist. From the first page, I was rooting for him.

The story is populated with a series of villains, all of them out to get our hero. He has his allies as well, in a pair of cowpokes and a large family of Mexicans, an Indian, a Chinaman and various other characters. If not for one small problem, I would give this book an A+ for plotting. Unfortunately, the author attempted in every way to avoid violence, at least on the part of his main character. While our hero’s attempts to avoid bloodshed are inspirational, this is a western. If guns are blazing and our hero manages (somehow) to avoid killing his assailants, time and time again, we’re going to start wondering if we’re watching an A-Team spaghetti western.

The worst mistake the writer made was in the final scene of the novel, when our hero is cornered by the chief villain, who’s threatening to hog-tie and Columbian necktie him. First, it’s a bit hard to accept that the chief villain has come back to strike our hero, when the chief villain is wanted for murder and in danger of a summary execution by the enraged townspeople. Be that as it may, the chief villain is not brought down by our hero’s bullet or his fist, but by another man’s bullet. The chief villain kills his would-be murderer in the shoot-out, but manages to survive the encounter (presumably to face justice and hanging later). This ending is completely unsatisfying, particularly when our hero was the supposed chosen instrument of justice.

While your hero should never enjoy hurting people, he should be the one punish the evildoers in your story. If you would prefer your hero not to get his hands dirty, arrange a convenient accident to off the villain. In one Western I read recently, the villain was on top of the hero, attempting to thrust a knife into the hero’s chest. The hero escaped death by turning the knife with the blade in the direction of the villain’s chest. When the villain threw his (not inconsiderably) weight on the knife, it went into his own chest. Thus, he was his own murderer. You live by the sword, and you WILL die by it.

Finding the right balance of good and evil in your story is key to reader satisfaction.

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How to Give Supporting Characters Character

One of the chief complaints I’ve noticed in recent reviews on Amazon is flat one-dimensional side characters. There is a simple way to correct this problem.

All individuals are motivated by self-interest. A man–or a woman–will act in ways that serve his self-interest. In other words, all actions are self-enhancing. Even those actions we would class as charity to others are in some way serving the benefactors.

“I feel good about helping others. I help others so I can feel good about myself.”

While this might seem a bit cynical on the surface, understanding this principal is a vitally important part of the development of any and every character in your novel.

Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds.

In simple diagram, you have the activity and the outcome, but you know nothing of the motivation. Why did Susie go on a diet?

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds.

Now we have motive, activity and outcome.

To extend this diagram a little further.

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds. Butch asks her to the homecoming dance.

The diagram is now – motive, activity, outcome = satisfaction.

Susie wants to date Butch, the high school quarterback. Susie goes on a diet. Susie loses ten pounds. Butch asks Laura, Susie’s best friend to the homecoming dance.

The diagram is now – motive, activity, outcome = frustration.

Since this is a novel, we assume Susie isn’t giving up at the first roadblock. When she reaches frustration, she will choose another activity that will (presumably) give her the result she wants.

Susie steals her mother’s credit card to buy a designer dress, hoping to get noticed by Butch.

Ad infinitum.

So, each character should have a diagram. What is his or her motive? What does he or she do to get what he or she wants? What is the end result of that action?

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Two Little Frogs

There were two little frogs who fell into milk pots
One tread milk, the other did not
One went under and died, the other churned butter and thrived
Never give up!

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Your Murderer’s Motive

In the board game Clue, you attempt to discover who the murderer is, what weapon he or she used, and in what room the foul act was committed. But you are never asked WHY he or she felt compelled to put an end to a (seemingly) innocent houseguest.

Dickens wrote an essay once in which he outlined all the different reasons a man (or woman) might commit murder.

1. Hot blood and furious rage. John Jones discovers his wife, Judy, in bed with his best friend Ted and shoots them both.

2. Deliberate revenge. John Jones discovers his wife, Judy and his best friend, Ted are sneaking away for a hot weekend together. He slips into their hotel room, while they are down at dinner, to slip some rat poison into their complimentary bottle of champagne.

3. Terrible despair. Judy Jones jumps off a bridge, drowning herself and her small child, to escape her evil husband, John.

