People may not always behave in a logical manner, but when you are planning out your stories, your characters should. Creating characters without any internal logic will produce an inconsistent, illogical mess. Fortunately, there is a simple trick for fixing this problem
Just chopping info-dumps into smaller pieces isn’t really that sneaky. The savvy reader will still sense that something isn’t right. Sprinkling world-building randomly into your story is like tossing skittles on top of your tiramisu. It doesn’t solve the real problem. Fortunately, there is a better way
Your story must be about the POV character. This might seem like some facepalm advice, but choosing the right character isn’t always straightforward. Too often authors sacrifice character goals and development for the sake of moving the plot forward, often by resorting to lazy clichés. Don’t let that happen to your story. Choose the correct POV.
Good writing won’t fix POV character mistakes
This week’s shredding had a solid beginning. There was a brief moment of scene setting, just long enough for me to get grounded in the world, and then the conflict began right away. I could clearly see what the character wanted, though his true motivation lay intriguingly hidden. He was a bit of a bad-boy and the overall tone felt vengeful. By the end of the excerpt, I was invested in this character.
Too bad it wasn’t the main character.
Through the entire first scene, the POV character did nothing except watch the main action from the sidelines. He had nothing at stake in the main action and only popped in every few paragraphs to remind the reader that he was, in fact, still there. Rather than feeling like I was in the story, I felt like I was at home watching the whole thing on TV through the camera of the MC
All the immediacy of the first person POV was lost because the story was not about the POV character.
The first few pages are critical. They must introduce the primary character, establish normal, reveal his/her goal and introduce the first conflict. They cannot do this if the focus of these pages is not on the POV character.
Evaluating your scene for correct POV
Ask the POV character:
- What is the character’s goal/stakes at the beginning of the scene?
The POV character must have a goal/stakes at the beginning of the scene. This comes back to conflict. What does your main character want and what stands in his/her way If you cannot identify a conflict for your character, then the scene may not be necessary to the book.
If it is a sequel to a previous scene, then the POV character must have the highest emotional stakes. This may not necessarily be the same POV character as the previous scene. Make sure your character choice will have the most impact on the reader.
- What does the character do to further that goal?
POV character should have agency in the scene. That means the character must do something (or actively choose not to if that choice impacts the story.) She can fail, or the results can make things worse, but POV characters should be the character who had the most ability to affect the outcome. Are there exceptions? Yes, but just having your POV character watch the real action from the sidelines doesn’t make the most compelling copy.
- What is the complication/obstacle/new information?
How do the character’s actions move the story ahead? Did the POV character’s actions have the most impact? This impact does not necessarily need to be the most physical impact. Depending on the story, emotional impact may resonate more with readers.
- How does that change things?
Make sure the new information impacts your POV character the most. Even if that means moving the action off camera. You might be tempted to show John’s terrifying last moments hanging off the edge of the cliff, but it’s really Julie’s experience of watching her husband fall that spurs her to sell the land and leave her family’s ranch behind.In some scenes, the most critical impact doesn’t come until the implications of the events are processed by a character. In this case, the POV character might not have the most at stake until he/she makes the critical realization. Be sure to craft your scene around the POV character’s emotional journey, since this is the aspect that moves the story forward.
After you’ve answered these questions, repeat the process for any secondary characters in the scene.
If another storyline is more interesting than your MC’s, you are writing the scene from the wrong POV.
What to do about it
If you are writing in multiple viewpoints, no problem, just switch to the more interesting POV. But first person POV or limited third the problem becomes more complicated.
Marie Lu resorted to multiple POV’s in her sequel The Rose Society. Otherwise, she would not have been able to tell the complete story. Diana Gabaldon also introduced a second POV in her third installment of the Outlander saga. In these examples adding a new POV was critical for telling the entire story.
Before adding a second POV decide the scale of the story you want to tell.
If you are telling an epic saga about WWII, switching POV’s might add to the scale of the story. But if the focus is one person’s journey through that war, adding POV’s will only confuse the story’s purpose.
Avoiding the eavesdropping problem in a single POV
Sometimes the limitations of first-person traps a writer into revealing important information through a device. There are plenty of clichés for getting an MC critical information: unconscious but can somehow still hear, peeking through the keyhole, stumbling across a forgotten diary, or an attic full of old letters. The trick to making these scenes work is keeping the focus on your MC and making sure your reader has a reason to want to learn this information.
Tips for eavesdropping
- Keep the conversation between non-POV characters brief. No one can stand outside someone’s door for 8 pages and not get caught.
If a character is eavesdropping, make it intentional. In other words, don’t have her stumble over a game changer because she happened to be in the hallway at that moment. Have her intentionally snooping around. Add to the tension by making the consequences for being caught severe.
- Don’t force your readers to TV watch the main action through your MC’s eyes as a mechanism to inform the reader. This is the MC’s story. The MC must have something at stake in the events.
- Keep the focus of the scene on the MC. The longer the MC has her ear to the door, the less effective the scene gets. Give the MC a small piece of critical information, then move the focus internally as she deals with the implications of the new information and how it changes the original goal/belief.