4. Mere Gain. John Jones murders his best friend Ted so he can inherit the fortune Ted is leaving him in a recently executed Will.

5. To remove an object dangerous to the murderer’s peace or good name. John Jones murders his best friend Ted to keep him from exposing a secret that will ruin him (John).

6. To win monstrous notoriety. Loser John Jones murders a busload of nuns so he can appear on all the major news networks.

What is your murderer’s motive?

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Provoke a Thirst

All of the authors who have ever been on the bestseller list had one thing in common–they produced a product the public wanted.

Some writers chase the latest trend. They write shifter romances because shifter romances are the hot thing. Others create a new trend. Be one of those.

Provoke a thirst for your product–then quench it.

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Imported Scripts

“Cindy Jones gave up on love, years ago, when her high school sweetheart, Biff Biffington, cheated on her with her best friend, Laura. Though crushed in spirit, she soldiered on, making a life for herself in the big city. A life without love.”

Every one of us carries our past with us. How it affects our present has a lot to do with the intensity of our past impressions, our current life attitude, and our hopes and dreams for our future. What crushes one person may have little discernible effect on another. However, we can agree, that losing a parent, a child, or something else equally dear to us will have a profound effect on her daily life, from that day forward.

This is why many writing books suggest giving your characters backstories (even if you don’t use them in your book). You can’t know what a person is in the present until you study their past.

A word of warning: there are far too many romance novels on the market that involve broken-hearted women who are eager for sexual escapades, but utterly unwilling to risk their heart by falling in love with their partners.

Cindy Jones is looking for a–dildo with a pulse. Nothing more. Because Biff Biffington–the bastard–tore her beating heart from her chest when she was only a wide-eyed innocent of sixteen.

Of course, we know Cindy will fall for her new lover in the end, but that’s scarcely the point. Your heroine needs more obstacles in the way of her romance than a disinclination to expose parts of her body above her hips.

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Who’s Your Hero?

One of the cardinal rules of writing a good book is carefully determining who (or what) is your best choice for a main character.

Think of the Harry Potter Series. What would it have been like, say, if Hermoine had been the lead or Ron? You would have come away with an entirely different experience, simply by a shift in point of view, even if NOTHING else about that story were changed.

If you shift POVs in your story, you must ask yourself who is the best “eye” for a given scene. It should obviously ALWAYS be the one who gives the most to a particular scene. And you discover that by asking yourself the simple question: what am I trying to accomplish here?

One final word of wisdom: never make a side character more interesting than your lead, regardless of the POV. Your readers will wonder why you are making them tag after the less interesting character in the room.

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Character Study: Class 1

This blog post, and the three that follow it, will study characters from a novel by Maria Edgeworth called The Absentee (1812). The story begins with Lord Colambre, the hero of the novel, overhearing some of his mother’s supposed friends gossiping about him and his family. Some of the remarks they make are too close to the truth for comfort. When Lord Colambre learns his father may be having financial troubles, he confronts his mother, who admits that they will have to leave London before the coming season, if Lord Colambre does not marry the heiress they (his parents) have picked out for him.

‘Before you put my IDEES out of my head, Colambre, I had something to say to you—Oh! I know what it was—we were talking of embarrassments—and I wished to do your father the justice to mention to you that he has been UNCOMMON LIBERAL to me about this gala, and has REELLY given me carte-blanche; and I’ve a notion—indeed I know—that it is you, Colambre, I am to thank for this.’
‘Me!—ma’am!’
‘Yes! Did not your father give you any hint?’
‘No, ma’am; I have seen my father but for half an hour since I came to town, and in that time he said nothing to me—of his affairs.’
‘But what I allude to is more your affair.’
‘He did not speak to me of any affairs, ma’am—he spoke only of my horses.’
‘Then I suppose my lord leaves it to me to open the matter to you. I have the pleasure to tell you, that we have in view for you—and I think I may say with more than the approbation of all her family—an alliance—’
‘Oh! my dear mother! you cannot be serious,’ cried Lord Colambre; ‘you know I am not of years of discretion yet—I shall not think of marrying these ten years, at least.’
‘Why not? Nay, my dear Colambre, don’t go, I beg—I am serious, I assure you—and, to convince you of it, I shall tell you candidly, at once, all your father told me: that now you’ve done with Cambridge, and are come to Lon’on, he agrees with me in wishing that you should make the figure you ought to make, Colambre, as sole heir-apparent to the Clonbrony estate, and all that sort of thing. But, on the other hand, living in Lon’on, and making you the handsome allowance you ought to have, are, both together, more than your father can afford, without inconvenience, he tells me.’
‘I assure you, mother, I shall be content—’
‘No, no; you must not be content, child, and you must hear me. You must live in a becoming style, and make a proper appearance. I could not present you to my friends here, nor be happy, if you did not, Colambre. Now the way is clear before you: you have birth and title, here is fortune ready made; you will have a noble estate of your own when old Quin dies, and you will not be any encumbrance or inconvenience to your father or anybody. Marrying an heiress accomplishes all this at once; and the young lady is everything we could wish, besides—you will meet again at the gala. Indeed, between ourselves, she is the grand object of the gala; all her friends will come EN MASSE, and one should wish that they should see things in proper style. You have seen the young lady in question, Colambre—Miss Broadhurst. Don’t you recollect the young lady I introduced you to last night after the opera?’
‘The little, plain girl, covered with diamonds, who was standing beside Miss Nugent?’
‘In di’monds, yes. But you won’t think her plain when you see more of her—that wears off; I thought her plain, at first—I hope—’
‘I hope,’ said Lord Colambre, ‘that you will not take it unkindly of me, my dear mother, if I tell you, at once, that I have no thoughts of marrying at present—and that I never will marry for money. Marrying an heiress is not even a new way of paying old debts—at all events, it is one to which no distress could persuade me to have recourse; and as I must, if I outlive old Mr. Quin, have an independent fortune, THERE IS NO occasion to purchase one by marriage.’
‘There is no distress, that I know of, in the case,’ cried Lady Clonbrony. ‘Where is your imagination running, Colambre? But merely for your establishment, your independence.’
‘Establishment, I want none—independence I do desire, and will preserve. Assure my father, my DEAR MOTHER, that I will not be an expense to him. I will live within the allowance he made me at Cambridge—I will give up half of it—I will do anything for his convenience—but marry for money, that I cannot do.’
‘Then, Colambre, you are very disobliging,’ said Lady Clonbrony, with an expression of disappointment and displeasure; ‘for your father says, if you don’t marry Miss Broadhurst, we can’t live in Lon’on another winter.’
This said—which, had she been at the moment mistress of herself, she would not have let out—Lady Clonbrony abruptly quitted the room. Her son stood motionless, saying to himself—
‘Is this my mother?—How altered!’
The next morning he seized an opportunity of speaking to his father, whom he caught, with difficulty, just when he was going out, as usual, for the day. Lord Colambre, with all the respect due to his father, and with that affectionate manner by which he always knew how to soften the strength of his expressions, made nearly the same declarations of his resolution, by which his mother had been so much surprised and offended. Lord Clonbrony seemed more embarrassed, but not so much displeased. When Lord Colambre adverted, as delicately as he could, to the selfishness of desiring from him the sacrifice of liberty for life, to say nothing of his affections, merely to enable his family to make a splendid figure in London, Lord Clonbrony exclaimed, ‘That’s all nonsense!—cursed nonsense! That’s the way we are obliged to state the thing to your mother, my dear boy, because I might talk her deaf before she would understand or listen to anything else. But, for my own share, I don’t care a rush if London was sunk in the salt sea. Little Dublin for my money, as Sir Terence O’Fay says.’