Your POV character must have the highest stakes
During your editing process evaluate the goals of every scene and make sure your POV character is the focus of the narration. Use scene goals to evaluate which character has the most at stake and restructure the action around your main character. Don’t let secondary characters become more interesting than your MC, otherwise, your readers will wonder who the story is really about.
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Tips for creating the perfect villain
I’m in love with one of my characters. He’s powerful, driven, and disciplined. He knows exactly what he wants and is willing to make the effort to get it. Whatever it takes. He has risked his position, his influence, his wealth, and even his life for his ideals. He’s not afraid to be unpopular, or even despised because he knows he is working toward something greater, something that will save so many lives. And though many would question his tactics, to him, the ends justify the means. He is deeply devoted to his task, and still more so, to the woman he loves, and the son he is not allowed to acknowledge. He is my perfect creation.
He is my villain.
One of the major pitfalls I see in novice writers is the dead-dull villain. The black coat in the thriller, the overbearing father in the YA, or, from my genre, the dark wizard who does nothing in the book except to sit in a black tower and think evil thoughts.
I recently read a novel whose villain had a vile mind-reading power. Poised as a child psychologist, he delved into the minds of his victims/patients during their therapy sessions. This predation on children by a person in a position of trust sent my spine into an eel-ish coil. I was hooked. Let’s take down this A-hole. How could anyone do this to a child? My mind flew through possibilities. It takes 7-10 years to become a licensed Psychologist. Whatever this guy is up to, he’s devoted a 1/3 of his life to getting it. I needed to know
Turns out he was just evil. I was devastated. All that preparation amounted to nothing.
What a waste.
Beware of cardboard villains
Stock villains are not only cliché, they are dull. They add nothing to the story. Seventy-five years ago villains were expected to be the embodiment of evil. They were separate, other. A war had a clear purpose: defeat the Nazi snake with a single villain at its head. Literature from the time reflected this ideal, but today’s worldview is different. People no longer accept the simplistic reasoning: he just chooses to be bad.
The modern villain must have a fully realized backstory. The writer must know the process by which the villain came to hold his beliefs. She must know what the villain wants, and how far he is willing to go to get it. His motivations must be clear and logical (even if it isn’t the logic you would follow). Villains can no longer be the black cape and the handlebar mustache. Villains must be fully realized characters.
What to do instead?
Treat your villain equally to your MC.
Your villain is half your story. Without Voldemort, Harry Potter’s just another kid with a crappy home life starting a new school. Give your villain the respect he deserves. Start by making a character sketch. If you’ve never done this there are dozens of examples online. Scrivener has one built in. Find something that works for you. This is where you can give him mannerisms, as well as physical descriptors. Find something to make him memorable.
Write your villain’s backstory.
Even if it never makes it into your MS, knowing more about your villain will allow you to breathe some life into him. Delve deep here. Make sure you understand his motivations. Once the motivations are established, make sure they are balanced with the effort the villain is making to accomplish his goals. If your villain is angry at your MC for breaking his toy when they were kids, he won’t spend the next 30 years perfecting a serum to give himself mutant powers so that he can take over the world and exile the MC to the moon. Make sure the motivation and the effort are in balance.
What influenced him to develop his particular set of beliefs?
Villains hold mistaken views. They believe something that isn’t true, but the journey to that belief must be realistic. Why does your villain think sending his brother to the moon will make him happy? Perhaps while he was developing his serum he had to watch your MC continue to get all the attention, fame, fortune, all while listening to your MC be an obnoxious braggart? Sending him to the moon might not be so unreasonable.
How does your villain reinforce these beliefs?
People tend to seek out like-minded people or choose to emphasize experiences that reinforce their worldview. Is he surrounded by lackeys, or is he a loner? Does he attend a weekly antagonists anonymous meeting? What do the people around him want? How do they benefit from his mistaken belief?
How does he react when life events conflict with his worldview?
Mistaken views will be constantly challenged. How does your villain react to these tests? This will define his character. Does he just start shouting louder like a cable news talking head? Does he resort to elaborate conspiracy theories? Maybe he has a moment where reform seems possible, and then anger resurfaces.
Once you have these finished, write a book pitch as if your villain is the MC and see how well your choices fit together.
Example: Voldemort knows the name wizard once meant something in the world, and only he knows how to bring that meaning back. He’s studied relentlessly, forsaking friends and family to perfect his craft. He’s searched the world to find the best spell-casters to stand with him. He’s even split his soul into pieces, all so he can restore the ancient legacy of his people. All the pieces are finally in place. Nothing is going to stop him, especially not a 10-year-old orphan from Privet Drive.
We know what he wants, what he’s willing to do to get it and who is standing in his way. Make sure your villain is a fully-realized character and one who actively affects your MC. Otherwise, your story might start to read like a video game with a boss battle at the end. Remember villains are people too.
So have dinner with a bad boy tonight.
Your readers will thank you.
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