Miss Edgeworth offers a little insight into the character of Lord Colambre’s parents:

Whilst Lady Clonbrony, in consequence of her residence in London, had become more of a fine lady, Lord Clonbrony, since he left Ireland, had become less of a gentleman. Lady Clonbrony, born an Englishwoman, disclaiming and disencumbering herself of all the Irish in town, had, by giving splendid entertainments, at an enormous expense, made her way into a certain set of fashionable company. But Lord Clonbrony, who was somebody in Ireland, who was a great person in Dublin, found himself nobody in England, a mere cipher in London, Looked down upon by the fine people with whom his lady associated, and heartily weary of them, he retreated from them altogether, and sought entertainment and self-complacency in society beneath him—indeed, both in rank and education, but in which he had the satisfaction of feeling himself the first person in company. Of these associates, the first in talents, and in jovial profligacy, was Sir Terence O’Fay—a man of low extraction, who had been knighted by an Irish lord-lieutenant in some convivial frolic. No one could tell a good story, or sing a good song better than Sir Terence; he exaggerated his native brogue, and his natural propensity to blunder, caring little whether the company laughed at him or with him, provided they laughed. ‘Live and laugh—laugh and live,’ was his motto; and certainly he lived on laughing, as well as many better men can contrive to live on a thousand a year.

Every character in your novel will have the following:

1. impulses;
2. drives;
3. instincts; and
4. feelings.

Lady Clonbrony is a Irish immigrant, who is endeavoring to gain the good opinion of her snotty English neighbors. She has wasted a good deal of her husband’s money in the attempt and is now applying pressure on her son to marry against his inclination so she can continue her campaign. A feeling of inferiority constrains her speech and her actions. She is easily wounded, when anything goes against her plans. She runs out of the room when her son refuses to follow her advice. His father may be less ambitious, but he has allowed his desire to please his wife to involve him in financial embarrassments. He has also made friends that he would be better off without, merely so he can feel at ease with his company. His wife’s friends make him feel small. Lord Colambre is alarmed at the changes in his parents–for the worse–and motivated to find some means of remedying their situation and his own, without giving up his liberty.

This is an excellent character-driven story, worthy not only of a casual reader’s interest but also an aspiring writer’s imitation.

How many misguided parents have pressured their children to adopt their agendas? And often merely for selfish motives, as above?

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Making It Real

To draw your readers into your story, fully exploit their senses.

1. Quality. The dress was lemon yellow. The bath was scalding. The gum ball was sour.

2. Intensity. The tea was far stronger when Grandma made it. Susie’s ball gown far brighter than Sally’s. Sam liked to turn the music up full-blast, when the radio was tuned to the station that played his favorite bands.

3. Duration. The headache lasted all morning. Six minutes felt like six months, while we waited to hear some news from the operating room. From two to five each afternoon, the boy walked in the fragrant garden.

4. Clearness. How closely a character observes his surroundings will influence the vividness of his impressions. A dull day in the office will be forgotten at quitting time while the last day of an ill-fated romance may be recalled in detail fifty years hence.

Make it real!

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Educating Your Character

Let’s say you are writing a book about a tyro skateboarder, whose big dream is to win a local contest with a lucrative cash prize. Let’s call him Ezekiel. Zek buys a Razor G RipStik Extreme Grinding Machine off a neighbor kid, who has lost interest in it, since Christmas. Zek is ready and willing, but far from able. How are we going to get him to his goal?

Trial and Error. Zek will have to clock some serious hours on his board. He’ll take not a few spills and he may suffer some injuries in the process. Whether he can take this abuse–and attendant discouragement–will depend a lot upon his character and the seriousness of his injuries. Mom may take the board off him, after his breaks a wrist. Or he may realize that the cash prize isn’t worth breaking his neck over.

Imitation. Zek may hunt down the best skater in the neighborhood, in the hope of acquiring a few pointers, watching a pro in action. If Zek is a quick study, he may master a little used technique that puts him ahead of the competition. He may also make a new friend or possibly even find a romantic interest.

Osmosis. The longer Zek practices–and watches other skaters practices–the better a skater he will become. For Zek to learn by osmosis, he’s going to have to devote a certain portion of his free time to his new hobby. If he isn’t willing or able, he won’t win that contest. He may not even be fit to enter it.

Prescription. Zek buys a number of skateboarding guides and skating magazines, so he can read up on the techniques he hasn’t been able to observe in the skate park.

When you are teaching a character a new skill, use any and all of the above to make his journey to his goal a believable one.

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